When I studied Chinese two decades ago, I couldn’t believe how white peers reacted. Imagine how Asian Americans feel.By Jill Richardson | March 24, 2021
Previously published in OtherWords.org
Estimated reading time: 3 minutes
As our nation grapples with its legacy of anti-Asian racism, it’s important to consider the subtler forms of racism too. Racism occurs on a spectrum, from social degradation all the way to — as we saw recently in Atlanta — mass murder.
I cannot speak for Asians, nor do I wish to. But as a white woman who majored in East Asian studies and learned Chinese in college two decades ago, I learned a lot about biases others may not see.
It started with my parents. My mom loves “culture” and “languages” — but it turned out that her affection didn’t extend to Chinese. “I’m sorry,” she would say to me on the phone. “I just don’t find China interesting.”
What an odd thing to say.
My parents could appreciate that my language skills would be an advantage in my job, but the all-consuming love I had for learning about China? That was weird. By “culture,” my mom meant European culture.
My non-Chinese peers, meanwhile, treated Chinese as if it were incomprehensibly foreign, like it could be understood by nobody.
Once, after college, I went to a Chinese restaurant with coworkers. The server’s English was shaky, but I could communicate with him easily in Chinese. I watched a coworker act as if the waiter was not capable of communication at all, which was rude and dehumanizing.
At school, peers would say things to me like “Ping ping ting ting — hey what does that mean in Chinese?” I hope I replied, “You just said ‘I’m an idiot,’” but I think usually I was too stunned to respond.
Other times, when people heard I studied Chinese, they would try to relate by saying things like “Oh, my aunt’s been to Japan.” They are actually different countries. Imagine saying “You’re studying French? My aunt’s been to Germany.”
The comment I heard the most was “Did you know they eat dogs in China?” Imagine if a routine response to telling someone you’re American is, “Don’t they eat testicles in the U.S.?” (Google “Rocky Mountain oysters” if you aren’t familiar.) It’s the same.
If I was able to learn this much about anti-Asian bias just by telling people I’d studied Chinese, imagine what Asians and Asian Americans experience.
My experience differs from those of Asians and Asian Americans because the microaggressions I encountered were about a passion of mine, but not about my identity, culture, or family. I can opt out of dealing with these microaggressions at will because I’m white.
Unlike me, Asian Americans are still treated like perpetual foreigners, even though some of their families got here decades before mine did. My family immigrated to this country about a century ago — after the passage of the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act barred Chinese people from coming here but before the KKK-supported 1924 immigration act that would have kept my Eastern European ancestors out.
I’m just another white woman. Nobody calls me “exotic” or sexually fetishizes me for my race. Historically, racism has been carried out in the name of protecting people like me from non-white others, not in the name of protecting others from me.
These less violent forms of anti-Asian racism still contribute to a pattern of dehumanization that can lead to the kind of racist, sexist violence we saw in Atlanta. We as a nation condemn anti-Asian racism in all its forms.