A few weeks ago, I entered a convenience store to purchase a portable pack of tissues and eye drops to treat my seasonal allergies. I was wearing a windbreaker jacket with a Cornell University logo on it. As I waited in line to purchase my items, an older White man stopped me and asked, “Who do you know went to Cornell?”
My feelings of being “underprepared,” “unworthy,” “lucky,” or sometimes “fraudulent” stem from self-doubt that is tied to the many times things like this happen to me. Now I know he was not trying to be malicious. This man seemed excited to see someone repping Cornell. However, it’s important to question why at his first glance. was his instinct to ask, “Who do you know went to Cornell?” This suggests that I do not look like someone who would go there. Why make that assumption? I doubt he thought about it long as the interaction happened in a matter of seconds, but these types of micro-interactions matter. It is the fact that he did not even have to think about it that is the problem.
About a year and a half ago, I published an essay about being mistaken as hotel staff at two academic conferences within a month. Both times I was wearing professional attire with a nametag that had my school affiliation. The people who had mistaken me for hotel staff also made their assumptions in a matter of seconds of looking at me.
Even if race had nothing to do with this (although I doubt that), it is important to talk about these interactions because they still have an affect on the individual that is experiencing them constantly. Microaggressions are typically described as subtle insults, comments or assumptions directed towards historically stigmatized groups, such as racial and ethnic minorities and women, that implicitly provoke hostility or negative emotions. Research on microaggressions suggests that experiencing them (especially frequently) leads to self-doubt, hostility and a feeling of not belonging.
Anyone can cause a microaggression — from a bigot who unintentionally makes comments that invalidate someone, to an ally who is unaware of how their assumptions can affect others. When these interactions occur, they subconsciously “water the seed” that is planted in racial minorities that they do not belong.
I sighed in response to being asked who I knew went to Cornell, and in the two seconds it took for me to respond, I had to decide, how will I address this? I decided to respond sarcastically. I said, “all my friends did! We loved our time there.” I chose to respond that way because I did not want to check his assumptions directly. Not out of fear, but purposefully. These things happen frequently, and it has become almost instinctual for me to respond in ways that are both non-confrontational and prone to have someone self-reflect. I am not sure how he felt about that response, but he did not talk to me anymore. I thought, if I have to deal with this all the time then he can deal with his fragility for a few minutes.
While I am well aware of the work I had to do to get the opportunities I have been fortunate in receiving, I frequently question my capabilities. When reading about imposter syndrome, my immediate feelings are “yup! That’s me!” Since I have to deal with the imposter syndrome all the time, I feel less guilty if someone who makes assumptions about me has to confront their biases — whether in the moment or through self-reflection.
Andrew Martinez is a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education and research associate at the Penn Center for Minority Serving Institutions. You can follow him on Twitter @Drewtle