While walking my dog not too long ago, I met a delightful middle-aged couple who spoke in a unique accent. Was it Greek? Some other Eastern European language, perhaps? I asked them: “Where are you from?” The question wasn’t judgmental or a passive-aggressive attempt to other them. I was merely curious about people who were originally “from” some other place. They didn’t seem troubled by the query, either—but, then again, this sort of thing probably still flies in places like Serbia.
What I realize now is that I was being thoughtless, or maybe worse. Because, evidently, the only thing more offensive than asking a person where they’re from is asking them where they were born. And I have Lachlan Markay to thank for alerting me to this helpful list of racial microaggressions offered by the University of Wisconsin (which seems to be the same list sent to staff members at the University of California at Berkley—erstwhile home of the free-speech movement). It offers guidance for those of us who’d like to avoid being inadvertent bigots.
Now, some of the warnings are legitimate gripes against demonstrably obnoxious language—for example, please stop treating people of other races as if they’re dumber than you. Or, for that matter, smarter than you. One suggestion the school offers is that students avoid asking Asians to help them with their math or science problems. (Then they wonder why Professor Tongtong Zhang of the mathematical sciences has so much free time. (Is it triggering to ask about someone’s sex or gender when there’s no picture available on his or her website? If so, I apologize in advance.))
Also, never ask an Asian or a Latino person: “Why are you so quiet?” or the even more intrusive, “We want to know what you think.” This would be pathologizing cultural values, and acting as if white norms were ideal. Let’s face it, we actually don’t care what you think, anyway.