I live in Berkeley, California, which has a well-deserved reputation as one of the most liberal cities in America. I like living here for all the reasons you’d imagine — it’s super-diverse, there’s a great we’re-all-in-this-together ethos, and the food scene is fantastic — but given the city’s reputation, I’ve been surprised by a few of the interactions I’ve had at the Starbucks downtown, a few blocks from my home.
I was once sitting at a communal table, typing away on my laptop, when a middle-aged white man sat down across from me. He was disheveled and slightly unhygienic, and he was reading the New York Times and carrying a thick stack of papers. He could have been a homeless person or a professor; in complete seriousness, it’s often hard to tell in this town.
As he sat down, I briefly made eye contact, smiled politely, and returned to my work.
For a few minutes, he alternated between looking at me and reading his paper. Finally, he set it down and asked, “Are you Chinese?”
I looked up and loudly exhaled. This question is a death knell for any Asian American, especially when used to open a conversation. Because anyone with any social acumen should know better than to start a conversation this way. It communicates to me that they aren’t interested in me as a person — they’re interested in one dimension of me, which is very uncomfortable. And more often than not, they follow up by telling me about their travels to China or the restaurant they recently visited. None of which I’m interested in discussing with someone who wants to talk to me only because I appear to be Asian.
“Yes,” I replied. I don’t know why I responded truthfully, given that I could see where this conversation was headed. In response, he began to tell me about his interest in Chinese history until, 5 minutes later, I said I had to go and started packing up my laptop. He did not stop talking. He craned his neck to keep talking to me as I waved and walked away.
A few weeks later, I had just entered that same Starbucks when another homeless-or-professor man approached me.
“I presume you speak Chinese,” he said.
That intro was worse than the first guy’s.
Having learned my lesson the first time, I responded, “You presume incorrectly.” (This is partially true: My Mandarin is terrible. I rounded down for the sake of convenience.)
“Oh,” he said, disappointed, and walked away.
I’m never going to that Starbucks again.
Let’s be honest: Everyone puts their foot in their mouth when it comes to race. No one has it all figured out. But there are a few classic lines that immediately communicate to me that the person speaking lacks a basic understanding of how to handle race or cross-cultural situations. Ironically, it seems that people usually say these things in an attempt to convey how much they get it, but it has the opposite effect. Should you want to avoid alienating the person you’re talking to or looking like a noob — or if you’re wondering why these lines don’t have their intended effect — here they are.
“I don’t see color”
I see what the person is trying to communicate here; they’re trying to say that they value everyone equally. Which is great. But the reality is that everyone sees race. If someone has a conversation with me and doesn’t notice that I’m Asian American, they have some deeper perceptual issues going on. More importantly, I want them to see that I’m Asian American, because it’s important to me and it affects every part of my experience. Do I want them to treat me differently as a result? Absolutely not. But do I want them to see it? Yes, not only because they obviously do (so they shouldn’t kid themselves), but also because it’s a central part of my identity.
The closely related “I think of myself as clear”
I get what they’re trying to say; they think that they’re above race, perhaps because they “don’t see it,” as previously discussed. But this statement is problematic because they may think of themselves as clear, but the rest of the world does not. They are white (which I can say pretty confidently because no person of color would say this, as we’re reminded of our race on a regular basis). Whether or not they’re aware of it, their whiteness affects every part of their daily existence. Thinking otherwise is pretty ignorant – and also communicates to me that they can’t even begin to have a conversation about the power and privilege they have as a white person.
“I have a black/Asian/Latino/Native American friend”
I get it — they’re trying to say that they have other friends of color, so they’re safe and they understand me. But here’s the thing: Having another Asian American friend tells them nothing about what it’s like to be friends with me, because not all Asian Americans are the same. (That would be like me thinking that having one white friend helps me understand what it’s like to be friends with every white person.) So in their attempts to sound with it, they actually demonstrate that they are not.
And if they’re busting out this line because someone has accused them of saying or doing something racist, having a friend of color doesn’t get them off the hook. It doesn’t prove that they aren’t racist. If we’ve learned anything from Donald Sterling and his young Instagramming friend, it’s that being racist and having friends of color aren’t mutually exclusive.
People who are comfortable with race don’t need to say that they have other friends of color to prove it, just as people who are humble don’t need to say so in order to prove it. Just the opposite, in fact; saying so only demonstrates otherwise.
Leading off with “Are you [insert ethnicity here]?” so they can tell me about the [insert ethnicity here] thing they’re really into
Perhaps they want to tell me this because they think they’ll make me feel connected, or perhaps because they think they’ll have an interested audience. But as previously discussed, this question signals to me that they aren’t interested in me as a whole person — they’re interested in only one dimension of me. It’s not unlike a guy talking to a girl because she has big boobs or a girl talking to a guy because he has a lot of money; it feels kind of gross. And when they launch into their opinions on Chinese current events or the neighbor from China they once had, they’re making some pretty big assumptions about what they think I should know or care about. My parents are from Taiwan; I was born in Kalamazoo, Michigan; I have never been to China, nor am I particularly interested in Chinese history or happenings. It isn’t safe to assume that I care about what they think I should care about because of how I look.
So that’s a little about why these statements are counterproductive and how to avoid looking like an ignoramus in cross-cultural situations. If you have any questions, I’m happy to discuss; if you have any other classic lines from your experience, I’d love to hear them.