Let Me Tell You About Microaggressions

A college professor once told us why she shaved. It was a part of a longer discussion in a lecture for one of my Gender Studies classes at the University of Utah.  The heart of the story is that she, who considered herself a feminist, did so with intention. She understood why other people in the department did not shave, refusing to abide by gender norms and prescribed “womanly” behavior. She, however, made the decision that she’d shave her pits every once in a while rather than have to take a stand every time she got a question from a male colleague.

Although it’s been over a decade since I graduated, I’ve maintained the same strategy towards microaggressions. If you’re unfamiliar with microaggressions, count yourself lucky. Let me set the stage. According to Merriam-Webster, a microaggression is “a comment or action that subtly and often unconsciously or unintentionally expresses a prejudiced attitude toward a member of a marginalized group (such as a racial minority).”

What does that mean for me? It means that when people ask where I’m from, I could say Utah. For those that think that’s a good enough answer, thank you. It’s a reasonable response given my family migrated to the U.S. when I was two and I have never lived anywhere else in the country. I can tell you based on experience, though, saying I’m from Utah is often not enough.  

When I don’t feel up to it, I just tell them I’m Filipino. It prevents the more suspect question: 

“Where are you really from.”

I get the point of the question. A complete stranger that doesn’t know my story wants to connect with me on a deeper level. They want to find out my cultural background and share an experience. Either a place in my native land we’ve both visited, or a food we’ve both eaten.

There are times when it is awkward and uncomfortable either because I don’t share their experience or they’re being outright racist. More often than not, however, we end the conversation with a smile or a funny anecdote. 

I went back when I was five years old and I just visited the island of Luzon to see my dad’s ashes in 2018. I have experiences I can recall and share with others. But what about someone that is first generation and has never been to the country of their parents’ birth? What about someone that’s adopted and doesn’t know their birth parents’ background? Why should they really be from anywhere? Why can’t their heritage be mountains and skiing and the Mormon Tabernacle Choir because they’re a POC?

You might not be a feminist and you might not be a POC. But since you’re reading an editorial on a website called Big Shiny Robot, I can make a reasonable assumption you know what it feels like to live in the margins somehow.

That time you had to convince your friends you were kidding about playing Dungeons and Dragons after they teased you for being a nerd.  

The day your parents told you writing wasn’t a “real” profession.

The day someone told you men don’t cry.

They are little interactions that don’t mean much in the moment. The collection of them, though, leads to a constant feeling of inadequacy.  It’s a feeling I never really thought about. I didn’t know things could be any other way.

I was always taught that perception was reality. The way a person is viewed matters most. It wasn’t just how I found my own self worth, it was how I viewed others. Every woman was fragile and in need of saving. Everyone with glasses was a nerd. I found validation in where I stood compared to other people.

Now that I’m older and I’ve been through therapy I understand how flawed that perspective is. I understand how much pain it causes. I see it in the members of my family that still compare themselves to others, always fixating on where they stand in relation to the rest of the world.

Don’t get me wrong, we all need to find our tribes. I found a group of writers that inspired me to do more than just write in my journal. It’s the reason I’ve become a much better writer. They inspired me to be in an anthology and contribute to Big Shiny Robot.

And that’s just one of my communities.

We just need to remember that being a part of a community doesn’t mean focusing on how other people aren’t a part of that community. We should embrace our differences, not define each other by them…

As a bonus, here’s a great children’s book about a simple question with an often complex answer.