When I was studying at Oberlin College, a fellow student once compared me to her dog.
Because my name is Simba, a name Americans associate with animals, she unhelpfully shared that her dog’s name was also Simba. She froze with embarrassment, realizing that her remark could be perceived as debasing and culturally insensitive.
It’s a good example of what social-justice activists term microaggressions—behaviors or statements that do not necessarily reflect malicious intent but which nevertheless can inflict insult or injury.
I wasn’t particularly offended by the dog comparison. I found it amusing at best and tone deaf at worst.
But other slights cut deeper. As an immigrant, my peers relentlessly inquired, “How come your English is so good?”—as if eloquence were beyond the intellectual reach of people who look like me. An African American friend once asked an academic advisor for information about majoring in biology and, without being asked about her academic record (which was excellent), was casually directed to “look up less-challenging courses in African American Studies instead.”
I, too, have sometimes made what turned out to be deeply offensive remarks unintentionally. So I am in no rush to conclude that any of these people harbor ill intent. In fact, they’re probably well-meaning and good-hearted people.