"YOU'RE SO ASIAN!" AND OTHER RACIAL MICROAGGRESSIONS.Feb 20, 2021
I’m in the workplace kitchen amongst some colleagues, talking about the weekend. Someone says something funny and everyone laughs. I also laugh.
I notice one colleague looking directly at me. She’s giggling as she hunches forward a little, covering her mouth, her eyes squeezed shut.
“Omg you’re so cute! You’re so Asian!”
I’m already mid-laugh so I keep laughing…
And for the next three years, we continue this interaction of her doing an impersonation of what I can only imagine as a “cute Japanese school girl” laugh, and me not saying anything about it.
Six months after the International Music Therapy conference in Japan, I’m speaking with a Caucasian (senior) music therapist at another industry event.
I say to her, “I saw you presenting and networking at the conference but it was so busy that I didn’t manage to say hi.”
She replies, “oh, I didn’t see you, but that makes sense because I guess you looked the same as everyone else there!”
She smiles warmly.
I’m buying some groceries and I’m waiting in silence as the cashier swipes my products through. With blank eyes and no words, he points to the EFTPOS machine. I pay.
When my payment goes through, I say, “thanks!” to which he says nothing and I think, “wow sucks to be this guy”...
But as I pick up my bags, the cashier says to the Caucasian person behind me, “hey there, how’re you going?”
I walk away as I hear them having a cute little chat about their day.
I’m in a Chinese restaurant eating my fish ball noodle soup when I start to hear a guy behind me saying, “you are disgusting, the countries that you come from are filled with disease and you’re scum, you’re filthy…”
The waitresses, two young international students, are standing there as this man (drinking tea?!) hurls hate and abuse towards them. No one is moving. The others in the restaurant seem to be far away enough that they can’t hear, or they don’t want to hear.
My partner and I feel sick so we quickly get up to leave. As we pay, we ask the girls if they’re okay, and they say “…yeah… he’s been here for hours…” We ask them if they feel scared and they say “… yeah …”
We tell them that we’re going to call the police from outside the restaurant and to hold tight.
As I’m reporting the incident outside, the police officer asks me, “but has he done anything?” And when I say that he's been verbally abusing the staff, he replies, “yeah, but has he caused any harm?”
The officer then tells me that they’ll walk past and suss out the situation however I sense that this is a low priority… I get it, resources are limited but still, I can’t shake the feeling that the safety of international students or migrant communities, is... irrelevant.
Just as I hang up, one of the waitresses knocks on our car and says that the guy left.
She walks away to work the rest of her shift…
THE RACISM WE FACE AS ASIAN AUSTRALIANS.
As Asian Australians, we face a quiet, insidious type of racism. Yes, the last year has shown us a huge increase in physical and verbal violence directed towards Asian Australians, however for the most part, we live with this violence directed towards us through subtle and hard to pinpoint ways.
Racial microaggressions are defined as, "brief and commonplace daily verbal, behavioural, or environmental indignities, whether intentional or unintentional, that communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative racial slights and insults toward people of colour" (Sue et al., 2007).
And it's important that we talk about racial microaggressions because it's this constant and "commonplace" experience that not only negatively impacts our mental health, but much further, has the potential to produce trauma and post-traumatic stress disorder (French et al., 2020).
It's important to recognise that microaggressions aren't harmless, instead they can cause harm to our health just as any other forms of racism could.
THE PRIVILEGE IN TALKING ABOUT MICROAGGRESSIONS.
We are deeply privileged by our proximity to whiteness, which means that we are more often than not, physically safe when we step out into the world. It also means that we have the option to play by the invisible and unwritten set of rules that govern who's accepted and who's not in this country.
For example, my Asian Australian friend who, sick of being treated so poorly by customs officers at Melbourne airport, started wearing his AFL jumper on every flight back into the country. Since then, he's never been "randomly assigned" to the sniffer dog lane.
This kind of privilege is something that's not afforded to everyone in Australia and this writing in no way means to disregard the far more violent and overt racism that others in this country continually face.
However, I feel like we can sometimes use this comparison as an excuse not to talk about the impact that racial microaggressions have on our health. We’re good at saying “it’s not that bad”, and “others have it far worse than us”, but in doing so, we never really acknowledge the pain and grief that we carry.
This then, makes it really hard to process these experiences which of course, negatively impacts our mental health and wellbeing.
There is no comparison between covert and overt forms of racism, I only aim to bring to light to the fact that covert forms of racism are also painful and toxic.
WHEN THINGS ARE HARD TO PROCESS.
Racial microaggressions are difficult to process because they’re difficult to spot and/or clearly convey their impact on us to others.
A large part of any recovery process rests upon our ability to notice what happened, understand what happened and then articulate what happened to someone else. We also need to receive some kind of validation or acknowledgement of our experience because it's in feeling seen and heard that we as human beings feel good/safe/better (Van der Kolk, 2014).
But microaggressions are toxic because they're hard to pinpoint. They occur so frequently and so nonchalantly that you spend more time questioning yourself; "did I hear that correctly?" and then even more time reasoning yourself out of it by saying "I'm sure they didn't mean it like that..."
Because microaggressions work in this way, where our ability to pinpoint experiences is diminished and our reasoning tries to kick in, these experiences make it hard to hold others accountable. It also makes it really hard to tell people what happened because the situation is not as clear cut as saying "someone yelled at me on the street".
STRATEGIES TO HELP US HEAL.
When it comes to racial microaggressions, you end up needing to become a storyteller in order to seek the validation that you need, or to hold others accountable. You end up needing to be so good with your words so that you can create tension in a story that might actually have no tension to make impact for your listener.
This is hard work but, as with anything in life, this capacity for storytelling is a learnable skill. In refining this skill, I've found that talking about microaggressions now feel less like an arduous creative writing exercise and more like a factual run down of events.
This in term, helps me to feel more seen and heard. I don't do this work to benefit others, I work on my ability to communicate my experiences for the sake of my own mental health and wellbeing.
Let's continue this conversation next week and I'll share things that have worked for me in regards to how we can both pinpoint experiences of racial microaggressions and then how we can articulate our story to others, so that we're not just storing microaggression after microaggression in our bodies.
Meet us back here next Monday, otherwise, leave your email in the form below to ensure that you don't miss out on reading the actionable steps of this story.
French, B. H., Lewis, J. A., Mosley, D. V., Adames, H. Y., Chavez-Dueñas, N. Y., Chen, G. A., & Neville, H. A. (2020). Toward a psychological framework of radical healing in communities of color. The Counseling Psychologist, 48(1), 14–46.
Sue, D. W., Capodilupo, C. M., Torino, G. C., Bucceri, J. M., Holder, A. M., Nadal, K. L., & Esquilin, M. (2007). Racial microaggressions in everyday life: implications for clinical practice. The American psychologist, 62(4), 271–286.
Van der Kolk, B. A. (2014). The body keeps the score: Brain, mind, and body in the healing of trauma.
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