“Calling Indians smart is just as racist as saying Asians can’t drive”.

I finally got into watching the show Whitney because Chris D’Elia is in it and he’s my favorite comedian. I kinda avoided it for awhile because it’s just another sitcom, but I’m actually glad I decided to watch it because there’s actually some thought-provoking moments about friends and relationships.

Anyway, this recent episode I’m watching is about a moment of racism that Neil encounters. He’s an Indian man from Ohio, and when he’s telling a coworker that he’s visiting his parents next week, the guy asks, “Where in India are they?” Neil patiently but somewhat annoyed, replies, “They’re in Akron…Ohio”. And then they move on. And a second later his coworker gets mad that some kind of math equation (they work in stocks) isn’t working out. So Neil takes a look and says some kind of mumbo-jumbo about what’s wrong (I know nothing about this topic). And the guy says “Wow. You people really are geniuses at math”. And adds “Come on computer, be more Indian!”

So that’s just a little background on the initial problem, and I noticed that Neil was at a loss for words. Later in the show he says he was caught off guard, which is why he didn’t say anything. Which I completely understand. Later on, he talks to his friend Mark about it. Mark doesn’t really understand the issue and is confused on why it was offensive. He claims “Yeah, but saying you’re smart’s a compliment. That cancels out the racism. It’s like it’s like putting a smiley face at the end of a mean text”. (Much later in this episode, Neil himself makes a racist mistake and gets called out for it — I’ll talk about this in a bit).

Now of course, I know that tv shows are exaggerated and they purposely made it seem as if Mark was over the top in misunderstanding the racist comment. However, I’ve encountered a lot of people who actually are like this in real life. Sometimes even my friends who are not in the same position as me — namely, not Asian ones (this has always been a bit of a struggle of mine, especially with mostly non-Asian male friends).

I think a lot of people have this view — I mean, why is calling Asians smart such a bad thing? Why is saying that we’re good at math hurtful? Why is it a bad thing to say a good thing? It’s like when a guy compliments a girl, and then when she isn’t grateful for it because it was “negging” or something similar, the guy gets upset and says “why can’t you just take a compliment?” (The Wikipedia definition of “negging”: act of emotional manipulation whereby a person makes a deliberate backhanded compliment or otherwise flirtatious remark to another person to undermine their confidence and increase their need of the manipulator’s approval). I know that not only men do this — it’s just something I’ve experienced myself so I wanted to use the example.

And so after Asians react to such a “positive” statement poorly (or even a less falsely-positive statement), we’re instantly branded as ungrateful, overly-sensitive, and we end up in the wrong. Or if we are offended when someone appropriates our clothing/culture, we’re deemed the same thing because the offender is doing it to “show appreciation”. And then they try to make excuses for their actions. They continue to try and say they only meant good things by it. But my issue is this exactly — saying you only meant to do it with good intentions is not enough. Maybe it’s time to truly listen to “haters” and consider that something was wrong. Truth is, it’d almost be better if they said nothing. Otherwise, they might get verified on Twitter from the whole ordeal (can anyone think of what I’m referring to? Yep, I went there).

But of course, you can’t make anyone do anything. You can’t make them apologize “properly”, you can’t make them realize that they’ve made a mistake. If you’ve calmly and rationally educated someone on why their comment or action was racist, and they still don’t get it — it’s time to bring your energy elsewhere. Bring it to those people who will actually listen to you and say, “hmm, this person’s made a good point”. This doesn’t mean we’re throwing up our hands and giving up — because we’re actually gritting our teeth and choosing not to further engage and potentially hurt our cause.

I think there is a time for expressing anger and hurt because it really helps people understand and identify with us — but there’s also a time for a calm approach. That time comes more often than the other. Take the high road, I guess. And the truth is that there are so many different opinions and types of people out there — instead of getting frustrated with the “big”-ness of the world, tackle it one person at a time. One day at a time. One situation at a time.

Now of course when it comes to racism, there are a lot of issues going on and sometimes you can’t just take it one thing at a time. Some situations are definitely more severe than the others (but I also believe this — same as with concussions, you shouldn’t rank racism. It’s all problematic). See, while microaggressions are annoying (ex. Asians are bad at driving), I’m going to choose not to get angry over them. Anger and action are different, however. I’m always going to take action to educate someone, but getting worked up over the small things is going to destroy me and my cause. The reason I say all this is that there may be some fights that are worth fighting more.

I’m not saying you should just let people make grey-area statements like this all the time. I’m saying that you need to choose your battles wisely. For example, instead of sharing every racist remark someone sends your way on facebook, choose the ones that might have a bigger effect on your friends and acquaintances. The only reason I say you shouldn’t “rank” situations is because, like I said, it’s all problematic. But some things affect us more and maybe those things do need more attention.

Here’s my issue with making such a blanket statement, even when it seems positive — let’s say you make the generalization that Asians are smart. And when we don’t live up to that, we’re suddenly deemed as “not Asian enough”, by other fellow Asians or other people. Of course, realistically, we’re still Asian. Being Asian shouldn’t have to do with your performance in school or life — it’s about the culture and the experiences you’ve shared. Now at the same time, I’ve never let someone else determine for myself exactly how “Asian” I am. But it took me a really long time to get to this point, and a big passion of mine is making things like this easier to understand for teenagers and college kids. And if kids are being exposed to the idea that not living up to the model minority means you’re a failure…that’s a lot of lost, misunderstood kids.

I make sure that this kind of stuff doesn’t affect my work life (unless it becomes necessary), but it’s something I think about very often. It’s something I want to talk about, but there’s always a time and place for this. For me, I want to make the area I work in a safe space. That may mean no political/religious/racism talk in my area to simply keep the peace, but that doesn’t mean I’m sitting back. Again, it means doing what you can with what you have and where you are. I have the potential to interact with a lot of amazing people who can and probably will change the world, so I want to do it right. I know what it’s like to feel out of place and hurt by the world you’re in, so I want to make sure no one else has to experience that.

Finally, the reason I brought up later in the episode that Neil was called out for being racist himself is that I think we all need to check ourselves. In the same way we want people to actually consider what we’re saying, we need to listen to others. (Of course, there are some exceptions…but I won’t go there right now). We were all put here to learn and teach others, and you can’t really teach others unless you’re also learning the same topic for yourself. This issue as a whole can be extremely complicated, but I hope I’ve explained a little bit about why those “positive” statements aren’t really that helpful, and how this generation can change things by listening and educating…and choosing your battles very, very wisely.



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Jen Xu

Athletic trainer, PhD student, coffee lover. I write about fitness, mental health, being Asian-American, and personal growth.