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Are You A Racist?: How Your Questions are Actually Xenophobic

Yahoo/Flicker -- Jerry Yang, Asian American founder of Yahoo

Yahoo/Flicker — Jerry Yang, Asian American founder of Yahoo

Westerners can sometimes fall back on a certain type of inquiry when in conversation with a person of Asian descent. Although some may view the following questions as harmless, are they actually unacceptable, disrespectful, and racist? Absolutely.

The video “What kind of Asian are you?,” which went viral, makes fun of the typical phrases that Westerners sometimes ask Asian people , including the notoriously common “what type of Asian are you?” or “where are you REALLY from?” Another similar video points out the ridiculousness of these phrases by reversing the roles and having Asians ask Caucasian people these questions. Although the videos use humor to portray just how absurd many of these phrases actually are, they also make a more serious point about the ludicrous assumptions many people unknowingly maintain against communities different than their own.

Asian People Must Prove They Belong

Phrases like “Where are you from? No, where are you really from?” heavily imply that all Asian people in the “West” are immigrants or not true citizens. Other common questions like “What kind of Asian are you?” and “What is your real Asian name?” undermine a person’s ability to self-identify first and foremost as a member of the local community. The United States’ historical narrative is uniquely rich in that we pride ourselves on being a “melting pot.” The integration process into American communities is one with which not just every ethnic populace engages, but every single person lives and interprets in their own way as well. ABC produced a new sitcom addressing the many ups and downs of self-determining exactly what it means to be both Asian and an American, called Fresh Off the Boat.

The kind of person who asks such questions may just be ignorant. However, fear and hate can also motivate individuals to hold these stereotypes and ask these types of questions. Xenophobia is any level of fear towards something or someone that poses a threat and often leads to a display of fear towards those people. The display of fear manifests in not just violence but also passive exclusion or impoliteness. Asian American blogger Altan Wang believes Asians are made to feel like outsiders with these types of phrases and, as a result, feel the need to prove that they are allowed to be in and belong to a western country or community, even if they were born and have always lived there. Westerners might not intentionally make someone else feel like this but, intentional or not, the phrases are xenophobic and have the potential to make anyone feel excluded. Language is powerful and, for productive neighborhood relationships, communication is absolutely key.

Anyone Can Speak Perfect English

“Your English is really good – where did you learn to speak English so well?” Although Westerners might mean this as a compliment, the question implies that people of Asian descent (despite many having been born in, raised in, or lived in an English-speaking locale for a significant period of time) should not be able to speak English. Anyone can learn any language. It is never appropriate to assume you know anything about anyone based on the way they look to you.

Asians Do Not All Look the Same

“You all look alike; I struggle to tell you apart from other Asians” and “Can you recommend a good (Chinese, Vietnamese, Japanese etc.) restaurant?” illustrates a shocking and pathetic unfamiliarity with the vibrant diversity of the Asian diaspora. Like literally any other race or ethnic group, people of Asian descent can hail from an enormously wide variety of places, and “Asian” serves as a woefully inadequate catch-all for a variety of identities including Chinese, Japanese, Vietnamese, Cambodian and Korean, and many more, each of which have different languages and cultures on the national, regional and even local level therein. The lack of knowledge or histories expressed by having the audacity to assume all Asians are similar implies a lack of interest in the world.

Asian Stereotypes

Asian stereotypes are destructive to building actual relationships. The most prevalent ones usually deal with certain characteristics, like being good at math and some sort of predisposition to jobs in science and mathematical fields. Often, Westerners will say that all Asian people “…must be really good at math” and that “all doctors and engineers are Asians”.

Asian parenting is also frequently the subject of unwarranted and unqualified criticism. Many people presume that all children growing up in an Asian household are subject to an extremely strict and unforgiving environment. Of course, in practice, every parent, household, and family is unique. Westerners and the media might poke fun at these stereotypical phrases, but the fact is that all stereotypes are deeply offensive. Although people might not intentionally make others feel like outsiders, some of these phrases end up doing so.

Every person should think twice before he or she speak and remember that just because someone has a different ethnicity or race, assuming you know anything about a person before actually meeting them is always a bad idea. The best possible way to get to know a person is through frank and earnest conversation. English is a great place to start, but if you ever want to bridge the cultural divide in a different tongue, Listen & Learn offers a variety of instructional options to help you connect with others in the language of your choice. Let us know when you are ready to begin!