That’s Not Who I Am: Calling Out and Challenging Stereotypes of Asian Americans

Asian America: Land of the immigrants, the ninjas, the kung-fu masters, Laundromat owners, Eastern mystics, Chinese restaurant waiters and people who can’t pronounce their Ls and Rs properly. It’s a land of slanted eyes and incorrect grammar. It’s a land of the yellow menace taking America’s money. It’s a land of stereotypes — at least, according to television and film.

Asian stereotypes are everywhere, and oftentimes they go unnoticed and unquestioned. More often than not, if you see an Asian/American depicted on the screen you’ll also see an Asian stereotype. From the character Han Lee in “2 Broke Girls” to Long Duk Dong in “Sixteen Candles” and the “yellow girl” in Pete Hoekstra’s recent racist political ad, these stereotypes are unrealistic and offensive. Unfortunately, these stereotypes too often fall under the popular radar and aren’t discussed or acknowledged as much as they should be.

I want to get the discussion started. I’d like to examine three of the most pervasive Asian stereotypes — the Media Action Network for Asian Americans’ website, MANAA.org, has an amazing breakdown of the negative Asian stereotypes we see so often in mainstream media. I’ve taken three of the points from MANAA’s list and I’ll be building upon them in this article. This is an invitation to find, look at, and think about the uncomfortable portrayals of Asian/Americans you see in the media — and start your own discussions.

 

1.) “Asian Americans as foreigners who cannot be assimilated.”

“Because [Asian/Americans] are racially and culturally distinctive from the American mainstream, Asian people have been widely seen as unable to be absorbed into American society. According to this view, anything Asian is thus inherently ‘alien’ to America.” 

“A Christmas Story”‘s Chinese restaurant scene. via http://sweetsour.yolasite.com/

If I had an ARGH for every time I’ve seen or experienced this stereotype, I would be ARGH-ing all day. The few portrayals of Asian/Americans in mainstream TV and film are often characterized by “unassimilated” or “exotic” stereotypes, like Asian accents, martial arts ability, unusualappearance (like traditional clothing), foreign birthplace and language of origin, and a propensity for eating exotic or culturally unacceptable things like dogs or cats. The problem in my lived experience is that these few portrayals end up being what people expect of me, and other Asian/Americans, too, and they create a kind of cultural identity erasure. When people look at me, they expect something that I am not — they expect an exotic other that doesn’t “belong here” (that is, in the United States).

These stereotypes are so pervasive that they leave no space in the cultural landscape for an Asian/American who speaks English with a North American accent (like I do), an Asian/American who does not speak an Asian language with fluency (like I do) and an Asian/American who was born in the United States (like I was). Instead, I’m approached by people who assume that I’m either an immigrant restaurant worker (we’ll get to stereotypical Asian occupations in a bit) or an international student at the local university — two things that place an immigrant or foreign identity on me, even though I’m an American citizen and have been living in the US my entire life. My elementary school classmates all thought I could do kung-fu. I’ve been told that I speak English “remarkably well” (that is, without an Asian accent). And acquaintances are often shocked when they hear I’ve never been to China (which I haven’t; the only time I’ve been out of the US was a brief stay in Toronto).

The stereotype of Asian/Americans as foreign or “other” creates a divide between who I am and how I am perceived — it’s like my US citizenship status is dictated by my appearance and my ethnic background. People who look Asian, the assumption goes, are somehow unable to be American — we can see this demonstrated in the racist Chinese restaurant scene in “A Christmas Story,” when the all-American family has its Christmas dinner in a Chinese restaurant. The otherness of the Chinese people in the restaurant is demonstrated by horrible ethnic caricatures: Traditional dress, lack of understanding of American customs and most glaringly, what I’d like to call “fa ra ra ra bullshit” — the racist stereotype that Asian/Americans swap the Ls and Rs in their speech interchangeably. I’ve never, ever heard any Chinese or Asian non-native English speaker sound the way the singers sound in “A Christmas Story.” Ever. Period. And the supposed humor in the scene comes from the irony of it all — the all-American family having an all-American Christmas meal at a Chinese restaurant, which, as it’s played in the film, is the most un-American experience anyone could ever have.

These stereotypes are embedded in our culture and pass by unnoticed, especially since “A Christmas Story” is a culturally beloved film that almost everyone has seen. I watched “A Christmas Story” for the first time last Christmas, and I liked it (with the exception of the restaurant scene) but I had never heard anyone ever call out the film for, or even talk about, its racist scene. I was shocked when I first saw the film. The lack of discussion about this scene sends the message that this racism against Asian/Americans is still acceptable (or even funny) — that making fun of Asian/Americans through unrealistic Asian accents and an inability to speak English “correctly” (and highlighting this by titling the YouTube clips of the scene things like “Fa Ra Ra”) is A-OK.

The cultural identity of Asian/Americans is deeply affected by racist scenes like this, especially when these racist tropes are not talked about or discussed — without acknowledging how other-izing and racist these scenes are, this “unassimilated” and “unassimilate-able” identity of Asian/Americans becomes the norm, and it becomes what’s expected from people who look like me. From people greeting me with phrases like “konichiwa” to people saying things like “herro” to me (which is supposed to be “hello” with a racist affect), my identity as an Asian American becomes invisible, covered in so many racist and other-ing tropes that people see a stereotype of non-English-speaking immigrant when they look at me rather than an Asian American individual who’s a citizen of the United States.

 

2.) “Asian cultures as inherently predatory.”

“For decades, Americans have viewed Asian immigrants as ‘taking’ from this country without giving anything back. This perception was reinforced by early laws making it difficult for Asians to immigrate and impossible for them to become naturalized citizens. Although these laws have since been repealed, the image of the Asian as alien predator still infuses popular media.”

Vincent Chin. via http://csrd.asu.edu/

In 1982, Vincent Chin was beaten to death in Detroit, Michigan. Chin had been in a bar celebrating his soon-to-be wedding. Two white men, Ronald Ebens and Michael Nitz, approached Chin and said to him, “Because of you motherfuckers, we’re out of work.” According to Helen Zia, a journalist and race activist (and witness in the Prop 8 trial!) who covered the murder in Detroit:

“Vincent replied, ‘Don’t call me a fucker,’ and a scuffle ensued. … Both groups were ejected from the bar. Ebins and Nitz hunted for Chin and the other Chinese man in his group … They drove through the area for a half hour with a neighborhood man whom they paid to help them ‘get the Chinese.’ Finally they spotted Vincent and his friend in front of a crowded McDonald’s on Woodward Avenue, Detroit’s main central thoroughfare. Creeping up behind the Chinese Americans, Nitz held Vincent Chin down while his stepfather [Ebins] swung his Louisville Slugger baseball bat into Vincent’s skull four times, ‘as if he were going for a home run.’ Two off-duty cops who were moonlighting as security guards witnessed the attack. … Mortally wounded, Vincent died four days later. His four hundred wedding guests attended his funeral instead.”  (From “Asian American Dreams”)

According to Roland Hwang, an attorney with the Michigan Department of Attorney General, Ebins and Nitz got away with committing a racially motivated murder in front of two cops virtually scot-free. For second-degree murder, each man was sentenced to “three years probation and a fine of $3,000.”

How does this happen? When any group of people is racially coded as “outside” of American culture, we start to think of them as inhuman, and they become an easy target for frustrations and resentments. In the early 1980s, the automotive industry in Detroit was failing, and fuel- and cost- efficient Japanese cars were on the rise. The blame for the failing economy was placed on Japan, and as a result, Detroit suffered from a great deal of racism and racial anxiety against Asian Americans, regardless of ethnicity. Chin wasn’t Japanese — he was a Chinese American man who worked in Detroit, just like Ebins and Nitz. But because of his “outsider” status coded by his race, he became a target, and a symbol of a hated “other” or “outsider” that was supposedly taking American money. Chin became an American scapegoat for a symbolic, race-based hatred.

From Pete Hoekstra’s racist political ad. via http://chicagoist.com/

This doesn’t stop in the 1980s. While Vincent Chin’s murder did spur a great deal of Asian American civil rights activism, this kind of “Asian people as enemies of America” stereotyping still happens today — take Pete Hoekstra’s racist Superbowl ad, which was released this year. The ad presents China as a force that’s antagonistic to America — Hoekstra insinuates that China is taking money and jobs from Americans, and that his rival, Debbie Stabenow (a Democrat) is funneling money to China. These nationalistic anxieties about countries like China become racial anxieties, too. “China,” an outside, antagonistic force, becomes racially coded as “Asian,” and this gets mapped onto Asian America.

In the same way that nationalistic anxieties about Japan created a dangerous racial climate for Asian Americans in Detroit in the 1980s (and internment during WWII), these nationalistic anxieties about China — “an increasingly common target for political candidates” according to CBS — are similarly creating an unwelcoming racial climate for Asian Americans today. Hoekstra’s ad presents Asians as inherently “other” and “alien” to American culture and hurtful to the American economy. When these stereotypes become widespread, this animosity can get mapped onto individual Asian Americans who aren’t nationalistically associated with China like me.

 

3.) “Asian Americans restricted to clichéd occupations.”

“Asians and Asian Americans make their living in a wide array of professions, but too often, Asian American professionals are depicted in a limited and predictable range of jobs: restaurant workers, Korean grocers, Japanese businessmen, Indian cab drivers, TV anchorwomen, martial artists, gangsters, faith healers, laundry workers, and prostitutes.”

Han Lee from “2 Broke Girls.” via http://www.grantland.com/

My grandfather owned a Laundromat in Manhattan, and he worked day shifts as a waiter in a Chinese restaurant. My grandmother was a seamstress. These occupations were part of — but not the entirety of — my grandparents’ contributions to America. My grandfather also fought for the US in World War II in the Flying Tigers as an airplane mechanic and gunman. Victoria Moy writes about this experience beautifully in her Huffington Post article, titled “You Must Remember This”:

When I asked my grandpa, ‘what was the happiest moment of your life?’ I thought he’d surprise me with a romantic story about how he met my grandmother, but he didn’t. ‘My happiest days?’ he said, ‘it was with the boys, in the army.’

‘When did you first feel like a real American?’ I asked.

‘In the Army. I was an airplane mechanic for the Flying Tigers. There were over 1,000 of us, Chinese Americans, with the 14th Air Force. We traveled through the Himalayas, India, and Africa to China.’

Grandpa sang me army songs, and taught me to march like a soldier; his pride in being American was intense. It made me wonder if nationality would ever imprint itself onto my identity so strongly. At 13, I asked him to tell me his story one more time. He died that year.

Moy’s descriptions of her grandfather fit my grandfather to a T: Our grandfathers both speak Toisanese (a village dialect of Cantonese) and English, watch American films religiously, worked in Laundromats, were paper sons, fought for America in WWII, and, most of all, are American. It’s a picture of theAsian America of a half a century ago that I’ve never seen acknowledged in mainstream media — Asian Americans as patriotic, hard working, and resourceful. These men, who are part of my family and 1,000 other Asian American families, fought in a war and risked their lives for this country — a story that gets overlooked too often.

The Flying Tigers. via http://www.sdchm.org/

When the few Asian Americans in the media are relegated to shop owners (Han Lee in “2 Broke Girls” and Mrs. Kim in “Gilmore Girls”) and other service positions, we miss out on the larger picture: The value of the work Asian Americans do, the sacrifices we’ve made for this country and our patriotic ties to our communities. Overlooking the contributions of Asian Americans has a long history, though — take, for instance, the thousands of Asian Americans who worked on the Transcontinental railroad and were excluded from the celebratory ceremonies, and most notably, the railroad’s completion photo, in favor of their white counterparts. Or the official US Air Force films from WWII, which depict the Flying Tigers as white servicemen rescuing the hapless Chinese — without a mention of the Chinese Americans who fought on America’s side, too.

These stereotypical jobs focus on just the economic ties that Asian Americans have with America, ignoring the other contributions we have made. They present Asian Americans as “predators” who benefit from America and are just waiting to go back to “where they came from” with American money, without offering anything in return. In the popular imagination, the “American” part of Asian America is flimsily attached to our identities and is fundamentally insecure. The limited set of occupations available to Asian Americans on TV and in the movies reinforces the belief that Asian Americans don’t belong here, and aren’t really helping America, either. 

 

The representation of Asian Americans is slowly expanding — we now have doctors, played by Sandra Oh in “Grey’s Anatomy” and Charlyne Yi in “House”; there are dancers and singers played by Jenna Ushkowitz and Harry Shum Jr. in “Glee”; the ensemble cast of “Community” includes Asian American students Danny Pudi and Ken Jeong. Still, you only need two hands to count the number of Asian Americans currently on network TV.

“Glee”‘s Ushkowitz and Shum Jr. via http://glee.wikia.com/

The lack of varied and two-dimensional Asian American (main) characters in mainstream media is staggering, especially to those who are looking for to see themselves in the media, like I am. The times I have felt kinship or identification with a character or person on TV and film are few and far between — and these representations can be more easily found in independent media rather than the mainstream.

The first time I felt I like a film was really talking about me and to me was in late college; the film was Renee Tajima-Pena’s “My America … or Honk if You Love Buddha,” a documentary that looked at Asian America, stereotypes of Asian Americans, and even interviewed Asian American families that have been in America for over eight generations. It’s an amazing film, but I haven’t connected to any film or show the same way since, except for Pearl Girls Productions’ queer Asian American webseries, “That’s What She Said.” The representations of Asian/Americans in mainstream TV and film don’t seem to speak about Asian Americans from a place of knowing or understanding, or even trying to know or understand; instead, I’ve seen a lot of racial tropes being repeated over and over again. Why? Maybe it’s unquestioned convention? Maybe we need more people of color in charge of media representation? I’m not sure. But the cycle continues: Asian/American stereotypes are used; these stereotypes are not corrected or talked about or thought about; rinse and repeat.

From the queer Asian American webseries “That’s What She Said.” Courtesy of Allison Santos, http://www.allisantos.net/

How do we fix these things? We become more aware. We think about the representations of race and gender we see. We talk about them. We maybe even yell about them. We acknowledge how these representations make us feel uncomfortable about ourselves, or, in the best cases, proud to be who we are. As a person of color, I feel out of control when I think of the way the media has historically portrayed people like me — the eternal immigrant, the restaurant worker, the money-sucking Chinese threat; the accented, L-and-R-swapped comic relief. It’s painful to see how few times I felt I could identify with people like me. It’s been difficult just trying to wrest enough authority over my own identity to be able to stand up and say something as simple as “I’m Asian American” without feeling ashamed. No one should have to go through this, but we do.

As queer people and as women, activists and people of color, we are people fighting for who we are in all of our nuanced selfhood. We are fighting for the right to our own identities and who we are. And by examining these representations of ourselves and how people see us, and how we see ourselves, there is power in creating agency over our own identities. It’s an ongoing process: Think, talk, yell, fight. Rinse. Repeat.


Special Note: Autostraddle’s “First Person” personal essays do not necessarily reflect the ideals of Autostraddle or its editors, nor do any First Person writers intend to speak on behalf of anyone other than themselves. First Person writers are simply speaking honestly from their own hearts.


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Whitney is a lover of food, books, comic books and journals made for left-handed people. She is a Ph.D. student at Northwestern University, where she studies video games and new media. She is also a graphic designer, writer and editor who has worked for places like Opium Magazine, Literary Death Match, Publishers Weekly and The Feminist Press. Check out her blog at whitneypow.com and follow her on Twitter @whitneypow.

Whitney has written 51 articles for us.

89 Comments

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    Thanks for making this. I’m African American and most of my friends are Flipino/Asian (mainly from China & India ) and we all agree that stereotypes are ‘BS.’ I appreciate this article and will be honored to email to my buddies.

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    preach! a lovely article. I think part of the problem is that there aren’t many political Asian Americans (never mind queer ones), and the most famous ones (John Yoo, Michelle Malkin) are far right. We have to mobilize our Asian American community so that they speak out about racism. I hate it when Asian Americans don’t understand that people of color issues affect us too; think that somehow the fact that (for the East Asians) we’re not brown or black make racism not our problem. It makes me so angry. So I try and lovingly convince them that they should give a fuck. And find community within other communities of color, and other queers of color.

    Anyhow, for anyone who’s interested, I just saw a really great documentary of a Burmese lesbian who played basketball on Harvard’s women’s team. If you like watching basketball games, I encourage y’all Asian American queers to check it out. It’s called No Look Pass.

    http://nolookpassthemovie.com/

    Also also some groups Asian American queers might want to check out:

    NQAPIA – API queers (nationally) – http://www.nqapia.org/
    Invisible 2 Invincible (this is a group I’m a part of) – API queers (in Chicago) – http://www.chicagoi2i.org/
    http://www.trikone.org/resources.shtml – Desi queers (nationally)
    NAPAWF – AsAm progressive women (lgbt-affirming, but not lgbt specific) – http://napawf.org/

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    I totally agree that stereotypes suck. I’m hispanic and while I do fit some stereotypes, not all of them apply to me. What I found interesting was how “herro” is racist. My brother and I say that to one another jokingly because that’s how we say hello in a joking manner. Good to know this though so now I won’t make the mistake of saying this jokingly to anyone and actually offend them:)

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    WHITNEY. thank you so much for starting this totally necessary conversation. in the past few months, i as well as many of my poc friends have been experiencing a totally new level of racial consciousness, yet there seems to be this huge level of uncertainty about how racism affects the asian-american community. i feel like there’s this really intense misunderstanding that the model minority myth protects asian america from harm, whereas there should be this understanding that that myth itself is harm and stereotypes are not only harmful but dangerous. the whole perpetual foreigner thing totally erases the deep history that asian-americans have had in this country and often me wonder if we’ll ever be considered americans, and then makes me wonder if i even want to be considered american in a society where racism is as pervasive as this.

    anyway, thanks for the article. super important, mad thorough. “fa ra ra ra bullshit” was immediately added to my vocabulary.

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    Thank you for posting this. Such an amazing article to read before bed (UK timezone). I will comment more tomorrow. I definitely will spread this article around.

    Thank you!

    PS – ALLISON SANTOS is my cousin ;)
    Much love and props to family :)

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    Wow, Whitney – you hit the ball waaaay out of the part on this one. Rock on!!! I am bookmarking this forever :-)

    Thanks for giving me some more tools as a white anti-racist ally-in-progress to fight back against the discrimination and erasure Asian Americans and Asian Canadians face <3 (yep, I'm a European Candian)

    In terms of representation on television, does Kalinda in The Good Wife count? Her character's ethnicity hasn't been stated explicitly (nor anything else about her background really been revealed), but the actress who plays her, Archie Panjabi, is of Indian descent (via http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Archie_Panjabi)

    Thanks again for writing such a thorough, insightful, and incisive post on this incredibly important topic!

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    Thank you again, Whitney, for such a wonderful article, and for always trying to bring awareness in your work. I appreciate it so much, because I can relate to your experiences a lot…which is hard for me to do, because nobody wants to understand. Nobody thinks that Asian Americans receive racism and it’s frustrating, because it’s kind of like they’re invalidating your feelings by ignoring that. When I made a proposal for an installation I wanted to do in class about my feelings towards being exoticized for being an Asian American girl, another girl totally shot me down and said “But that stuff happens to ALL girls.” So, when it came time to present my final work, I presented it the way she wanted me to, which I regret, because I allowed her to shut me up and second guess myself. But I won’t ever let that happen again, because like you’ve said, we (need to) fight for the right to own our identity.

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      On a side note, I’m surprised though that you didn’t mention the “WHERE ARE YOU FROM?” question followed by the “NO, where are you REALLY from?” question under point one. I feel like there could be another whole article about that question alone..

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        AGH I hate the “Where are you from / No, where are you really from?” conversation. I’ve touched on it briefly in the “Pete Hoekstra Airs Racist Political Ad During the Superbowl, Everyone Facepalms” article ( http://www.autostraddle.com/pete-hoekstra-airs-racist-political-ad-during-the-superbowl-everyone-facepalms-132082/), but I definitely think there’s a whole lot that can be written about that conversation alone. What frustrates me the most about this question is that when I answer something like, “Michigan,” people will look at me skeptically as if I’m lying — the assumption that I’m obviously just visiting from Asia makes me want to facepalm so hard.

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          Whitney- I know- that’s the article that made me decide to email you a couple of months ago. :) I’m really glad you’re bringing these issues up, and reiterating them. I really hate that set of questions. It’s like, that person is trying to say that I don’t really belong here, or that my Asian heritage takes more power over my upbringing in the US. It’s even more frustrating being multi-ethnic- I could have the longest conversation with someone about “where I’m from.”

          It usually goes like:
          Them: So where are you from?
          Me: Oh, I’m American. I grew up in NY, but I moved here when I was about 9.
          Them: No, I mean, where are you really from?
          Me: What do you mean, like, where are my parents from???
          Them: Yes!
          Me: They were both born and raised in Jamaica.
          Them: No, but I mean… what ARE you??
          Me: Oh, you mean what kind of Asian am I?

          And it goes on and on about not knowing Asian people live/exist in Jamaica (there’s actually a HUGE Asian pop. in Jamaica, just like there is in Canada and the US), what kind of Chinese I speak (which I DON’T), if my parents speak Cantonese or Mandarin (which they both DON’T), etc. Everything always leads to that facepalm feeling.

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            @shannon

            im jamaican chinese as well, and am consistently frustrated at how hard it is for people to wrap their minds around the idea that two ethnic groups they generally only know through stereotypes actually have complex historical narratives.

            favorite response is: “but you don’t look jamaican” no, genius. i just don’t look like anyone from the cast of cool running.

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            ah, this happens to a friend of mine all the time! She emigrated to Australia from Jamaica but her heritage is Chinese. I think she’s relatively forgiving of being asked “so where are you from” because she speaks with an accent, but if she replies “Jamaica” the response is pretty much o.0 and an endless barrage of questions and Cool Runnings jokes.

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          Okay I’m ashamed, but I do ask that question. Not right off the bat or anything, but I have asked it in the past. What is so wrong with it?
          There was one occurrence when I was working a new job, and we would welcome international tourists. So at the beginning of the day, I tried asking everyone in my team for the day: “what languages do you speak?”, so we could help the customers more efficiently. It was in Toronto, and I myself am French, and there were many nationalities in each team. Actually, that day, our 9-person team turned out to speak about 12 languages… That’s Canada for you! Anyway. So I ask my question, and a 40-year-old Asian lady said she spoke Chinese, and she wasn’t offended or anything. But the two other Asian teammates, who were about 20-25-years-old, were really offended by my question, answering “We’re Canadian”, and I kept on insisting “But don’t you speak something else other than English?”, and they wouldn’t budge, “We’re Canadian”… In the end, one was speaking Chinese and the other, Chinese and another Asian language I forgot… So I feel my question my legit… And probably the way I insisted was way insensitive… I might have said “But isn’t your family from somewhere else, haven’t you learnt another language, at all”… I don’t know… Is it really that bad?? I don’t usually consider myself a racist. Arrrr!!!

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        two weeks ago I was late to a training session at work and the teacher came up to me in one of the breaks to fill me in on what I’d missed. I chatted to her a bit about how what she was saying related to my own career and then she asked me “what is your background?”. I thought she was asking about the experiences I’d been sharing so I said “professional or academic?” and she replied “no, ethnic”.

        It was the first thing she’d asked me aside from my first name. I feel the need to say I am white because I don’t want to lay claim to the standpoints of people of colour if that makes sense. But because I am not Anglo-anything and also apparently I look like I could be not-white the “where are you from” bullshit happens to me all the time. It makes me want to assault the questioner.

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      This was a very good article, and timely. I was surprised by the extent and the quantity of insulting Asian-American stereotypes that came pouring out of the media when Jeremy Lin came off the bench for the Knicks, it was like they’d been storing them up or something. I noticed Tina and Mike too, but wrote it off as Glee’s inability to fathom non-white males, but between those and the debate during the Oscars about the poor representations of African-Americans (which quickly leads one to also notice that there are nearly NO prominent portrayals of Asian-Americans)this is a great statement of how and why it all occurs.

      Every Summer for about 5 years Turner Classic Movies did this visionary series about different portrayals of different minorities in film (race & sexual orientation) and the way the portrayals by those early films (never good) ended up becoming a part of the national psyche. To this day I wish they’d release each one on DVD, because (for me at least) they provided food for thought. So much of sterotyping is accomplished by an eerie game of smoke and mirrors.

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    This is such a good article :)

    Question: do you think stereotyped representation is better than none? I suppose this question extends to all minorities really, but your mention of Mike and Tina in Glee made me think of it especially: their entire storylines and characters revolve around them being Asian, most of the time played for laughs (e.g. “panda hair soup”). But I hadn’t considered before that their being performers was a departure from other representations of Asians on TV, so I guess that’s something..?

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      to have stereotyped representation is like having someone call you by the wrong name, over and over again. stereotypes can be destructive and hurtful, but also can be used in a self-depreciating manner (like where comedians who make jokes about their ethnicity by calling out stereotypes). to get back to your question though, i think to have some kind of representation is important. better than being invisible and not there at all…

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    Great article. Thank you for this.

    During my undergrad years, we talked about this topic in my Television Studies elective, and Margaret Cho has been one of the most influential Asian Americans. Back in the 90s, she has her own sitcom, but it was canceled because the higher-powers didn’t think that her character was Asian enough and that she was too overweight. Such bullshit.

    In addition to the scene in “A Christmas Story,” the other movie that aggravates me is “Breakfast at Tiffany’s.” I love the movie as a whole (oh, Audrey), but Mickey Rooney’s character is super offensive.

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    What sucks more than media stereotyping of Asian Americans is media stereotyping of Asian Americans by other lesbians. Exhibit 1: The L Word. The show is set in LA, but the only Asian American character I remember is the crazy Asian chick from season 1 who goes bonkers at Tina trying to “steal” her man’s seed. Really, Ilene Chaiken? You couldn’t find any Asian/American actresses around the same time that Saving Face was under production? Apart from Asian/Americans, the representation of other races was also pretty stereotypical: you have the hypersexual Latina bombshell (Carmen, Papi) and the tough Black woman (Tasha).

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      there is one other Asian character I recall – the super strict somewhat mystical seeming practitioner of ‘traditional Asian medicine’ that Tina was waiting to see when she bumped into pushy-sue-your-pants-off lady. Because why stop at just one stereotype when you can have two?!

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      There was also the Jamie chick who was almost/sorta with Tasha and Alice, sometime later in the series (season 6?). Still, I agree that the representation of the non-white characters was stereotypical. Thanks for this article, Whitney! :)

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    I want to sincerely thank you for this.

    I want to thank everyone involved in this website for teaching me something new every day. Thank you for making me a better citizen of the world. Thank you for making me aware. Thank you for working hard to diversify the people you work with and making a place for important voices I wouldn’t necessarily hear on the surface of the internet.

    Thank you for helping me with my voice.
    All your hard work is worth it, because you are reaching me.

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    This is an awesome article, thank you for writing this.
    I come from a town with a very large Asian American population, so I’d like to think most people my age here are pretty good about not being racist assholes, but I’m sure there are still some assholes among us. I shall circulate this article among people. Again, thanks for the great writing.

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    As a performer the roles I get sent out for are (with the exception of a few) generally quite stereotypical. I’m grateful for the opportunity and have yet to turn an audition down but sometimes the breakdowns about roles can be stereotypical and downright offensive.

    The most stereotypical ones I’ve been to are for the ninja girls, the hot asian chicks that are the subject of lecherous d-bags’ affections, the nerds whose parents will kill them if they get an A-… Unfortunately there is a need to mark the breakdown of the roles with “All ethnicities acceptable”or even “must be oriental or visibly ethnic mix”. There is little to no distinction between asians either. One breakdown was about a chinese character with a japanese name. There’s nothing wrong with that and I’m sure there’s loads of chinese girls with japanese names but if you’re going to make a distinctly chinese character, why not stop being so FOB dang lazy do your research and give her a chinese name?

    Things are changing and people of all races are getting more visibility. TV/film is supposed to reflect life a little, but the large majority of the entertainment industry at least still seems to believe the face of North America is one color. America is multi-colored, let the rainbow out.

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    thank you so much for writing this. as a chinese-canadian i have so many feelings about asian stereotypes, especially since i, like you, was born in north america and speak without an accent… i’m also only half chinese, which nobody ever cares about anyway. i’ll probably never see myself on the teevee

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    Great job, Whitney. I also am constantly irritated by the swapability (as I like to call it) of Asians in Hollywood: Koreans playing stereotyped Chinese roles, and so on and so forth. Of course, actors need jobs, but the sense that all Asians look alike and are therefore easily replaced with just another Asian face not only upholds these stereotypes, but assumes that American audiences are stupid. I’m thinking of the Hangover for example. I found the film very offensive, and basically asinine (don’t even get me started on the homophobic bullshit in that movie), but think about how many Americans saw that film (not to mention outside the US)…it is scary. The way I try to deal with all of this is bring it up with my students (I’m a graduate student) and try to start a dialogue. Sometimes it falls flat, but at least my students are more aware of this kind of Hollywood crap.

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    Fantastic article, Whitney. This past year I worked with a social justice organization that really made me (FINALLY!) delve into all my feelings re: my race and ugh, there’s a lot of them. It’s kind of sad to see just how much I used to play these stereotypes for the entertainment/acceptance of my peers. And literally every single other poc friend I had did the same. IT’S SO MESSED UP.

    As someone of mixed race, though, I feel like I’ve had a slightly different experience. I still get the usual “Where are you from?”-esque questions, but I don’t think I’ve ever gotten the “You speak English really well” type of comments. It’s more like I feel like I’m constantly being forced to choose a side and I can’t exist as both. But I’m getting off-topic here.

    Since this comment is already going to be way too long, I might as well add to it with a really A+ piece of racism courtesy of my mom.

    My (white) mother was talking to my stepdad about how she and my (Korean) father used to own a laundromat. Literally, the way she phrased this was, “And he and I owned a laundromat because…well…*obviously*.”

    I was COMPLETELY FLOORED by this bullshit that had just come out of my mom’s mouth and so I dealt with it the only way I really know how: I told all of my friends about it and we turned it into a game where we would use the same phrase, except make it a stereotype about white people instead, e.g. “My mom loves The Help because…well….*obviously*.”

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    nice job!
    I *hated* “A Christmas Story” and I don’t even remember that racist scene. It’s a)a quintessentially white experience and b)a quintessentially male gendered one at that.
    All those job stereotypes are also all working class — which also undermines the diversity of class experience. This is in addition to the homogenized notion of the singular “Asian” that results in the erasure of ethnic diversity among Asians.

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    I’m not American, so I can’t really speak to the intricacies of race and identity in America other than what I have been exposed to through the media.
    However I do come from a young country (New Zealand) with a predominantly “white” population, an important indigenous culture (Maori) and many large and visible immigrant communities so I would imagine some aspects of my experience are not dissimilar to your average white American.
    I would say I have been guilty of asking the “where are you from?” question, although I would like to think that a) I don’t ask it in such an accusatory way and b)It would generally be as part of a wider conversation, in which I would also share my own background.
    The fact is that countries like NZ and the US were built on immigration, and everyone who is not Maori or Native American has their roots in some other place, some much further back than others.
    Now I don’t know how true this would be in the states, because you seem to have a fairly strong national identity that is built on certain ideals and essentially ignores anyone who was there before the “founding fathers”, but in NZ we are still searching for our identity to some extent. A lot of the Pakeha (white) population have been in NZ for many generations and have lost any trace of their original cultural identities. This is why you will see videos of drunk white boys teaching The Spice Girls the Haka or blonde blue eyed girls with Moko (traditional Maori tattoos). We, as white people, have little to identify with or distinguish us from all the other white people so we grab onto anything that we can use as a point of difference to the rest of the world.
    In my experience, a lot of other ethnic groups have stronger ties with their origins even after living in other countries for just as many generations. This brings me back from my rambling to my original point: I often ask about peoples background purely out of interest, and also probably a bit of jealousy, because I am curious about people and their personal stories which are informed by where they came from, whether they themselves made that big move or their great great great grandfather.
    I guess my question would be, how do I do this without coming across the way you have suggested I might be? Is this possible?

    I’m not sure how much sense any of that made, but also this is a great article!

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      To answer your question (Erm’s, in case this doesn’t show up in a direct reply to her),

      I know you don’t mean to be offensive when asking questions, but even if it’s out of admiration or jealousy of the other person’s presumed cultural identity, you’re still treating them like an exotic novelty instead of a boring white person (unless of course, you really do ask everybody you ever meet where their ancestors came from) and making this assumption based on skin color. It is this assumption based on skin color/appearance, and turning their appearance into the thing you want to know about rather than their hobbies or whatever. It’s like assuming that all Asian Americans are super geniuses at math maybe looks positive and friendly at first, but it is actually really problematic.

      Maybe the girl across the street who looks white is actually a first generation immigrant and the person of color who you are talking to is a 12th gen New Zealander but the white person goes unnoticed because people make assumptions based on skin. Maybe the person of color doesn’t speak anything other than English.

      I’m white and I’ve lived in several countries where the majority of people are white, and I was Always assumed to be a native of the country I was in. My friends who were not white, never were assumed to be natives, even if they were.

      And, from my own experience, it’s a really weird feeling when people want to talk to you and be friends with you because you are Diverse. It’s hard wondering if they’re friends with you because you’re Diverse or because you both have the same hobby or whatever.

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        “Maybe the girl across the street who looks white is actually a first generation immigrant and the person of color who you are talking to is a 12th gen New Zealander”

        yes this. particularly in AU / NZ, where a lot of white people actually emigrated from the British isles at the same time or after non-white people (or white people from Southern and Eastern Europe, who also get the ‘where are you from’ spiel if we have funny names or look non-Anglo) arrived. If you look at the Australian citizenship statistics*, the biggest group of ‘new Australians’ per year are actually people from the UK. But people don’t look at someone who looks like they are from the UK or has a surname like ‘Smith’ and ask “where are you from”. Even though there is a good chance that they or their immediate family have in fact recently arrived from somewhere far far away.

        *I hope you Kiwis aren’t bothered by me talking about Australian immigration, our countries are so similar that I figured it’d be relevant.

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      I’m a New Zealander who happens to not be white. I don’t identify with “Asian New Zealand” because I’m not from Asia, I’m from Wellington. So are my parents and grandparents (except the Aucklanders). Some of my great-grandparents happen to be originally from China. Because, as you say, NZ is an immigrant nation, I feel the same amount of cultural belonging and ties to our country as any Pakeha person (in fact I’m 9/16ths Pakeha myself).

      When you ask where I’m from, you’re pointing out that I don’t look like a ‘New Zealander’- it’s as simple as that. My appearance is your motivation. You’re clearly a nice person who isn’t trying to be racist, but when you ask this, you’re separating me from ‘normal’ people because of the way I look. You’re singling me out because of my race.

      Even when this is done out of pure curiosity and absolutely no malcontent, it reminds me of every other time I’ve been harrassed in the street to “Go home”, every time I’ve been called yellow or greeted with Ni hao. And I’m fourth generation… it makes me think, when does this stop? Will my children be singled out and seen as ‘ethnic’? Will my grandchildren? When do they stop being Chinese and start just being New Zealanders?

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    Thank you so much for this article.

    It gives me so many feelings. I’m half Filipino, half white. But I didn’t really grow up in the States. I for some idiot reason did a semester of college at the University of Kentucky. The GSA there was awesome there. SO PROPS! Anyway, my best friend there was a girl that was half Korean that grew up overseas too. This one time we ordered Chinese food with a third friend. Who innocently asked us to talk to the order taker when he couldn’t understand the man. Later on he asked the two of us we spoke the same language.

    And growing up I was pretty bummed at not having anyone Asian on tv. And I’m still pretty bummed since in Hollywood Asian American means East Asian. AND not to mention I don’t think there’s half Asian characters on tv. I count Emily Fields on PLL. But I don’t know about Blaine Anderson on Glee who is played by Darren Criss.

    Okay. I’m going to stop now before I ramble on forever.

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    I’m always amazed when I hear the “foreigners who cannot be assimilated” trope (about Asian-Americans, or even more frequently about Hispanics) from people with Italian or Irish surnames. How quickly we forget — jump back a century and they were the unassimilable foreigners.

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    Recently read an article on The Rumpus where the Asian-American author fleshes out his claim that racism against Asian/Americans is treated differently in this country than racism against other ethnic groups.

    (http://therumpus.net/2012/03/different-racisms-on-jeremy-lin-and-how-the-rules-of-racism-are-different-for-asian-americans/)

    I was a little put off by his claim that racists are more likely to hold back before slinging slurs at blacks, for example (especially having experienced plenty of racism myself). But his point about the lack of societal recognition and rejection of racism against Asians and Asian-Americans was important and had honestly never occurred to me before.

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    This is an amazing article! However, I do have a small point of contention to make. While the assumption that Asians are unable to integrate is annoying and patently incorrect, I don’t believe that Asians should HAVE TO integrate. I understand that the US is a “melting pot” sort of society when it comes to immigrants and non-whites, but in Canada we subscribe more to the “multicultural” idea, with various ethnic cultures co-existing alongside one another.

    Personally I like to maintain my connections to both Canadian and Chinese culture, and I was once invited by a high school acquaintance (also Chinese) to join his club for “accelerated integration”. I was a little horrified by what was proposed- that all immigrants should immediately adopt “white culture” so as to be “real Canadians” and “combat racism”. Really? So people who refuse to (or cannot) integrate into what he deemed as Canadian culture deserve to be discriminated against. I was so disgusted I didn’t even know what to say.

    But yeah, as a 1st gen I understand that it’s difficult to ever be thought of as a real Canadian, even though I was born here and speak English fluently (and some French). Something about the “no, where are your PARENTS from” question just really gets on my nerves. Yeah, they came from China, what’s your point? A (white) girl I was kind of interested in asked me this, and later it turned out that she had a bit of “yellow fever”. Any thoughts on this little phenomenon?

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    Great article Whitney, it’s spot on. I am actually really astonished by some of these stereotypes – I’ve never heard of them before! I did grow up outside of the US, so I suppose I have somewhat less exposure to them despite inhabiting areas that are heavily populated with several Eastern Asian populations.

    I do have a question, once again referring to Asian Americans’ heritage. Some context: I am a Latin@ (Chilean) who was born in Japan. I attended the international school in Chile for all of grade school, so it’s really customary for me to ask where people are from, regardless of their skin coloration, as most of my friends as a kid would come and go. I also happen to be close friends and have dated many Asians or Asian Americans from all over East Asia, so I do have a moderate understanding of the different cultures (or, at the very least, above average). I also speak Mandarin.

    So here’s my question: would it still be wrong/racist to ask for someone who’s of Asian descent what their heritage is? (I’m not talking about asking every Asian I see, but someone who I am getting to know better) In part it’s because I enjoy learning/talking about other cultural backgrounds different to my own (the US and Canada included), and well, I like being speaking Mandarin given the chance (with someone who speaks it, of course). It almost always gets asked back, and all sorts of multicultural/ethnic/race talks typically begin from there on.

    I’d like to add that as someone who is Latin@, a lot of these questions are asked routinely towards Hispanics (and 1st gens) too. The same way there’s a terrible assumption that all Asians are Chinese (not true), there’s an assumption that all Latin@s are Mexican (also not true). Once I mention I’m from Chile, people follow that up with “Do you speak Spanish?”, another parallel. There’s always the “but you speak English so well!” comment as well. This isn’t an oppression olympics thing, but rather wanting to show that this a common theme across anyone seen as “not American”.

    Also, I must say I’m also surprised no one has mentioned the “Asians all look the same” stereotype! Honestly, what the hell? -.-

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      “Asians all look the same” stereotype! Honestly, what the hell? -.-

      I can’t even, I’m too poc for that shit!

      Also, also “OOOHHH LEMME GUESS WHERE YOU ARE FROM BECAUSE I AM SO CULTURED AND WATCH JAPANSESE, CHINESE, K-POP & THE ASAIN EVERYTHING!”

      I still can’t even.

      My bff is Cambodian and a quarter French and I am Nigerian-American (First generation) our bond is fierce because of this shit and the mutual love of eating food.

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    I haven’t experienced racism because I’m of European appearance. I grew up first in England, then Australia. My mother is Israeli (Ashkenazi descent aka white) and my dad is Australian and of English, Irish, Scottish and possible Native American descent. Growing up people used to not believe me that my brother and I were full siblings because to them my brother and I “[look] so different.” It was, of course, their way of saying “But he looks ethnic, and you don’t” but I guess they thought I might not read between the lines? My brother has naturally dark skin.
    People used to find out about my mother (having not met her) and go, “Oh, so that’s why he’s dark”, but no, it’s not why. My mother is Ashkenazi not Sephardic, there’s a difference. The skin tone came from my father’s side.

    The stereotype I hate the most about Jews is the ‘cheap’ stereotype. I hate it so much. But I’m very lucky cause I know how much crap Aboriginals, Asians and other non-whites get in Australia. The whole ‘Go back to where you came from’ shit.

    Can I please have an exception to the no images rule for this gem?

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    how do we fix this? there is no such thing as a good stereotype because they are assumptions. people look to the television to “see themselves” and do not realize they do not see them self, or their friend, or their coworker… they see the INDIVIDUAL being portrayed on the screen. you don’t relate to someone because they look like you, you haven’t a clue anything of them. they don’t represent you, you represent yourself. you may find aspects of a person that is similar but that is not “your hair”, that is “her hair”, that is not your opinion, that is an opinion that coincides with your opinion. the whole debate of representation is working backwards. it’s saying that we need to “represent” everyone in the media because who is in the media should matter and we are incapable of representing ourselves and i disagree. so if someone who does not know me thought i was good or bad because i’m a lesbian and they saw lesbians portrayed on tv as good or bad, i would be offended, that would be an insult to me. why? because they do not know a single thing about me, for them to know a thing of me, i must express it myself. so until we can see people as individuals and the premise of an assumption is well, to put it bluntly, impossible, stereotypes cannot be defeated. until we do not hold these pre-conceived, therefore unknown, views of people, we will continue to tell people who they should be or who we think they are, creating a self-fulfilled prophecy if people will treat them in such a manner, instead of allowing the person to tell us who they are.

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    the whole idea of they think me good they think me bad because of some irrelevant person on tv that merely physically looks like me, and I DID NOT CHOOSE TO THIS BODY THAT I WAS BORN INTO, therefore i must be good or i must be bad; and for what reason?! or a person is able to think this of me? why does this not make any sense to me?

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    “I know you don’t mean to be offensive when asking questions, but even if it’s out of admiration or jealousy of the other person’s presumed cultural identity, you’re still treating them like an exotic novelty instead of a boring white person (unless of course, you really do ask everybody you ever meet where their ancestors came from) and making this assumption based on skin color.”

    Why it is not okay to ask about someone’s heritage. It is interesting, dammit! When people meet me and note my non-quite-white look and strange surname and ask about my background, I never insult them by assuming that they think I am less Australian than they are.

    “Something about the “no, where are your PARENTS from” question just really gets on my nerves. Yeah, they came from China, what’s your point?”

    I don’t get this quote either. My parents’ background HAS shaped who I am and I can see how that might be seen as semi-interesting to people who have been brought up in a sea of white. I have no problem with this. Why not let people ask questions and embrace diversity? The more we can learn about each other, the better.

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      How often do you ask about your white friends’ ethnic/cultural backgrounds (assuming they don’t have a wacky accent)?

      Because that’s the crux of it. I’m a white girl in Australia with a weird American accent and a weird surname, so I get asked about that a lot, but my white Australian friends (or American friends in the US) don’t get those questions so much at all. And I rarely got them when I lived in the US, so.

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      here are some stories about actual things that have happened to me involving the “where are you from” theme:

      1) I’m on holiday in Australia. There’s a job I want to apply for so I go to a public library and sit down at a computer to write my application. After a while, a librarian comes over to tell me that they have a policy that non-Australians can only use the internet for a short period of time and I’ll have to get off the computer. When I manage to sputter out “I am Australian” and show her the ID to prove it she is extremely apologetic, but says “it’s just that you don’t LOOK Australian”.

      2) The one I gave above – I was doing some professional training at work, chatting to the trainer about how what she was talking about related to my own career and then she asked me “what is your background?”. I thought she was asking about the experiences I’d been sharing so I said “professional or academic?” and she replied “no, ethnic”. Two degrees, several years of experience, a string of scholarships and prizes but the first thing she sees is that I’m

      3) I’m 16 years old doing work experience at a law firm. Me and my work experience buddies get to have a 1 hr meeting with the head of the firm, who is your quintessential WASPy lawyer dude. He asks me about my background and my name and is politely interested but doesn’t have much to say. He asks my WASP buddy about what school she goes to and what sports she plays and they wind up having a chat about their shared love of (I kid you not) golf.

      4) Now I’m 19 and I have to see a specialist because there are cysts in my breast that my regular doctor thinks I should get checked out. The doctor pokes me, tells me she thinks it’s probably nothing and then spends the rest of the appointment asking me questions about the story of how my family came to Australia, which is “fascinating, just fascinating”. I can’t pinpoint why I’m so uncomfortable when I and I realise after it’s because I was vulnerable in front of her and she acted like I was just some unusual specimen to be examined.

      Now do you have a better idea about why some of us are so wary of this question???

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        sigh, I keep leaving things out on this thread, sorry to whoever is comment modding! Should read “the first thing she sees is that I’m ‘different’ ethnically. Also should read “I can’t pinpoint why I’m so uncomfortable when I leave”.

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          I’m stuck on the “You don’t look Australian”..What does that even mean? Posts and comments like this remind me just how “sheltered” my life is..And that pisses me off! Clearly I need to pay more attention. And how the fuck does one “look Australian”?

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            Digger I am pretty sure you are already paying attention! And I wish I had asked her exactly that. I think the thing about incidents like that is that I’m so floored by what is going on that I don’t have the presence of mind to stand up and assert myself.

            Perhaps the most laughable aspect of all of this is that I am in fact white. I have curly black hair, black eyes, very pale skin, and (sigh) a big nose with a bump in it. I think the biggest thing I have learned from my experiences if this sort of stuff happens to me as a white non-Anglo-anything person, how bad must it be for people of colour?!

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            “how bad must it be for people of colour?!”

            Oh well in my personal experience being too poc for this shit, I have a proper rage session, cry, eat, exercise, punch something, rage rage rage (it’s different from a proper rage), look at pictures of kittens and puppies, I have come up with all kinds of ways to deal with the bull shit.

            I had a rage rage rage moment when I was rejected from giving blood since my named was “African” and everybody got AIDS in shit there *rolls eyes*. I was so pissed I just left but my [blood relative] sister was able to give blood because her name is Sandra and we have an English last name (colonization!!).

            I still can’t even.

            *hard shigh*

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            “I had a rage rage rage moment when I was rejected from giving blood since my named was “African” and everybody got AIDS in shit there *rolls eyes*.”

            What the fuck. What the fucking fuck. I don’t even know what to say to say. I’m sorry that happened to you.

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            @Dizzy

            It has been 5 years since that has happened and I still can’t. I have to bring my papers in shit if I want to give blood!

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            I’m in this awkward balance between anger over what happened to “bra” and laughter over “dizzy’s” meltdown over it. I think I might have “What the fucking fuck” tattooed somewhere on my body

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            As I frequently lack that essential filter between brain and mouth, I would likely respond with “Yeah. I know..That’s the funny thing about appearances. I mean, at first glance, you don’t look like an idiot.”

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            Aaaaand that’s why I need to smuggle you into Australia and then drag you round as my valiant protector, who defends my honour with most excellent snark. How would you feel about this?

            The gun thing will also help :)

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            I pack up quite nicely in a duffel bag..And my snark is at your service..The gun will be a bit more diffcult to manage however. Will you make me Fairy Bread?

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            What. the. fuck. See this is the sort of shit people who say “oh but we are a post-racist melting pot society” need to be hearing about. Because I feel like most people white people, myself included, would never DREAM that would still be happening in 2012. But really it’s just that it’s not happening to us – not that it’s not happening.

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            Ooops, that was meant to be a reply to bra, I really am made of comment fail tonight. I think I’m posting messily because I’ve gotten all rage-y.

            Seriously @Digger I don’t know what else to say!

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      @multigrain

      I am one of those people that is usually put off by those questions (Where are you from?, etc.) I do think it’s okay to ask about the heritage of others, and I love to learn about other people’s backgrounds and I do like to share mine in return.

      However, I think the reason why many people are put off has to do with the way things are asked. There’s a difference between asking, “What’s your ethnicity/cultural background/heritage?” vs. “Where are you from?” Personally, I’ve had a lot of other things said and done to me in my life that makes me feel like I don’t fit in, can’t fit in and am an outsider. I know none of these things are true, but when people ask, “Where are you from?”, it has more of a tone of “You must obviously not be from here, because you don’t look like the rest of us. Tell me what country you and your parents are from.” It’s a question that gives some an alienating feeling, and it usually leads to a set of similar questions, like “Where are your parents from?” and “No, but where are you really from?” When the conversation’s over, you realize there was an expected answer from the beginning, which would be something like, “China.” When people persist in trying to find out what kind of Asian you are in particular, it ignores the fact that you may be a person of mixed race, and/or that your upbringing in a non-Asian country has had the most effect on your life.

      It’s true that the more we can learn from each other, the better. I would love to answer other people’s questions about my heritage (or what they think is my heritage), but that’s the thing, I can’t. Like many other Asian people and people in general, I have mixed cultural upbringings. I grew up in American and Jamaican culture, and that’s all I can really tell anyone about. When people start to ask me questions, I tell them that I’m from here (the US), that my parents and whole family is from Jamaica, and that I don’t really know anything at all about my Chinese heritage. But despite this, I get asked the language question. I tell them that I don’t speak it, parents don’t speak it, I don’t know any other language, but that I can understand Jamaican dialect/patois. And then I get another question about Asia. I think that’s annoying thing about all of this. I can tell you anything about my heritage, sure, but when I tell you I identify with a particular culture, and you choose to ignore that by asking questions to put me in a box of what you think the experiences of an Asian American are (parents own this, you’ve been to there, speak this), then I’ll be put off.

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    Yes, I do ask my white friends about their background. Most of my friends are first generation Australians of Southern European, Asian or Arabic background, so I guess Anglo-Saxons are kind of exotic to me. Actually, I find most people who aren’t me interesting, so I naturally want to know more about them. Is that wrong?

    So if someone doesn’t have an accent, it’s not ok to ask about their background?

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      It’s not that complicated nor is a call to censor yourself. It is about tact if you MUST ask these kinds of questions. It’s about AWARENESS that some people given their personal history may become annoyed or defensive because of the experiences they had with these questions being intrusive, rude and outright racist. At the end of the day, it is not about you, I repeat it not about you.

      Awareness is a good thing because you never know!

      Like you I find nothing personally wrong with asking someone about their ethnic background regardless of race. I too also find it interesting and I try to have some tact and more importantly I always make it a point to talk about other things first like hobbies and food because I love love love food and I love learning about different cultures.

      As long as you are not rude about you should be fine, you do you and all that jazz.

      In my experience my name has always gotten the second glaces or side eye. My favorite reaction is that before I say anything, the person speaks slower and louder just in case I don’t know English, yay. I then say something and “the amaze” happens because not only I do not have and “accent” but how “interesting” that I sound like a “white girl,” LIFE IS FUN GUYS!!!!

      Also, also don’t you just love when people use a smile to hide their suspicion on your legal status in the US (or anywhere)? Or “do you know how to speak Chinese/African/American/Asian [insert fail of not realizing it's a country not a language]“?

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      Pretty much every time my sister in law is introduced to someone (white) they ask her where she’s from or say that she speaks good English because she apparently looks “exotic” (she’s bi racial). I cringe every time it happens because not only is it racist and othering but also it intrudes on her private family life. She was born in the same city as I was and has lived in our country all her life. She doesn’t know who her father is so when someone asks what ethnicity she is she answers with the country her mother is from. People look at her like she’s crazy and that she can’t possibly be because she doesn’t look it. Added to this is the fact that the man that has been a father to her her whole life and that she calls Dad is white and you get a whole bunch of intrusive questions about her and her family’s history. I’m really intolerant of the “where are you from” question because I don’t really think that it is the business of someone who has just met you. No one has ever asked me it because I’m white even though my father is in fact an immigrant. She only gets asked because she isn’t white and that seems pretty racist to me.

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    This is a very well-written article and I love it! I can only identify with part of it (since I am an Asian that is from Asia, but currently living in the United States), but I have been frustrated at how Asian Americans are represented in the media. For that matter, I have been frustrated at how any kind of minority is being shown on TV and movies.

    Perhaps that is why I have kept up almost religiously with the wonderful Asian Americans who post amazing stuff on YouTube. It seems to be the only avenue for them, and I am glad that it is at least available somewhere.

    And I don’t mean to strengthen any stereotypes, but I do actually know Asians who can’t seem to get their Ls and Rs right. I actually know at least one Asian person that would fall into every single stereotype that is currently out there. But it is what it is, and it doesn’t give others the permission to mock and generalize the rest of the Asian population.

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    Whitney, thanks so much for writing this article. I’ve thought about this subject a lot recently. I’m an Asian-American (without an “Asian” accent) currently studying in Canada. Oddly enough the most racist comments I’ve ever heard in my life happened after I moved here, delivered by my current Asian-Canadian roommate against Asians, as well as other POC. There are also lots of undercurrents of racism in the place where I work. When I make a counter-argument or call them out for being offensive, they say they are just trying to be funny. Then they call me a banana.

    Argh.

    Also I wonder if anyone else is ever bothered by the way Asians are being portrayed as the bad guys in video games. I am thinking about Fallout 3 and Mass Effect 3. Like, was it just a coincidence that everybody in Mass Effect is non-Asian except for the evil ninja assassin who is given such a one-sided, detestable role that it’s impossible not to hate him?

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    I’ve basically given up on American entertainment.

    These days I mainly watch Asian movies and TV series and have never been happier.

    The best thing is that I’ve gotten quite a few of my non-Asian friends hooked on these shows as well :)

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    people only pick on asians when they can’t defend themselves like when they’re singled off. where I work it’s 80% asian and all the whites, black, and mexicans are being intimated by us instead of the other way around.

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    Hi Whitney,

    I really appreciated your article. You literally took every sentiment and frustration I feel as an Asian American and expressed them in this post. Many of my friends don’t understand why I get so upset by stereotypes that at times are “harmless” like how Asians are portrayed in the media and I will just send them this article so I can save my breath!

    Asians are truly an overlooked minority because there are enough successful ones to blame for taking jobs away from “Americans” and to overlook the more numerous impoverished Asian communities.

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    Excellent article! I’m of European descent, but my fiancee is Chinese (a natural born U.S. citizen of Chinese descent – she considers herself Chinese, and is adamantly opposed to using the terms Chinese American or Asian American to refer to herself), and I’ve seen how these sorts of things affect her. I was aware of these issues before we started dating, as I had several Asian American friends in middle and high school (my fiancee included – though I didn’t have any inkling of her future status then!), but loving someone who is subjected to stereotypes and racism on a frequent basis has changed the way I react. I am far, far more likely to call people on their shit. Including my own family, who I still (still!) sometimes catch making racist jokes, despite the fact that I’m going to marry a Chinese woman. My fifteen-year-old brother is the worst offender, and has gotten a barely-restrained talking-to more than once. The only thing that keeps me from screaming outright is the knowledge that it’s based in ignorance rather than malice, and he has no idea he’s being offensive. When he knows he is being offensive, I exercise no restraint.

    My fiancee and also hope to have children, and she wants to carry at least one, so every time I witness anything like this or turn on the television to a sea of white faces, I’m reminded that this is a world my kids will have to face, that my fiancee is already facing. A world where they have to deal with homophobia and racism all at once. I get preemptively maternal and it makes me furious and terrified all at once. I can only imagine that those feelings will be amplified if I am actually a parent.

    Also, an anecdote: A substitute teacher once asked my Korean American friend if she was Chinese or Japanese. Ironically enough, it was an Asian Studies class. The majority of us were shocked and indignant, but my friend was blase about the whole thing. I wondered why she wasn’t more angry at the time; it wasn’t until I’d been out for a while and begun presenting as very masculine that I realized that it stops being surprising very fast and indignation can be exhausting.

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