Sticks, Stones and Microaggressions

The protocol of meeting someone new at university is pretty standard: Hi, hello, how are you? What do you study? So, where are you from? Oh, but…

‘… where are you really from?’

Some of us are a little more familiar with this question than others. For the ones who don’t resemble the colonisers of Australia, we’re asked this because you want to know our ethnicity, our race, our ancestry. Some may enthusiastically respond by sharing stories about how their grandparents came here. But for many, this question is alienating – it tells them that there’s a particular way to be a local and, unfortunately, they do not fit the bill very well. And for those whose ancestors have lived on the continent for millennia, it’s just downright disrespectful to their continuing histories.

Microaggressions are little everyday questions and remarks that are telling of assumptions, stereotypes and prejudices that we may hold about particular people based on their race, religion, sexual orientation, gender, class, disability or other identity. Often, we don’t realise that what we’re saying may not be the most inclusive, but what’s important is that we grow to become aware of this and we put in the effort to unlearn and learn. It can be daunting to live in fear that everything that we say and do is bad. So, how do we identify these hidden -isms in our language, and even actions?

Microaggressions are what they are not because of what is said, but rather what is implied by what is said; this makes them significantly harder to pick out as compared to explicit slurs. What helps me is to think about whether there are harmful stereotypes or assumptions which have shaped a comment or joke. For example, a remark that a building isn’t wheelchair-friendly is a fact, but stating that making modifications to make it more accessible is a waste of money is a microaggression, as it implies that people with disabilities are somehow ‘less than’ in our society. Or – this one hits home – asking your South Asian friend to pick dishes at a North Indian restaurant because they obviously know what’s good is a microaggression because it assumes a connection to certain cuisine based on broad generalisations about ethnicity. (Of course, this doesn’t apply if said friend volunteered their gastronomical expertise. In this case, all the more power to them.)

These instances are tough to call out because they’re not black and white, and we can never know what people’s intentions are. Even the most pure-hearted may be guilty of exclusive language, but this may come from a place of genuine ignorance and isn’t a reflection on their sincerity and goodness as a person. Efforts to explain may be brushed aside – ‘It’s just banter, I don’t mean anything by it!’ But, whatever the motivation, words can cut, and it’s important to challenge such language to make spaces safe and comfortable for everyone.

A strategy that one of my friends pointed out to me was to ask someone to explain what they’d said, feigning curiosity and ignorance, because that would force them to think critically about it and expose its underlying prejudices. We may instead choose to inform them that their choice of words may not have been the most inclusive, point them to articles explaining why, and leave it up to them to educate themselves. Some of us may go the extra step and go into detail about what they’d said and break it down and walk through it with them. However, it may be incredibly intimidating to do so especially when in big circles or if the culprit is someone in a position of authority.

What’s important to note is that when we call people out, we’re not fulfilling an obligation, but instead are doing them a favour. There’s absolutely no pressure to do so in circumstances where we may not feel the most comfortable or safe, such as if we fear it may compromise important relationships with others or poorly impact our mental health.

At times when there’s someone who’s affected by such microaggressions, it’s important to take note of our privilege in those situations and allow them to speak to their experiences and discomfort if they choose to. However, it shouldn’t be on them to justify or explain their identity in any circumstance, and so shouldn’t be thrown into the spotlight tokenistically as a ‘case in point’ – for example: ‘Can you imagine how that would have made Sumi feel right now?’. Calling out should come from the perspective of something having been inappropriate in itself, not only because there are people in the room whom may have been affected by it.

Because we’re socialised with internalised -isms within our everyday language, whether we mean harm or not, microaggressions aren’t something we can get rid of all in one day. What matters, though, is that we’re working towards changing this in a way that is respectful, safe and comfortable.