October 6, 2016 marks a new day in my life. The first time I confronted someone about a stereotypical comment they made, or a microaggression.
In all my 24 years of living in America, my home country, I have never corrected or responded externally to a microaggression. Rather, I would respond internally with anger, hurt, and confusion.
Finally, after a big work problem this summer (revolving around cultural differences and expectations), I began to understand my past experiences a little more.
One summer I interned in India and students from all different colleges gathered in the same program. In an ice-breaker, we went around and said some interesting facts about ourselves. I mentioned that I play guitar, ukulele, and clarinet and that I was beginning to learn drums. One white male responded, “Well, you’re Asian so of course you play a lot of instruments.” His comment caught me off-guard. I was completely shocked, because I had never even thought about it. I was angry because I did not play a lot of instruments because I’m Asian. My mom never forced me to play the stereotypical Asian instruments, piano or violin. Whereas I thought it was cool that I learned guitar by myself and considered drums a cool instrument, all he saw was the color of my skin. He discredited my individuality. If a white person said they played all those instruments, I can guarantee my white peer would have thought it to be a cool fact.
A few other microaggressions: When I moved in elementary school my new school was primarily white. As a young 2nd grader, an older white boy on the school bus sang the “Wing wong ching chong” song while pulling his eyes to slant them. Another instance I get now a days is when college students or adult males ask if I’m from China or bow to me and say “Ching chong”.
I always knew that these microaggressions hurt me and made me sad. But I realize now that these microaggressions also caused much confusion.
What was the confusion about? The confusion was about being born in America but being treated like a foreigner. Do you know how distressing it is to live in your country but not feeling like you belong- simply because the citizens won’t acknowledge your belongingness to the country?
So after 24 years of receiving microaggressions and not quite understanding what was happening with those experiences, I have finally been able to understand it a little more and take action.
For my graduate assistantship, I am working in a lab and intervention where they teach African-American parents and their kids how to talk about race and deal with racial stress. During orientation I was really inspired. Part of the intervention is to help teach kids and have them practice how they would respond to racism or microaggressions. Responding to racism? Having plans for how you would do that? That never even crossed my mind!
All these revelations led up to a breaking point in my life. I don’t want to be passive anymore, but I want to respond to microaggressions.
A few weeks ago, a peer in my counseling class said a stereotype. The computer wasn’t working and the teacher asked if someone could help. He said, “Just get one of the Chinese kids to do it.” A Taiwanese international student laughed in disbelief. I just turned around and said some small remark, like “Are you serious?” but in a light-hearted way.
Finally, this past Thursday I decided to say something about it. Yes, a few weeks late, but better late than never I thought. With my new conviction to speak up, I did.
I asked the guy if I could talk to him. I told him that the comment really hurt me. If you look in the class, these Asian people are not all Chinese. Some of the international students are from Singapore, and I myself am Korean-American. Additionally, just because they’re Chinese does not mean they’re good at computers. As I shared, tears rolled down my face. The tears were from all my past hurts. (Yeah, it does suck to have received so many microaggressions while growing up, and I still get them. People can tell me it’s not big deal, or it’s just part of America, or just toughen up. But no, frankly it does suck, and it does pick at people. We cannot excuse microaggressions and racism. When we ignore them, we are condoning them. I don’t want to do that, but I want to help humans understand each other).
I told him that I have been quiet for 24 years of my life, and that this is the first time I wanted to say something about a stereotype someone said. I just wanted to let him know that it did hurt me, and that he did make a racist comment. The tears are not from him but from all the hurt that’s accumulated, so I told him: “I know it doesn’t speak to your character.” He’s a kind guy. And with that, he thanked me for sharing and even messaged me later that day:
…seeing you tear up today is really getting to me again now. I will take it as a learning point, something developmental for me. As much as it pains me to see how much hurt I’ve caused a friend, I’m thankful you told me. I really respect you for that, Jen. Have a good weekend.
I am really lucky that the first time I spoke up was to my peer in a counseling program. Not to assume that counselors-to-be are going to be kind and sweet, but yeah, he is kind. Thank you, friend, for being understanding and gracious. You have made this milestone in my life memorable and positive. I know in the future when I speak up, I may receive negative feedback and may get even more hurt. But I’m willing to try. I am going to speak up. It is worth it.