Was I discriminated against?

Originally Published: November 12, 2010 - Last Updated / Reviewed On: May 9, 2012
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Dear Alice,

I'm an Ethiopian student at a university in the US. I have been living in this country for many years and I love it. However, I've noticed a certain trend in people's general reaction concerning my place of origin. I speak English with no accent. When people first meet me, they assume that I'm an American. As such they behave normal until I tell them that I am a citizen of Ethiopia. At this point pretty much all of them immediately seem to develop a sort of superiority complex and start treating me as if I were an inferior being. They seem to respect me less and tease me every way they can. My opinions (even professional ones) are rejected as unacceptable.

Frustrated with this extreme prejudice, I lied to some of these people and told them that I actually am an American and not an Ethiopian. I noticed immediately that their attitudes towards me changed and started treating me as an equal. Encouraged by the result of this little social experiment, I've shied away from telling my place of origin to people to avoid mistreatment. However, I feel guilty doing it. Was I discriminated against because of my place of origin? Any words of wisdom for me, dearest Alice?

Thanks,
Mistreated

Dear Mistreated,

The pervasive cultural images of discrimination in Western culture are often harsh, explicit examples, such as the Ku Klux Klan terrorizing black Americans and the Nazi genocide during the Holocaust. The reality is that discrimination based on race, gender, country of origin, sexual orientation, and many, many other individual characteristics, may present itself much differently in modern society. Now, discrimination often manifests itself in more subtle, everyday ways, like the lack of respect and teasing you've experienced in the form of what are known as "microaggressions."

Common daily, verbal, behavioral, and environmental derogatory interactions, whether explicit or implicit, are known as microaggressions. They may be unintentional or intentional, but generally, they consist of brief comments or actions that degrade, belittle, or poke fun at someone (usually in a position of lower social power than the perpetrator) because of their differences. Three forms of microaggressions have been identified:

  • Microassault: Often committed consciously, microassaults consist of overt name-calling, avoidance in interpersonal situations (i.e., segregation), or discriminatory actions. This is often called "old fashion" discrimination and includes giving preferential treatment to a dominant group over a minority group, using racial epithets, and displaying symbols of hate like swastikas.
  • Microinsult: Often committed unconsciously, microinsults are subtle, insensitive, and demeaning comments directed towards a person's  membership in a marginalized group. Outwardly, they may not seem prejudicial, but the context and tone make the receiver feel lesser or unimportant. For example, presuming that someone belongs to a lower socioeconomic class because of their race (i.e., mistaking someone of a minority race as a service worker) may send the message that minorities are only in low-status positions. Even expressing surprise at someone's intelligence ("Wow, you are so smart") may communicate that the speaker thinks it's unusual for someone "like them"  to be intelligent. Another example is using the term "gay" to refer to something as bad, deviant, or weird.
  • Microinvalidation: Often committed unconsciously, comments or actions that exclude, nullify, or negate a person's experiences, thoughts, or feelings based on his or her membership in a marginalized group. For example, assuming someone can't speak English based on his or her appearance. Saying to this person, "You speak English so well," may be a backhanded compliment highlighting that person as a foreigner. Additionally,  justifying racist comments by saying something like, "I'm not racist, I have several black friends" is another example of microinvalidation.

Since microaggressions are often invisible to the perpetrator and may seem to have reasonable alternative explanations, the receiver may be left with uneasy feelings of "Was I discriminated against because I am...?," "Was that deliberate or unintentional?," and "What should I do?" For overt discriminatory bullying,  disadvantages and coping mechanisms are clear cut. Microaggressions, on the other hand may have cumulative effects that may be just as damaging, if not worse. Continuous and cumulative "paper cut" insults may expose you to even more risks because you may not be automatically inclined to bandage and heal from these daily nuisances or to seek external help. Emerging research suggests that microaggressions may create psychological distress, resulting in loss of integrity (like lying about your place of origin and/or feeling guilty in your case), denial of injustices and experiences, feelings of frustration, anger, and powerlessness, and being accused of being overly sensitive or overreacting.

Though it seems difficult to face these socially devaluing affronts, here are some tips to address these issues:

  • Make the 'invisible' visible. If appropriate, engage people, particularly those unconsciously inflicting microaggressions, in open discussion about their identities and your identity. Increasing self-awareness of a person's identity, whether it's in a position of power (usually the dominant group) or in a marginalized group (immigration status, racial/ethnic minority, etc.), may help them and you better understand its impact on their lives and on others. Explaining your culture, country of origin, or other aspects of your identity under attack may help people understand the beauty in it, rather than perpetuating their misunderstandings and negative attitudes. Although confrontation may be constructive in appropriate situations, framing this discourse in how you experience such comments or actions without explicitly accusing the person of discrimination may welcome discussion with fewer defensive and/or angry rebuttals. Consider taking some courses or reading more to further explore and conceptualize these issues, such as in gender, race/ethnic, or queer studies.
  • Seek external support. Depending on the setting, if efforts with a person don't make the situation better, seeking the support of the administration at a school, human resources, or a supervisor at a workplace may help direct you towards the appropriate next steps. Seeking mental health support may also help you cope with the potentially accumulating microtears on a person's psyche.
  • Take pride in yourself. Assertiveness and pride may be an unspoken way of showing people that you deserve respect for the characteristics they have snubbed you for. Standing up for you (especially if you "pass" as a member of the dominant group) may give a voice and confidence to others who also face microagressions. There are plenty of ways to take a stand. Consider  joining organizations to promote social support within your group as well as helping to empower your community.
  • Try to disengage from the negative comments and actions. Some people may not understand how hurtful they're being or why you're being "so sensitive." In this case, internally framing their actions as insensitive or ignorant may help you brush off the stress that they may be causing you.

Being the target of degrading and insensitive comments and/or actions may take an emotional toll, but there are ways to avoid psychological distress. Students at Columbia facing these issues may want to consider contacting Counseling and Psychological Services at x4-2878 to further explore these issues.

No matter your country of origin, the color of your skin, your sexual orientation, or anything else, no one deserves to feel attacked or inferior for being different. If anything, these traits are something to be embraced and celebrated.

Alice

March 26, 2013

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I feel really frustrated that Mistreated had to go through all of this, especially when the US should recognize our student diversity as an asset that makes our nation stronger. I'm not sure about...
I feel really frustrated that Mistreated had to go through all of this, especially when the US should recognize our student diversity as an asset that makes our nation stronger. I'm not sure about Columbia, but at my home university, we have a non-profit organization dedicated to international students, to make them feel welcome and to share their culture and insights with their classmates. Perhaps Mistreated could seek out a similar organization?