It’s no secret that we live in a divisive world. The world for privileged groups is different than the world minority groups live in. Subjected to overt and subtle gestures of discrimination, the minority groups learn to live in this divisive world. Women, people of color, LGBTQ+ community, and religious minorities face encounter a lot of bias and their everyday life is affected by this bias.
After the Black Lives Matter protests have started in America, you must have come across the term ‘systemic racism’ a lot. What does it mean? In simple terms, it means that the system we’re living in is racist. This systemic racism seeps in every aspect of life, even in the medical care that Black people get. However, in India, things are different. We are a caste-based society. Our entire system is a Brahmanical Patriarchal system which is designed in a way that keeps Brahmin men at the top of the hierarchy.
If you’re part of any minority group, you must have come across people who have used sexist/homonegative/islamophobic/casteist jokes and tried to brush it off as ‘harmless’. This could have happened with your religious identity as well or, your caste identity. And when this happened, you must have felt uncomfortable but you knew it wasn’t as ‘bad’ as being overtly discriminating.
The term for such discrimination is called microaggression.
Microaggressions are defined as brief, and daily verbal, behavioral and environmental indignities, whether intentional or unintentional, that communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative racial slights and insults toward people of color. This term was coined by Professor Chester M. Pierce in 1970. He came up with the term due to his own experience of being subjected to insults and dismissals, and when he saw fellow Black colleagues going through the same thing at Harvard.
The term was then accepted and used widely by other minority groups as it defined what they were subjected to. The nature of this term has been debated a lot (especially by majority, privileged groups) due to their ‘unscientific nature’ meaning that they cannot quantify it because it has such a broad scope.
Although the term was originally coined to show how racism has many forms in the United States, the uses of it are applicable in every way.
IN INDIAN CONTEXT
In India, microaggressions look different. It is more caste-based and more religion-based. Comments like ‘Go back to Pakistan’ or some caste-based insults like, ‘You’re not Brahmin, na, you won’t know.’ These things are very common and unfortunately, have been normalized.
Usually these microaggressions are directed towards Dalits. Caste-based remarks, unintentional or intentional, are aimed to single out people based on their caste. This takes place when a man from an upper caste family is not allowed to marry someone from a lower caste. The aim is to show people that lower caste people’s traditions are not as ‘pure’ as the traditions followed by the upper caste. Another example of caste-based microaggression is when lower-caste individuals are always expected to sit down on the floor when they visit the house of an upper-caste person. This is also seen in how they’re given different utensils to use. The underlying message of these microaggressions is to tell them that they are not as important.
These microaggressions are directed towards people from a religious minority group. In India, off late, we have seen a trend of Islamophobia. Microaggressions towards Muslims look like, ‘Hey, you don’t look like a terrorist.” or “Is Hijab really necessary? I mean, it’s so oppressive.” or “Go Back to Pakistan, you don’t belong here.” The underlying message of these comments is to single out people based on their religion and show how oppressive a religion is or how all members of the community are orthodox.
Sexism is everywhere. Womxn have been the butt of all jokes and have been subjected to the worst treatment in workspace. Some of the comments are, “hey, can you get me coffee, sweetheart?” or “You wouldn’t be interested in this, it’s a guy thing.” or even, ‘no, you can’t do this project, it’s too huge for you and you have a family to take of, no?” These comments and jokes have always made womxn uncomfortable. The underlying message behind all these comments is that womxn are not as work-oriented as men and they always have to take care of their family, and that they’re not worthy employees.
Other times, microaggressions sound like, ‘Act like a lady” or “be submissive, boys will be boys.” or even, “sit like a lady.” These comments are hurtful and stop womxn from being themselves in order to fit in the societal narrative of who is a good womxn.
MICROAGGRESSIONS AGAINST THE LGBTQ COMMUNITY
Microaggressions against the queer community look like, ‘oh you’re bi? Then you can have a threesome with me and my partner, no?” or “you don’t look gay, dude.” or even “but how do you have sex if you’re a lesbian?” These remarks are hurtful and forced queer folks to hide their sexuality or even stop going to places in fear of being discriminated towards.
CATEGORIES OF MICROAGGRESSION
There are 8 categories of microaggressions. However, we will only discuss the categories that fit into the Indian narrative so as to address the problems we have and face. They are as follows:
1 Alien in one’s own country
When minorities in their own country are made to feel like they don’t belong there. For example, in India it could be when North-East Indians are asked if they’re from China. This tells them that they’re not Indians.
2 denial of racial identity // In Indian context, denial of caste/religion identity.
When upper-caste people tell Dalits or Muslims that they don’t see religion or caste, and that we’re all the same. This means that they’re turning a blind eye to these identities and in doing so, they discredit and invalidate their experiences.
3 Exoticization of non-white women // In Indian context, fetishization of Muslim women or Dalit women.
Muslim and Dalit women have been used as a tool for the majoritarian propaganda for too long. They’re easy targets and are often referred to as ‘exotic’ because they’re like “forbidden fruit.” Muslim women who hide their bodies have been sexualized and dalit women have been sexualized because they’re seen as commodities.
4 Refusal to acknowledge intra-ethnic differences:
This is the stereotyping of minority groups. For example, ‘oh all Muslims are terrorists.” or “all North east Indians look the same.” This shows that in an environment, the majority always has the privilege to be an individual while the minority carries their entire community on their shoulders.
5 Second-class citizens
When individuals from minority groups are denied food or housing, it means that they’re being treated as second-class citizens in their own country.
IMPACT OF THESE BEHAVIORS
Microaggressions have a deep impact. Although the nature of it is subjective, every individual from a marginalized community has been at the brunt of these microaggressions. This creates a sense of self-doubt (doubting one’s own ability) and also has lead people to go beyond their means to hide their identity. Black people train themselves to ‘sound white’ and many Muslim women stop wearing the hijab so as to not face any discrimination. Along with this, this causes a deep sense of alienation to many individuals where they feel like they don’t belong anywhere. This gives rise to negative emotions.
When this behavior is continued in therapy, many people turn away from getting help or even develop an undesirable view on mental health. This will happen when the therapist is not informed of the many cultures and has stereotypical notions.
Research on microaggressions provides strong evidence that they lead to elevated levels of depression and trauma among minorities. In a sample of 405 students at an undergraduate university, depressive symptoms were the link in the relationship between racial microaggressions and thoughts of suicide. (Source: centreforhealthjournalism.org)
What can be done?
If you’re part of the majority group, then you should Listen! It sounds very simple, and even non-effective but this is the single most effective things anyone can do. For example, if your queer friends tell you something is homonegative, then you correct yourself. Listening is so important, mainly because individuals from the majority group have not been exposed to the problems of the marginalized communities.
Workplaces can start having workshops and seminars on this. This ensures that your employees know what behaviors are unacceptable and learn to be more inclusive. This creates a healthy and balanced work environment.
Policymakers should be educated on these things to know how a law or policy affects minority groups. Similarly, therapists and counselors should be aware of the various cultures and be empathetic and understanding of these intersections.
While we live in a patriarchal and divisive society, we should actively make sure to do better and to be inclusive. Pause for Perspective is one such organization that focuses on diversity and inclusivity and trains professionals to be mindful of these structures.
Pause for Perspective