Both of us wore the same uniform. Both uniforms had tags that read 'U. S. Army'; but obviously the name tags were different. My name tag read 'Garcia'. the other recruit's name tag read 'Blair'. We were two 18-year old draftees, in basic training at Fort Ord, California, who in my view did not have the resources to go to college. In our conversation, it became apparent Blair thought I was Mexican, so I told him I was born in Chile. "So, what river did you have to swim across to get to the United States?", Blair said.
I didn't think he was being prejudiced, or trying to provoke me. His tone of voice was very pleasant. I just thought that either he was somewhat ignorant or this was part of a good-natured give-and-take. So I told him, "I didn't have to swim any rivers, my parents and I flew into the Los Angeles International Airport, when I was a small child."
This exchange took place in 1965. When I finished my military service, there was a lot of unrest because of the opposition to the Vietnam war, and because of the civil rights movement. The terms 'prejudice,' 'racism,' and 'social justice' were prominent. I think this is the reason why my exchange with Blair stayed in my mind. Blair was a good young man, and it was hard for me to see him as a racist or a prejudiced individual. 'Covert racism' did not apply either, because this is more societal, something ingrained in our institutions related to housing, education, health care, and our justice system. The individuals who work for these institutions may be subconsciously racist, covert racists, or simply they do not see anything wrong with the established norms.
Everything has a name, or eventually a name will be created. In 1965 my exchange with Blair was nameless. The term 'microagression' was coined in 1970 by psychiatrist Chester Pierce, but 'microagression' did not achieve prominence until 2007, when psychologist Derald Wing Sue began to use it.
Dr. Sue defines microagressions as "brief, everyday exchanges that send denigrating messages to certain individuals because of their group membership." They occur generally "below the level of consciousness of well-intentioned members of the dominant society."
Dr. Sue gives an illustration of microagression from his own experiences. He is a Chinese-American from Portland, Oregon. When asked where is he from, some individuals do not accept his answer, and they wants to known where is he from originally. He states, "I will always be a foreigner in my own country." This is a key example and comment. He is seen as Chinese, just as Blair saw me (erroneously) as a Mexican. Others are seen as Africans, Japanese, and so on. Implicitly there is a negation of American citizenship. This would result in the remark made by overt racists: "Go back to where you came from."
There are numerous fellow Americans that have endured repeated microagressions at work, school, and everyday life. Strategies have been developed to address microagressions. In my case, because I cannot tell the difference between plain curiosity (or the desire to start a conversation) and microagression, I have a simple strategy. When I'm asked about my national or ethnic origin, I say, "That is a personal question." I have learned that if I answer that kind of question, there will be more questions. Back to my brief exchange with Blair, once I told him I was born in Chile, he asked me what my parents did for a living. I told him my father was a tailor, and my mother was a homemaker. I guess Blair wanted to know whether my parents were agricultural workers also, like, in his view, the Mexicans.
In my personal experience, these microagressions, these exchanges, are not brief conversations, but mini-interrogations. I will always welcome a good conversation. I'm a friendly guy. I don't think anyone likes to be interrogated. Do you?