You’d have to have been cut off from all news for the past several years not to have heard the term microaggression. In its simplest terms, it’s an unintentional slight that’s usually based around someone’s identity.
For Simon Tam, the term means disrespect. It’s an “intrusion on a person’s dignity”—even when unintentional, he said.
Tam should know. He’s been living the term for years. He even named his band The Slants to “‘reclaim’ the term and drain its denigrating force” as a derogatory term for Asian persons.
That’s according to the 2017 U.S. Supreme Court opinion in Matal v. Tam, in which the court unanimously ruled the band’s name couldn’t be denied a trademark under the disparagement clause banning trademarks that disparage the members of a racial or ethnic group.
Tam now speaks before lawyers, regularly explaining his experience and offering his advice on how they can tell whether they’re about to offend others without even realizing it.
Small slights, big impact
Microaggressions seem minor. But these small slights compound to the point where they have a bigger impact than their original intention.
“Think about what rain is,” suggested Tam. “Rain is actually the collection of many, many, many tiny little drops focused in a very particular area. If they were spread all over the Earth, it wouldn’t register as humidity or dew. But if you took the same amount of water and concentrated it in just a couple of square miles, you’d have a downpour.
“If an individual or community group is experiencing a lot of those little drops, it will feel like a flood to them,” he said. “That’s even if the person who has no experience with that thinks it’s no big deal.”
The sooner we realize that dialogue that offends others is based on the impact of the words and not the intention behind them, we’ll be able to engage with one another more civilly. Tam suggested several steps to commit toward justice and respect.
Develop the right mindset to expand your awareness about social issues. As a spotlight reveals deeply rooted social injustices happening across the country, Tam said now’s the time to be willing to listen to others and to do it with empathy. It’s important to begin at a place where you recognize these are issues revolving around people, he stated. As part of that, you’ll develop awareness not as a human resources or school requirement but to fulfill your own duty as a public citizen.
If you take the time to put yourself in someone else’s shoes, Tam said, it makes you more open minded moving forward. When people provide feedback about your actions toward them, it becomes less about your ego and more about how your actions unintentionally might offend them. Only then can you focus on changing those actions, he stated.
What does this have to do with microaggressions? You may not recognize that comments about another person’s hair, eye shape, or cultural heritage are slights. But developing awareness around the issue can lead to more productive dialogue.
“When asked about my case, people ask, ‘Did you use Kung Fu on the trademark office? Is that what you’re going to do?’” recalled Tam. “Just because I look the way I look doesn’t mean we’re trained from birth to understand martial arts.”
According to Tam, surveys of members of communities of color show that 80 to 90 percent have experienced discrimination or racism on a personal level, with many reporting that they’ve been verbally or physically attacked.
This creates a huge population of people who aren’t quite sure of the intentions of others because they’ve already experienced trauma, he stated. Even if the intention is noble, the impact is much more detrimental.
“As I speak at law conferences, bar associations, and delivering continuing legal education sessions—every single event I’ve ever done—I’m asked if I personally know fill-in-the-blank Asian lawyer, judge, or actor,” said Tam. “There are 20 million of us in the country. How do I know every single person? It’s because they just assume: ‘You’re Asian, they’re Asian. You must have a connection.’”
While it’s a ridiculous notion that a person’s race ties them to everyone else of that same race, this small slight has bigger implications, noted Tam. It can pigeonhole people into one identity that they didn’t necessarily choose for themselves.
Build a framework to make your actions more just. Also realize that being offensive or not being offensive doesn’t involve a single instance that defines how you treat the world infinitely. You can’t do a diversity training or read a book and think you’re permanently set.
As you develop more awareness of social issues, you’re able to build a foundation around that awareness.
“We have this tendency to label people very quickly, like ‘That’s racist’ or ‘You’re a racist,’” said Tam. “We tend to think of these things as permanent states. At the same time, we tend to think of this idea of not being racist as a permanent state.”
The situation is fluid, he stated. Someone can do or say something that’s perceived as racist or unjust, but that one action shouldn’t label them as a racist. It should provide them an opportunity to figure out the cause of their statement, learn from their actions, and improve in the future.
So, in Tam’s example of being asked if he knows another Asian person, it’s possible the person asking may be doing so based on a professional history. That’s an example of a harmless intention that can turn into a harmless impact if those intentions are clearly communicated when the question is asked.
Tam said one of the biggest complaints he hears is that language changes. “I hear: ‘Do I refer to them as ‘this’ or ‘that?’” he said.
It’s true that language shifts, and it requires education to maintain the framework that’s been built around an awareness of social issues. Tam suggested you think of this in terms of personal hygiene. “Just because you took a shower last week doesn’t mean you’re clean this week,” he said. “You have to constantly work on it.”
Take responsibility for your impact. Once you can build a framework around your awareness of social issues, you can take responsibility for the impact your words and actions have on others, Tam said. This can be an unintentional roadblock, he added.
Some people assume that if another person is offended, it’s their fault for getting offended. However, while the intent behind your words can help reduce the harm behind the statement, it doesn’t eliminate that harm. “If you accidentally hit someone with your car, it’s a good thing you didn’t try to run them over on purpose,” Tam asserted.
“But there’s still harm. There’s still an injury that has to be dealt with.”
If you’re truly committed to justice and want to help stop the harm others are experiencing, it’s important to realize that you may be playing a role in perpetuating those harms.
Think of someone experiencing posttraumatic stress disorder. It’s easy to understand why a war veteran may experience PTSD when they hear fireworks go off. It’s more difficult to understand why a member of a traditionally marginalized group may feel the same way.
“A family is denied housing and education opportunities and they get treated this way because of how they look and their last name,” said Tam. “We should recognize that with the same level of respect and decency that we’d provide that veteran. It’s a different kind of trauma, and we need to appropriately deal with it.”
Tam said the simple act of offering an apology when you offend another can help strengthen relationships within a community. Also ask yourself how your intentions can be misread and change your wording so they aren’t.
Understand the history of where we come from. Once you understand that you can create harm unintentionally, you can begin to work around it.
Tam said it’s hard to treat people equitably if you don’t understand where they’ve come from. You can be truly empathetic toward others only if you understand why others think the way they do.
“When we don’t understand the experiences of other people, both in terms of their lived experiences and generationally, how they got here, we have a much more difficult time understanding the context in which they live their lives,” said Tam.
In the context of law, just because law students study case law from the 1700s, it doesn’t mean that case law is relevant to today. You study it to understand where legal thinking has come from as the law has progressed over time.
Tam said he couldn’t think of a single course in American public schools dealing with Asian-American history, even though the first Filipinos arrived in the United States in the 1700s and helped build the fishing industry of the Cajun south. There were Asian soldiers in every American war since the Revolutionary War.
“We’re part of this country,” he said. “Why do we keep getting seen as foreigners?”
Understanding this history, though, can help bridge a gap and find commonalities among people who don’t look the same. Instead, according to Tam, we can see a shared history and investment in the country and culture in which we all live.