I was at the gym a couple weeks ago and a friendly gym-goer struck up a conversation and was giving me tips on how to isolate my muscle during a certain exercise. I appreciated the advice and instruction because I tend to be more of a novice when it comes to the gym and I really don’t mind the intrusion. As he was talking to me, he asked me what my ethnicity was. I also don’t mind that question – in fact, I would rather have someone ask me than assume how I identify. I replied with Japanese without hesitation.
He went on to explain how strength training requires a lot of concentration and I was in luck because I had Zen on my side. He proceeded to explain some of the basic tenets of Zen and how it relates, making a lot of assumptions that I practice Zen or know certain concepts. In all honesty, I know nothing about Zen. Well okay, I know a little – Zen originated in China in relation to Buddhism and spread east to Japan. That’s it! So I stand there and listen and I try to formulate a response that will be educational but without shaming him. I think through a couple of options – Maybe I could say thank you for the tips and politely explain I do not practice Zen but I would imagine those practices would be useful in strength training. Maybe I could say Zen was an area I find interesting but it is not a part of my daily practices. Maybe I could inform him I am not a Buddhist. I finally chose to directly respond saying even though I am Japanese, I do not know much about Zen or other Buddhist practices and really have no interest in starting any practices. I was confident in the response I chose and then the conversation turned another direction…
The friendly gym-goer turns to me and says, “Karaoke – that’s you right?” I was shocked, stunned. The response I formed in my head to the Zen comments left instantly. My mind was whirling… He goes on to tell me he makes a living through music and the popularity of karaoke helped him stay employed. He thanked me for the invention of karaoke… What do I say to this well-intentioned individual? This is still an educational moment, but I was caught completely off guard. All I could do in the moment was nod along and say “I am not sure.” The is a classic example of microagressions I face day to day and many other people from marginalized communities also face microagressions through comments and actions.
For the most part microagressions are unintentional and subconscious or well intentioned. Why is this so bad? Well… a couple things. In this previous example, the gym-goer made a couple of assumptions based on my race and ethnicity. First, he assumed I had knowledge of and subscribed to Zen, a practice grown out of Eastern spirituality and ways of knowing. Second, he attributed commercialized entertainment (karaoke) to me, my ethnicity, and my race and by thanking me, forced me to represent an enitre culture. It may seem small, but as it builds and builds, the seemingly harmless comments reinforce stereotypes and ultimately the power structures and institutions which make these comments okay to say.
Okay, you stuck with me this long… so what does this have to do with board games? Microagressions can happen and do happen while playing games. One example comes to my mind and warrants a discussion.
When I was younger, I played a lot of Axis and Allies. I have very fond memories with friends and I even played the game solo on the computer. Besides the fun I had with my friends, clear memories of microagressions stick out in my mind. I always felt pressured or pushed to play the Japanese faction in Axis and Allies. Because of my race and ethnicity, it was assumed I had an affiliation with Japan. I wanted to shout… I AM AMERICAN. Why can’t I play the Allies? But most of the time, I settled to play the Japanese. This is a lingering symptom from World War II era interment camps, where Japanese American citizens were assumed to have allegiance to the Japanese emperor over the United States. Many of these Japanese Americans were citizens by birth and were the second or third generation in the States. The confusion here is nationality with race/ethnicity and assuming I have allegiance to another country besides the US based on race and ethnicity. I may cling onto my culture and even try to reclaim it, but this is different than naturalizing to become a Japanese citizen and declaring my allegiance to Japan. I see comments and assumptions in the same vein about me riddled throughout other war games, games with ninjas, and even light games such as Sushi Go!
We tend to get touchy when our games use themes of historical events we are not proud of – war, slavery, and other injustices. Although we personally might be against these ideas, our culture has a way of maintaining systems of power and oppression that were set up through these events and time periods. It is these systems that makes microagressions “okay” to say. The next time you pick up one of these games, maybe Freedom: The Underground Railroad by Academy Games, think of your subconscious tendencies and biases and try catch yourself before you speak. We all make mistakes and we all have a lot to learn. Where we start is awareness. Have you experienced microagressions in games? Have you, although well intentioned, said or did something that was a microagression?