Everyday Papercuts: Microaggressions And What to Do Now?

Graphic by Juliette Baxter

Every so often, I have an odd experience that I’m not quite sure how to describe.

There are people that reply to my directions with 谢谢 (thank you) and greet me with 你好 (hello), despite the fact that they don’t speak Mandarin, nor am I speaking to them in Mandarin. I see people shoot dirty looks towards the two Cantonese-speaking aunties who are excited to see each other at Woolworths. I feel hot, steady stares on my back and eyes that flick away when I turn to look in that noisy pub where I am with my friends who are also Asian. We’re talking and laughing and joking around, but maybe, we’re still too loud for this pub on a Friday night. The marked disinterest that falls across a waiter’s face, like a thick, impenetrable veil when I get to the front of the line to order after my white friend, sits suffocatingly on my chest.

When they do, my usual extroversion retreats and I become inexplicably wary, angry, tired and frustrated all at once. A single, repulsive question of ‘Do I belong?’ bubbles just beneath the surface of my skin. Rationally, I know I belong and am a part of Australian society as much as anyone else. As much as the blue-eyed girl from the sheep farm. As much as the blond surfer boy from Bondi. As much as the single-citizenship-holding politicians in Parliament House.

But these experiences remind me that maybe, I don’t.

As I came to engage more with the world, I encountered the concept of microaggression. Originally coined by Professor Chester Pierce in 1970s America, the term initially only related to race, but since then microaggression has become used with regards to any minority group. Its exact definition has incurred some debate, but the consensus is that microaggressions are subtle, brief, everyday exchanges that convey denigrating undertones regarding an individual’s membership to a particular group. In terms of racial microaggression, the behaviour is motivated by often unconscious racial biases.

Some commonplace examples of racial microaggressions include: “Your English is so good!”; “You’re different from the other (insert ethnic group).”; “You’re so (basic trait) for a (ethnic group)!”. Pierce, in his original introduction of racial microaggression, outlined anecdotes of living as a black man; being followed while shopping, seeing women clutch their purses closer, hearing clicks of locks in cars as he passes, and having (almost exclusively) white students question the layout of his classroom and his lesson structures, despite his status as a distinguished Harvard professor.

The damage of these experiences is that each time they happen, it communicates a sense of invalidation, othering, and oftentimes inferiority, intentionally or unintentionally. Though small, each and every one of these experiences accumulates over time. Microaggressions are comparable to papercuts that on their own, have little physical impact, but as they stack upon one another, very real consequences start to emerge, and research into microaggressions supports this.

Psychologists such as Donovan, Ong, and Nadal have found that racial microaggressions have been associated with a myriad of negative mental health outcomes, including symptoms of depression, anxiety, and a negative worldview. There is also evidence that experience of racial microaggressions interferes with work and academic ability and in turn, professional and academic confidence, as supported by Gomez and Forrest-Bank & Jenson. It has further been found that People of Colour tend to experience increased online harassment in comparison to their white counterparts.

When I discovered this concept of microaggression, it felt as though the clouds had parted, and sunshine rained down on me. This is what I have been feeling and experiencing and trying to articulate to no avail. This is that uncertain, ambiguous tension that I have felt in so many instances of my life. I found connection and validation and that was infinitely empowering.

However, with the discovery of microaggression, I also discovered its criticisms. Due to their covert, ambiguous nature, microaggressions are often doubted by those that experience it and its perpetrators alike. Such subjectivity supports arguments that microaggressions are merely instances of over-sensitivity and victimisation that contribute to stifling freedom of speech, socially and in professional arenas such as academia. The Washington Post explores these arguments in their article, “The war on ‘microaggressions’: Has it created a ‘victimhood culture’ on campuses?”, as does Althea Nagai in her article “The Pseudo-Science of Microaggression”.

Furthermore, the broadness of its definition has led to a multitude of issues regarding what constitutes a ‘microaggression’. This means that they are difficult to assess and thus onerous to combat and administer punishment for on a formal level, when necessary, as outlined by Lilienfeld.

To these criticisms, I can offer little in the way of a formal response. There are smarter, more informed people out there than I who are actively engaging in this debate such as Derald Wing Sue’s 2017 academic response to Lilienfeld’s critique.

However, there is one thing I do want to say.

Just like jokes in Hannah Gadsby’s Nanette’ that “only need two parts: a beginning and a middle”, our treatment of microaggressions in daily life are much the same. The focus is on the beginning and the middle – the conflict – and often, the story stops there and both parties face a standstill. The alleged perpetrator is convinced of their un-racist attitudes and the illegitimacy of the interaction as a racial microaggression. On the other hand, the person that experienced the alleged microaggression is too focused on the slight, dismissive of intent, or too busy forming extreme opinions of the perpetrator. Heels are dug into trenches and the war begins.

This is a war that attrition cannot win.

The only way forward is for both sides to put down their weapons and communicate. If you are the person experiencing the microaggression, explain your feelings calmly and respectfully and lay it out for them. Do not jump to conclusions and baseless judgements of character based off this single incident because the result is often perceived as antagonization. Even if their intention was good to begin with, by the end, it will have soured in the face of hostility. Question yourself – was I extrapolating unnecessarily from this interaction? If so, why? If not, reflect on the things that made you feel that way and share it.

If you are the person who inflicted the alleged microaggression, listen and ask. Listen properly, carefully, and without ego blinding you. You are not defined by your behaviour; people make mistakes sometimes and these mistakes are not a reflection of you. Ask questions until you understand what the other person is saying and ask them how you can do better if necessary. If you believe the accusation to be unfounded even after hearing their feelings and considering possible biases, express calmly and respectfully why you think so.

I understand that it may not always be possible to have these conversations because of practicalities. For instance, in a busy restaurant, where neither you nor the waiter has the time or will to talk about the perceived microaggression, it is not pragmatic to force a conversation. It is similarly unrealistic to initiate and participate in a conversation in a space where you do not feel safe speaking up or feel threatened.

However, this is the precise reason why it is important to have these conversations with people in your life.

Humans do not exist in a vacuum. We take our biases and prejudices, unintentional or not, into the wider world where they can manifest and impact other people. Tell your story to those around you as best as you can, and it will continue rippling like the wings of a butterfly.

Our lives and experiences are stories that must be told to be understood, and only through understanding can we effect change. In the words of Kazuo Ishiguro: “stories are about one person saying to another, ‘This is the way it feels to me. Can you understand what I’m saying? Does it also feel this way to you?’”