Tapti Talks: From Micro- to Macro-aggressions

In the third edition of “Tapti Talks,” Managing Opinion Editor Tapti Sen ’25 reflects on her experiences with microaggressions as a woman of color and argues that they have a much bigger negative impact on our daily lives than we realize.

I’ve attended a predominantly-white institution (PWI) for both my college and high school years. And being a Bangladeshi woman of color at PWIs comes with its fair share (as most BIPOC will know) of microaggressions.

This manifests in a couple of different ways. At Amherst, I’ve been called “Snigdha” twice, referring to my dear friend Snigdha Ranjan ’25, a fellow international student — but from India, not Bangladesh. Both times this occurred and I pointed out the mistake, it was justified with, “Oh I’m so sorry, you two look so alike.” But I don’t know how much I bought those arguments — beyond the numerous differences in our facial and bodily features, Snigdha has blue hair. Another time I was called “Muntaha” by an otherwise nice Community Safety Officer (CSO) — referring to Muntaha Mamun ’25 — who at the very least is Bangladeshi.

At the very least, members of the Amherst community have pinned down my identity in the Indian subcontinent. In high school, my friends of South Asian, West Asian, and North African descent seemed to be considered essentially interchangeable to a laughable degree — including one extraordinary moment in which the health center gave my daily medication to my friend, mistaking her Iranian features for my own.

It’s as funny as it isn’t. These interactions are mostly harmless — easily laughed off and really only brought up again for interesting party stories — but the above instance of my actual life-saving medication being given to someone else reveals that there are so many instances where this racialized “face-blindness” is incredibly dangerous. We could note the implications on an even greater scale: There are too many examples of the American justice system misidentifying perpetrators and sending innocent BIPOC people to prisons — too many wrongful convictions based on the inability of white people to distinguish POC faces.When white people can’t tell BIPOC faces apart, it can be life-threatening.

I don’t think that this mis-identification is necessarily racist, at its core. When I first came to the U.S. as a young teenager, having only lived in a homogenous South Asian country all my life, I found it difficult to distinguish white faces from one another at first — for the simple reason that I had never seen white features before. Part of  the inability to distinguish POC faces stems from a similar innocent unfamiliarity — but how long can we allow people to hide behind the excuse of unfamiliarity? And what does it say about you, that you’re so caught up in your bubble that even in a diverse country like the U.S., you’re unable to distinguish BIPOC faces?

Conservative and racist rhetoric loves to accuse BIPOC of being obsessed with the color of their skin, that they can’t see people beyond race. But I can assure you that many of us don’t want to be aware of our race — we are forced to become aware when we enter a society that renders us an other. We develop a “dual consciousness” of sorts. That awareness starts at a different age for everyone — for me, I was lucky enough to not have to actively think about skin color until I came to the U.S. But that realization, and the resulting constant awareness of the way white society watches you, is exhausting.

Every negative interaction I’ve had with someone, every random glare from a stranger, I’ve had to ask myself, is it because I'm Brown? And most certainly I am overthinking, except I have had enough negative interactions — enough yells on the street and “Why is your name so weird?” and “Oh, wooooow your English is so good I’m so impressed” — that I’ve become distrustful of people. And honestly, I think that my experiences as non-Black POC have been for the most part innocuous; I know there are many people at Amherst who’ve had much worse experiences.

And that’s why I’m a little wary of the term “microaggression:” All these interactions are “micro”-aggressions, until they’re not. Until your professor gives you the wrong grade, having mixed you up with your friend. Until you’re constantly interrupted during discussion sections, with your classmates feeling nothing wrong with it. Until you realize that the theoretical academic conversations the people in your classes are having are real life matters to you. Until you’re forced to assimilate and give up aspects of your identity for sheer survival. Until sitting in an Amherst College dormitory, you are told that you were “most probably an affirmative action” admission, so don’t get too full of yourself.

My parents have always told me that the way to deal with microaggressions is to ignore them, (which is, admittedly, mostly what I end up doing) but I think a lot of people don’t realize how “macro” these “micro”-aggressions can become, how even these small comments and interactions can build up over time to threaten your sense of self and identity. Most people I know, myself included, often dismiss the microaggressions we face in our day to day life, not wanting to blow what are often harmless comments out of proportion. But in doing so, we become complacent in the ways society treats us and — excuse my cliché wording here — part of the problem. To say that microaggressions are only done by white people is purely false: Internal racism within POC communities is very real, and I’ve witnessed microaggressions from white and non-white people alike. If we don’t call out the microaggressions done to ourselves, how can we be allies and call out the microaggressions done to others?

The popular advice for avoiding making microaggressions is for us to “interrogate our biases,” explicit and implicit. I don’t disagree — but I think hand-in-hand with that comes the need to develop a culture of care — to value the individual for who they are. On this campus, I want to be seen as just another Amherst student, not just as a Brown person or international student or Bangladeshi or low-income student or any of the -isms and categories we are attached to. We are all here on this campus to learn and grow and hopefully succeed together — no need to make this journey even harder for ourselves and others.