Op-Ed: Myths and microaggressions about people of colour

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The first time I was called “brownie” by an 8-year-old kid, I did not get it; I remember going in front of the mirror and seeing myself as a brown person; this whole new perspective was strange to me. But at that time, I never knew I was carrying around a baggage of stereotypes along with me everywhere I go. Be it in a steakhouse to get a medium-rare steak or while dodging the “where are you from” question in an interview or while price matching a product from a supermarket, the inevitable microaggression in the conversation made me constantly alienated despite me trying so hard to assimilate into this western culture.

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The worst of all racism for me takes the form of microaggressions, which can lead to macro impacts and can thereby not be invalidated.

What is a microaggression, anyway?

A microaggression is thinly-veiled and takes form in everyday situations and conversations. They are forms of racism that can be intentional or unintentional, but the term “micro” does not mean that their impacts are always small.

I remember when my brother, a renowned British Columbian chef, told me that he went through a three-step interview process online, and on the last step, they had asked him to send a headshot, and he never heard back from them after that. Of course, this happened way before Facetime interviews were popular; now, I can see that he would not have made it even into stage two as shown by their racist attitude towards him after seeing his photo.

Where are you from?

“I’m sorry, where are you from”?

This is something every person of colour encounters in a country they go to, and honestly, this is a good ice breaker, but the racist taste of this question always presents itself when someone replies to that question: “I am from Niagara Falls,” and then someone follows up with the question, “I mean where were you before you were at Niagara Falls?”. This question series continues until, in this situation, an Indian says “I am from India”. When revealing “I am from India”, a land of highly-populated people stuck between westernization, corruption, and poverty, the conversation suddenly moves to a sympathy session; “I am sorry to hear that”. Why are people being sorry towards a developing country? It is a phase and hopefully, India comes out of it.

Game of Accents

“You really have a thick accent, can you say it lightly, please.”

This is something that makes me laugh hard because I have a thick accent; it is the way I have been for my post-teenage life; it is the way I am. It is not like I carry an Armageddon with thick shells in my throat to produce that accent. I have never understood the concept behind a thick accent. It is not like they can measure it in any way. Even if I dodge that question with a chuckle, there comes the following remark- “you speak excellent English for someone who is new here”.

I completely understand that white people are curious about people from other ethnicities, but if you take a step back and reevaluate that remark, does it mean that no people of colour speak good English, but somehow, I managed to do that? The truth is I do not know about others, but I speak more than three languages, and I was taught to speak English since kindergarten. As most developing countries were colonized by the British, English is widely known. Even if that is not the case, to come to Canada and study in a university or college, we need to show high marks in English proficiency.

“You people”

Personally, I try my best not to indulge in a generalized conversational approach because it is highly ignorant of the diverse groups within every population. Even though I might have faced this opening remark multiple times in my three years experience in Canada, the first time I was angry was when one of my friend’s friends told me, “you people call me all the time on my phone with the CRA scam,”. I felt so hurt. I had to do some heavy breathing to deal with that situation; even though my friend told her that it was racist and should not happen again in the conversation, that kind of mark leaves a profound impact, especially when we live as a minority in a white-dominant country.

Beef burgers & Indians

Most of the microaggressions I have encountered are either at a bar or in a restaurant. One of the critical stereotypes I recall is that if you are an Indian, you cannot eat steak or beef burgers, so I believe it is worth talking about it and clarifying for everyone who wants to know more about Indian culture.

India is highly overpopulated with over a billion people; this is widely known, but because of this, this land has lots of religions within different areas. Where I come from, there are three prominent religions- Christianity, Islam, and Hinduism. But there are also those who practice Judaism, Buddhism, Sikhism, Jainism- the list can go on. Most Muslims, to my knowledge, are not allowed to eat pork and are required to eat halal food, and certain Hindu religious groups are not allowed to eat cow meat. These are some of the rules mandated by Hinduism and Islamism from what I have gathered. So, the assumption that all the brown people are either Muslims or Hindus and therefore we should not risk asking them if they want to try a steak or pulled pork burger is ignorant and offensive.

The worst part is that this is not a one-time thing. About a third of the restaurants I have visited enforce this scenario and it does not get any better. One time I got bullied by this white person who asked my name to which I replied George, and in return, that person said, you look like Ali or Ashraf; I wanted to respond to that- “because I am a brown person?” but like many thoughts I have left hanging, this also went cold. But the vestiges of those microaggressions can be so powerful that they can keep you up all night.

Ambiguous microaggressions in a masked world

During this COVID time, it is a bit hard to talk with a mask for almost everyone, especially the thick cloth masks. Personally, communicating through the mask is extremely difficult for others to understand my English because I have an accent. I also often rely on reading lips to know what others are saying, which is not possible in this COVID scenario, and often without seeing people’s facial expressions I have a hard time figuring out how others feel towards me. This creates much ambiguity regarding the emotion people are conveying to us. This is why using a better tone in communicating is crucial, as we are all in this together.

What can others do?

One of the best ways to approach anyone, no matter how different that person may seem, is with a clean slate; if someone wants to talk about their culture and viewpoint, let them say that to you. Then, accept people for who they are or try your best to, and finally and most importantly, stop overgeneralizing. Also, try to approach everyone as pleasantly and open-mindedly as you can. There is a need to use a better tone in communicating with others, especially as this whole COVID-19 scenario has created a passive Asian hostility that some of us may not notice.