What are microaggressions?

How small comments take a toll on your mental health

My whole life I’ve felt as if I’ve had an identity crisis. My parents are both immigrants from Mexico who moved to a very small town where diversity was basically nonexistent. I was one of the very few students of color in our school district, so it’s safe to say that I never felt like I truly fit in with my peers.

My very first day in preschool, I remember the first question I was asked required me to choose between my two cultures. Did I want my classmates to pronounce my name in Spanish or English? It might not seem like a such a deep question at first but it meant so much more than just name pronunciation. Did I want to be like everyone else or did I want to be the girl in class who had a weird name that people had to make an effort to learn. For a 4-year-old that struggled with making friends and just wanted to fit in with others, the obvious choice was to go with the option that was easier for everyone.

After from my preschool days, elementary through high school didn’t get much better. Throughout these years I can pick out a handful of experiences that led me to feel uncomfortable and unwanted by my peers. From people asking me why my English is so good or when my classmates would ask me where I was born.

My reaction was always to laugh, I mean how else do you respond to someone saying that you sounded like an alien when speaking your native language or when someone would say that I jumped the border without seeming like the person who couldn’t handle a joke. Because for them it was a joke, but for me it was so much more. It was my culture, the attributes that made me who I was. 

I could go on and make a whole list of uncomfortable moments that I experienced growing up but that’s not the overall point. The point is that these so-called “jokes” or moments can be so damaging. Having to experience these moments over and over again truly takes a toll on you, especially when you’re just a child.  

It wasn’t until I left my hometown and came to Ferris that I realized that a lot of what I experienced growing up were microaggressions. For those who don’t know, microaggressions are behaviors or statements that do not necessarily reflect malicious intent but which nevertheless can inflict insult or injury.

Microaggressions might seem like they’re just annoying moments but the reality is that they create damage that lasts. As the recipient of microaggressions I can tell you firsthand that these moments truly make you feel ostracized and can have a severe impact on your mental health. I never dared to share things about my culture and refused to speak Spanish unless I was with my family, in order to avoid any issues. I had to put aside my comfort and things that I loved doing to avoid others from hurting me and fit in.

Others found high school to be the best four years of their life and cherished every moment of it. For me it was the exact opposite, I spent these four years crying in my room, debating whether I would ever feel like I belonged and counting down the days until I would never have to see my classmates again.

Thankfully now, everything has changed. For the first time in my life I really got the chance to learn about me and what I wanted, and it wasn’t soon before I was a completely different person that my high school classmates “didn’t recognize.” But it wasn’t that I changed; all the attributes that I now have were always inside of me and just hidden.

Being in a different environment allowed me to grow. I was finally able learn more about my culture and everything it stands for thanks to the people who I met at Ferris who helped me embrace my culture. But although things are better for me now, it doesn’t mean that there still isn’t an issue.

I still experience microaggressions and so do many others across the country. The only difference now is that I recognize what they are and take a different approach that doesn’t hurt me. It’s so important to combat these microaggressions and call people out on behavior that can hurt others.

It’s not something that can end overnight but the best thing people can do is try, so if someone calls you out on it, or you think that you might have said a microaggression, think about it and remember to: drop your defensiveness, listen to someone is they say you offended them, think before you speak and most importantly educate yourself.