Microaggressions And Subtle Racism Turned Me Into A Troll
I consider myself lucky. I live in a society where outright racism is generally not tolerated. Unlike my parents’ generation, I don’t worry about some stranger on the street calling me a “chink” or a “jap” or a “gook” (which, strictly speaking, I’m only one of those three).
Then again, that just means that racism is more insidious now. Instead of blatant insults, I’m sometimes left questioning what someone meant by a certain remark. Today’s prejudice has mostly been reduced to microaggressions — socially acceptable comments that are still subtly derogatory.
And as I realized recently, in some ways, microaggressions are even worse than outright racism, because they put the unwilling recipient in a can’t-win situation. Here’s how:
“Jack” and I have been friends for a few years now. He’s fun and light-hearted, and I enjoy hanging out with him. One time, early in our friendship, we were at a club. This was right around 2012, when any social event you attended had a 100% chance of the DJ playing “Gangnam Style.”
Sure enough, the song came on, and that’s when Jack turned to me with a grin on his face. And he said, “You should be singing along!”
My reply: “Yeah, man, I’m not Korean.”
His response: “Come on, dude, I know you know every word to the song!”
I cracked half a smile and turned away.
Jack probably thought nothing of that exchange, but I was pretty insulted, because 1) Taiwanese people don’t speak Korean, 2) I’ve lost count of how many times someone has said something like that to me since the song came out, and 3) really, I hate the fucking song.
Still, I knew Jack was joking, so I chose not to confront him. I didn’t want to be that guy — you know, the minority with the chip on his shoulder who makes everything about race. Everybody hates that guy. Especially me.
Over the next several years, Jack would mention something about my ethnicity every once in a while. His remarks were always innocent, but every time, I was subtly reminded of “Gangnam Style.” And every time, I quietly let it go.
Then a few months ago, Jack made a rather opinionated post on Facebook about the events of Ferguson. He never mentioned race specifically, but something about it set me off. The combative tone he used, the smugness he conveyed, the failure to address why people were rioting — it irked me.
So, I called him out, commenting that the situation was more complicated than just a bunch of “rioting morons.”
He replied, aggressively questioning my beliefs and basically accusing me of being anti-law enforcement.
And that’s when I called his post “bigoted.”
We spent the next hour in a heated exchange, me accusing him of being racially insensitive, and him maintaining that what he said had nothing to do with race.
By the next morning, he had unfriended me.
When I reflected on my own comments from the previous night, I came to an unfortunate epiphany: I was the asshole this time. I was the one who attacked him in a public forum. I was the troll.
Within the context of that single Facebook post, my reaction was way out of proportion. What Jack didn’t know — and what I myself didn’t catch on to at first — was that my snapping at him was the result of years of pent-up discomfort at some of the comments he had made, both personally to me and publicly on Facebook.
When I realized this, I reached out to him privately and explained what had happened. And yeah, I apologized for being kind of a dick.
His response was predictable: if I had such an issue with his “Gangnam Style” joke, why didn’t I say something at the time? Why did I let it fester for so many years?
Of course, he had a point. I should have said something three years ago. But that’s when I realized how microaggressions put me in a can’t-win situation. See, here’s the problem:
I don’t want to be the guy who can’t let anything slide. I don’t want to be the guy who calls out every little remark that might have questionably racist undertones. I want to be the guy who doesn’t let insignificant things bother him. I’m proud to be that guy.
On the other hand, every time I have to tell myself that something isn’t worth making a fuss over, my internal annoyance meter clicks up one, single, seemingly insignificant notch. In isolation, each comment doesn’t bother me. But when they happen over and over and over again… at some point, a tiny little angry voice inside my head goes all Mount St. Helens on me.
And when it does, my reaction will seem like a meltdown. I’m responding to years of microaggressions, but everyone else sees only the final incident. And so, they think, “whoa, this guy’s got issues.”
That’s why I’m in a situation that I can’t win. If I ignore the comments, I may snap one day. But if I say something every single time, then I become that guy.
Either way, I end up looking like the asshole.
Well, okay. There is one way I can “win”: When I reach my bursting point, I stay level-headed and self-aware enough to realize that my frustration has been building, and I calmly explain to the other person how their words bother me ever so slightly based on my own collective experiences. I respond with the exact level of emotion that each innocuous comment warrants.
Basically, I have to be a Vulcan.
Sure, it’s doable. And now that I’m aware of it, it gives me something to strive for. But will I be successful every time? Probably not. Not when I’m already distracted by the anger that’s blistering over. You try staying calm and rational when you’re desperately trying to put a lid on a sea of exploding lava.
I realize now that this is the plight of any person who lives a life of constant microaggressions. No individual incident is ever worth getting upset over. But taken together over a long period of time, you’re probably going to lose your cool at some point. And when you do, you immediately invalidate yourself. Because now, you’re just the crazy overreactor.
So what can we do about it? Well, maybe just a bit more tolerance would help, along with the realization that any of us can end up being the aggressor. I’ve been on both sides of the situation now. I get it. The difficulty in recognizing our own microaggressions is that we can never know someone’s past experiences. We can never know what they have to put up with on a regular basis.
If someone ever responds in a way where our initial instinct is to roll our eyes and go, “whoa, just chill,” maybe we have to cut them some slack. Maybe they’ve spent too many years taking the high road, and for once, they need to go low.
And maybe they have every reason to do so.
It extends beyond racism or privilege, too, because everyone has their own internal struggles. Even Jack. As it turns out, his own cousin is a police officer. He’s fiercely loyal to his family, and it pains him every time someone makes a remark disparaging the police.
He snapped at me because my comment was the one that caused his pent-up frustration to come pouring out.