Casual Racism and obliviousness

This morning, I came across article about casual racism from an Asian American woman. I have been trying all day trying to wrap my head around it—understand it from my perspective as an Asian American and whether my response is simply unacceptable in the world of microaggressions.

But then I realized that I am very different. Because surely, we all come from different places.

There’s this paragraph:

The social pressure on people of color to keep the peace, not get mad, just make sure everyone keeps having a nice time — even when we hear these remarks in public, at our workplaces and schools, in our own homes and from our friends’ mouths — can be overwhelming, bearing down on us in so many situations we do not see coming and therefore cannot avoid. What does our dignity matter, what do our feelings amount to, when we could embarrass white people we care about? When our white relatives or friends or colleagues might experience a moment’s discomfort, anxiety, or guilt?

On Facebook and Twitter, it’s one of the most quoted passages. It’s the essence of should we speak up or make sure everyone is having a nice time? Shall we be the wet blanket or just grit our teeth and smile?

So for me. My response to someone making an off-the-cuff comment like “You look like so-and-so”, I would immediately jab back with a smile, “Are you saying all Asians look alike? Sometimes I have trouble telling apart white people too!”

I caught myself before posting that on Facebook, because at its core, there’s something racist about that too. I do honestly have trouble telling apart white men and white women. I watch a TV show or movie…and sometimes I wonder (especially if the hairstyle is the same) whether I just saw the same person twice. Why do the two lawyers look alike? Balding with glasses? But then I realize that one is taller than the other and that one has a low, growling voice. I just don’t pay attention to those things. But I am fully aware of that fault. So in the case that I am obliviously compared to Asians in the media, I will share my own failing.

But there’s another side that I would want to address. My sister and I have always looked very different from each other. She wears makeup. I don’t. Her face is longer than mine. My face is round. My skin is darker. Her skin is light. etc etc. It’s quite common for someone to say, “You don’t look like sisters at all!” I agree. I simply look like my dad, and my sister looks like my mom. But the only people who say that we look alike tend to be non-Asians. Because at a glance, we both have the Asian eyes, the soft nose, and the dark hair. And I do notice that the non-Asians do try to study our faces to look for similarities. But that’s pretty much looking at Julianne Moore and Jessica Chastain…then declaring that they’re sisters because they both are redheads.

But back to the article, it’s the fact that I always say something when something even remotely racist pops up. Especially when it’s targeting Asians. I personally lose sight of the value of the participants in the conversation and will overreact. Because in the moment, I am swayed by the fact that someone needs to be corrected. In the past, I have rubbed people the wrong way when I reacted to “Where are you really from?” even though it was an important networking moment.

Some may say that they’re innocent. But I remember the last instance. She really wanted to know where I was from. So after dodging the answer for several minutes and raising a fuss about how insensitive the question really was, I answered that my parents were from Hong Kong. “Oh,” she said. “I spent some time in Taiwan. My boyfriend is Taiwanese.”

What’s inherently wrong with that response is the assumption that she spent some time with Taiwan would make her feel more connected with me. The fact that an Asian like country must be similar, must have some relevance to me. What’s true is that I did visit Taiwan, but I don’t speak Mandarin and barely can read the language. So to me, Taiwan is like any country I have visited like Turkey or Italy. I don’t bond beyond that.

I remember making a similar faux pas when I was Brazil and meeting some Dutch guys. I said, “I may be visiting Finland soon. What’s so special about the Finns?”

They blinked, and I realized my mistake. Just because they’re from Europe does that mean that they know anything about a non-neighboring country. A country that is more than an hour flight away. They didn’t say anything rude, but they said, “Come visit us in Amsterdam.”

And then we continued the conversation.

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