Over two decades ago, when my husband and I were first dating, we often met other people and would have the same conversation, which would go like this:
(Friendly inquiry): So Nathan, where are you from?
Nathan (somewhat annoyed): Wisconsin.
Inquirer: No, where are you REALLY from?
At the time, I didn’t think much of it, except to notice that this exchange annoyed my husband. I even said to him once afterwards that the person was just asking about his heritage (third-generation Japanese-American).
I thought I understood completely that the person had good intentions and was being friendly.
It wasn’t until almost 20 years later that I took Beloved Conversations and realized how wearing and hurtful it must have been for my husband to have this repeated exchange – the people asking obviously believed he couldn’t be “from” the United States! And yet nobody ever asked me that question.
This is what microaggressions are –comments that if said once aren’t that bad. It’s the accumulated weight (my husband had been asked these questions long before I met him) that hurts. In the safe space of Beloved Conversations, we talked about microaggressions and simulated giving and receiving them – a salutary experience!
It also shows that good intent does not make up for bad outcomes. I understood perfectly what these people were asking, and even defended them to my husband – and how hurtful must that have been? It took me over twenty years to realize the pain.
We can’t erase hurtful (even if unintentionally so) words, but we can acknowledge the hurt and apologize. I did, very belatedly! to my husband. He said it was fine, but it’s worth noting that he still remembered the repeated questions and even the phrases.
Fortunately, my husband has not been asked this question for several years. If he were now, I’d jump in and say ‘isn’t it interesting how Nathan gets asked that a lot, but I don’t. Where are you from?” In a friendly manner, as the goal is for people to think about it, not be defensive. I know it takes me a while to process things – as I said, it took twenty years and Beloved Conversations for me to get it!