After receiving yet another one of Chunzi's checks on my desk, I wrote a terse email to human resources and copied our managing editor. "These mistakes," I wrote, "are extremely offensive and unacceptable." The managing editor called me into his office to apologize, but he rationalized the situation: "I don't think anyone here's got a mean bone in their body," he said.
This is part of the problem: White people and even Asians themselves dismiss the issue. We laugh at it because it's not malicious. The Asian women I've spoken to have largely rolled their eyes when this has happened or have tried to be good-humored about it. (Several Asian women I know have switched seats with the other Asians in their offices to see if their white male bosses noticed; they didn't.) America Ferrera and Eva Longoria recently made fun of these types of errors in a routine at the Golden Globes.
Nicole Chung, writing in the Toast, calls these experiences "casual racism" and notes that, as minorities, we are often afraid of how white people will feel if we call them out. "What does our dignity matter, what do our feelings amount to, when we could embarrass white people we care about? When our white relatives or friends or colleagues might experience a moment's discomfort, anxiety, or guilt?" she writes.
"You're so pretty," a woman at a concert told me. "My son is marrying a Vietnamese girl. Are you Vietnamese?"
You're so pretty, too! I wanted to say. My cousin is marrying a white guy from Tennessee. Are you from Tennessee? But I didn't say it.
Sometimes I'm so stunned by what's happening that I'm at a loss for words -- like when a man on the subway announced to me, apropos of nothing, "I was just in Shanghai last week!" But this won't stop until we learn to speak up. Part of that includes being brave enough to call this phenomenon for what it is: racist. But the onus isn't just on us inching past our fear of embarrassing a white person. It's on white people to learn to make distinguishing faces a priority. Whether they realize it or not, the repeated misidentification broadcasts its own message: I'm Asian, indistinct and not worth remembering.
A friend of a family member who shall remain nameless once said very enthusiastically, "I LOVE Chinese tea!" at a family gathering. 0_o
And here are some brown people getting mistaken for others.