Cashier: hmm. . Kingsley Chin-Jer Tang, you must be from Shanghai.Do you think I was being a jerk to that cashier? I knew exactly what the cashier meant. He wanted to know what flavor of Asian I was. I could have made it easier on him and helped him with his awkward wording and told him that my parents are from Taiwan. But it’s not my responsibility to help people figure out how to be respectful and sensitive in the way that talk about race. This person’s display of ignorance through making assumptions about my race made me feel uncomfortable and awkward, so I decided to return the favor.
Me: No, I’m actually from Seattle.
Cashier: So you’re Japanese.
Me: Uh, no. I said I was from Seattle.
Cashier: but where are from?
Me: I'm from Seattle.
Cashier: [awkward silence]
It made a difference that the person who was asking was Caucasian. When a person of color asks me about my race, they almost always ask in a more appropriate way than Caucasian people (e.g. How do you identify as a person of color?). When people of color ask me about my racial identity, most of the time, it comes from a genuine interest in my lived experience as a person of color. Honestly, when Caucasian people ask me about my race, especially in insensitive ways, it feels like they asking about a club (oh, you're from Taiwan, that's nice, how's that working out for you?).
Can you imagine if people made assumptions about parts of identity casually conversation?
“Oh, I see that you are a woman, you must be into Sex And The City. You are such a Samantha.”
“I see that you are wearing a sports jersey, you must be a straight and enjoy degrading jokes about woman.”
“You look pregnant. How's that long term relationship going with the man that you married. When are you due?”
Just because I’m Asian doesn’t mean that I want to talk about being Asian all of the time. When you are a minority, most of the time when you are reminded of this fact, it comes from a negative interaction. When a person asks me about being Asian and follows that up asking me how to cook fried rice, it makes me feel sad and brings up all that of that bad stuff like the time in college when a white girl debated with me about my Asian heritage insisting that I was Korean.
My students ask me all of the time about how I identify as a person of color. Most of the time they ask me in unintentionally insensitive and inappropriate ways. I embrace these missteps as teachable moments. I signed up for this as a teacher. but I didn’t sign-up for going to a store and having my ethnic heritage questioned.
I’m not saying that we should be colorblind. The whole “colorblind” movement did grievous damage on the way that we talk about race in America. It’s okay to wonder what country someone is from. That’s fine. This is one of the first things that I wonder about when I meet someone, but it’s never the first thing I ask about. Go ahead and embrace that curiosity, just don’t be disrespectful and don’t make assumption.
If you ask someone how they are doing and they immediately bring up the fact that they just came back from visiting their Korean grandparents, go ahead and ask for details about their Asian identity. If someone is wearing a Cubs jersey, it’s probably safe to talk about baseball and I don’t mind at all that people bring up superhero stuff with me because I’m almost always wearing a superhero t-shirt.
My face, my hair, my skin tone, my race, aren't conversation starters. I didn't choose these things. I don't put on my Asian-ness when I wake up in the morning. The social construct of race, the stereotypes and prejudice surrounding my Asian identity, were forced upon me.
You want to know more about being Asian? Go to the library, read a blog or talk to me, I'm happy to talk about my racial identity, just get to know me as a person first.