By: Pooja Kothari
You know those phrases that sound like compliments but are not all that flattering when you think about them? Several years ago I was on a road trip and someone who I know that had the best of intentions said to me, "I love how all you Indians are so smart!"
Saying “thank you” to this stereotype would have been problematic on many levels. I knew she meant well. I also knew she did not understand the impact of her words. The idea that all Indians are smart is not only a stereotype but it reinforces the illusion of the “model minority myth.” The model minority idea claims that there is a type of immigrant base that is the “model” for all other minorities – a concept that ultimately pits groups of “minorities” against each other and implicitly reinforces white supremacy. This New York Times Op-Doc provides a fuller understanding of why the model minority myth is so problematic.
So when this acquaintance told me how all Indians are smart, I froze. It is hard to respond in the moment, especially when someone says something seemingly innocuous with good intent. After that experience, I devised a way so I could handle these situations and never freeze again. Here is what helped me along the way:
1. Slow down the conversation.
Asking an open-ended question immediately (if possible) is a great way to slow down the conversation.
"What do you mean?" or "That’s interesting. Where does that opinion come from?" These questions can gently slow down the microaggression train and start to re-direct the conversation.
2. "Do you mean to say..."
Once you have asked your "What do you mean?" question, continue with a suggestion to correct the stereotype. For example, "Do you mean to say that of the South Asians you know, you have noticed they are smart? Why do you think that is?" Even if there is no available answer, the questions allow space to challenge the stereotype thoughtfully.
3. No shaming!
Shame rarely helps people learn, but a positive conversation will more likely make sure that that person thinks twice next time. Since we all make mistakes it is helpful to show the person you recognize that: "I know you didn't mean any harm, it is just something to think about.”
In the end, it is important to remember that we are all learning. We learn best from our experiences with each other, and should engage in effective communication. Whether you are on the receiving end of a microaggression, an ally, or have the ability to interrupt, we can all help each other grow our understanding.
Pooja Kothari is the founder of Boundless Awareness LLC. Having been a Public Defender for six years, Pooja knows how ingrained racism, sexism, homophobia and other biases are in our institutions, our local communities, and in ourselves. At Boundless, she designs her own exercises and programs that bring awareness to how our language directly affects our decision making.