Racism in the Elevator: A Microaggression Story and Why This Is Not Okay

Racism in the Elevator: A Microaggression Story and Why This Is Not Okay

The definition of “Microaggression” according to Psychology Today: Microaggressions are the everyday verbal, nonverbal, and environmental slights, snubs, or insults, whether intentional or unintentional, which communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative messages to target persons based solely upon their marginalized group membership.

The Story:

Last week, an old, overweight, white man in a leather jacket attempted to thank me in Chinese (with laughable pronunciation).

Our paths crossed in an elevator for less than twenty seconds, as we were both heading down to the first floor. I recall spending those twenty seconds concentrating on pressing my bicycle against my body so that it wouldn’t bump into the man. And apparently, he was spending those twenty seconds trying to figure out the answer to this question: “What kind of Asian are you?”

When the elevator doors opened, I signaled to him and said “You can go first”. I pointed to my bicycle and indicated that I needed some time to navigate it out of the elevator.

The man bowed his head and feebly replied “Xièxie” as he dipped out of the elevator.

I exited the elevator directly after him, hopped on my bike, and started pedaling down the street…

Wait a second, did he just speak to me in Chinese?

The Initial Reaction:

As I’m riding away on my bike, these are the thoughts that are going through my brain:

  1. Did he just assume that I was Chinese?
  2. I never told him I spoke Chinese.
  3. Did he also assume that I could speak and understand Chinese?
  4. Lastly, what was with that pronunciation? It was awful!!!
  5. What happened…!?

#EverydayRacism is what happened. Actually, it is even worse. It was racism with a dose of attempted politeness.

He tried to be thoughtful. He tried to be accommodating… Maybe even welcoming?

…It really just felt like he was just being flat out ignorant.

The Implication:

To provide some context, I live in an apartment building in Washington DC where English is the primary language spoken unless otherwise indicated. All of our public building signs are in English. I signed my lease in English. For most day to day interactions in the public space, English is the main language spoken here.

His comment implied that even though we both live in the same building in DC, he viewed us as living in two different worlds. Apparently I live in the version of DC that speaks broken Mandarin, and he lives in a version DC that thinks it is okay to assume a person’s ethnic background and make racist comments in a polite (and pitiful) attempt to be considerate(?).

I wonder how he would have responded if I asked him the follow questions:

  1. Did you just label me based on my physical appearance?
  2. Did you just attempt to speak to me in Chinese after I spoke American English to you?
  3. Did you know that there are multiple dialects of Chinese? Assuming I did speak Chinese, how do you know if you even picked the correct dialect?!

I’m not sure if this is appropriate, but I wish I had responded and said the following:

  • Excuse you, I speak English.
  • Excuse you, I do not appreciate the assumption that I speak Chinese.
  • Excuse you, did you not hear me speak English to you first?

The Feeling:

Comments like this don’t make me feel warm, seen, or respected.

I wonder if he knew that what he said to me was both hurtful, unwarranted, and racist?

I don’t appreciate it.

I don’t accept it.

People would never try to say “Konichiwa” or “Nĭ Hăo” to a white person. Yet, because my physical features are very Asian, I receive ignorant comments all the time.

What are you? Are you Korean? When did you learn English? What do your parents speak?

People have yelled, screamed, and squawked comments about my perceived Asian-ness while traveling abroad. People have also pointed fingers and called me names right here in the United States as well. 

Unfortunately, everyday racism can occur during the smallest moments, such as when you’re in an elevator, thinking about not bumping your bike into somebody in a tight space, and in the meantime, that someone is busy labeling you, trying to figuring you out, and subconsciously altering how they interact with you by stereotyping you based on your physical features.

The Truth:

Isn’t it wild that so much can happen in less than 20 seconds???

Again, it’s not wild for me.

It’s not wild for a lot of human beings who face this type of discrimination and racism everyday in this world too. For many people, the comments are usually much worse and the resulting discriminatory actions can even turn deadly.

This is why before I try to say something out of “politeness” or “thoughtfulness” or “curiosity”, I try to ask myself the same question and see how it might make that person feel.

Before I think about changing my actions because of my own “perceptions” or “assumptions”, I try to figure out the root of these ideas and whether or not they are contextually valid.

I’m not perfect, but this feels like a better approach to consideration than just saying “Xièxie” to every Asian person you meet.

How would you feel if someone made a comment that implied that you were not from the place you’ve lived in your entire life?

When that man spoke to me in Chinese, this is what I felt like was running through his head:

“I’m hearing you speak English, but I’m not really listening to you because I’m too focused on the fact that you’re some type of Asian and I need to figure this out before this elevator door opens so that I can communicate with you in your “native” language because all Asians are much more comfortable speaking any language other than English in this predominantly English-speaking neighborhood.”

The underlying presumption in his choice of words was that I do not belong here.

However, I know that this is a lie.

First of all, I check off “Native English Speaker” on every form I fill out!

I’ve lived here, in this predominantly English-speaking country, my whole life.

This is my home.

I do belong here.

No matter what you may say or think, I’m telling you in plain English:

My identity is not for yours to assume.

My identity is not for yours to choose.

I know exactly who and “what kind of Asian” I am.

My identity is defined by me.

Have you ever experienced a microaggression? A racist or discriminatory comment?

How did it make you feel?

How has your experienced shaped how you treat others?