‘I thought you aren’t supposed to drink alcohol?’… and other microaggressions – Sharin Rajanotyourwife1214
‘I thought you aren’t supposed to drink alcohol?’ a man at a festival said to me 10 years ago.
I politely told him that I am Sikh and we’re allowed to drink, then walked away. To this day I
still question whether this was the right response. Should I have been angrier that a random
man felt entitled enough to question a 22 year old on why she is drinking, simply because she
is brown? Or did I do the right thing by politely correcting his ignorance?
‘Indirect, subtle, or unintentional discrimination against members of a marginalised group’ is
how the term microaggression is defined. Even the definition itself shows how this type of
racism is confusing – on one hand it’s frequent, casual and may not have meant any harm, yet
on the other hand it’s frequent, casual and may have meant harm. This subtle and uncertain
nature makes it difficult to deal with, yet something that we have to address as it’s so
Like so many people from a minority group, I could reel off many everyday
microaggressions that I have encountered throughout my life. From being asked if I had to
have an arranged marriage, to being asked why I don’t wear a headscarf, to the classic one we
all know too well – people at work/school getting mixed up between me and the other brown
girl (we all look the same, right?). I also hear regular stories from friends and family, from
being stopped at the airport if you are a brown man, to people commenting on the food we eat
and how we eat it. Even the common question ‘where are you from?’ translates that the
person doesn’t see you as being from the same place as them.
Yet after all these years, and encountering the same comments multiple times, I still don’t
know the best way to respond, or whether to even do so at all.
There’s a fine line between bigotry, ignorance and miseducation. In most of the situations
that I’ve encountered I don’t believe that the people who made the comments did so in an
intentionally bigoted manner. If I turned round to any of them and told them that their
comments are racist I’m sure they would all adamantly deny it. However, just because they
did not intend any harm doesn’t mean they get a pass – it can still cause harm.
Now, some may question whether I’m being too sensitive here. None of my experiences or
the ones from people I’ve spoken to have been overtly racist, and most likely the person didn’t
mean to cause offence. It could have been from friends or colleagues who are well-meaning
and would never dream of being insulting. So is it really that big of an issue?
Frankly – yes.
After all, it comes down to impact. I’ve referred to experiences from years ago, and when
talking to friends about their experiences they’ve recalled comments made at school which
are still clear in their mind. The fact that we are so quick to offer an example of a
microaggression we’ve encountered, without even a pause to think, demonstrates just how
much of an impact it has. Even if it’s not overtly racist, the subtle nature of the comment plays on our mind,
making us question our response and whether or not to be offended. It’s emotionally and mentally draining,
therefore we shouldn’t have to tolerate it.
So how should we respond? And is it worth it? I don’t have the answer to this as it depends
on the individual person and the situation, but what I can say is that if it’s caused hurt or
offence then that shouldn’t be something that you question yourself on. As small or
insignificant the comment may seem, small comments overtime build up to the point where
they become commonplace, which convinces us that perhaps we should just ignore it. But we
shouldn’t. Whether it’s addressing the comment in the moment, or discussing it after with
friends or family and sharing experiences, we need to be more open about the issue before it
continues to be a part of our lives which seems too ‘micro’ to matter.
By Sharin Raja