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'Micro' Aggressions, Large Lasting Effects

People pass micro-aggressions off as comedy or even just natural curiosity, but those who have experienced micro-aggressions can give you a more nuanced way of understanding how damaging these offhanded statements or actions can be.
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Imagine being Jiyoung Park, a 40-something Korean-American lawyer, on a date with a man of a different race in Los Angeles, a Western city that's a mecca of all kinds of races in “liberal California." Her date sat across from her and "joked," "I could blindfold you with a piece of dental floss." He was the only one at that table who found his comment comical, unaware what he came out of his mouth is a micro-aggression about her race and her appearance. Did he think his words would win her over?

People pass micro-aggressions off as comedy or even just natural curiosity, but those who have experienced micro-aggressions can give you a more nuanced way of understanding how damaging these offhanded statements or actions can be, aka "death by a thousand cuts." Writer Jenee Desmond Harris describes micro-aggressions as “the kinds of remarks, questions, or actions that are painful because they have to do with a person's membership in a group that's discriminated against or subject to stereotypes. And a key part of what makes them so disconcerting is that they happen casually, frequently, in everyday life.”

Watch a preview of the documentary series, "Asian Americans."
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Micro-aggressions are not funny. They're to be taken seriously. Journalist Hahna Yoon assembled a team of experts to find solutions to address micro-aggressions for The New York Times. People are often afraid to tackle the issue for fear of further aggression and physical harm, but their reticence and silence only allows micro-aggressions to continue unchecked.  “Micro” may mean small, but these bursts of nuanced hate have a large effect on the lives of those afflicted and, as the numbers show, the Asian American victims are most often women.

According to NextShark, 61% of nearly 1,500 reported hate crimes on Asian Americans since March 26, 2020 have been towards non-Chinese Asian Americans; 69% of them have been aimed at women.

Full-on on violent attacks include being stabbed at a grocery store or having acid thrown at your face because people think that looking Asian means you caused Coronavirus. I think people who lash out at Asian-American women have the same kind of thinking that people who cause micro-aggressions have — that their targets are lesser humans who don't feel the same way when harmed, by words or by weapons.

As John Cho wrote in his recent Los Angeles Times Op-Ed, “our belonging is conditional." I’ve learned that a moment always comes along to remind you that your race defines you above all else. It might be a small moment, like a salesperson greeting you with "konnichiwa." Despite not being Japanese, I cannot tell you how many times someone has said that word at me while I've minded my own business.

In Elle Magazine, author Kelly Yang recounts her own experiences. “Decades of dealing with micro-aggressions ranging from “Can you actually put on eyeliner?” masked as a serious make-up question to “Are you really a person of color?” have unfortunately been weaved into the fabric of my "normal." Growing up as the only Chinese girl in my predominantly White school, these micro-aggressions permeated my day-to-day. My go-to coping mechanism was to ignore them and move on."

Like Kelly, I have turned the other cheek with micro-aggressions I’ve received. I grew up in a very rural white bread environment in Southern Maryland and am not a stranger to direct racism. I’ve been called a “Chinese bitch” at my locker in seventh grade by a girl. I was born in Vietnam and am ethnically Vietnamese. I’ve had racist comments screamed at the back of my head for the entirety of the 45-minute bus ride to school in ninth grade by another girl for no apparent reason except for being Asian American and sitting in front of her. My mother and I have also been yelled at by a man in a grocery store in Washington, D.C. while talking to each other. While walking in Research Triangle Park, North Carolina, my mother and I were sworn at aggressively to get off the path.

In my adult life, I moved to large cities where there's some sort of diversity. You'd think in a place that's ethnically varied as Los Angeles, someone like me would be safer from jabs and put-downs about my race, like what happened to me growing up. I was wrong; the put-downs just got craftier and more conniving. I took my ex-boyfriend, his sister and her friends out for lunch at an upscale Southern California restaurant to celebrate the end of the school year. This 15-year-old girl pointed at a bus of Asian school-aged female tourists and said, "that's like his wet dream," referring to my then-boyfriend. She wanted me to feel that I wasn't special, and she succeeded. I sat there and put up with this treatment, not wanting to cause a scene. This teenager is from a "liberal" family with a parent who went to an Ivy League university. As I sat there after treating everyone to lunch, one of her friends said, "dohhhhhh" loudly, and they all looked at each other. No one said anything or did anything except laugh at my expense.

Actions like these haven’t stopped, and they've gotten even more complicated as time goes on, even in my professional life in the Hollywood entertainment industry where "inclusion" now means big bucks. Some have insinuated my literal lived experience is imagined. Even "liberal women in Los Angeles" refuse to believe that micro-aggressions are aimed towards Asian and Asian American women. I once heard these words from an old neighbor — a half-Chinese American, half Italian American documentary filmmaker with an entirely Italian name — “That doesn’t happen to me. I don’t know why it keeps 'happening' to you.”

A White woman who used to make her bread and butter putting Asian actors in front of the camera told me something that caught me off guard about a scene in my screenplay "Scent of the Delta" when the Vietnamese American female lead character has "me love you long time" yelled at her.  This "producer" dared to say, "That doesn't happen. Let's ask my Vietnamese friend at my tennis club if that happens to her. I bet it doesn't." Apparently, micro-aggressions don't happen to any Asians, unless they also happen to wealthy Asians, according to this woman. People out there believe that Asian American stories can be profited from, without allowing for the depth of actual authenticity from lived experience.

I put out a call for respondents for this article in various Asian American Facebook groups and found out that I’m not alone in my encounters with micro-aggressions. Ariana Zhang is a 22-year-old second generation Chinese American woman who grew up just outside of Dallas, Texas and has been through some experiences that have stayed with her. “I’m a schoolteacher in L.A., and so in addition to the typical micro-aggressions I’ve experienced from adults (like the “no, where are you really from?" question), I've actually experienced some from my students, who are between six and ten years old. I had a third-grade student approach me one day and ask, "Ms. Ariana, how do you draw Chinese eyes? I'm trying to draw you." I was totally thrown back to memories of kids pulling their eyes back at me in elementary school. I knew I had to use this as a teaching moment, and so I asked the student to look at my eyes and to look at the eyes of the other people around us. Eventually, they had a moment of realization and exclaimed, 'Oh! They're just eyes!'"

In February, Ariana wore a mask to a grocery store because she had a non-Coronavirus related cold. She retells the event, "I turned, and there was an older White man loudly announcing, 'These people are so stupid. They don't know that masks are completely useless! They're gonna end up catching their own virus anyways.'" Ariana adds, "He was talking to the poor security guard at the door, but he was clearly looking at me and wanted me to hear. I should have coughed on him."

Cindy Chu is a Chinese American who grew up in Michigan and now lives in Los Angeles. Her childhood is filled with taunts like "ching chong ching chong." At one point, she was even told to "go back to China and make me some Nikes" by her high school bully. At a restaurant in Ann Arbor, a man yelled at Cindy, "I killed your kind, your family, you gook." Since then, she's received micro-aggressions in various forms. In an acting class in L.A., Cindy was told to "channel 'me love you long time.’” Recently when walking on the street with a mask on, a man told Cindy, “Thank you for protecting us from you.”

See how "Asian Americans" are fighting for their country even in the face of discrimination. Watch this clip from "Asian Americans."
He Fought in Vietnam, but He Had the Face of the Enemy

I asked Cindy how she would explain micro-aggressions to younger Asian-American girls. This is what she had to say, "They are something someone does or says to you that makes you feel lesser than, and you might not even realize it until later, but in the moment you do feel that it's hurtful and you can't put words to why it wasn't right. And it's something that if you present to them as wrong and hurtful they will most likely defend themselves by saying they're not racist, that they have Asian friends who said it's okay, that they're married to an Asian, or that you're being overly sensitive. Over time, these micro-aggressions act like a small cut that keeps getting deeper and exhausting to process, until you find other people who understand, who you don't have to explain your feelings to, who just know because they've experienced it, and then, that day when you find those people, you won't feel so alone in the world. And you will realize you were never lesser than, you were always equal, but certain people made you feel you weren't, and they couldn't have been more wrong."

Micro-aggressions are the “invisible enemy” because they don't leave marks. If we all acknowledge they're real, we can begin to eliminate this kind of harassment. They're verbal abuse or an attempt to invade someone's personal space (in person or online) to make someone feel uncomfortable, to try to diminish someone’s self-worth. Micro-aggressions affect the mental health and physical health of their targets. Researchers such as Arline Geronimus of The University of Michigan say that it prematurely ages victims, to constantly feel like they are othered. She explains, "Humans have life-threatening stressors that activate a physiological stress response, like seeing a tiger in the bushes; the problem is that people who experience discrimination are endlessly seeing tigers."

Understand how Asian Americans have faced challenging times in the United States in this clip from "Asian Americans."
Satsuki Ina Was Born American but Looked Like the Enemy

I had the honor of speaking with Le Ly Hayslip about micro-aggressions on April 26, almost the anniversary of The Fall of Saigon. She wrote the book that became the Oliver Stone film “Heaven and Earth.” Oliver talks about Le Ly in a 1993 television interview about the film, “She fought back. She was not a typical victim by any means. She was a fighter, a warrior.” He's right; Le Ly used her voice to point out the micro-aggressions that happened to her when she arrived in the United States. We see this in the film she made with Oliver.

Le Ly is glad that in the current times Asian-American women have social media and other means to commiserate about micro-aggressions. When Le Ly came to the U.S., 50 years ago this May, she had no one with which to talk about these harmful situations and had to fend for herself and two small children. When she watched the news with her former husband’s White American family in the 1970s, they would say things like, "What a shame that your people killed our men" or "We should kill all the commies." Le Ly adds, "This made me feel very isolated and lonely and wonder what I was doing in America."

A Vietnamese-American woman wears a Vietnamese non la hat and a face mask that says, "Hate is a virus."
A Vietnamese-American woman wears a Vietnamese non la hat and a face mask that says, "Hate is a virus." | Art by Dennis Dizzy Doan

I ask Le Ly how she found the strength to get past micro-aggressions. She says that she’s told herself and her children the same thing, “I eat my rice. I live in my own house. I am honest and happy. Nothing can hurt me. You are who you are, you cannot change your skin color or your black hair, so stand up tall as a human being. We have the same right to live on Mother Earth. We all came in the same way from our mother’s womb. We all breathe the same air.” I want to know what she thinks other Asian American women should do when confronted with micro-aggressions. She suggests killing harassers with kindness. "Be friendly. Give them a smile back. They need attention from you because you don't have their problems, but they do!" My own mother has given me similar advice, that happiness is the best revenge, and if people hate you for no reason, it’s because they’re jealous and don’t like themselves.

Perhaps we should all adopt Le Ly’s fighting, yet gracious spirit. The more we talk with each other, the more ways we can figure out how to combat this specific type of underhanded hate. #HateIsAVirus.

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