I started thinking about writing this blog entry when I first read about the speakyourstory initiative in this insightful Nature column a few months ago. This initiative raises awareness of microagression in the form of subtle sexism in the world of research. Subtle sexism is often less obvious both to its initiators and recipients than overt sexism, but can nevertheless be quite harmful – or I should say could be harmful, since we know amazingly little about its real effects. Microagressive comments are, of course, not restricted to sexism, but to an abundance of topics people can be – often unintentionally – biased about (read more here or here).
And guess what, I am non-white and non-male and have a non-western name, so I have a ton of these stories for you. But I haven’t been sharing them, because I have been feeling too privileged to complain about these often unintentional little comments. I am usually so unaffected that I am absolutely comfortable to wash them away with a friendly laugh and to immediately forget about them (or so I think).
I am everything except for the first letter in WEIRD. But if it was only that (plus being female), I might still have felt justified enough to raise my voice. After all, being non-white and female are two of the characteristics that have been proven, over and over, to lead to real disadvantages on the job market and elsewhere. But my hesitation stems from my hunch that my specific profile is not even leading to these kinds of disadvantages. Eastern Asian people in general are often perceived as intelligent, hard-working model minorities, hardly a bad thing for getting through school with good grades or for being a researcher. On top of that I am also biracial Asian-Caucasian, and that combination seems to somewhat hit the sweet spot between being normal/familiar enough but still sufficiently exotic/different to feel both comfortable and interesting ([pop culture disclaimer] very nicely discussed in the context of the TV show The Bachelorette). And last but not least, being a woman in this specific configuration might be more advantageous than being a man considering this piece of research on gendered race stereotypes. So putting all this together and considering the political and social acceptability of working against gender and race inequality in today’s society, I think I am just the perfect person for the job – I can help achieve quotas (be it actual job quotas of the private conscience quotas in some people’s heads), but without causing any inconvenience or requiring any real adjustment. In other words, I feel like I’m the white straight woman the black gay woman in this comic is mad about, just with the additional advantage of being not quite white (so that black gay woman would actually have a harder time complaining about me!)
So, should I just keep my mouth shut? My final conclusion is no. I should speak up, because microagression can be annoying and discouraging and potentially harmful to some or all people that experience it, and also it’s utterly unnecessary. And the fact that I am not too affected by incidences of microagression by virtue of my privilege might make it easier for me to be heard, since I can talk about these incidences with a friendly and socially acceptable smile on my face. On top of that, working against bias towards one group of minorities should never be at the expense of another, potentially less disadvantaged group like [second pop culture disclaimer] has happened during this year’s Academy Awards ceremony.
So I will now speak one of my stories on microagression. It is a story on racism, not sexism (incidentally, most of my experiences pertain to racism rather than sexism, and I believe this is exactly due to the privileged reality of my life where the majority of my close friends are white, strong, and successful women). I chose this particular story because it is a picture book example of where the microagressor had zero bad intention, and it’s also one of the rarer incidents that I was not able to laugh away easily.
In a former research group I worked at, I was sharing an office with a more senior female researcher. This researcher, let’s call her X, is a wonderful person, and nobody would describe her as sexist or racist or discriminating in any way. After around one year of office sharing, we happened to be at the same international conference. At one point we found ourselves standing together in a group of people, and when I said, for some reason, “Yes, and X and I work in the same office”, she looked at me, slightly confused, and laughed: “Well, we’re not quite sharing an office – but almost, right?”
I really couldn’t think of any good reason why she would have reacted that way. Maybe she didn’t want to admit that she was sharing an office with a less senior person? Or she found something else about being too closely associated with me uncomfortable?
Back home, when X entered our office, I could not resist saying: “So – do you remember now that I’m your office mate?” She needed a second to recall the incident, and then laughed: “Oh yes, it’s true that I said we were not sharing the same office – I’m very sorry, I think I confused you with researcher Y, because she was also at the conference and because she’s also Asian. So for a moment I thought you were her.”
I was truly surprised. We had been sharing a two-person office for a year, and we’d also had quite a few conversations one-on-one. Y (who is affiliated to the same group) and I really do not look similar (really not at all, even to the rather untrained eye). Our parents are not from the same Asian country and we ourselves grew up on different continents, leading to very different accents and behavioral codes – we just both happen to have (partly) Eastern Asian heritage, and longish dark hair.
So it had not occurred to me that she had REALLY mixed us up. It just had seemed utterly unlikely to me that she, a tolerant and experienced person working with students and researchers from many different backgrounds, would mix me up with ‘the other Asian woman’.
X apologized. And of course everyone makes mistakes, especially in situations like a conference where you encounter hundreds of people. Who knows, the same mix-up might even happened to here with say two white brunette researchers from Norway and Italy (but would she then have said “because you’re both European”?). So this story is not at all about accusing, but all about raising awareness.
But, after all my talk of how I do not feel comfortable speaking up because of my privilege, I must say that the prospect of clicking “publish” and sharing this story makes me feel relieved and empowered and simply GOOD. And it also makes me appreciate that this and similar incidents DO actually bother me. And I think what is true in my case that I often do not want to admit how much these kinds of things do affect me, because that also makes me more vulnerable. Even though my world is mostly blue sky and sun and soapbubbles, little hidden aggression does still get to me. That’s why I think the speakyourstory initiative is brilliant and valuable – it’s about starting to understand and appreciate and do something to counteract the impact that all these little incidents can have. And this not only for the initiators of microagressions (many of whom would certainly be very happy to have feedback on these instances they are unaware of), but also for recipients (who, like me, might (un)consciously play down their impact). So – here’s to bursting the soapbubbles and speaking our stories!