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Where Are You From? Your English Is So Good! Microaggressions from Both Sides of the Pacific

Jessica Wei Huang presented a talk on “Healing as Radical Activism: Building a Sustainable Movement for Change” at the AIELOC and WOC in ELT conference in November 2020.
By Jessica Huang
Where Are You From? Your English Is So Good! Microaggressions from Both Sides of the Pacific

Image used with permission from Turner Consulting Group.

International education is an exciting and fulfilling profession. The ability to do a job we love and travel and see the world is an added perk that have convinced many educators to make the leap to international education. As international educators of color, we shoulder the added burden of having to explain our multi-layered and complex identities.

My physical preparation for transition did not completely prepare me emotionally for the amount of cultural transitions I would experience as an Asian-American teacher in an American international school abroad. And by cultural transitions, I mean microaggressions.

Microaggressions is a term first coined by Dr. Chester Pierce of Harvard University in the 1970s when describing the everyday slights that non-Black Americans inflicted on African Americans or Black Americans.

The term was later amplified by Dr. Wing Sue from UC Berkeley in 2007 and described as, “brief, everyday exchanges that send denigrating messages to individuals because of their group membership. The persons making the comments may be otherwise well-intentioned and unaware of the potential impact of their words.” Because microaggressions repeat or affirm stereotypes about a group or subtly demean its members without being outright confrontational, such comments also position the dominant culture (Euro-American) as normal and the marginalized group as aberrant.

I was born and raised in a suburb of Arizona. I was no stranger to microaggressions. Growing up, my American-ness was constantly questioned by people who told me my “English was so good” or asked me where I was from.

As a young child, I would always respond, “Arizona!” and folks would roll their eyes and say, “No, I mean, where are you really from. Like where are your parents from.”

When I accidentally spoke Chinese instead of English on the playground, the other kids would make fun of the sounds coming out of my mouth. 

“What did you say?!” they would scream.

When I would bring my lunch to school, some classmates would pinch their noses at the seaweed snacks and the dried squid.

“EEEWWW! What is that?” they would solemnly declare.

Fast forward thirty years and seaweed snacks are now sold at Costco and Trader Joe’s, bought in bulk by families all over the western world.

In San Francisco, California, a liberal mecca of well-meaning folks from all walks of life when going to a check-up while pregnant with my second child, a nurse asked me, “DO YOU NEEEEED A TRANSLATOR?” She bent down and slowed her speech so much, I thought she was in need of medical attention herself.

As a school principal, I was asked during a scheduled fire drill by a firefighter, “You’re the principal?! I’ve never seen a principal look like you before.” Okay, this one was both sexist and racist.

One of these comments would result in a palm to face plant. Over a lifetime, the accumulation of such incidents breeds righteous anger and real emotional and psychological harm.

According to Dr. Sue, there are three main types of microaggressions: microinsults, microinvalidations, and microassaults. Here are some examples of each excerpted from an article in Higher Education Today by Jennifer Crandall and Gina A. Garcia:

  • Microinsult: A Black male college student at a highly selective university is asked what sport he plays, with the underlying assumption that he did not gain admission based on his academic credentials, but rather his athletic ability.
  • A Latina administrator is described as “spicy,” which culturally and sexually objectifies her while diminishing her effectiveness as a leader.
  • Microinvalidation: An Asian American professor is asked where she is from, and when she replies, “Kansas” her student responds with, “No seriously, what country are you from?” suggesting that she was not born in the U.S.
  • Microassault: A Muslim student sits in a class where a professor makes Islamophobic comments during his lecture.

During the second day of orientation, a white faculty member told me my “English was really good.” This person, having spent the last decade in Taiwan was so confused how a Taiwanese-American could end up speaking such perfect American English.

It is very common for Asian Americans in white institutions to be treated as if they are foreigners. This concept is called “Alien in their own land” or the “perpetual foreigner” unable to assimilate into White American culture. The difference was that I was in my own land (my ancestor’s own land) in an American school, being treated as if I was still an alien. The irony was not lost on me.

This perpetual foreigner stereotype is the underlying reason why White-presenting Americans can identify simply as “American” where people of color have to qualify this identity with a hyphen. These communities of color in many instances have lived in the Americas for much longer than their White counterparts. This is especially true for African American communities in the South and many Asian American communities in the West.

I would like to envision a future that truly has transcended stereotypes and its constant badgering and tearing down of people of color. Yes, all communities hold stereotypes of each other, but racism is the impact of this prejudice and the perpetrator’s relationship to and access to power.

If educators do not have a grasp of these concepts, how can we equip the young people we guide to navigate and understand the world around them? More importantly, how will we equip our youth to navigate racism, microaggressions, and oppression in their own lives? To act as strong global citizens? To recognize systems of oppression and to see themselves as part of these global connections and feel empowered to work towards positive change, in whatever field they want to explore?

Here are eight steps educator leaders can take to build towards an anti-racist culture (in any school) but within international schools in particular:

  1. Do not leave it up to individuals to build the culture of a school. As a person in transition, I had no idea the culture of the institution I had stepped into and what the norms of communication around such topics were. Leaders in schools should not be responsible for managing or mediating every single aggression (micro/macro) but they should be explicit about expectations and values.
  1. Ritualize meeting spaces so that the process of hearing from all voices (the difference between inclusion vs. diversity is a topic for a separate article) is built into the fabric of meetings. Build in roles and process checks to flatten out positional hierarchy, especially in cultures that put a strong emphasis on titles and positions.
  1. Train staff and faculty in anti-bias and implicit bias. Make sure the adults in the building are working with the same language and concepts when it comes to anti-racism work. This allows for individuals to access shared values and concepts when attempting to have brave conversations with their students and colleagues.
  1. Establish norms that create brave spaces (not safe spaces) for adults to work at their optimal zone of development. Too safe and some folks lean on their “right to comfort,” a symptom of White Supremacy culture to smooth over conflict without getting to the root of the issues. Instead, norms should reflect a culture of curiosity, listening, and vulnerability.
  1. Practice a culture of microaffirmations. My colleague, Dr. Blake Riggs at San Francisco State piloted a program called SF build which worked to mentor students of color in the sciences (I am after all, a science teacher). This research found that microaffirmations directly correlate with a students’ intention to persist in a field. In this study, microaffirmations were described as “affirmations that people of your culture and ethnicity are important contributors to advancing knowledge in this field.” If microaffirmations have a strong impact on college freshmen persistence in the sciences, they can also actively contribute to the sense of belongingness of students and faculty of color in an international environment. To me, microaffirmations can be explicit recognition of a person’s contributions and skills, images of excellence among women, and contributions to any field of study by people of color.
  1. Hire and retain a diverse faculty who reflect the global majority within which our young people will be working and collaborating. The world is increasingly more interconnected and creating space for discussing issues of colonization, oppression, and social justice is becoming more common among government agencies (at least in Taiwan), Fortune 500 businesses, and universities. International schools need to hire and retain faculty of color to reflect the diversity students will experience when they enter higher education and the workforce. A diverse faculty will naturally bring a wider range of viewpoints and experiences to share with students and the community. Value this diversity of viewpoints and use these perspectives to build shared understanding and expectations with students and families about what the school values and stands for.
  1. Engage in storytelling as a way to build intentional personal and professional relationships around shared values and identity. Storytelling and sharing is an old tradition, practiced by many indigenous traditions. Storytelling activates the emotions, helps people build connections, and supports the storyteller to anchor their identity within their context. It is a powerful way to build community within a classroom or a staff meeting. Learn more about talking circles and restorative circles.
  1. Examine English-use policies. The current teaching of English all over the world has a pragmatic necessity that is rooted in the history of colonization. For the communities international schools serve, this is the reality that families know; that their young people will need to have a handle on the English language in order to access more opportunity. This is a product of a global capitalistic society where English-speaking countries have bought, pillaged, and now have ownership of many of the institutions of power in the world. I am a product of this lineage as an American-born Chinese. As I recognize this privilege that I hold, I insist that this education should not come at the cost of the stripping of a young person’s connection to their identity and the keeping of one’s mother tongue. Language is one of the most important factors of cultural pride, empowerment, and identity. English-first or English-only policies in schools should be scaffolded with research-based language instruction and immersion strategies and should not be used as a tool for behavior management. It is important that students and young people have a voice in these policies so that they are strengthening their English language skills in community with other students and teachers.

Anti-racism is not a concept that negates racism or asks people to be perfect. We are born of the biases that exist all around us. They are so attached to the fabric of our world that they seemingly go unnoticed for most people. Anti-racism is the process of unlearning these biases and to observe ourselves to see where and when these biases surface. In the words of Ijeoma Uluo, author of So You Want to Talk About Race, “The beauty of anti-racism is that you don’t have to pretend to be free of racism to be an anti-racist. Anti-racism is the commitment to fight racism wherever you find it, including in yourself.”

For white folks, that means taking time to examine and unlearn the internalized dominance of White Supremacy. For people of color, this means taking steps to uproot our internalized oppression (the belief that the stereotypes about us are true).

As global educators, we need to bring awareness of these challenges to the forefront. As White educators in international schools, what role do you play in justice work and how does that relate to your current relationship with students and other faculty? Have you thought about your students and faculty of color through the lens of these stereotypes? As an educator of color, are you ready to engage with your whole self, including the parts of you that institutions are asking you to leave at the door?


Jessica Wei Huang was recently the Principal of June Jordan School for Equity where she served as a teacher and school leader since 2006. She found a passion for education after receiving a Bachelor’s of Foreign Service from Georgetown University and went on to receive a Master’s of Secondary Education from Stanford University. She has seventeen years of combined teaching and leadership experience in public schools in San Francisco. Jessica believes that facilitating cross-cultural and diverse conversations around personal identity and culture is a powerful way to build community and understanding in educational settings. Jessica has co-facilitated professional development for school districts and non-profits in creating and sustaining a culture of equity and anti-racism and is also a certified coach for ACSA (Association of CA School Administrators). She is currently living and teaching in Kaohsiung, Taiwan, where the maternal side of her family is from. Starting in Fall 2021, Jessica will start as the Vice-Principal of Wellbeing and Wellness at the United World College, South East Asia in Singapore. 

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01/31/2021 - Huangjaz
Response to MaFiFo comment posted 1/31

First, thanks for taking the time to write this very thoughtful response. When you write "in a globalized world, in addition to the visible markers of our identities that you mention in your post, we need to add more nuanced and intersected conceptualizations of individual identities." - I wholeheartedly agree. What you describe in the room - with all "White-presenting" people but many other layers of identity (and power) is real. That is why we cannot build anti-racist communities without relationships and processes/procedures for honest and vulnerable sharing across difference - which is one of my recommendations (Meeting rituals + Storytelling).

I wrote the article from my personal experiences - as an Asian-American. My hope was to be vulnerable and model storytelling as an entry point into further discussion and recommendations into how to decolonize and dismantle white supremacy in our school communities. As a white-presenting person, you still hold white privilege in many spaces in the world while still having to navigate the complexities of your own identity. Myself as well. I have education and class privilege. I am cisgendered, and fit into heteronormative spaces. I am able-bodied. These are privileges I need to hold as true, be aware of, and constantly reflect on, depending on my social-cultural context - even as I navigate my own oppressive experiences.

Thank you for adding another layer to this story. It really brings to light the complexities of intersectionality - English speaking privilege being one of only many layers - and not always tied to white dominance - as you said.

- Jessica
01/31/2021 - MaFiFo
Hi Jessica,

Thanks for this well-written and informative post. I appreciate all the information and helpful suggestions that you included regarding different types of micro transgressions. It is clear and imperative that as educators we need to do a lot of self-work first to understand the implications of our statements and actions. Additionally, each of us needs to find our own ways to truly understand and embrace the intersectionality of different identities of the students in our care, develop our own stance as abolitionists, and consistently work towards authentic inclusion of marginalized students and faculty at our organizations.
While there is a lot in your writing that I agree with you on, one thing that I found problematic was your categorization of culture in binary terms. From your explanation, I get the sense that you equate “European- (American)” with “White” and “English speaking”, all of which might be applicable in the United States’ context but are generalizations in other environments. As a “European” (although I am not fond of this term; no one is born a European; people tend to feel allegiance to smaller entities first, their families, their ethnic groups, their nations, and other groups that are critical to their identities), I think your post ignores the cultural and linguistic diversity of Europe as a region as well as the power dynamics between the colonizing nations and countries and cultures subordinate to them. I understand that the dominant culture in the United States originates from the Spaniards, the Anglo-Saxons, the Dutch, and the Germans, the same nations who in their quest for domination and subjugation, divided the continent of Africa at the Berlin Conference in the 19th and dominated other parts of the world. While I completely agree with you on the dominance of White culture which is rooted in this Western European colonialism, I disagree with your generalizations of ALL Europeans as White, English speaking, and colonizers. There are other countries in Europe (i.e. all the ones to the east of the Iron Curtain who do not fall into your classification of “Europeans” as colonizers and English speakers).
A personal story: Recently, in one of our school’s anti-racist training, the person in charge role-played a scenario with a co-facilitator of Middle Eastern origin who is not an English native speaker. Everyone in the audience was White, born in the United States and raised in an English-speaking environment, except for me (I am White, not born in the United States and not raise in an English-speaking environment). The facilitator, to illustrate what language-based microaggression was, made remarks about the other person’s English language skills and engaged others in a discussion. To those who learned a foreign language and function in a foreign environment, I don’t have to explain how it felt. The facilitator of the event assumed and imposed social identity on the audience: everyone was White (and thus most likely of “European” origin) therefore everyone’s primary language was English. The person assumed and imposed a social identity on all the people without trying to understand the nuances, i.e. not all Whites are of Anglo-Saxon origin and not all Whites’ primary language is English even though all Whites are of the dominant culture (based on race as understood in the United States’ context).
Another personal story: In a recent event about multicultural literacies, I was asked to read a text in Spanish. I do speak several other languages but not speak a word of Spanish (but I do have a name that is common in Spain and other Spanish-speaking countries). Again, the facilitator imposed a social identity on me and assumed that because of my name, I was fluent in a language that I never learned.
My point is this: in a globalized world, in addition to the visible markers of our identities that you mention in your post, we need to add more nuanced and intersected conceptualizations of individual identities. As educators, we need to be responsive to individuals’ own classifications of who they are and how they see themselves. This holds true to our own identities and the identities of others. Given the increased migrations (although it would be hard to believe anyone moved in 2020 and 2021), I firmly believe it is increasingly important to understand the deep notions of culture and the different contexts, particularly in the international school world.