“Where are you from?”
I answer it truthfully but brace myself to hear what I know will come next. In these encounters, my initial reply is less than satisfactory to the inquirer and they inevitably dig deeper.
“No, I mean, where are you really from?” Sometimes it’s, “Oh, that’s not that I meant.” Or even framed as, “Well, where are your parents from?”
If I expand in enough detail to appease them, we move on but no matter how few words are exchanged, I’ve gotten the message loud and clear: “I’m not sure you belong here.”
And that’s the thing about microaggressions. They don’t have to be obvious. Overt. Blatantly racist or bigoted. But to some, this stings more sharply than the type of racism you can see coming from a mile away. At least when that happens, you know what you’re in for. It’s sometimes easier to disengage or remove yourself from harm’s way when it’s obvious. But how do you erect and enforce boundaries to protect yourself against the insidious nature of microaggressions that are socially acceptable and rarely questioned?
Just before the COVID-19 quarantine, I was leaving my apartment building to go meet my partner for dinner. I got on the elevator and was joined by an older woman and her partner. He casually leaned against the wall, facing the front, but she turned to me. I felt her eyes sweep over me, registering my outfit, my hair, my face.
“I’m so glad I ran into you here. Where is it that you do nails?”
“Excuse me, what?” My reaction was one of confusion because I had never seen this woman before. But it was compounded by her assumption that, as a young woman who appears Asian, I must be a nail tech at a local salon.
I wasn’t entirely sure I heard her correctly. But as I paused to try to comprehend what she was really asking me, she continued and I realized I hadn’t misheard. “I really need to get mine refreshed, I’d love to find a place nearby.”
Tongue-tied though I was, I managed to tell her that no, I’m not a nail tech. And the salon I go to is across town and might not be close enough for her. She nodded, then asked, “Oh, so do you live in this building?” Her partner didn’t budge during this entire interaction and when the elevator door opened they exited without a farewell. I could tell she was thinking. Wondering. Trying to figure out how I could afford to lease a unit or get regular manicures, or what it is I actually do to support myself since I’m apparently not a nail tech.
When I got in the car with my partner, who was picking me up, I told him that something strange just happened to me in the elevator. I shared how uncomfortable that was, to be questioned by a stranger in an enclosed space. Even without over-intellectualizing the experience I knew this woman subconsciously questioned my ability to exist as an equal in the space she claimed and her whiteness allowed her to feel entitled and emboldened enough to ask me that question.
His first reaction was to ask if I was sure that’s what she really meant.
I’ll pause here to disclose my partner is a white man. He’s an open-minded, kind person and we complement each other well, but that doesn’t mean he gets a free pass. As a white man, his ability to be open-minded towards others’ personal experiences with racism is limited. It’s not that he doesn’t believe racism exists (he does), but rather he struggles to see the way it paints my views of interactions like this one.
Over dinner that night, I corrected him for the way he tried to downplay the strangeness of the situation and the discomfort I felt. I also shared more about the implications of the woman’s words and how that made me feel like I didn’t belong. By the end of the meal, I felt like he better understood why I was so offended by what seemed like an otherwise ordinary question from one woman to another.
As a biracial woman, my experiences pale in comparison to what is dealt to Black, Indigenous, and dark-skinned People of Color. I benefit from the privilege of modeling a minoritized group most Americans are more comfortable with — but these suggestions that I don’t belong or fit in due to my ethnic appearance are distracting and disruptive.
Instead of talking about weekend plans or a recipe I wanted to try or whether we should FaceTime with family when we got home, I had to explain to my partner why that encounter happened in the first place. Because I know that had he been there, the question would have never been asked in the first place.
The twisted logic of white supremacy says, after all, if a Person of Color is accompanied by a white person, no one has reason to question it?
In Dr. Derold Wing Sue’s book, Microagressions in Everyday Life, he outlines the different types of microaggressions and differentiates between microassaults, microinsults, and microinvalidations. The first is typically conscious or deliberate, while the other two are usually unconscious.
In learning about this, I finally recognized why so many brief, seemingly harmless interactions felt a little “off” to me. In the time since then, I’ve been more aware of when these microinsults and microinvalidations occur. I didn’t always take time to share them or process them in the past, but in my ongoing anti-racism learning process, I’ve been forced to reflect long and hard about how I’ve been on both the receiving end of microaggressions and the ways I’ve committed them myself.
It’s having a relative ask, “What type of foreigner did (my father) Bill marry?” within earshot of my Korean-American mother. But it’s also my internal surprise when I hear the lack of a foreign accent from someone I assumed was an immigrant or first-generation.
It’s being shown a photo of my white ex-sister-in-law’s wedding in which she wears a kimono and being asked if I have one, too. But it’s also the sophomore year Halloween party where my friends and I wore Native American-inspired headdresses and body paint and it didn’t register as cultural appropriation.
It’s hearing coaches and teammates throughout high school and college make remarks about how unusual it is to have an Asian-American on the roster because they “usually aren’t very athletic.” But it’s also when I fetishize a Black man’s body and either marvel at his athletic accomplishments or try to rationalize the reasons he doesn’t have any.
It’s being told I’m “exotic” or “vaguely ethnic” looking, which really just means I’m an acceptable version of brown or yellow that’s interesting and ugly, but still far from the blonde beauty standard, and knowing it’s a backhanded compliment. But it’s also not questioning the stereotype that “Black don’t crack” or “Asian don’t raisin.”
It’s the inquisitive looks I got as a kid when I went out in public with my father, as people tried to figure out if I was one of those expensive adopted Chinese babies, and not his biological daughter because otherwise how could this white man possibly have such a dark-haired, tanned-skinned, almond-eyed child? When both of my parents were present, the looks were just as glaring, for another reason: Interracial relationships still stir up a host of responses and microaggressions all their own.
But it’s also my long-standing preference for dating white men and thinking of them as a better, more acceptable choice as a partner because proximity to whiteness would not only give me a leg up in the social hierarchy but also protect me from the insinuations that Black men or men of color are inherently threatening or dangerous.
When I consider whether I can be on the receiving end of microaggressions and commit them myself, I realize both can be true. I can sit with the reality of my experiences while also grappling with the ways I’ve been indoctrinated by white culture and caused harm myself. Perhaps it’s my logical understanding of the data and impacts of microaggressions that will keep me attuned to the ways I act them out myself.
As humans, we crave community. Inclusion is akin to safety, belonging helps us survive. Of all the stealthy ways microaggressions operate, I think the most cunning display of all is the way they draw a line between “us” and “others.”
To be secluded, isolated, left out is to be made vulnerable, weak, inferior.
Isn’t that the point of white supremacy? To exert power and dominance, drawing the circle of whiteness more closely around those who benefit from it, while creating as much distance from and lessening the significance of the “others” as possible?
I think this is precisely what the white woman in the elevator was attempting, whether she was consciously aware of it or not. Was it really so difficult for her to imagine a world where I, a Korean-American woman, could live in the same building as her? That I wouldn’t be there as a guest or visitor or temporarily allowed access to perform a service?
Microaggressions serve a function. They might be chalked up to implicit bias or unconscious beliefs we inherit from our families and the society we live in. But they’re not accidental because racism is intentional and deliberate. And it’s only becoming more covert and adept at blending into the folds of social acceptability. I can still turn a blind eye to certain faux pas in 2020, but just as we must learn to be corrected when we misgender someone or use incorrect pronouns, we must hold ourselves and others accountable for recognizing and responding to microaggressions. It’s one actionable way to minimize future harm for Black, Indigenous, and People of Color.
As I commit to continue my process of unlearning and relearning, I’m also committing to standing firm or pushing back when these microaggressions surface towards myself or others.
So lately when I hear the question, “Where are you from?” I still answer it truthfully. Only now, when the next question starts with, “No, I mean . . .” I stop them there.
I say, “I know what you mean.”