Microagressions and Difference


“You use chopsticks so well!” by Joe Schlabotnik on Flickr

There was much debate in Korea this week about Debito Arudou’s article in the Japan Times last Tuesday.  The headline alone, “Yes, I can use chopsticks” will resonate with almost everyone who has spent some time in Korea. The article is an application of Dr. Derald Wing Sue Ph.D’s research into what are called “Racial Microagressions” to the context of “non-Japanese” (to use the article’s term) living in Japan. I found both articles a fascinating read, but felt a slight unease at the Japan Times piece. This piece is an attempt to figure out exactly why, so please excuse the slightly rambling style.

The author’s experience with Japanese/non-Japanese conversations can be translated almost word for word to the Korean context.  Even before I could speak Korean well enough to really converse with people, I could trot out the “England”, “Thank You”, “Two years”, “I like it”, “I like it too”, “No, I don’t find it spicy”, “I’m an English teacher”, “No, I’m not married” routine with my eyes closed. As a beginner language learner, this makes you feel awesome for the first two minutes of any conversation, before the inevitable descent into umm-ing, ahh-ing and head scratching begins. This conversation is still repeated in more taxi journeys than not more than two years after I came here.

Is this a racial microaggression though? Dr Sue’s research breaks microaggressions down as follows:

• Microassaults: Conscious and intentional discriminatory actions: using racial epithets, displaying White supremacist symbols – swastikas, or preventing one’s son or daughter from dating outside of their race.

• Microinsults: Verbal, nonverbal, and environmental communications that subtly convey rudeness and insensitivity that demean a person’s racial heritage or identity. An example is an employee who asks a co-worker of color how he/she got his/her job, implying he/she may have landed it through an affirmative action or quota system.

• Microinvalidations: Communications that subtly exclude negate or nullify the thoughts, feelings or experiential reality of a person of color. For instance, White people often ask Latinos where they were born, conveying the message that they are perpetual foreigners in their own land.

I’m not sure that a fairly inoffensive conversation in a taxi really fits into any of these categories. I think that at a push some of the interaction could be seen as microinvalidation (“How long have you been in Korea?”), suggesting that I was not born here. However, the “Westerners in Korea” discourse is still one of recent immigration and temporary stays, and so this seems a more reasonable question when put to me than when put to a Latino in America (however, I am not quite sure about the differences in foreigner discourse between Korea and Japan). Furthermore, I’m not even sure that commenting on my chopstick use is suggesting that “manual dexterity is linked to phenotype”; I prefer (arrogantly) to see it as simply expressing admiration for a skill that I have most likely learnt since my immigration.

It is the claim that this kind of interaction is a microagression that bothers me. It’s clear that microagressions do exist, and are damaging, but how far should we go in claiming that conversations that transpire from a difference in race are microaggressions? Where does recognizing difference end and microagression begin? Debito Arudou suggests that the kind of interactions are microagressions, in which people are being put “in their place”, namely that of Japanese/Korean host (dominant) and non-Japanese/Korean guest (submissive). My problem with this is the labelling of guest and host dominant and submissive, which I don’t believe follow naturally from one or another (and countless episodes of Come Dine With Me seem to support me on this).  Is it not possible to see the roles (in my case) as simply Korean and non-Korean, and therefore different, but equal?

I believe that recognizing difference is natural. Look at the terms that populate this article and the two referenced: Korean, Westerner, non-Japanese, Latino, Asian-American.  Everyone, myself included, is putting themselves, and others, into a place based on race. The flight attendant in Dr. Sue’s article who claims she does not see color is a liar. We all see color, just as we all see age, sex, nationality, sexual orientation and a million other things that make each person unique, and because of those things, we treat people differently. Having probably just outed myself as racist, sexist and generally bigoted, I feel I ought to clarify a little: I don’t speak to Korean people in the same way that I speak to Westerners. I don’t speak to my university students in the same way I speak to elementary age students. I don’t speak to my female friends in the same way I speak to my male friends. And neither, in all probability, do you. We recognize a difference and we behave accordingly.

This is because when we use language we are not just saying something, but doing something. We are “who’s doing what’s” (Gee 2011:44). Therefore, as well as being put in our place, we are putting ourselves in our place whenever we say anything. For example, when talking to my students, I am a “professor ” (in title at least) doing “teaching”. Similarly, when talking to my Korean friends, I am  a “non-Korean” doing “talking to Koreans”. Even when the subject is not our differences, there are still many factors that change because of my non-Korean-ness.  This is an unavoidable factor in the conversation, and affects utterances on both sides, and so I change my rate of speech; I change the vocabulary that I use; I change my cultural references. Our race, and our situation are performed in what we say and do whether we like it or not, and so to expect them not to have an influence on conversation is, I believe, unrealistic. Moreover, our race is part of our identity. Being a non-Korean in Korea is part of who I am – no matter how long I stay here, and that won’t change, nor do I particularly want it to.

To move this towards a conclusion, I personally don’t mind being treated differently (nor treating others differently) on account of my non-Koreanness. What I do mind is being treated unfairly, unequally, demeaningly, or being discriminated against because of it, and this does happen in Korean society both through racial microagressions (such as speaking 반말, or informal language to me) and overt racism (such as anti-foreigner articles on the internet and in the press). However, I don’t think we can extend the definition of microagression into the sphere of phatic conversations with curious people, especially when the intention is the exact opposite of racism and social control, an attempt to reach out and cross cultural and racial boundaries.

Furthermore, criticizing this kind of phatic communication for being boring or repetitive seems a little strange, because boring and repetitive is exactly what phatic communication should be. It’s the little practised routines that allow us to break down barriers between each other, and move on to more personal and interesting topics. It’s at least in the same realm as criticizing saying “How are you?” in English for being dull.

I think the above is why I feel uneasy about the article’s stance. Debito Arudou implies that any kind of discourse that is prompted by a difference in race attempt at establishing dominance or social control. I don’t believe this is the case. We have to recognize our differences, and deal with their implications. Otherwise, the world either becomes a boring, homogenous sludge, or one in which real predjudices go untackled. Personally, I look forward to my next boring conversation with a taxi driver, as it may just be a small step to bring us closer together, rather than an attempt to drive us apart.




Gee, J.P. (2011)  An Introduction to Discourse Analysis (3rd Ed.). Oxford: Routledge.


12 responses to “Microagressions and Difference

  1. This is an interesting take on the article. While I agree with you that we do change our speech depending on the situation, I have to ask whether or not the question “When are you going home?” isn’t akin to someone shuffling you out the door. I think a lot of it has to do with the fact that there just aren’t that many foreigners who have made Korea their permanent home. I only know one western foreigner who is fluent in Korean. I’d be interested in hearing whether fluent Chinese/Japanese immigrants get the same questions and how they react to them.

    • Hi,

      Firstly thanks a lot for reading and commenting 🙂

      I agree with you, asking someone about when they are going ‘home’ could definitely be seen as microaggression. It’s not a question I recall being asked often here though.

      You’re also right about the relative lack of advancement of the Korean/non-Korean discourse, and while I don’t know, I’d be willing to bet that in Japan and China it’s been going on a lot longer, and there is considerably more reason to be sensitive to it there (on both sides).

      My intention in writing this was never to claim that microagressions (nor outright racsim) doesn’t happen in Korea, just that we have to be careful in how we label things, and that sometimes people’s intentions are the most important things.

  2. (microresponse) Thanks for sharing this, Alex. I think there is a lot of insight here and also a lot to think about. I am reminded of how I have been annoyed (and occasionally still am!) when the conversation turns to my (admittedly not excellent) chopstick use. A friend in Japan pointed out that it is often about connecting and sort of saying “Hey look, even though you are a big white guy you can still use chopsticks, just like me and isn’t it great that we have something in common?” One small part of me wants to explain that even in the rural US there are plenty of opportunities for chopstick use, and I do report that from time to time. Perhaps that is part of what feeds into the annoyance that we feel sometimes. We want to be understood as people and we want to be understood as people of the world and not just generic faceless people from away.

    Thanks again for the thoughts and balanced treatment. I’m off to defend myself against oppression from taxi drivers.

  3. Just a quick note about the term “non-Japanese”: There is a bit of a backlash against the term foreigner as it can sound a bit negative/pejorative and focusing on the “outsider” nature…Here is the wiki link for the term gaijin –which sort of relates to what I am saying: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gaijin

    • Cheers for both of your comments Mike, and the link, which is especially interesting.

      I think the natural extension of your chopstick situation is “I wonder what else I have in common with this big white guy?”, which is at the heart of why I wrote this post. Perhaps you helped your interlocutor to become a little more of a person of the world, and he ran back to his friends to tell them that people use chopsticks in rural America? 🙂

  4. Well, I guess there’s a difference between recognizing the differences and saying things that are sometimes irritating or even insulting. There’s a difference between asking someone “Where are you from?” and asking them “Are you from China?” or “Are you from Nigeria?”. As a colored person living in Korea, I find it irritating that people often come to me and ask “Kenya?”, “Somalia?” as if to tell me “Judging by your look, you must be from Africa”. Or that time when a man walked straight to me just to ask “Do you have a job?”. I suppose if I were white, he would have assumed I have a job. He would have assumed I am an English teacher; but in his mind, a colored person is necessarily poor, uneducated and must be some kind of illegal immigrant trying to get a petty job. So true that as soon as I told him I was a university professor, he turned his back and walked away without adding another word.

    • Hi Patrick,

      Thanks very much for commenting.

      As I said, I’m not defending Korea from allegations of racism here, and the assumptions that you talk about are prime examples of the bigotry that sadly does exist here. I’m also aware that as a white person I probably view this issue with a degree more sympathy as I’ve never had the kind of experiences that you describe.

      I guess maybe there’s a fine line between curiosity and being insulted. Can I ask what your reaction is to being asked “Where are you from?”

  5. Fascinating post- and comments. I have never worked in, or even visited Japan or Korea. However, I have lived in Portugal, Brazil and Poland- and have had EXACTLY the same conversations , especially with taxi drivers, in all three places (well, not about chopsticks!).
    Obviously sometimes people are racist, and I can relate to the idea of microaggressions (I didn’t enjoy the cafe in Poland where the whole staff would burst into laughter when the English teachers arrived to mangle their language once again). However, my gut feeling is that most of the time these predictable question and answer sessions were intended to be friendly and put me at my ease- and I found confidence in being able to have these ‘taxi driver’ conversations with a degree of fluency.

    • Well you’re welcome to visit any time! 🙂

      I completely agree about feeling good about your fluency, and it’s great for impressing people who don’t speak the language. I think the flipside of this is that it sometimes fools the taxi driver (or whoever) into thinking your much more fluent than you actually are, which becomes apparent when the conversation moves on to less well trodden paths.

      Thanks, as ever, for taking the time to comment, and have a great week.


  6. Hi alex,
    got me thinking there. Ive once been microinsulted in a bus in korea….i wuz talking to my husband..the engine wuz roaring i guess i may have spoken a little too loudly for the korean palate..the bus driver just stopped his bus turned around and started hurling words in hangul..otherwise there wuz pindrop silence..i only realized after smtimes dat he wuz literally shouting at me!!!!

    The funny thing abt korea is, once u r indian they think u r poor…and ask u questions like “there r many poor people in ur country right”…again another micro insult!!!

    Anyway u did a great job thinking out loud in ur piece above..n thanks for the good read..

  7. Hey Ratna 🙂

    Thanks so much for the kind comment and the stories.

    The bus experience sounds like the opposite of a microagression (a macroagression?) to me. I think bus drivers are often just angry people regardless of the race of who their shouting at. I once got on a bus in Samcheok, only for the driver to get into an argument with another passenger. Both of them stood up and went to fight outside. The bus was cancelled!

    I am interested in your reactions to these comments though, especially of the “there are many poor people in your country” kind. How do you deal with it, and how do you tend to feel about the commenter?



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s