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Let's talk about Microaggressions

When our choice of words hurt others

There's a popular saying that goes "sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me", that has always bothered me. Words can indeed hurt, sometimes more deeply than a broken bone. Bones mend, words can hurt your soul and stay with you, years after they were said. You might not see the wound, as you'd spot a broken bone, but that doesn't make it any less painful.

Our world is increasingly diverse, and connected. People from all over the world, people of many races and cultures, and all walks of life and identities call this area home. It is important that we all learn that small word choices that might seem harmless to us, might offend and cause pain to others- even if we don't mean to do so. These interactions are called microaggressions, and they are acts of discrimination and very rude. They are not usually meant to be mean by the people doing it, but we need to be aware so we don't inadvertently use them, and offend others.

Microaggressions I hear all the time, even from family

All people of color, and other marginalized groups, have experienced these at least once. Most of us hear it so often, that we either ignore the words, or roll our eyes- and then talk to our friends about what happened. Some questions merit a response, and I usually try to be nice and either explain why the question or comment is not appropriate, or I answer with something outlandish so they realize on their own. There's a great project about them, by Kiyun Kim where you can read all the different things people have asked the people in the pictures. I'll be talking about specific examples that I have experienced personally. Some of the people that said these things love me, and are either friends or family. Some were complete strangers. Most didn't intend to make me feel bad, yet they did.

"Wow, your English is so good" usually followed by "You really don't sound <insert race or ethnicity> at all"

This is a fairly common thing that I hear all the time. Sounds like a compliment, and I believe everyone that's said it meant it as one. But it implies that someone that looks the way I do, or comes from the country I was born at, doesn't have the ability to learn and study a language to be proficient at it- so the fact that I do, makes me different and exceptional. I am not. I know many people from my home country whose English is better than mine. And what does a nationality sound like, anyway?

If you want to compliment someone on their language abilities, talk about their vocabulary or their grammar- not about where they came from, or their race. Everyone can be educated.

"What ARE you?"

I usually respond to this question with a dog breed, said with a straight face. My latest favorite is Doberman, but I've said Chihuahua and Pitbull as well. People laugh when I answer, and apologize. I come from the Dominican Republic, and we are all mixed race, which makes me different to what people here would identify as latina or hispanic. But being mixed race doesn't make me a thing. I'm still a person- a who, not a what. If you want to ask someone about their heritage, by all means- do so respectfully.

"You don't look/behave like a <insert minority>"

I've heard this one even from people from my same home country. What are we supposed to look like? a plantain? This implies that I don't belong in the box you've made about how people of a certain culture or identity should be. We are not a hive mind, we are all different individuals that happen to share a culture. We may have a lot of things in common, but we don't all do the exact same things. When asking a person about their behavior, don't assume they are a certain way just based on their race, country of origin or identity- We do all have different personalities.

Bundling whole continents into one homogeneous culture

This doesn't happen very often to me, but when it does it really stings. It usually happens when people ask about the food I like, and automatically assume I'd know how to cook food from another culture because- aren't all cultures in the Americas the same? (spoiler alert- they are not). These same people would be very flustered if I assumed they were Canadian, for example. Or if I asked them how to make dishes from the South of their own country. Sometimes the person assumes that said continent is one country, and that everyone eats the same things, and have the same culture.

Variations in culture are common even among regions of the same country. It's true for the US, and most other places. And just as Mexico, Canada and the US have very obvious differences, even as they share the North of the Americas, countries in Africa and Asia also differ one from the other in culture, food and languages. Educate yourself, and ask questions about other people's cultures in a respectful way.

And that brings me to my favorite,

"Is that what/how you guys eat? that's disgusting/ I would never eat like that/ People don't eat that/ Their food has too many things in it/ Their food is too <insert adjective>"

Guess what- humans are omnivorous. We have survived and thrived in all environments of this beautiful planet because we can literally eat anything. The fact that you're not used to that kind of food doesn't automatically make it disgusting. Also, different cultures have developed different ways to eat the food they make, some use utensils we are familiar with, some use their hands. This brings up the assumption that whatever your culture enjoys, it's the norm- and everything else is weird. Try the food, you might like it. Or don't try it- but don't tell me, as I'm eating it, how much you'd hate it. This applies to complaining about the smell of my spices as well.

How to respond to these, and other microaggressions?

Now that we've read about what these may sound like, it's time to talk about how to deal with them. If you are in the receiving end of any microaggression, it's sometimes very hard to not automatically respond in anger. But that's not very productive. I usually use humor to deflect, or simply stare at the person. That usually works for me. Another way would be to point out how strange the question is, or asking the same thing back to them.

If you are a bystander, and hear someone say something in these lines, by all means- say something that would help. And if you catch yourself coming up with any of these, apologize and correct yourself, and try better the next time. We are all human, and we all make mistakes. And we all have used microaggressions, without knowing, in the past.

Let's try to do and be better.

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