Wednesday, April 29, 2009

We all say really dumb things

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. 


  1. True!!! Very obvious stuff for me, but I understand that a lot of people out there are still in race relations 101.

  2. Love the topic. Love how you portray the issue. It reminds me of one incident that happened to one of my Korean-American friends. She had a good friend in her neighborhood. They were friends for years. But when the "friend" made a comment to her other Caucasian friends in front of her, she realized she wasn't really her friend. Her friend said, "I'm always generous to the foreigners. Ask xxx." 'sigh' Little things like this make me doubt the decision to stay in the states (for like 10 min. :))
    Keep up the good work.

  3. Too true, Jang.

    "I mean, you got the first mainstream African-American who is articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy. I mean, that's a storybook, man."

    --Joe Biden

  4. I get, "You're a really good white rapper" a lot, which, interestingly enough, isn't the only time I get confused for a black guy.

  5. I get backhanded compliments all the time. Especially related to my Idahoan background. These are especially pregnant coming from Utahns.

  6. I think its good to realize that we all do this. Everybody, regardless of their race, is guilty of putting in racial emphasis when it's not at all necessary. Why is it that?

  7. That's hilarious. My favorite jokes are ones that play on stereotypes. If people don't laugh, it's either because they don't get how ridiculous the stereotype is or they're too uptight to get the humor. Either way, it's even funnier when they don't laugh.

    P.S. Jang, your English is really good!

  8. Jung, you should be teaching Race Relations 101.

    Saerome, interesting story. Always being seen as a foreigner, and not American, is pretty much a daily issue for me.

    Grant Olsen, love that quote! I hadn't heard it before. It's probably one of the most ridiculous foot-in-mouth quotes I've ever heard!

    Nate Kiser, that is pretty interesting. Please elaborate.

    Randy Row, next time you get a backhanded compliment, just backhand them in the face. That usually does the trick.

    Twinkie, America is in love with race identity. But it's natural since we are not racially homogeneous.

    Asylum, I really try hard to get my English on par with white folk! Thanks!

  9. Please tell me you see the irony here? By writing a mini-dissertation in a blog, which in effect is the same as speaking, this entire piece is just another example of "saying" something really dumb.

  10. I don't find your blogs "really dumb". I find them refreshing and well put. I just hope racehappened doesn't know where you live.... watch out for burning crosses.

  11. I knew this guy back when I was a missionary in Korea. He was Korean, but had really curly hair. People would always be like "Man, you've got really curly hair for a Korean." I don't think he ever got over it.

    Then there was this other dude. Half Chinese or something, but his skin was pretty dark. He'd introduce himself as an American and people would say "Wow, you're pretty light for a black guy.", I mean HE would correct them and say "I'm Chinese" and they'd go "Wow, you're pretty dark for an Asian."

  12. I knew a guy who would be told every day, "You're tall for an Asian." I also knew a girl who would be told, "Wow, you're a good driver for being Asian." I also knew this one guy...

    Get the hint? A subtle but obviously missed point in my previous post is that this is going to continue happening until the human gene pool becomes completely homogenized...and even then some variety of societal barriers will perpetuate prejudice.

    Being Korean myself, I have to admit that native Koreans happen to be one of the most ethnocentric races. I admire the passion in these posts, but I live on practicality and choose to do things I can control myself rather than trying to change how other people think.

    This is just a crazy thought, but if you're a minority living in Salt Lake City, chances are you will come across racism more versus being somewhere like Los Angeles or New York City. If it bothers you, move! (Disclaimer: I DO realize it's easier said than done.)

  13. Racehappened, I’m glad you are a practical person. I’d like to think that I am, too. Since you point out the irony in my post, I would like to point out some pretty glaring irony in your comments. While I’m glad you are trying to persuade me about the folly of my ways, don’t you think it’s ironic that you are attempting to change the way I think, which is the folly that you accuse me of? I’m just curious if you think discussion, debate, or dialogue ever have a place in practicality? Obviously, you must think so a little bit, considering that you are a man of practicality and you just posted two comments and made a new blog entitled "Race Happened." But you didn't do that with the purpose of persuading me and all the readers to change their thinking, did you?

    Yes, I know Koreans are very ethnocentric. They can be extremely racist. I’d be the first to say that. This is a blog for them too, if they care to read it. This is a blog for you, even if you think it’s pointless. But I guess I can never hope to change your mind because I just have no control over that.

    And are you suggesting I move to a place where there are more Asians? Or more minorities? So basically I should just get in where I fit in? Shoot, while I'm at it, maybe I should only make Korean friends, just to ensure I never get ragged on for my race. Hmmm, how practical would that be if I want to actually make a difference in the way people think? So, you mean I should just run away whenever there's a problem? That doesn't sound very practical. Actually, that sounds like the complete opposite of practical.

    Sorry, if I sound really cynical. I'm really not upset at all. Keep up the comments if you care to continue with this dialogue!

  14. Jang,

    I, too, have no intention of making this a flame-war and therefore appreciate the civil dialogue! =)

    I do believe that equality is something worth fighting for and should never be neglected lest our society regresses and forgets history. However, the equality I'm talking about refers to breaking down societal legal boundaries: abolishing segregation, equal opportunity, etc.

    Fighting for equality with respect to how people think is the issue I'm contending here. I'm going to refer to the phrase, "Know when to hold 'em and know when to fold 'em" here: I'm willing to accept that people aren't going to change how they think of other races. As long as physical and cultural differences exist (which I think will remain for a very long time), it's going to happen.

    I don't think "running away" is as defeating as you make it sound. I see it as making lemonade with the lemons you're dealt with. Life is too short to fight battles that will only enrage, depress, and probably ultimately defeat you. There are alternatives that will make yours and your family's lives rewarding and fulfilling. Perhaps that's why strength-in-numbers or the "herd mentality" is a dominant characteristic in intelligent life.

    As a final thought: It angers me probably just as much as you when I hear derogatory comments about Koreans and/or other ethnicities. But rather than get upset that the "offending" person said that, I take a deep breath, think about WHY he said it, and then move on with my life because it is my life that I can control.

  15. Racehappened, Thanks for the thoughtful response. I agree with most of what you've said except that I've chosen to "take a deep breath" and then talk about it (because that is something I can control). If in the end, no one cares to listen, at least I have spoken my mind and organized my thoughts so that all of this stuff makes sense to me. While some of my stuff may sound like I am pointing fingers, I have a deep understanding of why people do and say the things they do. I've come to this understanding through self-reflection, discussion, and debate.

    I also agree that the ultimate goal is to achieve equality in the law. The American legal system has done a pretty good job with that. Now I think the next step is to reach that equality on a social level. And actually, we've done a pretty good job with that too. But most of the equal protection laws that we have now are there in large part because the social landscape was changing so much that the law had to conform to it. In other words, law reflects society, and vice versa.

    And to think that people's views on race will never change is pretty pessimistic and actually contrary to what we've seen in the last 50 years.

    And while I do think we live in a pretty great country, I don't think there's anything wrong with trying to make things even better. And will a simple blog do that? Probably not, but I do believe it's made a little difference for the few hundred people who have read it.

    I also must tell you that part of the reason why I came to Utah is because of the herd mentality. I am a member of the LDS church and I like being with many other people of my faith.

  16. Jang,

    I hope you see, by now, that I did not mean anything more than a play on your original blog post title with "saying something dumb." Your blog is insightful and refreshingly candid with respect to racial issues you see or hear about.

    I can see how you think my perspective is pessimistic, but I actually think of it more as a "c'est la vie" attitude. Why worry about how people think? I'd rather worry about whether Sun is going to be reunited with Jin on Lost in this week's episode (Korean pun intended).

    There is tremendous emotional value in voicing your thoughts in any medium, and I commend you in being proactive with it. If I have to do a little introspection myself, perhaps I'm bottling stuff up too much in a passive-aggressive way and need to start my own blog. ;-)

  17. Racehappened,

    It's all love my Korean brother/or sister (not sure what your gender is) Yeah, contrary to what you might think about a person who blogs about race issues once a week, I too have a pretty "c'est la vie" attitude. I really want a lot of this to just be entertaining. But maybe I'm not getting that point across....

    So do I know you at all? At this point, pretty much everyone who reads this blog has some kind of connection to me, my brothers, or one of my friends...

  18. I'm calling fraud! It's obvious that Jang just created the Racehappened character to further his own points and then sum things up in a wonderfully harmonious manner!

  19. Grant Olsen, You got me! Haha. I guess it does look a little suspicious how "harmonious" our dialogue ended. But you know what? There's no way I would have allowed myself to make the logical flaws that Racehappened made. Do you not think it's a little strange how initially he outright said my post was "saying something dumb," but in the end, he completely retreated from this statement and said that my blog was refreshing and insightful? Hmmm.... Well, I guess you could argue that dumb things can still be refreshing and insightful.

    Oliver, Thanks for your stories... even though the one about the curly-haired dude is a lie.

    Sojo and MaNini, thanks for the backup!

  20. I do indeed think it's a little strange...and suspicious. Your fictional character raised some token arguments, which allowed you to flesh out your points and assert your allegedly superior logic with quotes like "I would like to point out some pretty glaring irony in your comments" and "There's no way I would have allowed myself to make the logical flaws that Racehappened made". Also, by having Racehappened begin this debate with an inflammatory insult like "this entire piece is just another example of 'saying' something really dumb", you rallied support from your blog followers. Very Machiavellian...the best way to inspire loyalty is with a nice little skirmish.

  21. Grant Olsen, I've got you where I want you. As we speak, you are falling right into my Machiavellian trap... C'mon blog followers, ATTACK! puhahahahaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaa

  22. Is it even okay for your dad to say "HE's an honest MAN."? It may have been more clear if the store owner was female. "She's an honest WOMAN."

    What if it was just "He's honest." Implying everyone else is not. Which is way beyond any stereotype because it is totally true. Every single one of my stories here has been an outright lie. In fact, I'm lying in this particular sentence.

  23. I feel the same way when it comes to teachers saying they're "impressed with ____________." So you didn't believe in me initially? You won't find that word in my vocabulary.

    Hey you and Racehappened should go on a date and have a conversation @ BCD Tofu House. The Kim Chi be bangin'