About a year ago, I went to a local urgent care with a minor skin issue (so minor that I can’t even remember now what it was for). As I walked up to the receptionist, clearing my throat to speak, she wheeled her chair back in panic and shouted at me, “get far away from this desk!” and covered her nose and mouth. I tried to tell her in vain that I was not coughing and that I was not there because I had any coronavirus symptoms. I was stunned and pissed for a hot minute, but then passed it off as a one-off incident and went on with my life trying to survive the realities of the pandemic. I even laughed about a hashtag that went around: #coughingwhileasian.
A year on since that incident, there has been a continued increase in violence and hate crimes against Asian Americans across the country, with many of the perpetrators blaming them for the pandemic and the ensuing economic fallout. It doesn’t help that the former president used to publicly refer COVID-19 as kung flu and other offensive names.
As a seasoned recipient of racist remarks and behaviors in many countries that I have lived in, the thing that gets to me is that these encounters happen when you least expect it and you get mad at yourself (after thinking about it many hours later) for not having had a smarter comeback or reaction. What also riles me is that it always takes me a second or two to come out of my confusion (why is that person telling me to go back to my country? why is that person calling me a chink?) and figure out that the other person sees me as Asian and only as that. That person doesn’t see me as a mother, a woman, a grocery shopper, a commuter on the train, or any other identity. Just an Asian looking person. And, because my self identity is more complex than just “Asian” or “Korean”, I have to do quick mental acrobatics to recognize myself as just that ethnic person and respond accordingly. Even though every racist remark and behavior stings, they can also numb your senses over many years.
Even if you have been fortunate enough not to have experienced any racism, I’m fairly certain you know exactly what it feels like if you’re a woman. When those around you can only see you as a woman, not as a colleague, a lawyer, an athlete or any other identities you have earned and created for yourself, it’s the same as someone only seeing you as your skin tone and facial features. When people diminish you to a one-dimensional image, whether that’s gender or race based, especially when it’s done week after week, month after month, your own self-image can be whittled down to what others assign for you.
Identity is a funny thing. There always seems to be a delicate dance among what we aspire to be, who we are in a particular moment and who others perceive us to be. Sometimes people’s mistaken image can work in our favor, if it elevates us or puts us in an advantageous situation. But even that can contribute to an overall proliferation of dangerous stereotypes (i.e., the myth of model minority). I say dangerous not only because one-sided identity can lead to violence as we are witnessing these days, but also because it can have systemic biases that perpetuate inequality and lack of diversity and inclusion that impact our children, especially our daughters. (Even before our daughters get to college, gender biases dampen their interest in STEM, deepening the disparities that exist in various STEM fields.)
Being a mother of a special needs child who has visible disabilities that others gawk at, I am especially attuned to people making snap judgments and imposing unfair identity on him, purely based on superficial characteristics and their own misperception. My son does not need to be pitied or given charity just because of his disabilities - what he needs is equal access to opportunities that other children his age have, especially in education. Similarly, women don’t need lower expectations or predetermined identity and place in society just because we’re women. What we need is a place at the table on equal footing and our voices heard and acted on.
The same goes for Asian Americans. This ethnic attribute is as complex and nuanced as any identity each person chooses to define herself as. It cannot be used as a source of blame for anyone’s or for any country’s misfortune. LET’S ALL STOP THE IGNORANCE AND THE HATE. For all of us.
Before I introduce you to this week’s WhiteTable guest, would you please take a quick 1-minute to answer a few, easy questions for me? This will help me share with you more on point stories and ideas and add any new features you would like.
This week, I’m proud to have Sarah Carlson joining me at the WhiteTable. I met Sarah at the Tory Burch Embrace Ambition Summit last year. If I could have been half as poised, articulate and smart as Sarah is when I was her age (a college junior!) I may have a solution for world peace by now. Sarah has a laser jet focus on building a career in the field of analytics and fashion. She just got accepted into the Women@Dior Mentee program! As someone who bumbled along her zigzag careers, I’m excited to follow Sarah’s ambitious journey and cheer her on from the sidelines. (Listen to her thoughtful discussion on her experience of visiting her birth country as a transracial adoptee.)
what is your superpower?
My endless curiosity: eager to learn, I always ask questions to understand something beyond the surface level.
what's your story in 6 words?
Courageous explorer with heart and s(e)oul
what's the best advice you never got?
You’re the average of the five people you spend the most time with. I feel fortunate knowing that I look up to admirable friends and family who change me for the better.
you use your voice for...
Using data analytics for reshaping business models, production, consumption practices in the apparel industry.
what's your off-the-beaten-path product/content you're loving right now?
Classic rock! I enjoy listening to Led Zeppelin on runs; only after hearing Jimmy Page’s guitar riffs do I feel energized to pound the pavement and catalyst ideas.