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. 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.

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  • All very true. I personally consider this an unfortunately necessary step on the ladder out of chauvinism.
    I mean, we just can’t go from outright hate speech and demeaning to all living happily together like a family!
    It’s going to take us a lot of time, and effort, and pain, and intermediary stages… 🙁

    That said, the “Come on, dude, I know you know every word to the song!” thing did NOT seem to me to be even a little subtle. It was obvious, outright racism, even if it was “well-intentioned”.
    If “Jack” had wanted to be intentionally racist, as a bad-joke meant to ruffle your feathers, I could have understood that.
    I myself (as a white european man) have done similar jokes on (very rare) occasions, although you have to be very careful not to hurt your target – you MUST know your audience.
    It’s still a very poor taste joke, and you HAVE to know that the target won’t be offended beforehand.
    However, it would seem that Jack wasn’t even aware that it might have been hurtful.
    This is not an insignificant thing. It’s a source of friction that could potentially boil over in overt violence.
    For you and Jack, it was an internet argument. For larger groups of people, it could lead to physical violence.
    It’s something that keeps us apart, seeing people as “others” instead of “one of your own”.
    We mustn’t keep it locked up, afraid to be seen as politically correct stuck-up fanatics.
    I also hate that kind of people.
    But we DO have to talk about it, honestly, calmly and respectfully, just like you have done in this article. 🙂
    Baby steps, this is how we can make progress!

    • Thanks, Andrew! Yes, I agree it’s important not to take on this us-versus-them mentality. At the same time, I think it’s also important to address our differences, instead of ignore them and insist that we’re all the same. The bottom line is, we all have different experiences, and I think we need to talk about these differences if we truly do want to all get along some day. 🙂

  • Sorry to hear this story. I am a female and I am not Asian. Maybe you should find better friends.
    I have friends male and female of other races and sexual persuasions. The key to friendship is openness, honesty and respect
    As a white middle aged female I hear every type of ageist racist sexist remark you can imagine. I reject those remarks and the people that make them. Usually I say something like “what do you mean by that?” And give the person a chance to take a step back and actually explain to me what exactly they mean.
    And by the way, I think Facebook is an extremely ineffective way to cultivate a “friendship” or really communicate.
    I never use Facebook. My “real” friends call me, talk to me and meet me. Those that cannot do that cannot be my “real” friends.
    That said. I have had more than one derogatory remark that were “slights” over the years. When someone attacks my gender race or age, I question just what they mean. This way there is clarity and communication. I have closed my Facebook account and keep those who cannot communicate with me directly at a distance. Also. I have found myself accused of racism sexism or ageism and so I ask “why do you say that?” Perhaps the person has a constructive remark, perhaps they are misguided in their views.
    This is a blog. Our lives are not “blogs”. Get real with your “friends” and communicate in person. The Internet is a tool for many things, but it is not a substitute for face to face communication. Also, if you discover that your buddy has different politics than you, why not discuss them? In person? Obviously there was a difference of “opinion” or maybe just a misunderstanding.
    Racism sexism and agism are dreadful. I do t let myself be a target and I don’t target others. I let their conduct do the talking. And Facebook “friends” – I have none.
    I have heard many people say “times have changed – people are different because of technology”. I suggest they change back – into “real” people.
    Thanks for bringing up this topic in your blog.

  • As someone who has had very similar experiences, though not from an Asian perspective, I disagree slightly with the notion that the only way to prevail is to be a Vulcan. I can’t count the amount of times I’ve been asked “where are you from?” when I was born and raised in the same country as the person asking the question just because I look different.

    I think it’s unfortunate that we feel insecure about bringing up clarifications regarding race in the first place. I think that’s what causes the eventual explosion. I know it’s very easy to say, but had you calmly explained why Jack was being kind of racist (if totally unintentionally and non-maliciously) in your first interaction, if he had continued to push back then he would have been the one with the chip on his shoulder. In saying that it’s still something I struggle with. It’s not something that comes easy, and it doesn’t work well every time it’s attempted. But I’ve found, in general, when I’m given the opportunity to explain myself and have a conversation surrounding issues like these I can generally make my point, and even if minds aren’t changed at least it’s food for thought. And it goes both ways, I’ve also realised that sometimes I’m really reacting to something that’s not there.

    We don’t want to come across as that guy, but sometimes it feels like we’re actually denying something that’s important to us in order to pretend that we’re cool with something we’re not. Sometimes just admitting to ourselves who we are and what issues are important to us is half the battle.

    Anyway sorry I’m digressing, thanks for an interesting article Dennis.

  • Sometimes – not always – you can respond immediately to a micro-aggression with humor that addresses the problem but doesn’t put the person on the defensive. That way, you can address each instance without being “that” person. For example, when my boyfriend says something about women, like, “Why are women so clean?” instead of being like, “That is sexist because you are generalizing and stereotyping women,” I repeat what he says back to him word for word, except, because he is black, I substitute “black people” for “women”. So I smile and answer back, “Why are black people so clean?” He gets it, oh he gets it, without me being that person or him getting defensive. So with Gangnam Style, you say something like, “yeah, it must be awesome for you being able to sing along with stuff in German because you are white and they are white, so you can speak their language.” Sometimes, saying something sarcastic/funny like that is enough to keep your irritation meter from going up without making you “lose” the encounter. And it helps people realize what they are actually saying. (At least, bf is way more conscientious about what he says about women now.)

  • Mr Hong: I know I am a little late to the party here but I hope you will see this someday: Cops are racist dicks, at least alot of them are, and people who are “fiercely loyal” to racist dicks (mostly their families and other cops) do not deserve our sympathy or consideration. They are blindly defending a bunch of racist dicks even when those racist dicks are in the wrong, and racist dicks are always wrong, pretty much by definition. I really enjoyed your article, but don’t break your back bending over backwards to try and find some mythical middle ground perspective where everyone’s opinions are equally valid. I mean, Barack Obama and Dick Cheney are cousins but that doesn’t obligate the president to sympathize with or defend genocidal war profiteering sociopaths as a class, right? What I’m saying is, your opinions sound like those of a thoughtful, considerate individual, and some people are just racist dicks.

  • All people are racist. They can’t help it. It’s hardwired. If they say they aren’t they’re lying to themselves as well as you. It’s an obstacle we all have to recognize in order to fight against. Also, you seem racist against white people. I’m white, and where I’m from (LA) I’m a minority. It won’t be long (2-3 decades) ’til Latinos will be the majority in America. Here’s an interesting statistic: Today in America, 1 in 4 black people will spend some time in prison. 1 in 20 Hispanics and 1 in 100 whites. Oh, and why do we have to check a race box on an employment application? That shouldn’t even be a consideration. THAT’s racist.

  • I couldn’t care less if I’m “that” person, I would not let you sit up here and make disparaging comments to me in the form of “jokes”. I mean I am not a wet blanket or anything but Dennis, the way “Jack” spoke to you were obviously prejudices and microaggressive. If he couldn’t acknowledge you as a person who happens to be Asian instead of just being your token Asian friend (who assumes you understand Korean language even after you said otherwise) then he’s the problem not you.

    BTW, I read you article on cracked.com and was disgusted by those two white guys who barraged into your house, questioned your citizenship, and the punched you, WTF? I hope you called the cops on their asses.

    • I threw him to the ground and got in a few punches. He then tried to run off, but five of my buddies grabbed him and had him physically restrained by the time I caught up to him. I thought of kicking his ass right then and there, but decided it wouldn’t be right to cheap shot a guy who was being held down like that. So I told him to get the fuck out of my house and threw him out, like literally. So, it worked out. 🙂

  • This is a rather common problem for me, too, and it’s hard to explain to someone who isn’t commonly on the receiving end. Basically, unless you have cookies or brownies in your hand for the people unloading the moving van outside, don’t ask where someone came from. And if you do find yourself in that situation, would it kill you to help with that end table?

    • Well Vivian, it’s well known that every society has racism. If I being a white male went to Asia, you can bet I’d be on the ‘receiving end;’ and, I’d expect it! It goes back to the Bible: The Tower of Babel. You remember that, right? Man began to think that he didn’t need God, so God sent his angels down to ‘confuse their speech’ so they don’t understand one another. We’re supposed to be like that!

  • Great post! Thank you for sharing your experience. I will endeavour to keep this in mind when someone appears to ‘roil over’ at me over what, to me, may seem like nothing. We do each need to be as ‘in the current moment’ as we can and let the other person be where they are. How we communicate about it will be the indicator of what comes next.

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