I recently joined a new company. By the second day, I had already encountered my first microaggression. A coworker watched me sit down to eat my lunch and waited no longer than 30 seconds to ask me the question that would create office-wide chaos on a rather quiet Friday afternoon:
“So, are your parents North Indian or East Indian?”
It took me a couple of seconds to figure out how to respond to his question. The three women, and one other man in the room waited.
“I’m actually Bengali.”
Thus began the conversation. One woman, who I’ve since come to love and admire, chimed in asking the man why he couldn’t just ask me where I’m from directly, and suggested better ways to pose his question. He continued to justify himself, claiming he didn’t want to offend me by asking where I’m from because I’m ‘clearly from Canada’. This observation came from the fact that I do not have a foreign accent. After telling him that he shouldn’t have assumed I’m from India, he defended himself by stating that I ”have more melanin than a Middle Eastern.” He added that he was correct in his assumption anyways because “Bengali is a part of India right?”
This man did not comprehend that it was possible to come from an ethnicity that is outside of Indian and Arab. He also could not comprehend why someone may be offended by his question. I, on the other hand, could not comprehend why these assumptions and questions were coming from another visible minority. He was also South Asian. And also does not have a foreign accent. So I tried to relate to him.
“People ask me if I’m Filipino all the time! I don’t get offended.” He said.
I felt bad for him. He evidently encounters microaggression on a daily basis. He just doesn’t know it. It was time to wake the man up. I told him that when that happens, it was an opportunity to speak up and be offended. It is wrong to make assumptions about one’s ethnicity. It might not offended me or another person, but it will offend the next. It is okay to be curious about one’s ethnicity. I’m proud to be Bengali and can talk about my culture for hours. Just ask!
I was not initially offended by my coworker’s question. People will say ignorant things, and they do. But instead of being offended, it is important to tell them what they are saying or doing is wrong. Fortunately, my other coworkers instantly defended me, giving me a backbone to say what I really wanted. Sometimes, its easy to think of yourself as overreacting in these situations. But knowing that two other people in the room were equally confused to his question confirmed that he was in the wrong.
I wanted to make sure he didn’t repeat a similar question to another person. Unfortunately, he did not take anything away from the conversation. That is when I took offense. I was offended that he didn’t accept his faults or take into consideration what me and two other people in the lunchroom had to say about his question. After a lot of back and forth he concluded:
“People are too politically correct nowadays.”
I decided to let it go and we changed the topic. But inside, I wondered if his statement was true. Was I overreacting? He was, just as he said, ‘curious about my ancestry’. I thought about it and laughed it off. He was contradicting his own statement. The mere way he posed his question was in fear of offending me and my supposedly Canadian self. Despite his intentions, I was even more offended from his question than he intended. Then I came to a conclusion.
We are too politically correct. We’re just too politically correct about the wrong subjects. Talk about Mental Health, discuss Rape Culture, join an intersectional feminism Twitter thread without getting uncomfortable or worrying about making other people uncomfortable. Then tell me we’re too politically correct, Robert*.
Thinking that talking about suicide will encourage others to commit suicide is being too politically correct. Refusing to discuss a rape case in fear of ruining the rapist’s reputation is being too politically correct. Asking me if my parents are North Indian or East Indian when I’m actually a Bengali who doesn’t even hold a Canadian Passport? That’s just stupid.
*Names have been changed.