Discussion regarding racial microaggressions is everywhere these days; from Buzzfeed to Tumblr to The Guardian, this subtle phenomenon is receiving more and more attention both on social media sites and in well-regarded newspapers. Microaggressions are near-invisible daily encounters that usually convey racial bias, but may also express hostility toward those of a particular gender, class, or sexual orientation. While overt racism may be on the decline, with a majority of people ostensibly supporting equality, microaggressions reveal a more subtle, often unconscious, form of racism.
The increased media focus on microaggressions prompted my analysis of an experience on a flight from Frankfurt to Zurich. I am Asian, born and raised in Austria. My first language is German, and I would identify as Austrian before Chinese, if I had to. Now, the black flight attendant on the plane addressed me in English, while she tried to speak German with my white, Swedish seat neighbours. It was, of course, a minor incident, but one that occurs frequently and that represents a bigger issue: the difficulty of overcoming seemingly benign but overwhelmingly divisive cultural stereotypes.
Racial microaggressions differ from blatant racism by covertly creating a hostile or derogatory context through verbal, behavioural or environmental actions, be they intentional or unintentional. The flight attendant assumed that I could not speak German or was ‘foreign’, while my white seat neighbours fit her idea of what German-speaking people looked like. Her behaviour was well-intentioned, but the underlying assumptions and prejudices are problematic nonetheless. Some would argue she was being perfectly rational – in a travelling environment, such assumptions – most likely founded on the flight attendant’s previous experiences – make his or her job easier. This ‘rationalization’ invalidates the feelings of marginalized peoples.
Microaggressions can manifest themselves in various ways. The treatment as an alien one’s own country is one example: during introductions, after I reveal I am from Austria, most people ask where I am ‘really’ from, implying that I cannot be ‘fully’ Austrian due to my race. Admittedly, many are genuinely curious about my origins, but their question is still a racist invalidation of my identity.
We associate certain identities with certain skin colours, and while it may make everyday life more convenient for some, it is increasingly problematic in this age of globalization. The idea that identity is confined to racial boundaries is an outdated one that we need to overcome as a society.
The power of microaggressions lie in their surreptitious nature. Perpetrators of such aggression often do not understand their transgression and cannot comprehend why the victim takes offense. The identification with values of democracy and equality lead many to incorrectly assume that, because many people of all different races are now allotted the same rights, discrimination has been eradicated. I doubt that the flight attendant was aware of her racism, or that it was even intended – however, ‘accidental’ discrimination is discrimination nonetheless, reflective not of the flight attendant’s own biases, perhaps, but that of society at large. The fact that the flight attendant herself was black is interesting: racism between people of colour is rarely the focus of the media. Racial biases are therefore, ironically, indiscriminate: they influence the actions of white people and minorities alike, and affect interactions between any and all races.
There are multiple difficulties in dealing with microagressions, namely that of identifying incidents in which microaggressions take place. They can usually be explained away by seemingly ‘rational’ and ‘objective’ reasoning. Perpetrators might not be aware of their racial bias as they rely on limited experience to come to their conclusion, while the victim can probably draw on a pattern of similar incidents in their past.
Reacting appropriately to microaggressions poses a dilemma. Doing nothing solves nothing: it leaves the victim annoyed and perhaps a tad insulted, and the aggressor clueless. Overreaction, on the other hand, may be counterproductive in that it can reinforce a stereotype of racial oversensitivity. It is difficult to come up with a levelled, well-thought-out response on the spot. Personally, it often takes a moment after being the target of microaggressions before I can think to do anything, but this does not preclude me from responding. People of colour need to speak out and explain the causes of their annoyance on the basis of these microaggressive assumptions, and society must be willing to reconfigure its preconceived notions of national and racial identity. Media attention and awareness of the problem is only the first step.