A few months ago, my friend came out of the Student Assistance Fund office at the university fuming. I asked her what was wrong. She turned to me, still angry, and went “I can’t believe how rude that lady was. She asked me if my parents had any plans of moving to Ireland in the near future in a very condescending tone.”
My friend, Benedetta, is white and European. She’s lived in Europe her whole life. And that was the first time she had ever been asked something like that. Cut to me, brown and Asian. I was confused because I didn’t understand why Benedetta was offended. “Isn’t that a normal question?” I asked her.
“They just want to know if you’ll be bringing your family over if you move here, right?” Benedetta looked at me strangely. It took me about five seconds to put two and two together, and I said “Oh God, I never realised how offensive that question is. And I get asked that almost all the time.”
When I apply for a visa to anywhere in the Western world, I have to write about everywhere that I have been, how long I lived in those countries, and why I was there, in full detail. When I applied for my student visa to Ireland, I had to provide details of my relatives who lived abroad, where they lived, their occupation and immigration status. Being asked if my parents will move with me has been a frequent question. “Of course, they don’t,” I would say, “They are very happy back home!” For some reason, it never really came across as offensive. It was just a routine question for me.
When I first moved to the UK, people around me kept marvelling at how I could speak English fluently. I would take it as a compliment at first. It took me a few months to realise how condescending the question was.
“Where are you from?” “India.” “Oh, did you grow up somewhere else? You speak English so well” “No, I grew up in India. English is my first language. It’s what I count in, it’s what I dream in.” And somehow, that would confuse them even further.
Eventually, I got sick of it, and I stopped explaining myself. Every time, someone told me that I “spoke English so well,” I would respond with “So do you.” Cue nervous laughter from them.
I remember my first week in Dublin when an exceptionally chatty taxi driver who was taking me to my AirBnB asked me where I was from. I said, “India,” and braced myself for The Question.
“Oh, cool, I love Indian food,” and he started listing all the names of his favourite Indian foods. I almost cried in relief. I’ve had people ask me why I do not wear a headscarf, I’ve had people tell me how “Arabic is a difficult language and I don’t understand how you guys read those funny, squiggly letters.” I’ve even had a friend tell me that my family smelled of curry. I’ve also, surprisingly, had people argue with me over whether I should identify as Asian or Indian.
Racial microaggressions are subtle forms of prejudice come from assumptions that are based on stereotypes. Which is why I firmly believe that, in some way or the other, everyone is intentionally or unintentionally racist. When you see a person of colour and ask them where they are from. No, where they are REALLY from. That’s racial microaggression. When you say, “You don’t act/speak/seem like a [insert race of choice] person.” That’s racial microaggression.
Born to a white mother and an East-Asian father, Hannah (name changed) spent her childhood living in Japan and the UK. She did her schooling in the UK and now lives with her boyfriend, Tom (name changed), in the south of England. When she first met Tom’s mother’s fiancé, the first thing he said to her after hello was, “Are you going to make me sushi then?”
Hannah has experienced several instances of racial microaggression during her life in the UK.
“The most recent one that comes to mind is seeing Tom’s grandparents again. They were telling us the stories of their visits to unfortunate countries. They visited an orphanage as a part of their cruise ship excursion. They said, ‘They were so friendly and very smiley. They sang to us, and it was so delightful. We also sang them some old songs like Old MacDonald had a farm and Hokey Cokey. Oh, but I’m sure you’ve never heard of those songs, have you, Hannah?’” she recalls. “[I felt] very excluded, very isolated. Like I am a strange creature being examined,” she says.
A lot of times, there is clearly no malice behind these statements. Only ignorance. Besides ignorance in itself is not offensive, but assumptions are. It is okay to say, “What do you call an ignoramus in your language?” but it is NOT okay to say, “What do you call an ignoramus in Indian?”
It’s okay not to know things. It’s okay to be clueless. Nobody expects you to have an encyclopedic knowledge of the world. But it’s offensive to assume. Don’t treat me like an exotic animal on display in the zoo. Treat me like a human being.
Every time you get the urge to voice an opinion, ask yourself: “Do I have enough information on this topic or is this opinion just a result of my limited worldview?” If it’s the latter, do a Google search (it doesn’t take more than 10 seconds, 20 if you’re on a particularly poor network). That way, you’ll have all the facts right and the privilege of not looking like a fool in front of all your friends. And if everybody follows this rule, then maybe one day we’ll live in a world where people like me won’t be asked if we’re bringing our 40 relatives with us every time we move to a new country.
Image credit Ted.com