Curiosity, Mistakes and Racial Microaggressions

When I arrived in Quebec, it was incredible for me to see so many people from all around the world. I used to live in a relatively small town with only a few foreign tourists or residents, then listening to people talking in dozens of different languages just propelled my curiosity. “Where are you from?” used to be my preferred way to start a conversation. In my graduate school environment, it is relatively easy to ask this kind of question because, at least in my department, most of us came from abroad. However, soon enough I found I was committing a mistake.

Last year I attended a workshop titled “Safer Spaces Workshop Suite: Race, Culture, and Racism” from the Social Equity and Diversity Education Office, which I recommend for all graduate students. From this point on, things seemed a little bit different for me. We were taught about many interesting subjects, but one of them got my attention. The Racial Microaggressions were defined in this workshop as comments with unintended (sometimes) discrimination underlying messages related to our racial identity. It can be as easy as “Wow! Your English/French is so good!” and you are actually a born and raised Canadian, or when someone is mistaken as a “insert nationality here” only because of he/she/zie belongs to a specific racial group. Yes, all of them can be honest mistakes or plain curiosity, but we should always be cautious when we approach someone in these circumstances. It is not a matter of saying “I do not see any difference in our races” because, well, they are there! It is a matter of avoiding making assumptions or letting stereotypes guide our perception of others. I will always be proud of who I am and where I came from, but people tend to create etiquettes based in their personal perception (or emotional reasoning) regarding a specific ethnic group. Then, the next time curiosity pushes you to ask a question related to a cultural or language feature, stop and think if you should do it and if the context is adequate for that.

Banner image by @subhobratadas // @gradlifemcgill

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