It should have been a casual moment – two women standing by the side of the sports field, watching their children play as they had a conversation. The woman I was talking to was speaking about how she had found a new babysitter and how conscientious her sitter was.
She then looked at me for a moment before going on to define what conscientious meant. I didn’t say anything in response. I didn’t tell her how I write for a living, or how I was the top in my class for English at school, or anything that immigrants do to sometimes prove that hey our English language skills are good, maybe even better than yours. Instead I just nodded and kept watching my child play.
I silently wondered why she felt the need to explain what the word meant. Did she assume because of my brown skin I wouldn’t know the meaning? Did she think that words with more than two syllables were beyond my comprehension? I didn’t ask her of course. I was too tired and perhaps felt it wasn’t the right time for such a conversation. Or maybe, I shielded the two of us from any awkwardness. But the incident stayed with me. That’s the thing with microaggressions, they get under your skin. Like a mosquito bite you can’t stop itching. It didn’t do any harm, but it did.
They are a constant reminder that you are “the other” and underline feelings that you don’t belong.
Microaggressions are slights and insults that you can’t shake despite your best efforts. They take the form of questions like, “but where are you really from?” Or how “your English is good.” Or “You don’t look Pakistani,” – like I’m meant to take that as a compliment. They are a constant reminder that you are “the other” and underline feelings that you don’t belong. But if you pulled someone up on it they would most likely say, “hey I didn’t mean any harm by it!”. Except they do a lot of harm, without us realising it.
Words have an impact, and for those of us who grew up having to bridge different cultures, microaggressions take a toll. It’s exhausting. You could be standing in an environment where you are relaxed and your defences are down and someone will say something that will immediately bring you back to having to put that armour on. It’s tiring to have to constantly be dragged into battle. And yes, that’s exactly what it feels like.
You then have to decide: do I retaliate or do I let it slide? If you respond you have to be prepared for the onslaught that is to come from the other party. If you let it slide you are left feeling annoyed, with a gnawing feeling that perhaps you should have said something. But how many times do you say something?
While many of us may have to accept microaggressions as part of life, we do have to practice self-care so such slights and insults don’t end up having a deeply damaging effect on our health.
I have been battling microaggressions from the moment I arrived in this country and some girls on a bus sitting behind me laughed and loudly said “curry muncher”. Now that I’m a mother, and have lived in this country for most of my life, I have lost count of the number of times I have had a racial insult or slight made against me. At some point I had to decide how many of these insults I wanted to respond to. And at the same time, measure up whether my silence in the face of such situations would leave the other person thinking they didn’t do anything wrong.
And it’s having to make such decisions on a continual basis that takes a toll, mentally and physically. Your body can’t help but react. Science backs this up. Studies have shown that microaggressions “lead to elevated levels of depression and trauma among minorities”.
So what this means is that while many of us may have to accept microaggressions as part of life, we do have to practice self-care so such slights and insults don’t end up having a deeply damaging effect on our health. For me that meant not responding to the woman on the sports field, but I still have to practice the art of “non-reactivity” so her comment wouldn’t have got to me like it did.
Of course the best outcome would be that those dishing out microaggressions just simply took a moment to think before speaking. But that maybe a long time coming, until then the best we can do is to make sure that we first look after ourselves, and second, if we have the reserves, set the other person straight, because as we know, words have impact and hopefully that can work the other way around as well.