By: Anne Cheng

Microaggression: “a subtle but offensive comment or action directed at a minority or other nondominant group that is often unintentional or unconsciously reinforces a stereotype” (dictionary.com).

I’m not sure how “subtle” found its way in there. There was nothing subtle about being accosted with a giggly “konichiwa” by two white teenage girls in an elevator. The “ni hao” and head bow delivered to my Cantonese-American high school band director by a white music festival adjudicator? Nope, not subtle either. An overheard breakfast conversation between two white, male UCLA students about the women they and their friends had dated or slept with, referred to by ethnicity only? Most definitely not subtle.

Microaggressions are like mosquito bites, this video says–mild irritations that add up to something much worse. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hDd3bzA7450

Not surprisingly, there are rebuttals. “Microaggressions deserve a micro response,” this YouTuber says, latching on to the mosquito-bite comparison to make the claim that microaggressions really are not a big deal. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=L-MzMWN4cIE

The laughing fit the girls in the elevator had when I informed them–with a polite smile, in perfect English–that I am American, was NOT a mosquito bite.

Not an itch. A sucker punch to the gut.

Not a small sting. A reminder that you don’t belong and never will.

Not a buildup of irritation. A reminder that you are not defined by your words or actions, or even where you were born, but by the color of your skin, the shape of your eyes, the languages you speak. A reminder, in case you’d forgotten, that for the rest of your life you will constantly have to prove your Americanness, prove that you deserve to be here, prove that you’re a human being too. A reminder that in most cases, bystanders won’t say a word. A warning that if it conveniences those in power, you may suddenly find yourself and those who look like you public enemy #1.

Belonging is a very important aspect of one’s college experience. Studies have shown that students who feel a strong sense of belonging at their institution do better academically, have better mental health, and are more engaged on campus (Samura, 2016).

Unfortunately, Asian American students frequently face microaggressions that remind them that in some people’s eyes, they don’t belong. In my experience, microaggressions directed at Asian Americans tend to be based on the model minority myth, which assumes that Asian Americans are biologically or culturally inclined toward academic success, or the perpetual foreigner myth, which labels Asian Americans as foreigners based on appearance alone. (Museus & Park, 2015).

In the study done by Museus and Park (2015), Asian American students shared their experiences of being subject to microaggressions based on these myths. Valerie, a girl who had lived in France and California before moving to Minnesota, shared her experience of being asked the classic question, “Where are you from, originally?” Other students recalled having to deal with assumptions that they had gotten good grades by virtue of being Asian, and not through hard work. In both these cases and my case, there were two underlying assumptions: 1) the Asian American students do not fit in, and 2) not only are the Asian Americans student different from other students, they are intruding on a space meant for others. The latter assumption, I think, is what makes not belonging such a terrible thing. It’s one thing not to fit in. It’s another to feel that you aren’t qualified to occupy a space, solely because of the way you look. 

Microaggressions are not mini moments of rudeness. Not much is micro about having your sense of belonging torn from you, especially in today’s context.

If the elevator incident had happened to me two years ago, I might have shrugged and laughed. But it was summer 2016, and Donald Trump had just become the Republican presidential nominee.

Belonging has taken on new meanings. Belonging doesn’t just mean supportive friends and a sense of purpose. Belonging means safety, belonging means a future. So as long as there are white supremacists who shout “Get out of my country!” at POC and/or physically attack us, and as long as those in power sit by quietly as these things happen, I will never call microaggressions “subtle” or “micro,” because the myths they are based on are neither small nor harmless.

Museus, S. & Park, J. (2015). The Continuing Significance of Racism in the Lives of Asian American College Students. Journal of College Student Development, 56(6) 551-569. Johns Hopkins University Press.

Samura, M. (2016). Remaking Selves, Repositioning Selves, or Remaking Space: An Examination of Asian American College Students’ Processes of “Belonging.” Journal of College Student Development, 57(2) 135-150. Johns Hopkins University Press.


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