The Devil is in the Details: Microaggressions are a Public Health Issue
Article taken from Page 8 of Summer 2018 Newsletter
By: Negar Esfandiari
As a woman of color, I’m no stranger to how deeply ingrained racism is in American society. From a young age, I was acutely aware of my “otherness,” whether it was because of my appearance, because I was learning English as a second language, or because I never saw myself represented in the media. But the biggest indicator by far was my name.
I used to despise my name. It started in preschool, when I realized only my Iranian friends could pronounce “Negar” correctly. For years, my mom didn’t hear the end of my desire to go by names like Lily, Michelle, or Nicki. She only ever supported me, although I couldn’t yet grasp that rejecting my name was also rejecting our culture. As a three year-old, I already understood that these names were easier, more digestible. It felt like one of those picture puzzles that asked, “Which of these things does not belong?” But that thing was my name and, by extension, me.
Over the years, I receded further into the shadows. People didn’t have to be mean about mispronouncing my name to alienate me, although some were. They were confused by its foreignness, similarity to the N-word, and often made marginalizing comments about it, even if they didn’t intend to.
In high school, I decided to go by my nickname, Negi. Most people could get it after a few tries and I’d be less reminded of my “otherness” every time someone referred to me. I never spoke in class, so I wouldn’t give people the opportunity to realize I didn’t belong. But something funny happened when I got to college.
It was common for me to tell my teachers I wasn’t comfortable speaking in class, choosing to lose participation points rather than draw attention to myself. But when I approached my first-year writing professor with my usual proposition, she simply replied, “I’ll make a conscious effort to call on you so you feel less pressured to speak up on your own.”
I was shocked that someone went the extra mile to make space for me.
People’s unwillingness to understand the context, pronunciation, and importance of my name had coached me into a silence that physically affected me. I spent entire classes thinking of something to say, sweating, almost hyperventilating, and obsessing over one sentence. I’d vomit in the bathroom because I thought the only way to release tension was to make myself sick. When I started new classes, I had panic attacks during attendance, waiting for professors to pause and furrow their brows at what was inevitably my name. Every new person I met, I had to prepare to explain myself. Why would my parents name me that? Where was it from? I didn’t exist until I could answer those questions.
One afternoon, during my senior year, I was waiting for my first screenwriting class to begin. I’d wanted to take it since freshman year, and finally scored a spot. When the professor spit out what felt like the millionth mispronunciation, I quickly said, “It’s Negi.” Instead of making a note and moving on, the professor, a White man, paused and stared at me. “Negi,” he said, “is that your gangster name?” Everyone uncomfortably laughed. Without letting me respond, he quipped, “I bet at a school like this, it’s not really politically correct to have a name like Negar.”
I sat there, dumbfounded and embarrassed, contemplating if my anger and frustration were actually valid. Transported to freshman year, where I would spend hours waiting to throw up, I couldn’t defend myself. And no one else did, either.
When people make dismissive or ignorant comments about parts of my identity, they’re committing a microaggression. Racial microaggressions are defined as “brief and commonplace daily, verbal, behavioral, or environmental indignities, whether intentional or unintentional, that communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative racial slights and insults toward people of color.” Because microaggressions are smaller-scale than what we envision as outright racism, we don’t recognize how these instances of invalidation actually lead to detrimental health effects. It is death by 1,000 cuts.
To the other students, that professor’s comments probably seemed like an awkwardly laughable moment. In reality, I faced that in every single space.
I thought if I dropped the class I’d be letting him win, but if I stayed, I wouldn’t be prioritizing my own health. Just recognizing I deserved more, I felt years of repression and resentment start lifting off my shoulders. The emotional labor required for me to take up space started to seem more achievable, although it was still constantly being called into question.
Since sharing that experience, I’ve learned I’m not the only one in this position. Both in my personal life and at the NWHN, I’ve come across many people of color who feel trapped by seemingly innocuous comments. I used to believe that good intentions negated any hurt or alienation resulting from microaggressive interactions. However, agency—be it physical, mental, or emotional—starts with simple acts of validation. To recognize racism’s concrete impact on people of color’s health, we have to stop treating people of color like they’re overreacting to bias that’s displayed through microaggressions.
I go by my full name now. I correct people when they’re wrong. I don’t laugh at their insensitive jokes. I find ways to deal with anxiety’s physical manifestations. I have wonderful friends who understand my relationship with my name, and amazing parents who’ve supported me through my whole journey. They trusted me to come back to my name in my own time, allowing me to foster a love and appreciation for my heritage that’s stronger than ever. But, not everyone gets to this point; in sharing my experience, I hope to demonstrate that details really do matter. When someone takes the extra time to learn my name’s pronunciation, ask if they’re saying it right, or is interested in its connection to my culture, I feel like I can stop holding my breath. And, when people tell me hearing my story gives them courage, I’m reminded that I not only deserve to take up space, but can help others do it too.
Negar Esfandiari is a graduate of the George Washington University, where she studied English and Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies, and conducted research on microaggressions as symbolic violence. She was the NWHN Communications Intern for Spring 2018.
 Sue DW, Capodilupo CM, Torino GC, et al., “Racial microaggressions in everyday life: Implications for clinical practice,” American Psychologist 2007; 62(4), 271-286.