Who determines if a generalization about race is inappropriate? A colonial legacy shapes the way race impacts society today; during my time in Delhi, I have been challenged by people’s perception on race, but some of my experiences here echo conversations I have had with people in America.
One day during lunch while we were eating maggi (Masala-flavored instant noodles), one of my favorite coworkers asked me if I could do Asian fan dancing. I thought to myself if someone asked me at Penn, I could give them a LECTURE! But I also understand that people have different experiences about race, and at that moment, I was unsure how to articulate myself in a way he could understand, so I replied no and changed the topic of conversation.
Later that week, the same coworker, along with another one of my favorite coworkers, jokingly asked me to teach them karate!, complemented with the ever-so-classic Hollywood-style “Wacha!” sound effects and hand motions. I told him that what he said could be interpreted as offensive in America, to which he replied that he’s not trying to be offensive and that I shouldn’t be so sensitive about generalizations (I’ve only heard this a hundred times before!) After I explained my thoughts on why this generalization was offensive (Why do we not see as many caricatures about white people?) he apologized and tried to explain that his image of East Asians was based on what he saw in movies, but didn’t see how what he said was inappropriate.
It doesn’t require rocket science to see that people of color in America have been disproportionately underrepresented or inaccurately represented in a variety of contexts (Just so we’re clear, racism is alive and well). Until college, I was unsure about my Asian-American identity and I didn’t feel like I had the vocabulary to understand my experience. I knew that I felt a certain way when people asked me “Where are you really from?” or when strangers greeted me with the old “Ni Hao” and an over exaggerated bow, but I said to myself a million times, Words should not hurt me. I am in control of how I feel about what others say. And anyways, they’re not meaning to be offensive. But why do I feel hurt?
Learning to see these verbal statements as microaggressions has helped me to legitimize many of my experiences regarding race and be more comfortable with my identity. Not being generalized by one’s race is a privilege. However, I am aware that some people think that microaggressions are harmless, and furthermore, others believe that the existence of the term microaggression worsens “victimhood mentality” and makes problems from things that don’t exist. I am convinced that labelling microaggressions as what they are is justified, but during my time here, I have become more aware of the importance of considering the cultural situation when evaluating this type of casual, non-malicious language. My coworker has not had many East Asian American people in his life, and a large part of his understanding comes from caricatures. Even though he is not trying to attack my identity, his words will still have an impact.