In yesterday’s post, I briefly discussed my reluctance to answer questions about my ethnicity and race that come from white people whom I don’t know. Again, the post was inspired by a lady at the grocery store who observed that I can eat hot peppers because I have “jalapeño blood.” I used this interaction as an example of how tricky it can be sometimes to discern someone’s intentions behind those kinds of comments.
A Daily Chicana reader named Candace shared a long and thoughtful response to “My Jalapeño Blood.” She argues,
[W]e should give people a hard time for being pushy when asking about your race. What point would they have to be pushy about it other than being snarky? 9 times out of 10 thats exactly what is happening…at least in my experience. And see what I love about some of these people is that they don’t expect that you’re a smart or intelligent person at all. In fact they don’t even consider it, they don’t expect you to have a remark or to quip back at them. Or even for you to realize that they were offending you. . . .
Im definitely not criticizing you for your response. I have encountered this same sort of thing so many times—and Im usually initially so shocked that someone would actually say something that ridiculous out loud and in public—–that Im speechless. And by the time my emotions catch up with me, the person has walked away and the moment is lost.
I’m so glad that Candace shared her perspective, because she raises a number of interesting points and makes me realize that I have more to say about these types of experiences, which I wrote about briefly in a previous post about “microagressions,” a term for offhand comments that bring your race and ethnicity to the forefront of a social interaction.
I want to say first that I totally agree with Candace: most of the time–really, like 99.9% of the time–nothing good results from a random person’s inquiry into my ethnicity. They ask the question, I tell them that I’m Mexican, and then their response falls within a range from the benign-but-stupid to the downright offensive. Here are some examples drawn from my real-world experience:
- “Oh, I’ve always wanted to go to Mexico!” [What does my being Chicana have to do with your travel wishes?]
- “I should learn Spanish.” [What is the connection between my ethnicity and your fluency in Spanish?]
- “You’re Mexican? You probably saw that movie The Motorcyle Diaries. Well, can you explain to me why Che Guevara became a communist?” [I never knew Che and I don't research his life, so your guess is as good as mine.]
- “Yeah, I can hear it in your voice now.”
- “You speak English so well!”
- “How long have you been in the US?”
- “My dad likes to hire Mexicans because they’re as loyal as dogs.”
- “You’ll probably like this joke I heard: ‘Mexicans are proof that the Indians f*cked buffalo.’ Isn’t that hilarious?”
Yes folks, I’ve heard all these responses and more, which is why a sense of dread comes over me as soon as I hear what Chicana writer Michele Serros calls “The Question.”
And this leads me to a second point that Candace raises: Even though I always aim to have a snappy and/or educational comeback (or in case of the most offensive comments, a razor hidden in my hair like a serious chola), most of the time I’m so taken aback by the stupid responses in the first place that I can’t think of any memorable rejoinders. Most of these interactions leave me feeling stunned, wondering, “Did that really just happen?” and “Did I hear that right?”
That’s the insidious nature and greatest danger of microagressions: Over time, they wear you down and make you question your sanity. There you are, just a person of color living your life like anyone else. You’re at the grocery store, the bookstore, sitting in your cubicle at work. Your ethnicity and race are not even on your mind. Then WHAM! There’s a random person reminding you that for them, you are first and foremost just a skin color and a walking stereotype. Thanks.
Reader Candace went on to share some advice she once heard from the CEO of a company she worked for. This woman said,
[I]t doesn’t matter where you are in this world—at work, buying groceries, at the park–what ever. When someone disrespects you to your face, possibly insults you—it doesn’t matter if they’re joking or communicating it in a joking manor—you owe it to yourself and those who might come after you if you don’t speak up——to say something. Call’em out!! say, ‘you know what so-and-so…that really hurt my feelings. Why would you say that? What do you mean? Are you trying to offend me?’
These words are an excellent reminder: We do have the right to call someone out and, probably even more effective than the wittiest of retorts, straightforwardly ask them, “Why did you say that?” Turn the tables and force them to explain themselves (which they probably won’t able to do very thoughtfully). Taking this approach has the potential to turn an instance of microagression into what’s called in academic circles a “teachable moment,” where you have the opportunity to drop some knowledge on the folks who need it the most.
I like this idea but what holds me back a lot of the time is suspecting that I’d be wasting my time. I only have so much energy to expend in my day. Do I want to spend more time with these ignorant people, trying to reason with them or get them to understand my point of view? It just seems like the burden is forever on us to do the teaching and explaining, and it’s tiresome. Sometimes I feel quite cynical about how much impact my explanations will ever have on them. I guess, like anything else in this world, it all depends on who you’re dealing with and the particular instance/context. But all around, it sucks and again, it gets this Chicana’s jalapeño blood boiling!
What are your thoughts? How have you chosen to respond to unexpected and ignorant comments? What other ways are there to deal with microagressions? I’d love to hear what you have to say, so please leave a reply!