UC Berkeley is infamously liberal. It’s the birthplace of the free speech movement, it stages protests that often make the front page of national dailies and its student body just elected a bipartisan student government headed by a member of the LGBTQ community.
Which is why, when I first came across this column – a critique of University of California President Janet Napolitano’s attempt to educate faculty about microaggressions through individual seminars conducted at every UC campus – I let it pass. I assumed the Daily Californian and the columnist Rudra Reddy meant it as a satirical piece because it was incorrect on almost every count and I thought the author must have been employing heavy irony to emphasize his point.
But I soon realized this was not a piece of satire but a grossly erroneous and poorly researched article written by a columnist who clearly is either unfamiliar with or has forgotten Indian – as well as American – history.
So now I refuse to keep quiet.
But be warned: According to the columnist, I belong to the set of mentally fragile students who President Janet Napolitano is trying to protect through these seminars.
Because yes, I am affected every time someone’s first statement when they discover that I’m from India is, “Wow, your English is really good.”
The ability to speak English will always be a sensitive point for any international student hailing from a country that was previously colonized by the British because even though the colonists have long since left these countries, their toxic influence is still present in their various status hierarchies.
However, each student can have different reasons for getting irked over this microaggression. I can only share mine.
In India, the country that Reddy and I both hail from, your fluency in English is taken as a reflection of your “class”; most Indians still believe speaking fluent English reflects how affluent and Westernized one is, an idea intentionally introduced by British influence in Indian society. This false correlation is extremely widespread in India. Children are taught English to the extent that many of the youth in urban cities are more proficient in English than in the regional vernacular.
At my school in India, people mocked you for mispronouncing English words and judged you if your command of English was poor. Your accent – and how Western it was – mattered. Some schools, according to one blogger, even taught English to their students by fining them for every word they spoke in Hindi. And it’s not just India that places English on a pedestal. Every country that was colonized by the British, be it Singapore, Malaysia or Nigeria has a similarly complex relationship with the language.
The ability to speak English and the title of modernity awarded to those proficient in it are remnants of more than 200 years of colonization and Eurocentric education.
So when someone comments on how well I speak English, I get annoyed because of my experience with the toxic mindset of the English language in India and am somewhat surprised about the continuing ignorance of many Americans about the lasting effects of the brutality of the former British Empire.
My reaction is not, as Reddy claims, because of annoyance over the perceived expectation that everyone in India speaks like the cast of “Slumdog Millionaire.”
In fact, I don’t understand why Reddy would have brought up the comparison in the first place. The cast has impeccable grammar and their English usage is flawless; the only thing that’s different is their accent, which is obviously Indian.
So if Reddy is using the cast of “Slumdog Millionaire” as an example of what he considers poor English usage, the logical conclusion of this statement is, unfortunately, racist and plays directly into the accent-class paradigm created by the British.
And while this ignorance may be understandable, though not excusable, when expressed by American students unfamiliar with British colonialism in India, it’s shocking that Reddy, who bases his ethos on his status as an international student from India, seems to have forgotten basic Indian history.
Reddy also believes it is this very ignorance of British influences on India that makes this comment excusable – people who make these comments have complimentary intentions. However, microaggressions are defined by the affected community; feelings of the affected community supersede intent in every single case.
But perhaps Reddy is aware of this nuance and just refuses to acknowledge it due to his apparent belief that the labeling of ideas or certain parts of speech as bad creates the opportunity for those on the receiving end of these speech patterns to lash out.
This claim is so ridiculous, it’s almost laughable. Reddy would realize his argument is flawed had he just looked up the definition of microaggression before writing his column.
Microaggressions are termed this way – utilizing the prefix “micro” – because they refer to small instances of ignorance and prejudice, which when repeated constantly culminate into a larger troublesome arc. The definition itself acknowledges the prejudiced comment may be unintentional. So yes, while people may get their feelings hurt by these comments, most recipients are aware the speaker is probably ignorant about why said comment is bad.
I don’t pounce or lash out at people when they express shock over my fluency in English. I understand it’s their lack of world-history knowledge that causes this faux pas, and so I patiently explain to them why I speak English so well or brush it off as a joke. But that doesn’t change the fact that comments like these, repeated over and over, become increasingly frustrating and marginalizing over time.
The intention of these seminars was not to create more safe spaces for students, like Reddy claims, but to increase awareness of microaggressions so faculty and, through them, students don’t continue to repeat these statements.
Maybe Reddy should heed his own advice about allowing college to provide him with life experiences by taking a class or two on cultural sensitivity and reacquainting himself with Indian history so some new ideas pierce his own skin – and more importantly – influence his words.