For people with marginalized identities, microaggressions are a constant reminder that we are less than. Oppression doesn’t always come in blatant forms. Often, it’s insidious and indirect. Sometimes it’s even unintended—that’s what makes it all the more dangerous. When we feel slighted by false praise that the commenter sees as positive, we’re told that we’re oversensitive and even paranoid. When we learn to recognize these moments though, we can start to see the hidden messages right through the veneer. These phrases are microaggressions masquerading as compliments:
1. “You’re not like other __________.”
You’re not like other girls. You’re not like other Asians. You’re not like other gay people. You’re not like other Black people. You’re not like other immigrants.
Oh, really—then what are those other people like, pray tell?
Other forms of this are “compliments” that clearly insinuate stereotypes. When an Asian woman is called “outspoken” and “opinionated,” it implies that isn’t the norm. When a Black person is called “articulate,” it implies that isn’t the norm. When a gay man is told he isn’t typical—it’s code for “you’re not effeminate, which is good because femme qualities are bad.”
It’s condescending and divisive. These kinds of “compliments” put marginalized people in a box.
2. “I wish I were ____________ like you, but I’m so boring!”
I wish I had an exciting culture like you, but I’m so white and boring. I wish I were queer—being straight sucks! People of color are so lucky they have interesting things to write about.
This comes from people who are used to being the default. White, straight, cis, able-bodied, and male are considered “normal.” By “interesting” and “exciting,” they mean “not normal.” Comments like these are otherizing.
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3. “You look so great/nice/pretty/et cetera when you ____________”
You look so pretty when you smile! You look so nice with your hair straightened. You look lovely with makeup. You look great without makeup.
It. Doesn’t. Need. The. Qualifier.
4. “I don’t even see you as ____________”
I don’t even see you as Black! Sometimes I forget you’re Asian LOL! I don’t think of you as a girl—you’re just one of the guys.
First of all, these are always blatant lies.
Second of all, it’s erasing a fundamental part of someone’s identity and experiences.
Third of all, it only seems like a compliment if you think these aspects of someone’s identity are bad things. Or even worse, all-encompassing things. In this line of thinking, someone who has a marginalized identity is automatically defined ONLY by that marginalized identity. It’s a privilege to be defined first by your personality.
5. “You’re great at ____________ because you’re _________”
Asians are great at math! Women are better at nurturing and taking care of kids. Of course he’s so athletic—he’s Black.
Even positive stereotypes are rooted in oppressive ideas. For any compliment of talent or skill based in identity, the opposite is insinuated. Furthermore, the skill itself is invalidated by the qualifier. Someone can be great at something—and their identity has nothing to do with it.
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If you’re unsure whether or not your compliment is actually oppressive—check yourself. Does it have a qualifier? Is it based in stereotypes, positive or negative? Does it invalidate someone’s identity? If yes—then keep your “compliment” to yourself and reevaluate!
[Feature Image: Individual with long black hair sits on ground outdoors wearing sunglasses, pink lipstick and a grey shirt as they look up at the sky. Source: Pexels.com]