I’ve gotten quite a few compliments since I moved away from my hometown. Although sadly, no one has been kind enough to comment on my dazzling wit or sparkling writing style (this is a rather obvious hint to you, reader). The comments adhere to a common theme: they’re all about how I don’t seem South Indian. The “compliments” range from an admiring – “You don’t seem South Indian at all, you speak such good English,” to a grudging – “You’re not as bad as the rest of them.”
I’ve lived as a minority race for most of my life, so I am no stranger to microaggressions. Microaggressions are indirect, subtle or unintentional discrimination (whether statements or actions) against members of a marginalized group. They seem small at first but everyone knows that there’s no pain worse than that of a thousand tiny paper cuts.
I don’t need to list what I hear; anyone who bothers to open his or her ears would know. Every phrase that I had only seen as a hash tag before – “not all men”, “you people”, “my best friend is black/South Indian/female” – has become a part of my everyday reality. And I am obliged to accept each one with a smile or joke, in case I be accused of being “too sensitive” or “too aggressive” and be subjected to tone policing – the other weapon of the casual racist/sexist/insert other “ist” here.
Tone policing is the act of derailing a discussion (usually about the lived experience of an oppressed person) by critiquing the way the marginalized person speaks (too emotional, aggressive etc.) rather than the content of their message. We are told not to “complain about everything”, lest people stop taking us seriously when we complain about the “real things”. Not only does tone-policing attempt to define what is a “real issue” and what is not, it is also a silencing tactic.
In fear of losing my credibility and thus, what little power I have to speak out about oppression, I speak up sparingly. And with every instance of silence, of letting the offensive remark slip by, I feel sick with the feeling that I am contributing to the harmful culture that made the oppressive remark acceptable in the first place. Silencing is especially insidious in a professional context where conformity is the norm and reputation matters for your future.
So, I remain silent. Yet each microaggression is a painful glimpse into the ignorance and resentment that hide behind the curtain of civility and friendship. When a friend refers to my ethnic group as “you people”, thereby stereotyping and othering us at the same time; or when someone refuses to learn the differences between the South Indian states; it sends out a clear message – you are one aspect of your identity, an aspect I don’t care to learn about.