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Microaggressions: on being English but not white

17 Nov 2015

I had the pleasure of meeting my friend’s parents for the first time a few weeks ago. I was expecting the small talk and had prepped for the typical parent-style questions – what do you study, how are your grades, what are you going to do after university, etc. However, it felt as though there was a barrier that was preventing us from properly relating to one another, something that wouldn’t exist if I had been white.

Cue the awkward small talk as they tried to make me feel included by mentioning almost everything they could think of relating to India: from the British Raj (perhaps not the best subject to break the ice with), to the Who Do You Think You Are episode featuring Anita Rani. Not to discredit them, as it did sound like an interesting episode and it’s always positive to see someone in the mainstream media that looks like you.

After that talk, however, it was clear that, although I had no problems relating to them, they had a problem relating to me. I was not like them; I was not ‘English’ enough. I was brought up in the UK, I speak English fluently and have probably been to India as many times as I have been to France.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m incredibly proud of my Punjabi heritage, but I also feel like I am English, and that England is my home in a way that India can’t quite be. Of course there are differences but I still feel English deep down. It’s a strange situation to be in, but it’s a situation and feeling that many people of colour can recognise. It’s a mixture of awkwardness, embarrassment and even a little shame that we feel through no fault of our own, but rather because our cultures are being simplified and stratified through Western eyes.

The awkwardness of my conversation with my friend’s parents made me realise that their way of trying to connect with me was based on the fact that I was Indian. Despite the small talk, and discussions of university, grades, ambitions, etc., they saw my defining feature as an ‘otherness’. They assumed that their focus on this would help me to feel included, but ultimately it left me feeling excluded.

It’s not as if they were trying to make me feel that way on purpose. Like so many examples of microaggressions, it was an unintentional act. They were trying to be nice. And that’s what makes it so much worse. What was supposed to be an act of kindness turned out to be quite insulting and hurtful. But even though their intentions were seemingly good, it does not disguise the fact that, albeit unintentionally, they were offensive even though they weren’t racist.

Racism is far easier to hate and condemn because it’s recognisable and it’s in your face. Racism is not socially acceptable. Microaggressions are. They may be committed subconsciously, but they are still insults, inherently based on racial prejudice. They’re subtle, so subtle, you find yourself questioning, is this offensive? It’s that ambiguity which allows many people- usually white people- to get away with microaggressions in everyday life.

The frequent nature of microaggressions is testimony to this, from comments on the ‘ghetto’ nature of certain names, the difficulty in pronouncing ‘foreign’ names, to asking where you are actually from. These are easily defined as microaggressions, a fleeting remark or a behaviour that’s derogatory towards people of colour, rather than outright racism. But that doesn’t mean microaggressions are any less damaging to people of colour.

Microaggressions still hurt like racism and they still make you feel as though you don’t truly belong. How many times are you supposed to accept being insulted for values that you have no control over, things that you cannot change no matter how hard you try? Despite culturally assimilating, forgoing our traditional dresses for western clothes and losing part of our mother tongues to Received Pronunciation, we are still not accepted.

Maybe true acceptance is a thing that will take some time to achieve; we’re still working towards that stage now. The idea of microaggressions doesn’t hinder but helps us progress, and it forces us to acknowledge that there is a problem which needs addressing. Maybe, instead of just taking it from my friend’s parents, I should have called them out and explained why it was wrong. It’s not easy to call people out. It’s even harder to change their mentality.