When you’re a minority in terms of race, class or gender, chances are that encounters of subtle discrimination, or microaggressions, are a frustrating yet often inevitable part of daily life. While many of us here tend to focus on race, we can’t forget that other people are also on the sidelines, including people with disabilities and the LGBTQ community. Intersectionality is seen as ‘the new caste system’ that takes into account people’s overlapping identities and experiences in order to understand the discrimination or disadvantage they face.
Microaggressions and its effects
Microaggressions are the everyday slights, snubs, or insults which contain derogatory or negative messages to members of a marginalised group. Oftentimes in Singapore, the offender is unaware they’ve said or done something rude or hurtful.
People (especially those with privilege) might think these seemingly innocuous comments are harmless or trivial and should be easy to ignore. But over accumulated over time, it can lead to mental health issues such as depression, anxiety and trauma, as well as physical health issues like high blood pressure.
Here are some common microaggressions commonly experienced:
Telling someone that they don’t look like a certain race
“You Chinese, uh? You so fair.”
You can see how telling someone this can be rude, no matter what your race. People tend to judge by skin colour, and when someone doesn’t seem to conform to their bias, it can confuse them. Some people genuinely are curious, and may actually think they’re giving compliments, but it’s actually not. It’s similar to telling an LGBTQ person they don’t look or act a certain way. Or telling someone “You’re pretty. For an Indian.” Bottom line is, if you have a question about their identity as a minority group, it’s better not to say anything.
Expecting someone to have a certain personality or interests based on stereotypes
“You’re not that kind of Indian. You’re the good kind.”
People tend to have preconceived ideas of the personalities of certain minorities. In LGBTQ scenarios, for instance, someone might say “You’re gay but you don’t like Ru Paul?” And how many times have you heard people say “Don’t be lazy like Malays”? These phrases have defined the stereotypes of minorities, and it can be damaging. A recent study in Singapore found that Singaporean Chinese students who took part in a study would rate Malay applicants as less competent and deserved less salary than their Chinese and Caucasian counterparts with the same level of academic achievements, indicating that negative stereotypes can impact hiring decisions based on race.
Speaking on behalf of minorities without letting them have proper representation
Minorities need to have a voice and especially in rooms that are discussing how to best support them. They should be represented in workplaces, schools, and the like. The recent issue involving People’s Association (PA) at Radin Mas is a good example of why we need representation. Majority voices can use their privilege to make a difference and provide allyship, but as close as you may be to someone who’s a minority, you can never fully understand what it’s like to be a minority.
How to respond
How you respond to microaggression depends on whether you’re the type who’s confrontational or a little more reserved. It also depends on the circumstances, like whether it’s safe for you to voice your concern, or what your relationship with the offender is.
A simple strategy would to be ask, “What do you mean by that?” This gives them an opportunity to reflect on what they just said, and for you to respond to their clarifications.
Just because you can’t feel racism, sexism or homophobia doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. Sometimes, we ourselves may be guilty of committing microaggression – the first step is recognising that. We may have good intentions but say offensive things without meaning to. We’re socialised to have certain biases, after all.