If You Don’t Know Me, Don’t Call Attention To My Race

A funny thing happened on the way to Comic-Con last year….

My girlfriend and I were walking around outside the convention center, people-watching because we weren’t cool enough to actually get tickets. We ended up falling in step behind an Asian girl in full cosplay gear, cradling a five-foot-long plasma rifle (presumably not real).

Soon, some random dude strolled up alongside her, and we overheard every last word of the excruciating conversation that ensued:

Guy: Hey! How’s it going?

Girl (barely glancing over at him): Good.

Guy: That’s a cool costume.

Girl (staring straight ahead): Thanks.

Guy: I always like seeing the costumes at Comic-Con.

Girl: [Silence]

Guy: Soooo… is this your first time at Comic-Con?

Girl: Nope.

Guy: Cool, cool.

Girl: [Silence]

Guy: Soooo… what kind of Asian are you?

Girl (visibly scowling): Uhhh… the American kind?

With that, she turned and dashed into the nearest store. And that’s when my girlfriend and I looked at each other and laughed.

Obviously, this was not the way to try to start a conversation with a strange woman, let alone hit on her. Let’s face it, this guy’s biggest mistake was… well, everything. But the interesting thing is, she actually tolerated him until he asked about her ethnicity.

So why was that her cue to check out? She put up with everything else (barely) up to that point. Why did this particular question send her darting away?

I think I have a pretty good idea, and I’m going to draw from my personal experience here….

See, here’s the deal. If you don’t know me, and you try to start a conversation with me by calling attention to my race, it bugs me.

Maybe you’re just friendly. Maybe you really want to meet me and are fishing for any kind of conversation starter. And maybe I even get all that. But I have to be honest….

It still bugs me.

And I’m not even talking about those times when someone just assumes I’m a certain ethnicity. If you start speaking to me in Japanese, you can bet my reply will always be, “Go away. I’m not #%$&ing Japanese.” I don’t care how friendly you are, you will be sent away.

Even if you guess right (which, by the way, no stranger ever has), it will still bug me. You know why? Because frankly, I consider myself an American. My garbled grasp of Taiwanese is nothing compared to my grasp of English, so it’s insulting when someone speaks to me in what they assume is my native language. No, if you want to say hi in my native language, the best way is like so:

“Dude, what’s up?”

(And if you really want to nail my proper dialect, make sure you draw out the “uuu” sound in “dude.” That’s, like, totally the only way to pronounce the word, ya know?)

Here’s the bottom line: If you don’t know me at all, and you call attention to my race, it will always bother me on some level.

And yeah, it bothers me that it bothers me, especially because it’s such a petty issue. It makes me feel so buggable, and I don’t consider myself a buggable person at all. That’s why I had to do run some serious internal mental checks to figure out why it does bother me.

Welp, I finally figured it out….

You see, if you’re a stranger and you come up and talk to me, I’ll generally be flattered that something about me interests you. Maybe it’s that I’m wearing a WordPress sweatshirt, and you love WordPress. Maybe it’s that you overheard me say something hilarious, and you want to commend me for my awesome sense of humor. Maybe you think I’m cool because I seem to know everyone at the bar, and you just want to say hi.

These are all ways that I’ve been chatted up by strangers recently, and these are all ways that make me happy to chat. Why? Because I want to be known by my qualities and accomplishments. I’m proud to work for WordPress. I’m proud of my jokes (well, the ones you laugh at). I’m proud that I’m friendly (for the most part).

But guess what? “Being Asian” is neither a quality nor an accomplishment. It certainly isn’t anything I had to work to attain. It’s not the reason I want you to notice me. Actually, that’s something worth considering before you talk to anyone:

Are you recognizing them for qualities they’re proud of? Or traits they have no control over?

Of course, if we do get a conversation going, and somewhere down the line, you ask about my background and ethnicity… hey, I’m happy to share. Because at that point, I’ll know that you see me as a complete human being, not as some Asian dude you totally need to talk to because your ex-girlfriend is Asian, or you’re wondering if there’s good Chinese food in town.

Because I don’t know your ex, and no, there isn’t.

And yes, I will admit that I’m being somewhat judgmental here. When a stranger tries to start a conversation with me, I know that most of the time, they’re doing so from a place of friendliness. I know they mean no disrespect. It’s just that I’ve been asked way more than enough inane questions about my ethnicity at this point in my life, and it gets old quick. And of course, there have been enough times where it hasn’t come from a place of friendliness that the question immediately puts me on alert. And putting someone on alert is certainly not the best way to approach a stranger.

For the record then, I have no problem talking about my race. I just don’t want to start every new conversation with it. I guarantee that’s what happened with this couple-that-was-never-meant-to-be at Comic-Con. She was willing to put up with his awkwardness, but the minute he asked the same tired old question countless guys have no doubt asked before, she was done.

And that’s the reality of how I – and any other minority – will react when you call attention to my “minoritiness.” It has nothing to do with being sensitive or politically correct on your part. It’s just… well, superficial.

Because I’d like to think I’m way more than just an Asian guy. And it’s nice when people act that way towards me, dude.

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  • This is a great article, Dennis. I see this happen so often. I wonder if the pick-up guy ever did any self-reflection after she quickly walked away. Unfortunately, I doubt it.

  • Totally hit the nail on the head!

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  • So true!

    Speaking from a woman’s experience, most men who call attention to my race as a pick-up line usually have some fetish or stereotypical view, and that’s someone I definitely want to avoid, no matter how good looking he is. Here are a few: a) Saying hello in any language that’s not English, sometimes accompanied by a bow; b) I once had a neighbor/friend/girlfriend who was ___, c) Do you have any soy sauce? (place of work) Do you know what kind of soy sauce is better? (at a supermarket or Asian grocer) d) You can’t be American. Look at your eyes. You can’t be from California, you’re not blonde. (anywhere abroad)

  • It’s not at all about being judgmental on your part. In fact, I would argue that it’s the folks who launch conversations by inquiring about your ethnicity who are putting forth judgment because you KNOW that they’re already making assumptions about your personality, behavior, background, and even education based solely on the ethnicity or race or nationality to which they GUESS you belong. (I can almost guarantee that even if they’re asking you what your ethnicity is, they already have an idea in mind.) To me, that’s being judgmental.

    And no, I would argue that it’s not petty either. It would be petty if it happens so rarely, but I pretty much get that question 90% of every first encounter or meeting I have with someone. Nearly every “minority” or “friend of color” I know has a collection of stories about their experiences getting that question from others, and by sheer number alone I would say that it can no longer count as petty. 🙂

    I’ve gotten really tired of hearing the question myself. Depending on my energy level or my instincts about the person asking, I might just go ahead and give a straightforward response, but I might also ignore it entirely. I’ve yet to really find the best answer I’m comfortable with, which itself pisses me off because I don’t like the idea of bearing the responsibility and burden of the question. As the US becomes even more diverse and the white/European population becomes the minority, I actually expect the question to become more prevalent. Ugh.

  • True tho …. but I guess it’s something normal that people from other countries ask if you or whatever person are Asians that’s CURIOSITY nothing bad but I found it a bit ridiculous that someone tries to talk to a person in Japanese .. it will be awkward that when that person responds to you in Japanese you don’t understand a f##k

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