Kate (kate_nepveu) wrote,

Unintentionally racist small talk, a quick and minor example

This morning, a white person said to me, "Oh, I didn't get to say this earlier, but," and then said something in a foreign language.

I said, "I'm sorry, but I only speak English. What language was that?"

"Chinese," the person said, "for 'Happy New Year.'"

"Ah," I said, shifting SteelyKid against my shoulder. "We're Korean. But thank you for the thought."

— This person was obviously and sincerely trying to be welcoming toward and respectful of different cultures, and had taken the trouble to memorize a phrase in a foreign language. And yet ten seconds of actual thought would have made it clear that China != Asia, or, to put it more bluntly: no, us slanty-eyed types are not all the same.

For extra credit, the person might have recognized that the different languages that lumped together under "Chinese" are mutually unintelligible out loud, and wondered whether a person of Chinese descent, even if she spoke a language in addition to English, was likely to speak whichever language she had memorized. That, I'm not sure of, or of whether someone of Chinese descent who only spoke English would nevertheless recognize, as part of their culture, "Happy New Year" in—what, probably Mandarin, right? So I'll reserve judgment on whether, in this case, using Chinese (sic) instead of English is also unintentionally racist.

Now, there were two things I could have done better in politely educating this well-meaning person. Did you spot them?

"We're Korean." First, I'm not Korean, or even Korean-American. I identify myself as American. I should have said, "of Korean ancestry." Second, SteelyKid is of Korean ancestry, but also of Polish, Irish, and German, and I shouldn't have left those out.

So I'll mentally rehearse a more accurate response to misguided small talk, so it becomes automatic even in the morning (I don't wake up quickly, though I do better than Chad. Poor SteelyKid's got it from both sides.). And if you who are reading this wonder, "What's a polite way to wish someone of apparently-Asian ascentry a Happy New Year?", I will tentatively suggest, "Are you celebrating the Lunar New Year?" and then, if you get an affirmative answer, "Happy New Year, then." However, since I myself do not celebrate this holiday, I am basing this solely on my own feelings of politeness, and welcome any other suggestions that people care to give.

(And yes, I am bemused that I am able to make two posts on this in one day. It's got me on the verge of saying things like "apparently the universe wants me to post on minor examples of unintentional racism!", and I don't actually believe in that kind of thing.)

Tags: race
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