Please help me develop thicker skin.
July 18, 2014 4:00 PM   Subscribe

Sure, the, "no, where are you really from?" thing gets old fast, but that's so minor compared to everything else I've experienced. How can I keep my chin up as a minority who is living in a place that is 90% white?

My question is somewhat similar to this one, except this time it's a matter of ethnicity.

I grew up in a diverse place, but am now in an overwhelmingly white part of the country. Moving away is not a realistic option for now. Since I've moved here, I've dealt with these all these little annoyances-- people who speak to me slowly and loudly because they think I am a foreigner and cannot understand, being sexually assaulted by a white man who I later found out had a "thing" for women of my background, having supervisors at work who default to calling me "quiet" in their evaluations and claim that I lack leadership skills regardless of how I behave... (When I brought it up to administration, I was in turn accused of "accusing others of discrimination" and was basically told that what I've experienced isn't real, so... that's that.)

In general, nothing ever rises to the point that I can call them out on it (doing so would only make me seem oversensitive anyway). I understand that people who say things like that honestly don't mean to be insulting, and most of the time they are just curious.

It is also possible that I'm being somewhat oversensitive-- at least, I don't ever see any of my non-white friends complaining about it; they seem perfectly happy here. My parents have told me that I am being oversensitive and I should accept that this is part of being a minority and just develop a sense of humor about it, because "other minorities have it much worse." I wish I could, but I don't know how to let this roll off my back! The cumulative effects are like water cutting into stone, and little by little, I realize that I'm experiencing this heavy sense of disillusionment, isolation and sadness. I'm not depressed, but I feel like I'm a nobody. I keep thinking that maybe it was a mistake that my parents immigrated, or maybe that I should just drop everything and go back to my parents' home country, where what I look like or what my last name is doesn't automatically imply things about me (although obviously that is not at all a possibility).

On top of that, there's this implied sentiment that I am not in a position to complain about the assumptions made about me because on average, the assumptions are "positive" -- that I'm this cute, quiet, intelligent, studious thing and, dammit, I wish these traits were things that I could truly own, but no, these are traits, regardless of whether they are true of myself or not, plastered on to me.

It's one thing to have threads and funny videos about microaggressions, but it's another to have to live with them. ... Please help me deal with or be less sensitive about this.
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (19 answers total) 11 users marked this as a favorite

I've had friends who encounter what you've encountered, and you're in a very crappy situation--there's microaggressions (and I include the positive stereotypes too--it's stifling and, what if, somehow, you did something to contradict this stereotype), and then there's having to deal with the overt racial attacks. Your feelings about this are 100% valid.

You said that the part of the country you're in is overwhelmingly white. Are there any communities for the minority that you belong to where you might be able to share the issues you've been having and have your feelings validated? If you can access this kind of support network, the next time you confront any covert microaggressions or overt racism, you may have more confidence knowing that your feelings are valid.

As for what you encountered at work--are you working in a multinational firm or a mom-and-pop business? Not sure if HR would be able to better clamp down on racist behaviour / harassment compared to a mom-and-pop business, especially if the business is in an overwhelmingly white part of the country.

Anyways, hang in there, and hope you feel better about the situation--and hope you'll get more support!
posted by Tsukushi at 4:26 PM on July 18, 2014

How about trying something like "Oh, do you mean where are my ancestors from? They are from xxxxxxx. How about your family lineage, where are your ancestors from?"
posted by Dansaman at 4:36 PM on July 18, 2014 [11 favorites]

Seconding Tsukushi - is it possible to find or create a support group, either in-person or online, of people from your background? Do you live near a university or civic organization where you might find an ally in the mental health and/or social justice field who could partner with you to create such a space? You said your non-white friends don't tend to complain and "seem perfectly happy" - have you asked them about it and/or asked directly for help or a listening ear? I am white but I'm a woman in a male-dominated field and I have found it helpful to have woman-only spaces to discuss microaggressions and generally speak freely.
posted by rogerrogerwhatsyourrvectorvicto at 4:59 PM on July 18, 2014 [1 favorite]

I can understand how it could be very frustrating but with anything out of the norm people seem to have to make sense of it- analyze it.

Tall? "How's the weather up there?" "You play basketball?" EVERY DAY. No makes clothes for you, etc.

Me - blonde girl. You must be Swedish, oh no you pronounce your name like "xyz". I bet your family is Swedish and you don't know it. (I'm a genealogist and not Swedish). And a half dozen things people comment on.

My son has Ptosis (one eyelid that is more closed) Everyday people tell him he looks sick an/d or tired.

Woman going bald? Prepare to hear about how you should eat better or what worked for their sister, Ella.

I understand how you could be feeling sensitive about it but people have some need to make note of anything that is out of their norm.

Just know it's not you. And if you hate it, there are probably hundreds of communities (if this is the US) that your ethnicity wouldn't even register in their minds.
posted by beccaj at 5:09 PM on July 18, 2014 [3 favorites]

Re the sexual harassment thing. That is disgusting. I'm really sorry that happened to you.

Now onto the rest of your question:

I'm a minority where I live too, and your list of microaggressions really got my back up.

I also receive a lot of nonsense from people about other aspects of my life where I am visibly an outlier.

My parents always told me to grow a thicker skin, too. To try to understand where the other person was coming from; not to take things so seriously or personally; to stop making such a big deal of things. I've spent most of life trying to develop this so-called thick skin. But now I wonder if that was the best choice.

I have major problems with not-so-well-repressed anger, a lot of it stemming from unpleasant incidents that happened long ago, when I followed my parents' advice and didn't make a big deal of things and tried to thicken my skin, if you will.

Now, I try a different tactic: politely and firmly contradicting them. E.g.

"Oh, I speak English perfectly well, thanks. You can speed up."
"Really, you think I'm quiet? LOL, no one who knows me well at all would say that about me."

I never offend people by stating my case in a level tone and with a smile. Maybe it disrupts the easy flow of conversation for a second, but I feel a lot better afterwards for having stood up for myself even in this very mild, polite way and maybe even for a second made them question their preconceived notions about my ethnicity or whatever else about me these people feel that they need to offer their ill-considered opinions on.

The trick is not to show a lot of anger because that'll make them feel defensive and they'll try to shift the blame on you for being oversensitive rather than blame themselves for being ignorant, condescending, or typecasting.
posted by Ziggy500 at 5:45 PM on July 18, 2014 [24 favorites]

I wish I'd known Muskie's "If you have nothing to say, don't improve on silence" when my father's friend would ask me this.

I've also said "That's really none of your business" when asked something I don't want to answer.
posted by brujita at 6:13 PM on July 18, 2014 [3 favorites]

When I encounter this kind of stuff, I try to sort out the "well meaning but idiotic" people from the truly negative encounters. For example, I try to take the "Oh, you're gay? I have a gay aunt named susan!" stuff in the spirit in which it was intended (trying to make a connection). Hearing people I've just met ramble about the wedding ceremonies of people I'm unlikely to ever meet gets old, but it's coming from ignorance, not ill intent, and I try to remember that.

That said, I admit I have very little tolerance for the shittier attitudes and comments therein. A nice "what do you mean?" until they back themselves in a corner works well in those latter circumstances.
posted by zug at 6:25 PM on July 18, 2014 [6 favorites]

I can't stress enough how bad an idea it is to ask a white person where their family is from in an attempt to turn the tables. Unless you enjoy 40 minute plus explanations of just how Irish they are, it is a tactic best avoided.
posted by Gin and Comics at 6:57 PM on July 18, 2014 [20 favorites]

Omg, *this*. Sadly, it's something that happens. You kind of just have to realize you don't owe anyone an explanation for your existence. Answer with the city, or state you consider your hometown, smile, and ask where they're from. If they continue to pester you, smile and say, what do you mean? Then if that doesn't shut down the conversation immediately, tell them that now that the human genome project has been completed, maybe they will finally have an answer to where we ALL come from.

It's best to have a sense of humor about these things and realize some people are just really rude and inconsiderate. Of course its hurtful, but answer how you would any other personal question extremely intrusive people ask. "Why aren't you married? When will you have kids? How much do you get paid anyway? " That kind of thing. *sigh*
posted by lunastellasol at 7:22 PM on July 18, 2014 [2 favorites]

Hi anonymous, I am Asian, so I get what you mean with the microagressions and stereotypes. I live in New York, which is really diverse, but I grew up in a smallish city in the US where my family were basically the only Asian people.

To be honest, I don't know if it's any better in New York than in my hometown. Yes, I am no longer an oddity, but in some ways it's worse because people here have stereotypes that they didn't have in my hometown. Obviously in my hometown people were familiar with the usual Asian stereotypes from TV and movies, but for most people, I was the only actual Asian person they knew in real life. So in a way I felt like an individual, or at least that I got to define what Asian people are supposed to be like. It was "oh, pravit is smart", not, "pravit is Asian, so that's why he is smart." Here in New York, people have lived and worked around Asians for years, so they have all these stereotypes from their own experiences, like "you guys only hang out with your own kind" or "you must be really good at ping pong" or whatever. And those tend to be the hardest stereotypes to break no matter how much you don't fit the mold.

I totally get what you mean about other non-white people not caring about it or actively making fun of their own ethnicity. But I think they might care about it more than you think. For example I think about this stuff basically ALL THE TIME, but I don't think I've ever discussed it with any Asian-American people I know, because they seem to just totally not care about that sort of thing. And for all I know, I might come off the same way.

The way I deal with overtly racist comments is ignoring them. Like literally, if we are in a group having conversation and somebody says something racist and everyone goes quiet expecting some kind of response from me, I just go on talking to someone else without skipping a beat as if nobody said anything. After a few tries they generally stop, because it is embarrassing to keep saying things that nobody acknowledges. I think of it as how I'd react if somebody loudly farted in the middle of a conversation - politely ignoring somebody who has made an ass of themselves. It should be uncomfortable for them, not you.

What you said about disillusionment rings very true with me. As a kid, I used to be super patriotic and USA-USA-USA, because what American kid isn't? But as I grew older, I felt more and more like...I'm a foreigner in my own country, everyone thinks of me as an "Asian" rather than an individual, and so on... and on my trips to Asia as an adult, for the first time in my life I felt like a person. Not "that Asian guy", simply "a guy." It went beyond appearance - I actually felt like I just culturally fit in better, or that my personality type (introverted) was more normal there. It is a feeling I have never had growing up and living in the US. Honestly, my escape plan now is still moving "back" to Asia. You say it's not a possibility, but why couldn't it be for the future? I think some ethnic minorities are happy being the token "ethnics" and others, like myself, would rather just be people and not have to deal with all the ethnic baggage for their entire life. And for people like me it makes sense to try to reverse immigrate and go back. But anyhow feel free to memail me if you want to talk more about this stuff.
posted by pravit at 7:43 PM on July 18, 2014 [8 favorites]

I agree with others, it would help to be able to draw strength from a clear vision of who you are, and what -- if anything -- your ethnicity (ascribed or felt or the difference between them) might mean to you, in order to be able to effectively use humour or constructive anger as coping tools. Being between things isn't easy, at all. If you can find your way to clearer self-definition, you may feel more confident countering ignorant behaviour and attitudes. I agree that connecting with others in your situation could only help in making sense of things. Same for looking to media and cultural stuff that resonates or feels validating. Even if you disagree with some of it, it's a way of articulating your own response.

I'm not sure going to your parents' country would necessarily offer the comfort you hope for, if you've never lived there yourself or haven't in a long time. You might look the same as people there, but your points of reference may be very different. Working towards moving to a more diverse city here, on the other hand, would put you nearer people who could understand you. (I have friends who do what they can to minimize time outside of diverse, urban centres so they can spend most of their life in peace, and I don't blame them for a second. I'd tick 'caucasian' on a census form, but as a second-gen of Euro [but not quite Euro "enough"] heritage (which is very alive and close to me), even I don't even feel 100% comfortable in some of the less diverse areas near me. Like, there's no reason to make your life harder than it needs to be, if you can avoid it, imo.)
posted by cotton dress sock at 7:51 PM on July 18, 2014 [2 favorites]

Acknowledge the hurt when it happens. Then allow yourself to let it drift away. Sometimes the acknowledgement also would involve telling the person who made the comment. Sometimes it won't be. You need to figure out what your priorities are in terms of treatment and focus on them practically in the sense of picking battles you can win.

Personally, I advise that the most effort be put on the evaluations. These are things that are in the record and that's important. So if you feel that the evaluation is stereotyped let them know.
posted by Ironmouth at 10:28 PM on July 18, 2014 [1 favorite]

I agree with the suggestions that you should politely but firmly flip it back on them. Depending on how overt it is, even call them out on it. It could make you feel a lot better and is sure to prevent them from doing it again.
posted by hejrat at 3:23 AM on July 19, 2014 [1 favorite]

Oh dude, you're going through what a lot of people of color experience when living in a majority-white space. I'm so sorry! The heaviness will pass with time, I promise you. But there are ways that you can process it so that the burden of other people's racism isn't so depressing.

Your parents are right, but for the wrong reason: humor is a useful way to turn microaggressions back on the offender or, barring that, minimize the stress. You're not being oversensitive! I laugh when people call me articulate these days. It may not be polite, but neither was their assumption about my education and my English proficiency, and they usually realize that right before they ask me what's so fucking funny.

If you're feeling frustrated, learn to ask questions or make small comments that force people to stop in their tracks. If someone's speaking slowly and loudly to you? "Hi! Yeah, I speak fluent English, would you mind lowering your voice a little? How can I help you?" If someone accuses you of being too quiet, try saying something like "oh! Gosh, I'm pretty surprised by that! What makes you think I'm so quiet?" And if they don't experience an inward horror while they blather on with no solid evidence, they're willfully not seeing you for who you are.

Your work environment is crap. Have you documented this with HR? I don't have advice for that other than to document everything, find ways to quantify the number of times you've taken initiative or worked with others, and try to move out of that job. If there's mobility there, they are clearly not going to acknowledge your skills and abilities unless you fight them on it.

And with a work environment like that, I can only imagine that you're coming home drained. Does learning/practicing aspects of your family's culture give you a sense of comfort? I've found that, as a member of a phobogenic group, embracing and celebrating my culture and its survival here makes me feel more grounded. And find ways to do volunteer work with other POC! I'm sure there's at least one local organization that's looking for volunteers. It's a really good way to bolster your confidence, do something good for the community, and create a safe space away from the nonsense.


I don't ever see any of my non-white friends complaining about it; they seem perfectly happy here.

Have you had conversations with them about it? You may be surprised by what you learn. And even if they're happy, they can still give you advice on how to deal with microaggressions. Unfortunately, people are going to transcribe onto your body all of their racial misconceptions and ignorance. None of it is as important as what you believe yourself to be.
posted by Ashen at 4:31 AM on July 19, 2014 [1 favorite]

If you aren't already, seek counseling for the sexual assault. That was a terrible thing to have to go through and that fact that it was tagged onto your ethnicity would make anyone more sensitive.

People will always comment and say dumb things, no matter what color their skin is. When you have something about you that sticks out (I have a port wine stain on my face, for instance), it is important to have a stock answer handy. You can hand it out, in a dry tone, for all the rude questions from people that you don't care about. For those who you do care about, make a joke or express your frustration at being asked. Let them in. Let them know that you dislike those questions. If someone is disrespectful to you or makes you feel unsafe, it is okay to silently walk or run away. Not all questions deserve answers.

Another thing, when living in a community where you are the minority, it is important to embrace something about the local culture that you really love, otherwise, you can turn into a racist very easily. Don't let anyone fill your heart with hatred for your neighbor. People are just people and we all say really stupid stuff, just about all the time.
posted by myselfasme at 5:55 AM on July 19, 2014 [3 favorites]

I don't have anything clever to add that hasn't been said already, but I want you to know that I'm really mad at the people you don't take your feelings seriously and even tell you to stop being so sensitive. Your feelings are your feelings, period, and I've said it before, but: Usually, people who want you to be less sensitive are just too lazy to rethink their own word farts.
posted by LoonyLovegood at 12:58 PM on July 19, 2014 [1 favorite]

Living through this for 20+ years is what got me involved in anti-racism activism.
posted by divabat at 4:42 PM on July 19, 2014

I grew up moving around a lot. That means we often lived in places in which we were the only of our kind. My Mom always drilled into that because we might be the only exposure those around are ever have of people like us, we needed to set an example, to be "ambassadors of our kind". You can't tell people they're wrong, you need to show them. And if they're too stupid to see whom you really are, then you don't have to worry about them.
So just do your thing. They'll come around eventually come around.

On a side note: it's not your ethnicity that qualified you to be assaulted. That despicable, vile A-hole CHOOSE to target you because he felt like it. No excuses.
Don't let his behavior, much less the excuse that he "has a thing" for your ethnicity mar every other interaction you have in your new city. He meant to do you harm. Everyone else is just ignorant bc they haven't been exposed to anyone like you, they don't mean any harm.
posted by Neekee at 8:16 PM on July 19, 2014 [1 favorite]

Ugh, I'm sorry you're dealing with this.

It probably doesn't help that as women, we're also trained to be nice and polite no matter what's being thrown at us. Get bitchy.

"No, really, where are you from?"
"You sound racist."

"YES. Your assumption is racist."

I'm also sorry that, as a clueless white person, I've been guilty for being a moron making these assumptions. I grew up in a small town down south; I felt like an outsider for various reasons. I'd get really excited to meet someone who'd clearly not been born and inbred in that small town for about a dozen generations; plus, that person held the intrigue of having been elsewhere, and anywhere else was more exciting than home. I know now that that's a lot of crap to dump on a person just because they look different, but hopefully some people in your town are just well-meaning morons instead of asses.
posted by mibo at 7:48 AM on July 20, 2014 [2 favorites]

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