Last week, I shared some facts and figures on Latin@ educational attainment, and then followed with a post about my academic journey, which concluded with some soul-searching questions that wondered what I have overcome on the route to becoming a professor. As a refresher: I don’t always relate to the typical narrative of first-generation Latin@ students because I had an overall positive and privileged academic upbringing.
Yet just because I don’t relate to that experience does not mean I haven’t had to deal with any difficulties along the way. One of the challenges I deal with on a regular basis comes in the form of microagressions: offhand, innocuous comments that remind you of your minority racial status. And while the instances may be minute, the sheer volume of them over time has a real impact on one’s self-confidence and mental health.
The term originally referred primarily to racial comments, its general use has expanded to include ethnicity, gender and/or sexual orientation. Psychologist Derald Wing Sue coined the term in 2007, outlining three types:
Microassaults: Conscious and intentional actions or slurs, such as using racial epithets, displaying swastikas or deliberately serving a white person before a person of color in a restaurant.
Microinsults: Verbal and nonverbal communications that subtly convey rudeness and insensitivity and demean a person’s racial heritage or identity. An example is an employee who asks a colleague of color how she got her job, implying she may have landed it through an affirmative action or quota system.
Microinvalidations: Communications that subtly exclude, negate or nullify the thoughts, feelings or experiential reality of a person of color. For instance, white people often ask Asian-Americans where they were born, conveying the message that they are perpetual foreigners in their own land.
For a glimpse into how such instances play out in real life, I encourage you to check out the Microagressions blog, where people submit examples of the microagressions they experience. As the organizers of the blog explain on their “about” page:
This project is a response to “it’s not a big deal” – “it” is a big deal. ”It” is in the everyday. ”It” is shoved in your face when you are least expecting it. ”It” happens when you expect it the most. ”It” is a reminder of your difference. ”It” enforces difference. ”It” can be painful. ”It” can be laughed off. ”It” can slide unnoticed by either the speaker, listener or both. ”It” can silence people. ”It” reminds us of the ways in which we and people like us continue to be excluded and oppressed. ”It” matters because these relate to a bigger “it”: a society where social difference has systematic consequences for the “others.”
I have too many instances of microagressions in my own life to count. But here some that relate to my educational journey:
1. On the first day of honors English class in my junior year of high school, my teacher administered a grammar test to assess our skills. The next day, she returned the graded tests. “Only one person got a perfect score,” she announced, before calling out my name. When I raised my hand to claim my test, she had to do a double-take, amazed that it’s the Mexican girl who fared so well. “This is yours?”
2. Walking out of my Portuguese class in college, a grad student in the class asked me, “Is your family Brazilian?” I told him that my grandparents are from Mexico. He replied, “Oh yeah, I can totally hear it in your voice. You don’t say ‘Mexico.’ You pronounce it, ‘Mexxx-eeko’” [doing an exaggerated Speedy Gonzalez accent].
3. Shortly after my college graduation, I explained to a friend’s older, male coworker that I wanted to apply to Ph.D. programs and become a professor. His response? “Well, lots of Ph.D.s are having trouble finding jobs nowadays. Have you ever considered becoming an exotic dancer? I bet you could make a lot of money doing that!”
4. In one of my graduate school years, I won a prestigious dissertation fellowship at a fancy research center on campus. When I shared my news with a friend, she said, “Of course. The out-going administrator hates the director so much, she picked a bunch of Chicanos to be fellows because she knew it would annoy him.”
5. In my teaching post-doc, I get assigned to work with a white professor in the English department. His first words to me are not “hello,” but instead, “Spanish is your first language?” (which it isn’t). Then, despite the fact that I specialize in American literature, he assumes that I’ll be thrilled to teach the 17th century Spanish novel Don Quixote, and offers to include some Pablo Neruda, the mid-20th century Chilean poet, on my behalf.
6. As I shared in detail in one of my first posts, when I just began my current position, a colleague expressed amazement that someone who looks like me would listen to Depeche Mode. She also had trouble believing that I was born in the US, not in Mexico.
Again, this is just a small sampling of the kinds of comments I get on a regular basis. And those are just the race-related ones; except for #3 above, I didn’t even get into microagressions I’ve dealt with based on my gender.
No matter what their basis, these comments are always incredibly jarring because in each instance, I was just an individual woman going about her life, not anticipating such interactions. My point here is to demonstrate that that no matter what my class status is or what I achieve professionally, there will always be those helpful folks who remind me that my skin color is the primary–and sometimes only–way in which they view me.