As an Asian-American growing up in a small W.Va. town and later moving to a small town here in Pennsylvania, I have grown accustomed to correctly answering the question, “So, where are you from?” You might think you know what the answer is, but I have found that 90% of the time, the answer the questioner is asking for is, “My mother is Japanese, so Japan.”

As I got older, I would just say, “Japan.” My adult daughter heard someone ask me this question for the first time and answered for both of us, saying, “Gettysburg.” The person looked at her blankly and I just said, “Japan” which was the answer being sought. My daughter was appalled. I was used to it. I have a high school senior memory book (Class of ’73) where an entry begins with, “To the best chink I know….”

These are examples of what some might coin as a current buzz word, a microaggression. A great definition I found for this term is “the everyday, subtle, intentional, and oftentimes unintentional, interactions or behaviors that communicate some sort of bias toward historically marginalized groups.”

Commenting on how well an Asian American speaks English, which presumes the Asian American was not born here, is another example of a microaggression. Presuming that a black person is somehow dangerous is another example.

A common experience African American men and women talk about is being followed around in stores or getting on an elevator and having people move away and grab their purses or their wallets.

There are microaggressions that masquerade as compliments or curious questions. Unpacking them, however, generally reveals bias, cultural insensitivity, and false assumptions or beliefs. Teachers might say, “If you want to succeed, all you have to do is make an effort,” without acknowledging the inherent privileges enjoyed by white students and the barriers often faced by students of color.

Determining exactly what counts as a microaggression isn’t always easy, and the complexities of the concept have prompted plenty of criticism. Common protests include: “They’re just jokes.” “I meant it as a compliment.” “You can’t have a conversation anymore without saying something ‘politically incorrect.’ Why bother talking to anyone at all?”

An analogy I read about compared microaggressions to paper cuts. A single paper cut doesn’t derail your life in one moment, or even the rest of your day. Consider if you received a paper cut every single day, never knowing exactly when it might happen, but knowing it will definitely happen and perhaps even more than once a day. This might result in you avoiding handling paper or being ultra-sensitive or careful around paper. Microaggressions are a similar thing.

So, Nancy, what do you want me to do? I suggest you might say immediately upon hearing a comment that could be construed as a microaggression, “What do you mean by that?”

If we’re friends, that means you trust that I do care about social justice issues, that maybe this is just a slip in that moment, and that I will say, “Oh, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean that.” Asking someone what they mean by “that” is giving them an opportunity to explain.

Some people say things just because they’ve been so socialized to say certain things. But when they’re really asked to explain what they’re trying to say, that’s where they have to think about it and sometimes even retract what they originally say because they don’t want to perpetuate something that isn’t actually who they are.

Poet and author Maya Angelou said, “Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better.”

Nancy Lilley is advocacy director at YWCA Gettysburg and Adams County. She can be contacted at 717-334-9171 ext. 115 or

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