The term microaggressions was coined in 1970 by Harvard University psychiatrist Chester M. Pierce to describe insults and dismissals which he regularly witnessed non-black Americans inflicting on African Americans. Today, this term is mainly used to describe “casual degradation of any socially marginalised group, including LGBT+ people, people living in poverty, and people with disabilities”.
But let me begin this article with a personal experience a Muslim student decided to share with us via Instagram.
“We are a Muslim family and have moved to Switzerland a few years ago from the Middle East. My younger brother was attending a language school in Zurich and my mum would drive him to and from the school. One day she went to pick my brother up from the school and was a little early. She parked the car and was busy on her WhatsApp when she felt someone went past the car staring at her, but she did not take much notice of it as people normally stared at her due to the way she dresses. She always goes out in an abaya (long dress), hijab (head covering), and a niqab (face covering, before it was banned). After a few minutes a police car with 2 officers came and very apologetically asked her a few questions. She was in complete shock that her waiting in the car could be taken as a threat just because of her appearance.”
Microaggressions often come from a place of ignorance, where people assume certain attributes about others based on appearances, leading to a prejudiced view. Humans have the tendency to generalise and to be afraid of things that appear foreign and unfamiliar to them. After all, the unknown induces a primal sense of fear because it is unpredictable. If a woman senses a man following her on the way back home at 1 am, she will very likely get anxious and assume the worst for her own protection, even though the man might just coincidentally be heading in the same direction. But we are no longer primal, and that is not an excuse to discriminate against others just based on first impressions.
Do some of these assumptions have any actual basis? Have we ever tried to talk to someone in the group we perceive as “the others”? Are we aware that correlation is not the same as causation? Just because there are certain extremist groups in a certain religion does not mean that the religion itself is the problem. Have we tried to see things from the other person’s perspective? Have we considered that the stranger we encounter is an actual human being with feelings, just like us? To them, our culture might seem strange and intimidating too, yet they might be trying their best to adapt and understand us.
Curiosity instead of intention?
Growing up as one of the only two Asians in my local school in the German countryside, in a classroom of prepubescent kids, I would often be greeted by “Konnichiwa”, “Ni-Hao” and “Ching Chong Chung”. People would ask me why all Asians looked the same and pull their eyes back as a form of mockery. This type of blatant racism stopped as I matured and learned to stand up for myself, confronting the aggressor and making it clear that this type of behaviour will not be tolerated. However, the impact of the experience stayed. It made me aware from a young age that the world was not colour-blind, and that I deviated from the norm.
Microaggressions do not always result from malicious intentions. Sometimes people are not even aware what their words imply. Friendly shopkeepers, wanting to find a conversation starter, often asked me where I was from. When I replied with Germany, some repeatedly asked “But where are you REALLY from?”, hoping for a more spectacular answer. Upon hearing this, I would often feel conflicted because in my mind I was really German, but at the same time I understand that for them the question was probably synonymous to asking about my ethnic roots. They did not mean to hurt me, they were simply curious. However, the encounter does imply, that in their eyes, I will never truly be German. For them, being German means having certain features that I simply do not possess. It signifies that sub-consciously, they are likely to hold the belief that an Asian person must not be German. The question does not bother me personally. For some however, who have been born and raised in a place, who consider that place their home, the place they belong to, yet be constantly considered as an outsider, can have a deep psychological impact.
According to “Scientific American“, psychologists have described the impact of microaggressions on mental health as “a death by thousand cuts”. It is a very uncomfortable issue to discuss openly because no one wants to admit that they hold prejudices. But how can we solve a problem if we refuse to identify it? Well intentioned people make mistakes, and it is important to separate intent from impact, to educate instead of accusing. Sometimes people are simply unaware of their implicit biases. In that case, open communication is often the most effective solution. Instead of condemnation, which often leads to defensiveness and unnecessary hostility, simply explaining your
perspective and the impact the interaction had on you subjectively, can result in mutual understanding and discontinue the offending behaviour. The issue becomes more complex when the aggressor has no interest in mutual understanding and refuses to change their patterns. Especially when the aggression is not severe enough to be criminal, but nonetheless harmful, it is often extremely difficult to figure out the optimal response.
My personal bottom line is to always stand up for yourself, make it publicly known that such behaviour is unacceptable and never allow yourself to be disrespected. Not only for your own sake, but also for those who might potentially fall victim to the same microaggression. Although I do realise that the execution of this principle is often very challenging depending on the situation.
ETH has multiple initiatives to raise awareness about such issues, some examples being the Instagram page “speakupeth”, the Diversity Team of AVETH and the “Respekt Kampagne”.
Jessie Li, 21, studies Computer Science in Bachelor’s programme and is writing an article for the first time.