explainer

5 microaggressions I experience as an Aboriginal woman. Including ones you might've said.

It’s Sunday, July 4, 2021. 

I’ve just finished work for the day and I'm headed to the local shopping centre. I’m starting a new fitness challenge tomorrow so I’ve decided to spoil myself with new running shoes. 

As I enter the sports store, in the space of what feels like two minutes, I experience not one, not two, but three microaggressions: the sales assistant does not leave me out of her sight, she goes on to assume I can't afford the shoes I’m looking at; then the security guard checks my bag and nobody else's after me. 

How do I know? I stood outside the store and watched. You bet they didn’t get my hard-earned dollars. All of this on the first day of NAIDOC.

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At their core, microaggressions are small acts of prejudice, intentional or not, that are directed at someone within a marginalised group. They can be racial, environmental, involve sexual orientation, disability, gender and/or age. 

As an Aboriginal and Indian woman, people constantly assume that I can’t afford to buy the products on offer, that I might steal something or that I don’t belong in Australia.

Microaggressions are cumulative and each one I experienced on Sunday was like an arrow piercing through my heart and into my spirit. After years of experiencing racism, the three microaggressions in a row represented the straw that broke the camel’s back.

I know I am a strong woman. 

I know that I have a positive mindset and I know when I really set my mind to something I achieve my goals. 

But in that moment, the strength and positive mindset disappeared. 

All I can say is, thank goodness for the new challenge I’m doing. The outdoor exercise has meant that I momentarily feel happiness and for the first time in my life I am seriously thinking about getting counselling. 

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I’m not afraid to own it and say, I need professional help in dealing with prejudice towards me.

I don’t have all the answers. I’ve always dealt with things head on or used humour, depending on the situation. 

My main goal in writing this is that you, the reader, recognise when you’re dishing out a microaggression and are able to stop it in its tracks. 

If you are the one on the receiving end, know that there are ways we can deal with it to keep our spirit safe.

Here are some examples of microaggressions I experience, and the underlying message they convey.

1. Really, you're Aboriginal?

Closely related to: You're too pretty to be Aboriginal and You don’t look Aboriginal.

Message: Aboriginal people are not attractive / are lesser than.

I’ve had people say to me, “don’t tell anyone you’re Aboriginal when you can pass for [insert another nationality of colour here].” And they'd be smiling as if they’ve given me the biggest compliment ever.

Not a compliment, just for the record. I’m proud of my heritage.

I deal with it by asking the individual “what do you mean?”. I want them to explain themselves so they realise their words are hurtful. 

I’m happy to help them work through it in a polite manner if they are unable to reach that conclusion by themselves.

If you are the one dishing this out, please pause. Think and then ask yourself; is what I’m about to say, necessary?

2. Where are you from? No, where are you really from?

Message: You don’t belong here / a person of your skin tone couldn’t possibly be from Australia.

This one really hurts as they make you feel like an outsider in your own country. 

“Where are you from?” often leads to “You speak really good English, I meant where were you born?” when people are not satisfied with your answer. 

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I politely answer their questions. Then remember Australia has a Black history dating back over 60,000 years. I channel my ancestors if I need to and boldly ask them, “so, where are you from?” Not happy with “Australia” for an answer. 

I then respond with, “No, where are you really from?”. I smile and remember to have fun with it.

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Again, and jokes aside, if you are the one dishing this out, please pause. 

Think and then ask yourself is what I’m about to say, necessary?

It’s okay to be curious about people’s heritage but please be satisfied with the answer I give you.

3. A taxi passes you by to pick up a non-Indigenous person. 

Also closely related to: the white person standing behind you is being served first at a shop, café etc.

Message: White people are more valued customers. White people can be trusted. You might live in a neighbourhood that is dangerous.

Being treated like a second-class citizen in your home country is one of the worst feelings I have ever experienced. 

I hate to think what my father and his family had to go through growing up in Australia pre-1967. Scary thing is people still treat us as if we are lesser than.

In the past I have rung the taxi company, explained what has happened, they’ve apologised and sent out another taxi to me. 

I don’t catch taxis anymore and all I can say is, thank goodness for ride share companies.

If someone is served before me, I very kindly inform the sales assistant that I was next in the queue. People need to know when their behaviour is a little, well, crap.

4. Owners and / or employees hover over you as you shop.

Message: The assumption that you are a criminal about to steal something.

This has always made me uncomfortable but now I just make them my own personal shopper. I mean, if you’re going to hover, you might as well hold all the things I want to buy.

Recently I had someone stand by my side until I decided on the dog food I needed to buy for my puppies. 

Other people entered the store, but the owner just stood by and watched me. So, I made him carry the 15kg of dog food to the front counter saying I wanted to browse by myself.

I wish I could have left without buying anything but unfortunately it was the only store that sold this brand of dog food. It didn’t end there. 

He proceeded to follow me until we passed another sales assistant and asked her to help me. I didn’t need any help. I never asked for any help. 

There were 10 other people in the store, all white and none of them got the 5-star service I was receiving. 

Aren’t I a lucky girl?

5. You're not like them. You're one of the good ones.

Message: I find you to be different / superior to other Aboriginal people

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People think they are being nice, all smiles when quite frankly it’s a discriminatory backhanded compliment which highlights the persons internal racism. In no way shape or form is what you just said, a compliment. 

If you recognise yourself in any of the above scenarios as the one dishing out the microaggression and you want to stop, just stop. 

Know that the change begins with you. Learning about Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander history and culture can improve understanding and generate respect.

There’s no better time to learn than right now. 

It’s NAIDOC, and this year’s theme is to Heal Country! It is a call to action for us to seek greater protections for our land, waterways, sacred sites and cultural heritage from exploitation, desecration, and destruction. 

It is a time for all Australians to come together to celebrate our rich history and diverse culture. 

People’s prejudices may accumulate over time and get to me but with the NAIDOC theme in mind, I now understand that to be able to show up and be the best person I can, I need to heal myself first. 

Heal my spirit so that I’m able to really help heal our country in a big way. If I can use a positive mindset in other areas of my life, then I can use it to deal with others prejudice, right? 

I see no shame in admitting that I need help and if you can relate in any way, as the bystander, the one dishing out the microaggression or the one of the receiving end, please take the time to check out the resources below. 

We can do this. We can heal our spirits. We can heal our country.

Local Aboriginal Health Service

Beyond Blue: 1300 22 4636

Suicide Call Back Service: 1300 659 467

Lifeline: 13 11 14

Australian Human Rights Commission: 1300 656 419

Andrea Fernandez is a Yamatji woman with family ties to Broome. A writer, actor and disability support worker, Andrea has been writing for stage and screen since 2017. Her writing credits include the stage play A National Park (Yirra Yaakin, Blue Room Theatre), Djinda Kaatijin (Yirra Yaakin Theatre) & Molly and Cara (SBS). She is currently writing Bollywood Dreaming, a musical about her parents' love story. Follow her on Instagram @prettyumvegan AND @andreafernandezwriter

Feature Image: Supplied.