Oh, dear. I have just discovered that I’m supposed to be offended. Furthermore, apparently I should have been taking offense for most of my life. Who knew?
You see, I’m a first-generation Italian-American. I have dark hair, dark eyes, and skin that tans after 10 minutes in the sun. All my life, people have asked me what nationality I am — how quaint, such an old-fashioned word — or where I’m from.
I confess I never knew I was supposed to be insulted. I was always pleased. I thought it was cool that I could pass (am I allowed to use that verb anymore?) for a variety of ethnicities. I looked at it as kind of a parlor trick.
Throughout my life, people have told me I look Persian, Brazilian, Cypriot, Venezuelan, Spanish, Greek, Moroccan, Puerto Rican, African-American, even French (surely from the Midi, hardly Parisian). Pianist Misha Dichter and violinist Pinchas Zukerman thought I was Yemeni when I interviewed them at the Aspen Music Festival in 2000.
I’ve lost track of how many people have told me I look like Sonia Braga. She’s a beautiful and talented Brazilian actress, so I took it as a compliment, but what do I know.
Once, on the Caribbean island of Grenada, a woman asked me, “What island are you from?”
I laughed and said, “The big one, up north.”
Even in Italy, where you’d think my heritage would be evident, I have overheard people who thought I couldn’t understand Italian asking each other, “But what is she? ‘Straniera.’”
All this time, I thought these questions were intriguing. Fun. Harmless. I just figured that people like the exotic (oops — there’s another word I’m not allowed to use anymore), that imagining someone they met might be “different” was interesting to them, a little anthropological fillip in the routine of their day.
Ah, but not according to the wokerati. They have schooled me. Here I thought I was leading a nice, comfortable, fulfilling life when in reality I have been lumbering through a "Slough of Despond."
If I’m reading the terrain correctly, I think I can anticipate the objections to my indifference: “You’re not a member of a minority. That’s why it’s not the same for you.”
But is that logical? If a statement is, de facto, a micro-aggression, then wouldn’t its use apply to everyone, not just a certain select group? And if not, then who gets to decide under what circumstances it is or isn’t a micro-aggression? If I’m not offended by it, who’s to tell me I should be?
The list of purported micro-aggressions and examples of othering is something of a minefield. Luckily, we have a handy chart to help us out, one that has been reprinted in a variety of places, from journals of psychology and education to government publications. As an example, the statement, “America is a melting pot” is, according to the chart, a micro-aggression. The University of California system actually tried to ban its use, until widespread ridicule tempered the school system’s zeal. The pages documenting this attempt have been removed from UC’s website.
Another micro-aggression is the statement, “There is only one race, the human race.” I find this example confusing. Increasingly, science tells us that the concept of race as anything other than human makes no sense. When advocates for social justice and racial equality make this statement, it’s looked upon as a noble manifesto. Yet they are often the very ones demanding that we take racial differences into account when examining society and how it is constructed. I would argue that racial differences should be taken into account, that racism is real and pervasive and should be exposed and fought. So is that statement offensive or not?
Maybe I should try a new tack. The next time someone asks me where I’m from, I must rise up in high dudgeon and give him or her (am I allowed to use those pronouns anymore?) a tongue-lashing about — actually, I don’t know what exactly. Racism? Sexism? Ethnicism? (Is that even a word?) Surely there is an -ism du jour that will do. Who says an old dog can’t learn new tricks?
The wokerati have spoken. I would so hate to disappoint them.
Lisa Simeone (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a freelance writer and radio host.