Micro-aggressions are direct and indirect forms of indignities conveyed through verbal, personal or environmental mediums usually targeted towards the minority – women, children, gay/lesbian and peopleof color. It could be presented through micro assault, when a person blatantly insults a person; micro insult, when a person knowingly or unknowingly degrades another; or, micro invalidation, when a person diminishes the feelings of another on issues such as race, gender, sexual orientation, or economic status.
Tracing the roots of micro-aggression dates back from colonial period where exploitation, violence, and denial of human rights and resources were reinforced by a hierarchical and patriarchal society. It is a learned behavior that has penetrated into the systems at different levels – institutional, interpersonal and internalized. Exposure to micro-aggression at different levels has permeated into the beliefs and practices of individuals, families and the larger community.
At different levels and forms, micro-aggression can be witnessed in our daily lives. In the adult world, being a Southeast Asian and a woman, I have always been a target of derogatory remarks that even my Western friends would unconsciously mention. I remember a male American colleague who married a Lao woman. Most often, even in front of the wife, he would complain about how ‘typical’ Southeast Asian women would choose to marry Westerners for financial comfort. I would remind him right away that I am a Southeast Asian woman who is independent and had never depended on anybody to raise my child. As well, I would remind him how insulting and hurting his remarks could be for his wife. He thought his wife does not understand a lot of what he says, so he could make any comments he wants. There have been numerous conversations trying to understand why he thinks the way he does and constant explanations as well about stereotyping and insulting women of color. Many times, I would give him examples of a counter practice to make him see that people are different and whatever predicaments they are in, cannot be judged by the naked eye. Another instance was a friend who went on holiday with me to an island in my home country. She observed how many older Western men go for a holiday with very young local women. So she would tease me, “Do you want to find a partner? You could be a mail order bride?” For her, it was a comment to inject an element fun in our conversation, but it was an insult for me as well. Without being upset, I started a conversation about the different reasons why these women could be in the situation they are in as well as questioning why these Western men go after the young girls from Asia. Scrutinizing the issues behind these people make people like my friend become thoughtful of what they say.
In the world of children, they adopt the perceptions that they witness in their environment, from the people around them, from the relationships of which they are a part. One instance was witnessed in a playground when children aged four to six years old were playing together. An East Asian girl came up to me in tears and said, “The girls didn’t want to play with me because they said, “their game is only for blonde girls”. Another recent experience that I witnessed was a five-year old girl remarked, “I don’t want to sit next to a boy” after the seating position on the carpet was rearranged. Both these situations were teaching moments to capture the children’s thinking and help them reflect on the message conveyed in their words and how it could affect others. It took and will take many opportunities to help the children relearn the acquired biases and prejudices and becoming aware of these is the starting point.
Micro-aggressions take place anytime, anywhere. It is when we do not let these moments slip by and continue to be vigilant so that people will become aware of the indignities that they commit can we slowly combat the long standing culture of oppression. If there could be anything early childhood educators can contribute to this battle is to be the frontrunners of advocating for a bias, prejudice and stereotype free society in different and creative ways they could affect the children in their programs.