Micro-aggression sparks controversy, unintended effects

Sharon Kim and Savera Zulfiqar

“You’re really pretty…for a black girl.” Instantly, a so-called “compliment” morphs into a micro-aggressive observation. Micro-aggression can be defined as any verbal, behavioral or environmental indignities that communicate hostile racial slights to people of color. Whether intentional or not, micro-aggressive language is present almost everywhere, including at GBS.

According to Korean-American sophomore Gina Kim, she had been exposed to micro-aggression at an early age in school.

“I was talking to my mom on the phone in Korean because my mom and I speak Korean to each other,” Kim said. “One of my classmates kind of settled over to me and said, ‘What kind of Asian are you? I don’t understand what you’re saying.’”

Because of her young age, Kim claims she wasn’t aware that the question was a form of micro-aggression.

“Of course I didn’t think much of it back then because I was too young, so I was like ‘Oh, I’m Korean,’ and we laughed it off. It just happened so often,” Kim said.

To Kim, questions like that are commonly heard. Despite feeling offended, Kim believes that the racist connotation is usually not intentional.

“I think a lot of these subtle racist remarks…are so normalized in our society, especially that no one really thinks much of it,” Kim said. “It’s just a cool thing to say, or a funny remark to break the ice.”

Senior Evan Sawires is of Egyptian and Danish ethnicity, and according to Sawires, her unique last name garners many bothersome questions, including “What are you?”

“Usually, they’re trying to be nice,” Sawires said. “But for them, whatever you are, is something you deviate from so it’s meant to be a compliment, but it’s so blatantly rude if you think about it for more than like, ten seconds.”

According to senior Scott Okuno, due to the stereotypes that exist about the academic success of Asian students, some people expect him to excel in math and science because he is 25% Japanese. Okuno claims that micro-aggression is fueled by a lack of knowledge on ethnicities.

“The fact that all Asians are associated with such stereotypes also bring to light the cultural ignorance our society participates in, since there is no differentiation between different Asian cultures in the minds of many,” Okuno said.

GBS Social Worker Jerry Zabin recounts conversations he has had with students of color in which they feel they are being treated differently because of their race or ethnicity.

“I’ll say to a student of color, ‘If I go to Von Maur or if you go to Von Maur, will we be treated differently?’ Zabin said. “And I always hear from students ‘Well if they see me as a young person of color they’re going to think I’m there to steal. They’re going to see you as an older white guy and they’re going to think you’re a customer.’”

But the ill-generalization goes even further for some students, according to Zabin.

“I’ve had students tell me they get followed around at Von Maur, or any store, because of the color of their skin, which is so bizarre and sad that [that] persists.

According to Kim, many hesitate to acknowledge that micro-aggressions exist. Many claim that it is a “joke,” and is not intended to be racist or offensive.

“There’s so much emphasis on these [racist] issues that people tend to polarize it, like this is completely good or completely evil and because of that, people may be irritated with the term [micro-aggression],” Kim said.

Similarly, Sawires also claims that using “joke” as a defense mechanism shouldn’t be tolerated. According to Sawires, jokes are not a valid excuse because the situation between people of color and those who aren’t differs greatly.

“I think the issue with calling [micro-aggression] a joke is that when a person of powerful position jokes about someone in a not powerful position, that’s a very different thing,” Sawires said.

According to junior Tristan Thomas, micro-aggression does exist despite some excuses. Thomas frequently receives questions based on Indian stereotypes.

“In middle school, people would always ask me if my dad owned a gas station which is very stereotypical for an Indian,” Thomas said. “There are a couple of Indians who do own gas stations, but asking me ‘do you own 7-11’…is too common.”

Thomas believes that the continuation of micro-aggression is fueled by the rapidity of modern media. According to Thomas, many people form negative connotations of others based on what they see in the media.

“So many people believe that Muslims are supposedly terrorists but it’s not true because not all Muslims are terrorists and not all terrorists are Muslim,” Thomas said. “Muslims are great people and they don’t promote violence.”

According to Thomas, the diversity at GBS helps to lessen the appearance of micro-aggression as students are more aware of cultures.

“I feel like people are more understanding and there’s not much bigotry here compared to middle school because more people are aware and understand what different cultures are,” Thomas said.

Thomas claims that although micro-aggression would not be easy to solve, there is still an opportunity to lessen it.

“If we all just accept other people and not ask so many questions and just respect everyone else’s individuality, I think we’ll work on [solving] it,” Thomas said.