Reflecting Allowed

Maha Bali’s blog about education

Contextualizing Microaggressions 

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Reading Time: 2 minutes

I was so relieved the day I learned the term “microaggression”. It described all the little ways in which micropower is enacted on a daily basis to reinforce more macro power dynamics. It helped me see how critical pedagogy as a grand narrative is enacted in our lived experiences. It’s a useful term. And it’s also very useful to know, as Yolande Flores Niemann says on her interview w Bonni Stachowiak on Teaching in Higher Ed podcast, that most microaggression is not intentionally malicious – I think it’s an internalized form of discrimination that is so subtle those of us who enact it aren’t at all aware of what we are doing. Much of it is reflexive. But becoming aware is important. And it’s also important when you are on the receiving end of it to conextualize it. Will explain in a minute.

Watch this hilarious video for example


This same conversation is a sensitive one for US-born non-white people. They often identify v strongly as American. They may not speak their parents, grandparents or great grandparents’ language (depending how far back they go) and they may or may not feel a strong culrural link to their ancestry/ethnicity. I have been in the US with other veiled women. They hate being asked where they are from and will say something like “Los Angeles”. I don’t hate being asked that question. But it’s because I am NOT from America. I know some people hate being told “your English is so good” (and it would be frustrating if you were born and raised in an English-speaking country…but I wasn’t). It’s not offensive to me personally because I fit the expectations of someone who would ask that: I am from somewhere else. It’s just not ok to assume that about the woman standing right next to me who looks like me but was born in America (for example). 

Now reversing that a little. For the most part, if you are in Egypt and you look  African, people here can tell if you’re American or African. But it should not be considered rude to ask, because people are just being friendly and there is no reason for them to assume one thing or another. Same for people who look Asian. It’s normal for people not to guess where someone is from and to be curious in a polite/friendly way. Also if you are white and you speak English with an accent, and you’re in Egypt, it’s completely normal for people to assume you aren’t from any particular country and ask where you’re from or assume you’re from where your accent indicates or such. Sorry if it turns out you are American or Canadian.  You’re not home and you’re a stranger here. I understand why that would offend someone in their home country but microaggression is contextual. Same way it would offend me if someone Anglo told me they didn’t understand my (near native) accent, but it’s ok if a non-native speaker doesn’t understand it!

3 Comments

  1. I don’t understand what you mean with ‘near native’ accent. There so many accents of people born and raised in an ‘English’ speaking countries. Many are difficult to understand for people of another region. Canadian, Texan, Yorkshire, Glaswegian, Cockney. What’s native ?

    • Good point. Non native speakers who are fluent usually have a clearer accent than regional accents in countries. In the US telling someone u don’t understand their (foreign) accent is usually insulting

  2. Native / Non-Native accents. My father’s mother was born in Oklahoma and a member of the “Daughter’s of the American Revolution” but seemed to have the same Native drawl that my mother born in Scotland had after living in California from around age 12. I think they adopted each other’s pattern’s of speech out of mutual regard. With over half the population of this small northern Canadian town where I live being Muslim and descendants of the “original families” that came from Lebanon over 125 years ago, there seem to be specific “family accents”. Working for a few years with two of the Abougouche sisters it was noticeable they spoke with a New York emphasis which is definitely not a local accent but a branch of their family is located in New York.

    One advantage to living in the “oil patch” in Alberta is the diversity of people coming to live here. And the chances to make mistakes. For instance, a teller at the local bank covers her hair and appears to be from the local Lebanese families and I never have bothered to ask her where she was “from” when actually she moved here from Edmonton 5 years ago following her husband who works at the College.

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