Voices on Microaggressions

commentary of everyday women under 30 about how they experience subtle stigmas

Quyhn Van (courtesy photo)

Quynh Van

I have said this many times to close friends and confidantes, and have always been met with disbelief: I truly believe that sometimes microaggressions are worse than overt racism.

I know — hear me out. With overt racism, especially in an academic or professional setting, it is visible and, therefore, can be reported, because it is conspicuous enough to be heard even by the most reluctant ears.

Microaggressions, on the other hand — they are stealthier. Sometimes they cannot be complained about because others will call you “paranoid” or “unreasonable.” They are the actions that sit there under your skin, silently making you feel the discomfort.

My last boss was good at them. In an interview he asked me,“Where are you from?” “Woodbury,” I replied. I met his unsatisfied eyes when he asked again, “You know what I mean, where are you from?” I answered in an annoyed voice, reaffirming that I was born here, in the very same state that he was. I said my parents were from Vietnam.

Aware of my annoyance, he proceeded to tell me that he had recently married and that his wife was from China — as if his relationship with another Asian excused him of any insensitivity or racism. The comment he made was not the first I have received. It indicates and perpetuates the view of Asians as foreigners — alien, eternal immigrants, who will never belong in the U.S.

I became pregnant when I was sixteen.

My young age has given me a daily reminder of the “slut status” that society perpetuates. It follows me. I see the looks people give as they calculate the difference in ages between me and my daughter. I feel their expectations change, and I sense an immediate loss of respect.

When people find out that I am a young parent, it opens a door for judgments. Society demonizes teen moms. We are looked at as morally corrupt “sluts” who suck the welfare system dry.

While I was pregnant, I worked as a cashier. When I was scanning items, some women felt the need to tell their daughters that if they had sex, they would end up like me. They talked about me as if I was invisible. Every day someone would say something about my body, my future, or my unborn child.

Other comments I endured: “You’ll figure out someday why you need to keep your legs closed.” “Nothing like a child raising a child.” One day someone told me there was a Planned Parenthood nearby, in case I didn’t know. A teacher told me, “Kiss your college dreams goodbye.”

The micro-aggressions didn’t stop there. After college (yes, I went), my supervisor asked about family. I mentioned my two children. Her immediate response was, “Do they have the same dad?”

If only people understood how their comments tear pieces of my heart and self-worth apart. The judgments seem never-ending.

There is an enduring stigma about young mothers. It doesn’t stop. I wonder if it ever will.

Alma Silver
Alma Silver (courtesy photo)

Alma Silver

“Do you need help?” “Are you lost?”

As I drive my wheelchair around the familiar pathways of my beloved college campus, the place that I have called home for three years, comments such as these slap me in the face.

They come from upbeat neighbors walking their dogs around the pond, the suburban women with faces of genuine concern, the “do-gooders” whose eyes seem to latch onto me. They seem to be waiting for the right moment to intervene and assist — to find out what is wrong. In response, I often roll my eyes and point out my apartment building.

I am confronted with my Otherness in the eyes of the non-disabled majority. As one of the few students in a wheelchair on my campus, and the only student using a communication device, I feel a heightened awareness of how I present myself. I keep my chin up, shoulders squared, and eyes alert. I make perfectionist efforts in every class, even when I’m exhausted.

I am determined to break the narrative that frames people with disabilities as one-dimensional “inspirations” in need of pious charity. With every question and confused stare, I feel the weight of being a “representative” settle on my shoulders. With every implication that I am lost or out of place, I feel a need to justify myself.

I hope that this divide will soon start to close, as disability identity and culture flourish into greater prominence in society. For now, I feel the voices of many members of my community in me when I respond to the curious gazes: “I know exactly where I am.”

Blair Lee
As a teacher, I embrace curiosity. I am used to answering countless questions daily. In my opinion, curiosity didn’t kill the cat, it made her smarter!

In my classroom, I use the word “filter” as a way to explain what it means to think before we speak. Children are mini- explosions of questions. Sometimes their words are innocent and endearing, and other times … not so much. They do not always know the meaning behind their language.

As adults, we should know the deeper meaning of our words. But the filter part — the ability to withhold thoughts that ought not to be spoken aloud even if we think them — not all of us have grasped that yet.

I am a proud, curvy, plus-sized woman. My body is beautiful, even in a society that is captivated by thinness. I have fought
hard on this journey of confidence and self-love. But this does not mean that the words of others cannot harm me. I am able to bounce back quickly, but I have felt pain after insensitive or intentionally cruel words have been spoken about my body.

I recently vacationed with a dear friend. Her mother owns a home on a lake and was gracious enough to host us. I have known my friend, and her mother, since I was in kindergarten.

While we were on a boat ride, I was basking in the sun, hair blowing, shades on, rocking a black two-piece swimsuit, and drinking hard cider. I felt good. I felt happy. Then my friend’s mom asked, “Have you been checked for diabetes recently?” Buzzkill. Umm, what? Why are you asking me that? How is my health your business?

I responded, “I’m lucky enough to be very healthy.”

My body is not an invitation for others to ask questions about my health or comment on my shape.

Addy Cross
Addy Cross (courtesy photo)

Addy Cross
Where are you from? The United States. But you look like you are from somewhere else.

No genealogy report or denial or admission is enough. Race is in the eye of the beholder, and no explanation of origin can remedy that. Sometimes it is best to simply subvert and to satisfy. Other times it is best to breathe into others the power of acceptance that you draw from the mirror every morning — the power of your skin, your hair, your legs. It is best to move and to become the woman you need to see.