We all know when someone says something about race that just isn’t quite right. When you feel a twinge of repulsion, a flick of alarm, a feeling of disgruntlement. When you are not quite sure whether to be offended or not, or can’t decide if you should call that someone out, or what exactly you should say in response. This is what we call a “microaggression.” It is commonly defined as “brief and commonplace daily verbal, behavioral, or environmental indignities, whether intentional or unintentional, that communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative racial slights and insults toward people of other races.” In the Midwest, microaggressions are a part of daily life for minorities and Asian Americans are no exception. As a Taiwanese American I’ve experienced my fair share of them in my predominately-white community. Not to say that my life is filled to the brim with constant heckling and derogatory stereotypes about Asians, because it’s not, but I’m constantly taken aback by the audacity of some people in saying what they say. Many such things have been said online with the advent of social media, from Facebook to Tumblr to Twitter. Social media has transformed communication in countless ways, but it has also given these microaggressions a new and powerful medium in which to live.
My last few months have been a flurry of activist activity, culminating in an organizing meeting about the uprising racial aggression towards minorities on campus, with a focus on the Asian American community. One of the bigger pushes for the meeting came from a twitter account called OSU’s Favorite Asian, in which tweets that came out were things such:
Despite being completely infuriated at the account, I was happy with our action plans from the meeting. But truth be told, I was still on edge. With events like Trayvon Martin, Shaima Alawadi, students at Northwestern getting egged, racist chants at Emory, among all kinds of other events happening on my own campus, my feathers were still quite ruffled. Imagine my chagrin when my very own friend tweeted these:
He was talking about me. Or someone like me. I am heavily involved in the Asian American community at my university, and president of our Taiwanese American Student Association. My Facebook cover photos are of TASA upcoming events, my statuses revolve around them as well. To say that I was peeved would be an understatement. I was very much primed for such a reaction, and my online image was something that I was a bit conflicted about. Should I succumb to being “one of those Asians” that only hangs out with other Asians and only does “Asian activities” like going to get bubble tea or taking pictures of my food? Or should I try and vary my page for a wider audience, as not to alienate my other friends? In the end, I figured I would just go with the flow, and let whatever happened stay on my wall rather than putting in the effort to cultivate a specific kind of online presence. The “Taiwanese-ness” prevailed.
And so here I was, highly offended by some off-hand tweets by a friend. A friend! I was shocked. And angry. The following ensued.
Me: Stop judging.
Me: And that’s totally a white guy thing to say
Me: And if you think that’s all they are, then maybe you are less culturally aware than I gave you credit for.
Me: AND considering the uptick in racial hate crimes and speech, I’d think before you tweet.
Me: so this is why we need cultural organizations in the first place
Him: That’s not what I mean. I’m just talking about what people project about themselves. I know there’s more to them.
Him: Cultural organizations are all good, as is supporting them. I don’t mean to hate or disrespect.
Me: you don’t think that that is something we all consider? Our portrayal in a PWI (predominately white institution) is always something we are conscious of.
Him: I would never wish a hate crime or speech on anyone, and I’d hope my dumb tweets wouldn’t instigate anything.
Him: I was out of line, and I do support you and your right to promote your own culture.
Me: Thank you, I appreciate that. Sorry for being perhaps…overzealous.
Him: I need to learn to be better at living and let live
Me: This is why I’m on edge about it. @OSU_Asian
Him: I guess I’d rather talk to you about Fringe than Taiwan, just because that’s personally interesting to me and I can relate
Me: Well one of the reasons why. And yes, I love Fringe too.
Him: Which is not to say I think less of other cultures, of course, I just don’t have a stake in any one of them more than others
Him: I’m grasping at straws here, obviously. And eeep/ick at OSU Asian. But you were right to hit me back regardless.
Me: I appreciate your willingness to listen
Him: It’s funning for me to try and talk about it because I’m aware of my cultural background. I just can’t compare. wah wah white guy.
Me: well that’s something I’m learning too. It’s not about compare/contrast
Him: I’ll just resign to say I could contribute little value to cultural conversation…other than to be aware and do my part to limit hate.
Him: I really hope those original tweets didn’t cause any lasting damage. If anything, I’m glad we could talk it through.
Me: Oh please, small beans. I’m glad we could talk it out too.
This incidence signified for me the very essence of America. A place that can hold deep prejudice and hide the ugliness under the surface. That tension sometimes breaks through, online and in person, and many things can happen. Racial violence, discriminating policies, oppression. These are all potential ripples of such a confrontation. But something like my Twitter experience can happen too. Convergence, rather than divergence, through a slightly awkward reconciliation. Sure, it wasn’t perfect. But it could have been much worse. My conversation with my friend could have ended terribly, with a broken friendship and hurt feelings. But it didn’t. He was willing to listen, and I was willing to let go. I think we both learned something that day. And we still share a love for an incredibly nerdy TV show.
Social media is both a constructive tool and a terrible weapon. We can use anonymity to hurt with little consequence. I tweeted some things in anger, and I am thankful that my friend reacted the way he did. He didn’t have to be gracious. Think critically about what you post, my friends. Social media gives you power, but as Uncle Ben once said, with great power comes great responsibility. We must learn to use social media for good.
Living in Columbus, in Ohio, in the Midwest, and in America, can bring to light some troubling realizations that we do not live a post-racial society with utopian freedom. Yet there is room for growth and learning and progress, and that’s real America. We can make change. And Taiwanese Americans, like you and I, must drive that change.