No More Free Passes: Calling Out Microaggressions

Recently, I read a guest post at The Scicurious Brain titled ‘Accomodasians don’t make waves‘ by AmasianV, and it struck a nerve with me. I’ve recently begun to look at the stories and research done on ‘microaggressions’, those subtle forms of racism that don’t look so egregious or difficult to handle, but can build up to become problematic for the targets of it over time. What made it difficult for me in reading this account was thinking of my own complicity in this pernicious form of racism. As AmasianV writes:

Perhaps the biggest disappointment in all of this though, is that I’ve never said anything until now. Yes, part of it was certainly the Accommodasian in me. But I can’t say that the power dynamic itself wasn’t an obstacle to speaking up either. Who knows? Maybe if I had addressed these situations earlier it would give pause to a professor about to make a demeaning joke. Or reexamine one-Asian training policies. Or, on a larger scale, contribute to an environment that says, “Calling a person a whore is just not acceptable.”*

* referring to a disgusting incident that occurred to DNLee of The Urban Scientist

Just reading that brings to mind thousands of slights and seemingly innocuous observations made to me, or within earshot of me, throughout my life. I can think about how I gave the comment a pass making post hoc justifications on behalf of the speakers, sometimes laughing along with the milder jokes, or just brushing it off as the price of being considered different in America. And I’m truly beginning to believe that was a huge mistake.


Because, we are still at a point where blatantly racist depictions of people of Asian descent can be passed off as humor or entertainment with little repercussion to the perpetrators of these stereotypes. The historic, and often exaggerated, docility in face of these microaggressions over time didn’t just affect Asian-Americans, who may have felt consistently distrusting of their own instincts due to the seemingly “mild” nature of these slights, but influenced the populace at large. Viral videos such as “Chinese Food” and (the much worse) “Asian Girlz”, and television shows like “Two Broke Girls”, while detracted by loud voices, are themselves defended by equally passionate apologists. Get over it! It’s just a joke! Don’t take things too seriously! Why do you have to be so PC? These are the kinds of remarks that greet anyone who attempts to criticize the egregious stereotyping that, were the details changed a little, wouldn’t fly with more vocal minority groups.

Aside from the usual cacaphonous mob of Internet trolls, you’ll find members of the media themselves downplaying the hurtful nature of these depictions.  Regarding “Chinese Food”, Jeff Yang at the Wall Street Journal seems to err on the side of over-the-top “fairness” based on “intent”, which is hardly a magical salve. When the Spanish Olympic team made headlines for the team photo showing the basketball players pulling their eyes back into a “slant”, the initial storytelling was about this being an international faux pas, but NBC (the network with the most stake in the Olympics) bent over backwards to show how little it affected Chinese nationals. They even interviewed one non-Asian family from Albuquerque, NM. While making minor gestures towards how insulting it might be to Asian-Americans or other East Asians (a distinction I’ll make due to the physical attributes being denigrated) living in non-Asian countries, not a single one of our perspectives were included in quotes. The story ended with George Cook of Albuquerque stating:

“It’s not nice to put something like that in a newspaper or a magazine. It’s disrespectful,” said George Cook, who initially thought the players were pointing to their brains, not their eyes. Cook was attending the Games with his wife and five children.

Was he personally offended or upset?

“Actually, I think it’s kind of funny.”

So there you have it. It’s disrespectful. It shouldn’t be in newspapers or magazines. But it’s still “kind of funny”.

While popular culture’s intransigence on this matter, whether it be through stereotyping or whitewashing, can be facepalm-inducing, it’s those who are often closest to us that end up being the most hurtful. From the cooing over how every mixed-race baby ends up looking so “beautiful”, to the apologetics about getting “thick skin” in the face of “humor”, our friends and colleagues are often the ones that can cause the most pain. Microaggressions: the interminable piling on of small nuggets of poisonous racial bullying, usually unnoticed by the ones doing it and often brushed aside or rationalized by the victims:

There were no burning crosses out there. I didn’t learn the term “microaggressions” until college, but that was what my childhood was full of. Neighborhood kids telling me my house smelled funny or insisting they couldn’t understand what my parents were asking them, even when they were speaking English. A group of classmates in high school asking crazy inappropriate questions like the size of my dad’s genitalia. Even when these kids were being “nice”, they were being assholes. I had a friend who nicknamed me “Pah” — which stood for “Pretty Asian Hair.” I was catcalled by high school boys and called a chink in the same breath.

Theresa Celebra recounts a pretty normal childhood for many an Asian-American. Those of us who get used to out-of-left field questions about our ancestral homelands (for those of us born here, often a difficult question to answer), jokes about the behavior of our parents, our cuisine, nicknames … all the tiny elements of othering that seem so much less than the often violent suffering faced by other marginalized groups, you end up wonder if you ARE being hypersensitive, or even a bit paranoid. Microaggressions almost seem designed that way, to make the sufferer doubt themselves to a great extent, a loose parallel one might draw to “gaslighting“. So, what is it we’re supposed to do about it?

Well, the point of this post is to basically say that, at least for myself, my intention is to let fewer remarks pass. The response of “don’t be so politically correct”, the often facetious attempt to silence marginalized voices, will be no longer considered an acceptable apologetic on its own. This is not to say that I plan on getting into confrontations on a daily basis, or that every slight is worth a defense worthy of the worst forms of racist behavior heaped on other vulnerable populations. Sometimes, however … for example, I had an interesting conversation with a proprietor of a pizza shop just this weekend, an older guy originally from Italy, who ended up saying “you’re Oriental, right? What do you think of Buddhism?” I ended up getting a free pizza and he ended up getting a T-shirt from me, so it was mostly positive. But I keep thinking back on that question. His intent wasn’t to be hurtful, but I just keep thinking I should have said at least a mild something to correct his perception of people like me.

So, I guess I just mean to TRY to trust my own instincts more about what is hurtful to me, and then speak up about it, an act that I find difficult given my own reputation among my friends for being somewhat of a buzzkill already. Despite that, if I let little things slide all the time, perhaps like AmasianV felt, I too might feel that I’m contributing to an even worse environment. If other Asian-Americans wish to follow suit, we can break the myth of the “model minority” and perhaps stop accommodating our own torment.

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2 Responses to No More Free Passes: Calling Out Microaggressions

  1. CaitieCat says:

    Grb. This is an embarrassing post to read, because I can see so many stupid racist things I’ve said to so many friends, most (since I was 8 or so and left the UK for Canada) to people I called friends, and whom I honestly now wonder why they put up with me. The area of Toronto I grew up in was heavily settled by Hong Kong emigres, many of whom were friends and classmates at my public schools; all my social circles were mixed groups of Asian-Canadians and European-Canadians.
    And all the stupid racist shit I did…gah.
    Anyway, I wanted to say that I learned a bunch from what you wrote here, was able to see through not-my-eyes for a bit to see how I’ve been, and though nothing I can do can make up for the past, I have at least found some more ways to avoid making that racism, which I grew up breathing, into someone else’s problem. I guess I wanted to say thanks for writing something that has to have been exhausting and frustrating to write, and that these are at least some microaggressions I can not do again.

    • Mike Nam says:

      Thanks for the feedback! I would like to say that navigating this social minefield is messy, and that you shouldn’t be too hard on yourself either. After all, it’s true that everyone one of us ‘breathes’ in and internalizes what is pretty much the atmosphere of the dominant culture. I too can think back to the kinds of insensitive things I’ve said to women and other marginalized individuals with some embarrassment, but the best we can do is just hope to keep learning from our mistakes and help others do the same!

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