Reflecting Allowed

Maha Bali’s blog about education

Contextualizing Microaggressions 

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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!

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