Positionality Statement: This post is written by Jane DeHitta, an adult learner in her final year at UMBC, who works as a student staff and social work intern at the Women’s Center. I am a first generation Filipino-American student who seeks to be self-aware of the power dynamics that take place in the intersections of our identities and strives to be intentional in the ways I speak to and encounter others. In this post, I share my experience of microaggressions against race and discuss a connection between microaggressions of different forms and the impact that can have on the individual. My experience is my own and I use it as a point of reference and not to represent the innumerable diversity of people’s experience with microaggressions. I hope that what I share in this post gives validation to those who have had experiences similar to my own, and to give a moment for thought and self-reflection for those who find themselves as the microaggressor.
Image description: a cartoon gif of two hands holding up a dark blue sign with the words “Words have power” written across it. The word “power” has an animated line being crossed underneath it for emphasis.
“I wonder who is more Asian?” my white female friend said in passing. She and I had been discussing movies we recently watched, among them Crazy Rich Asians and Always Be My Maybe, movies that feature a predominantly Asian cast. My friend had lived for several years in China and even spoke Cantonese and Mandarin, she had the privilege of experiencing much of Chinese culture. I, on the other hand, grew up in Maryland my whole life and have never been back to my parents home country of the Philippines, nor was I taught how to speak their native languages of Tagalog or Cebuano beyond a few conversational words.
Taken aback by my friend’s question, I scoffed and went along with what I assumed was a joke by saying, “between you and me?”
She laughed, “yeah.”
I felt uncomfortable but uncertain why or how to express it so I half-heartedly laughed back and said in an exaggeratedly teasing tone, “don’t make me prove my asianness to you!” We continued our conversation for a few minutes more before parting ways, but that discomfort lingered as a knot in my stomach.
Prior to this recent encounter, I know that I have experienced microaggressions throughout my life, from friends saying, “oh, sometimes I forget your Asian!” to strangers asking me “Where were you born? (Maryland) No, but where are you really from?” But because of my introverted personality and the culture of passivity I grew up in, I learned to respond much like the way I responded to my friend. Ignoring it or laughing it off. I wouldn’t confront the perpetrator or call them out, because it was easier that way, I could deal with my discomfort later. And afterwards I would go through a dialogue in my head that looks something like this, “they didn’t mean it like that. I shouldn’t be offended! They were just kidding! I’m not actually hurt by what they said. It’s fine. It’s not a big deal. Even if I was hurt or bothered, I’ve already laughed and moved on, and so have they. They don’t always say/do things like that. Dwelling on it isn’t going to help. I don’t want to make them uncomfortable or feel bad.” I also struggle with invalidating my own experiences simply because “others have it worse”.
Growing up in Maryland for the entirety of my 26 years of life, I have had conflicting feelings about my Filipino/Asian identity. My parents did their best to share their culture, through cooking, traditions, and stories; every summer we went to the local Filipino festivals, and were a part of various Filipino groups. I loved going to these places, tasting the food, seeing the traditional clothing, and watching the dances–one of the years, my sisters and I even participated in the procession for Filipino princesses. And there were moments at these events as we would walk through the stalls as a family, when vendors would greet us, striking up a conversation with my parents in Tagalog or Cebuano. While they talked, I would just stand there awkwardly, nodding and smiling, though I didn’t know what was being said. Then they would turn to me and ask me something, and my mom would translate to me so I could answer. The shopkeepers would give a look of disappointment, “Oh you don’t speak Tagalog…?” It was in those moments, I remember this feeling, almost like imposter syndrome, that I’ve blown my cover, that if someone tried to talk to me they would realize I’m not actually Filipino and I didn’t belong.
A microaggression is “a statement, action, or incident regarded as an instance of indirect, subtle, or unintentional discrimination against members of a marginalized group such as a racial or ethnic minority.” These can be subtle and are often considered harmless by the deliverer, but can have a huge impact on the individual.
Once my friend left me to ponder the authenticity of my racial and ethnic identities, I was able to take some time to reflect and navigate through my feelings. I asked myself, what about that question has continued to bother me? I was able to confide in my siblings, and as I processed through the experience with them I realized that the question I felt was lying underneath my friend’s words was this accusation of “are you really Asian if…?” …you haven’t been to the country of origin, if you don’t speak the language, if…
I felt this question cutting at the ties of my belonging and identity. And I broke down crying..
Fortunately, my siblings were quick to support and affirm my feelings of confusion and hurt, as well as, comforting me with a list of reasons of “you’re so Asian you…” (always tap the bags of rice at the grocery store; have a blue sash in Kung Fu; know how to pronounce adobo…etc) It’s funny, I laughed, and also I realized how ridiculous it was to even have a list of these qualifiers.
Being Asian or belonging to any racial or ethnic minority cannot be qualified and boiled down to a few checkboxes. It’s the different and unique combination of an individual’s upbringing, family history, ancestry, shared culture, passing on of traditions, and along with that, their experience of the intersectionality of their identities of race and ethnicity with gender, religion, sexual orientation, ability/disability, socio-economic status, etc.
The next day, I ran into this same friend and we made small talk. I was about to walk away when in my head I thought, “now is as good a time as any.” I asked if she had a moment to talk about our conversation from the other day and was able to express how what she said had made me uncomfortable. However, I was so concerned about her feelings that I kept downplaying my hurt and focused more on reassuring her “I know that wasn’t what you intended, or what you meant, and you’re not responsible for how I feel or react, but you are responsible for the things you say.” She apologized and shared that she was probably coming from a place of insecurity as well because she sometimes doesn’t feel connected with either her Asian connections and her White-American identity. This is not an uncommon experience, oftentimes when women of color are talking to a white woman to call them on, the conversation moves quickly from impact on the person of color to the guilt the white person feels for having made that impact. Their whiteness becomes centered. I listened and nodded and reassured her. And then I said we were fine and we ended the conversation.
The peace and resolution I felt after that encounter did not last. I found myself avoiding spaces I knew she would be in and feeling unsure of myself because I had already said we were fine, and I didn’t know how to communicate that I was, in fact, not.
I ended up texting my friend and setting a boundary, “Hi, I know we had our conversation but I realize I’m still uncomfortable and I need space. That might look like I’m giving you the silent treatment, but I’m just trying to process.”
She responded, “Thank you for letting me know. I have been thinking about our conversation too. If and when you would like to talk together again or process together I am open to that. I am very sorry for hurting you so deeply.”
After taking a few days, and talking it through with my siblings, I made a plan for having a follow-up to the follow-up conversation with this friend. My sister suggested I write down the things I wanted to be able to say and to think of the reason or goal behind having this conversation:
The point of this conversation is to:
- Express how our second conversation made me feel unheard because it became centered on you
- Be able to freely and authentically express how I feel without interruption or downplaying the impact of your words
Things I wanted to say:
- It’s important to have this conversation because my feelings are valid and important and matter
- I was hurt because it felt like you were asking me to prove my asianness and it hurt to think of the fact that my parents didn’t have the money to send me or my siblings back to the Philippines to visit or that there was an assumption that my parents didn’t care enough to teach me their language
- I think it would’ve been offensive even if you were Asian to say that, but it was more so because you are white and in that sentence you assumed my experience was similar to yours, when your lived experience is fundamentally different simply because you are white. Like when the rise in Asian hate crimes happened, you didn’t have to question how that would affect your behavior or safety.
To be clear, I share this not to villainize my friend. To her credit, she was able to have that conversation with me and give me the space I needed to process with her in that final dialogue without coming to her own defense and explaining where she was coming from. She listened to how her words had affected me, gave a sincere apology, and acknowledged that the excuse of “I wasn’t thinking” was lacking. To that end, I share this to make room for self-reflection for all of us, myself included, “have I said or done things that would be considered microaggressions to others? How have I used language that excludes others from feeling like they belong? Have I, at times, done more to defend myself than to listen to the impact of my actions or words?”
“So maybe another question to ask is, how can I let this person share their experience with me before I assume what their experience has been…?”
These questions are things I have been asking myself.
As The Women’s Center continues their year-long conversation on Disability Justice + Access, I want to pose these questions specifically towards disability, both visible and especially invisible disabilities
Microaggressions can take a number of forms against those with disabilities. As I was reading I was struck by how subtle these can be and how harmful they are to the individual. Becoming aware of them and naming them can help prevent us from making the same hurtful mistakes in how we interact with those in the disabled community.
My experience with having my own racial identity questioned closely resembles the invalidation that people with disabilities often face from those who question whether or not they are actually disabled or disabled enough.
For instance, in this article I read, for those with invisible disabilities who drove, parking in handicapped spots often engendered glares, questions, or negative comments. A woman with a hidden disability stated, “Sometimes I get out of the car and I’m like, ‘Oh, who’s around, like do I need to take out the wheelchair for show?” (Olkin, 2019)
These microaggressions, among other things, can be felt as an attack against belonging and identity. As a non-disabled person, I cannot speak to what these experiences are like, and I don’t want to sit here comparing microaggressions like some sort of oppression olympics; what I want to do is be thoughtful about the ways I encounter those with disabilities (and to be considerate with meeting people in general because you never know what someone might be struggling with). So maybe another question to ask is, how can I let this person share their experience with me before I assume what their experience has been…?
In the last two years, I have been working on finding my voice and learning how to express my needs and feelings. This instance that I’ve shared was the first time that I really addressed a microaggression directed at me. And as I shared, it was not a straight-forward or easy path. I questioned how I was feeling and whether it was worth speaking up. I had to have the conversation a couple of times and sought out support from those who know and love me to help me organize my thoughts.
Image description: An Asian woman saying with a determined expression, “We do speak up now. We do have a voice.”
As I’ve been educating myself more on social identities, I am learning how I can advocate for myself and on behalf of others.
I’m challenging myself to 1) be brave in holding these conversations when someone says something that makes me uncomfortable and 2) be humble and self-reflective if and when someone calls me out or calls me in for something I have said. Making an authentic apology without excuses can be healing for both persons involved.
I encourage you to join me. Together, we can be the change we want to see in the world (too cheesy with the Ghandi line? I think not!).
Image description: A scene from Always Be My Maybe, in which the Asian female lead, Ali Wong points to the camera and smiles affectionately.
Recommendations and Resources:
I quoted this article when talking about microaggressions against disabilities: The Experiences of Microaggressions against Women with Visible and Invisible Disabilities. Olkin, R., Hayward, H., Abbene, M. S., & VanHeel, G. (2019). Journal of Social Issues, 75(3), 757–785. https://doi.org/10.1111/josi.12342
Office of Equity and Inclusion also helps with civil rights issues including discrimination, harassment, hate and bias