In high school, I once followed my dad to work. We visited a store where he sold some of his merchandise. It looked as though my dad knew the storeowner, a Chinese man, fairly well. As I watched my dad and the storeowner converse, I thought it was interesting to find two immigrants from different countries using their second language of English as their mode of communication. I thought how there must be countless opportunities for things to get lost in translation.
After they had some small talk and had a good chuckle about something, my dad patted the storeowner on the shoulder and looked at me and said, “He is an honest Chinese man.” My eyes widened, and I quickly glanced at the owner to see if he actually understood the subtle yet apparent hint of prejudice. Fortunately, the storeowner did not flinch and he kept on smiling. Phew, Lost in translation!
I spoke to my dad about his “compliment” when we left the store. I explained to him the significance of his words. At first he didn’t understand. While my dad’s command of the English language may have been one reason for the Freudian slip, I believe that it was, indeed, a Freudian slip. He was unintentionally manifesting a prejudice toward the Chinese. There is the stereotype that the Chinese are shrewd businessmen, and apparently my dad thought so too.
So, why was my dad’s statement not a genuine compliment? The lingual significance is subtle enough to merit an explanation. In my dad’s mind, he was paying a genuine compliment to the storeowner: “This man is honest.” There is nothing wrong with saying that. But what my dad was also subliminally saying was that most of the storeowner’s countrymen were not that honest. A man’s ethnicity or race should not have any correlation to a man’s honesty, yet my dad thought it did. And because the storeowner happened to be honest and Chinese, my dad wanted to point out that fact, as if it were something remarkable to take note of.
To further illustrate my point, let’s take a few examples of where the stereotype may be more obvious. Let’s say an employer sees one of his employees, who is black, working late hours in the office, and tells him, “You are a hard working black man.” Hmmm, not so much a compliment, right? Here’s another one: a police officer sees a Latino and tells him, “You are a law-abiding Mexican.” Now is the prejudice becoming a little more clear?
Most of us would like to think that we wouldn’t say such dumb things. But here are some things that pretty much everyone is guilty of saying or agreeing to, at one point or another: “That white boy can dance”; “He plays basketball really well for an Asian”; “He’s white, but he can really jump”; “He’s a really tall Asian guy”; “He’s a really good white rapper.” These are pretty common things I hear (or even say) but because dancing, basketball, height, and rapping skills are rather innocuous topics, there is very little social backlash, despite the obvious bias.
It’s the more sensitive topics of intelligence, work-ethic, socio-economic status, or some apparent behavioral predisposition that people are more cautious about. To spot prejudices of this sort, you have to have a keen sense of social interaction, language, and universally believed cultural biases. While I have heard outright racist comments like, “He’s a really smart black guy,” people are usually good about staying away from such obvious prejudice. So as an alternative, a more common scenario might look like this: if there is a group of people talking about some person, and it is agreed that person is black, someone in the group may feel the need to go to great lengths to point out that the guy is also very well-spoken and has a college degree. In response, several people in the group may say, “Oh, really? Wow! That’s wonderful.” I’ve heard conversations like this a million times. Are they sincere compliments? Yes. But are they the kind of compliments you would give a white guy? It depends. Usually, the white guy needs to have done something a little more grand to warrant such commentary, like if he just won a national speech contest or graduated from medical school. In other instances, such commentary may occur for a white guy if it was known that the guy grew up in a trailer park and had a broken home, but yet made it to college. For a black guy, it is almost always assumed that the guy grew up in the hood and had a broken home, which is why we gasp when we hear of a black guy who made it.
I know I’m entering the danger zone of being overly sensitive by saying all of this because I know many of you are thinking, “Uh, does that mean I can never compliment someone who happens to be a minority?” No, that is not what I’m saying. Compliment all you want. Compliments are good things. But what I am saying is that while it may not be so apparent, we all have prejudices that are manifested in our speech on a pretty regular basis ; just be aware of them and understand the "why" and "how" of what you are saying. Because you may not be as lucky as my dad, and someone may think that what you are saying is really dumb.