Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Sorting The Wheat From The Chaff

Or, Racial Experiences Suck - Who Knew?

I came across an interesting article from the Huffington Post written by a guy named Mason Hsieh in which he describes his experience of being asked the question "Where are you really from?". Hsieh does a great job outlining the racist presumptions that makes this line of questioning uncomfortable for Asians, as well as the socially inappropriate practice (bordering on harassment) of interrogating someone about their national or racial origins after they have already explained to you several times over that they are, in fact, American through and through.

Hsieh describes the incident thusly....
A few months back, I was at a party and was introduced to a random, white girl (let's call her Tammy). We hit it off relatively okay and began that boring, yet inevitable, game of "tell me about yourself." .........Everything was going fine until she asked me: "So, where are you from?" The conversation went as follows: 
Tammy: So, where are you from?Me: I'm from California.T: But where are you really from?M: I'm from the Bay Area.T: But, like, actually. Where are you really from?M: Oakland.T: Okay, what I mean is your face is not an "American" face.M: Excuse me?T: Like, your eyes... 
At this point, I simply fell silent and walked away from the conversation.
Strangely, even though Hsieh raised many pertinent points about the racial presumptions and ingrained racialized thinking that makes such conversations a common, uncomfortable, and sometimes a potentially dangerous experience, I can't help but feel as though he missed a golden opportunity to advance his own sense of personal empowerment from the situation.

I concur with Hsieh's views about the racial presumptions that drive such interactions, yet his own presumptions about the intent of people who engage in this line of racial interrogation is where he lets himself down both in the article and in the moment of his interaction with the interrogator. Although he acknowledges that he cannot know "Tammy's" intent, he continues as though he has judged her intent to be negative for no apparent reason other than it left him with negative feelings. Worse still, he then goes silent and then storms off, leaving Tammy's presumptions unchallenged.

To me, this defeatist behaviour is the natural, detrimental outcome of Asian-America's feminized anti-racist narrative that promotes feelings of offendedness as the foundational point from which counter-racist  commentary proceeds. As I have tried to explain many times before, our hurt feelings and sense of affront at meda slights and other hate crimes are un-compelling and un-inspirational as a means to galvanize empathy and hopelessly inadequate as a philosophical point of view to provide a strong unifying force for the community that can make coherent and compelling commentaries expounding on our racial experiences.

Amongst adults and in the world of the mature minded, feelings - hurt or otherwise - are things to be managed, and those who operate from emotion and make their feelings the subject of public debate are - often justifiably - viewed with suspicion and lose credibility. In short, Asian-Americans just don't have the privilege of making their feelings a matter of concern. We don't have the option of storming off and leaving the "fight" and we certainly don't have the privilege of allowing racialized or racist experiences go unchallenged in the moment.

To my way of thinking, Hsieh would have better helped himself if he had conveyed some of the ideas and feelings that he wrote about in his piece to the person who had actually caused him the distress. By storming off, he fundamentally conceded defeat by leaving the "floor" to the "offender" - at the end of the day the last man (or woman) standing is the one whose worldview prevails.

Don't get me wrong here, I'm not saying Hsieh should have been aggressive and responded with anger to his interrogation, but he may well have felt a greater sense of personal empowerment if he had stood his ground and made his case rather that allow himself to be driven by emotion. This is where the intent of the supposed micro-aggressor becomes important. To my mind, these situations provide a myriad of opportunities for personal growth in which we can educate those who are well-meaning, but conditioned to react this way to Asians, or conversely, we can call out and confront those who understand and utilize racialized presumptions to engage in what amounts to harassment or bullying of Asians. It is well and truly a process of separating the wheat from the chaff and that is something that has to be done in the moment on, unfortunately, a daily basis.

Some might argue that Asians should not have to educate people out of their racist conditioning and I would understand the sentiments behind that. Reality, however, has a way foiling such high-brow ideological pronouncements. By storming off and not seeing out these kinds of situations through to their conclusions, Hsieh and any Asian-Americans who react in this way are allowing such racialized conditioning to persist unchecked and unchallenged.

It doesn't really seem like it even comes down to "re-educating" people. It is more of engaging in a process of enquiry in which you assume the responsibility to shape and define the racial dialogue in your own personal spaces. In other words, you will be the one being educated and all of the ambiguity that surrounds these kinds of day-to-day interactions will fall away and you will be in a better position to judge the intent of those who approach you with this kind of interrogation. It could be that if one chooses to engage rather than storm off that one could end up with a friend who examines their presumptions. Conversely, the situation could turn into a full-on hate-crime. Either way, at least you will know where it is you stand and, hopefully, have a clearer picture of the most appropriate response for the moment. Plus, the article one writes about the encounter later is sure to be far more interesting.

To conclude, I want to emphasize that such situations are always awkward and knowing how to deal with racism is extremely difficult, particularly in the moment and when the intent is deliberately - or not - ambiguous. But that is merely an accurate summary of the Asian racial experience; there is an ambiguity about Asians as an ethnic minority that places us firmly outside of the considerations of both side of the racial equation. This ambiguity results in a wide gamut of outcomes ranging from awkward questioning and racial slurring, to employment discrimination and violent hate-crimes. So I don't fault Hsieh if he simply was at a loss at how to deal in the moment - we have all been there, including myself. It is a process and sometimes one fails.

It is in our interest to move away from the approach of haughty offence and wounded racial pride as foundations of our commentary and begin to think about and relate how we engaged in such situations so that we shed light on what it requires for us to have the kind of normal social and personal interactions that others take for granted.


  1. My response to questions of ancestry is to point out that such questions are offensive and insulting depending on who is asking. If it is a fellow Asian, then I have no problem with answering. I also don't mind when I am asked out of romantic interest because the interest is genuine. But when a complete stranger asks out completely out of the blue I can see no good reason for it. What would the answer gain them? Does it provide some more specific stereotype they can use to dismiss your individuality? I am not sure of the best method of dealing with such a question, but I do know that am not going to let ignorance go unchecked.

    1. Those are great questions that illustrate what I was getting at in the post.

      It is the not knowing the intentions of people who ask these questions that makes these kinds of encounters so problematic. We don't know if such an encounter is going to lead to a life-long friendship or a beating with a baseball bat.

      The key is to be open but prepared. Expect any outcome ranging from a life-long friend to a potential hate-crime. But I think we have to be present with these interactions and be willing to be the one who defines their significance and nature.

      In other words, we should try to come away from these ambiguous interactions with a clear understanding of what the person in front of us intended.

      I have responded to many such situations with the simple question like....."Why do you need to know that?". If the intention is of the interrogator is innocent, then usually they back-flip with embarrassment and will say that they did not mean anything by it. If the intention was cynical and bigoted, then the response is often anger and offense on the part of the interrogator.

      Either way, I found out where some of these people are coming from and didn't have to worry about it later.