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Unpacking microaggression: confronting anti-Asian prejudice

Ryerson experts discuss the impacts of covert racism and how to dismantle harmful stereotypes
By: Surbhi Bir
May 27, 2021
Woman wearing mask standing alone in front of subway train, silhouette of ominous crowd around her.

Intentional or not, microaggression reveals both conscious and unconscious biases against racialized and marginalized people. Illustrated by Chelsea Charles.

“You are supposed to be really good with numbers.” 

“Are you good at Kung Fu?”

“I heard Asians eat exotic animals.”

Many Canadians of East or Southeast Asian heritage have probably encountered these questions and comments more than once. 

They might also agree that these seemingly harmless questions are in fact racist microaggressions that can have lifelong effects on a person’s mental wellbeing, identity and sense of belonging. 

At a recent Ryerson event on combating anti-Asian racism, microaggression was described as “death by a thousand cuts” by Denise O’Neil Green, vice-president of equity and community inclusion.

In this new Ryerson Today series about identifying and addressing microaggression, Ryerson experts will weigh in on how members of marginalized groups often face indignities disguised as jokes and backhanded compliments, based on their race, gender identity, sexual orientation, disability or religion.

The goal of this series is to raise awareness of underlying racism and social oppression in daily interactions. Expert insights will also include recommendations on confronting verbal and behavioural microaggression, and steps that allies can take to be mindful of unconscious biases. 

Jokes vs insults

Contextualizing racial microaggressions, Ryerson nursing professor Josephine Wong emphasized that they are not independent events or interactions.

“Microaggression is connected to macro-level systemic racism, ongoing colonial power  and xenophobia. Unlike blatant acts of racism such as verbal assaults or using racial slurs, microaggressions are harder to identify, they are very subtle. But they’re a form of social domination with negative impact,” Wong said.

Often disguised as jokes or compliments, microaggression stems from prejudice and unconscious bias – both of which are established at a young age. 

“Growing up and right through college, a common joke I heard was ‘two Wongs don’t make a right’ which a lot of people found funny,” Wong recalled. “But these experiences reinforce the idea among kids that some last names are normal and acceptable, but others can be made fun of.”

Pamela Sugiman, dean of the Faculty of Arts, also recalled similar experiences in school that she can now identify as acts of microaggression.

“While working together on a group project in school, someone asked me, ‘do you have any trouble seeing since you don’t have eyelids?’ I wasn’t sure how to react, so I remained silent,” Sugiman said. 

This also shows why microaggression can be particularly harmful – despite being a part of our daily lives, it often doesn’t get the attention it deserves.

“Microaggressions aren’t often taken seriously and people are hesitant to address such comments or behaviours because they think perhaps the perceived insult is just in their own minds, or it’s too trivial and they don’t want to seem hypersensitive. But they accumulate over time,” said Sugiman.

“Typically, you’re so taken by surprise and you feel so shocked that you wouldn’t know what to do. And then you go home and agonize over it, because microaggressions are so complex and they perpetuate stereotypes,” Wong added.

Backhanded compliments and tokenism

Examples of microaggression in the form of compliments include: claiming Asians are the model minority, telling newcomers that they have an exotic accent or complimenting their English speaking skills, and making assumptions about their skills and interests based on how they’re portrayed in popular culture.

“In my research with young Asian women, I’ve found that a common experience is when white men approach Asian women and say things like ‘I really like Asian women’ or ‘I used to date an Asian woman and would love to date another one’ and think it’s actually a compliment. It makes them feel rather uncomfortable and question their safety,” Wong said. 

On the other hand, microaggression is sometimes less subtle. Many East and Southeast Asian women have another common story to share that shows blunt microaggression and unconscious bias.

“Asian women who have biracial children with a white partner are often subjected to comments like ‘what a beautiful baby, are you the nanny?’ and that’s very hurtful for them. That’s clearly racism,” Wong said.

Microaggression is common in academic settings too, especially in the form of tokenism.

“Sometimes people automatically use simpler words or speak slower when communicating with immigrants or newcomers whose accent is different than theirs. They may or may not mean to be condescending or offensive but regardless, there’s a complete lack of understanding and assumptions are formed based on what people look like or how they speak,” Sugiman said.

Wong recalled a recent incident when a team of white researchers invited her to join a grant submission as a co-applicant two days before the grant was due. 

“The funding call was on a health issue affecting Asian-Canadians. The principal applicant wrote to me and asked me to just send my CV and ID number,” said Wong, who considered this type of tokenism as racist microaggression that felt disrespectful and unethical.

Confronting microaggression

Whether a racist act is intentional or unintentional, subtle or glaring, dealing with it over and over again can be exhausting and most racialized people are tired of taking on the responsibility of educating and explaining. So how can we avoid these frequent indignities?

“Sometimes, I would act like I didn’t quite hear what they said and ask them to repeat themselves. This is a good strategy because whether there’s unconscious bias or intentional microaggression, when someone has to listen to their own voice, they might gain insight into how their words or actions negatively affect others,” Wong shared. 

She added that “if that doesn’t work, I would tell them that I don’t understand their question and invite them to elaborate or explain further what they mean. This invitation to explain gives them an opportunity to gain a different perspective.”

Sugiman acknowledges that the one good thing to come out of the recent reckoning with systemic racism is that marginalized people now feel some legitimacy in calling others out.

“Visibly racialized people would often keep racist incidents to themselves thinking nobody talks about it and maybe they’re being too sensitive. But currently, mainstream dialogue about racism and microaggression is giving the issue legitimacy. So racialized people might feel safer and more comfortable calling it out,” Sugiman said. 

On top of taking initiative to educate themselves and being mindful of unearned privilege, white allies should speak up when they witness even the smallest act of microaggression, say Wong and Sugiman.

“I will always remember who helped me and who didn’t in such situations. I think there’s a real onus on people who are in racially privileged positions to speak up because the issue isn’t so intimate for them. When you’re well up with emotion, it can be difficult to stand up for yourself,” Sugiman said.

Their suggestion serves as a timely reminder that silence plays an important role in perpetuating systems of oppression and injustice.

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