I was sitting in a 9 a.m. journalism Zoom lecture. I was among the few who had their cameras on. The professor, a middle-aged white male, asked if anyone had thoughts about the reading we had that week.
Someone raised their hand and posed a question. She was the only other Asian student in that class.
After the professor answered her question, he said:
“That was a great question, Skye.”
“Skye?” I thought to myself.
For a moment, I didn’t understand what was happening. I have only been mistaken for another East Asian student in class once before, so it took me a couple of seconds to process that he was mixing me up with the other girl.
I pointed out that I was not the one who raised the question. He apologized and moved on to talk about the future readings. The whole experience lasted for less than a minute, yet I felt uneasy for the rest of the day.
After class, I remembered the last time something similar happened – I was sitting in another journalism class, next to a Korean American girl. The professor called her name and asked a question, yet she kept staring at me. I couldn’t fathom what was going on.
After class, the Korean American girl told me, “That’s just what happens to Asians. We get mistaken for each other all the time.”
Coming from China, this has never happened to me before. I always sat in the same classrooms with dozens of other Chinese girls, and not once did a teacher think I was someone else.
After talking to my peers at Northwestern, I came to understand that almost all of my Asian American friends have been mistaken for other Asian Americans by their teachers, colleagues or supervisors.
While most of them choose to “laugh it off,” I found myself sitting with discomfort. To me, mistaking one Asian person for another does not sound like an “honest mistake.” Was it a big deal that a professor mistook me for another East Asian girl? No. But did that happen to any other student in my class who isn't Asian? No. And has this happened to other Asian students? Yes – all the time.
This is racism.
As an international student from Shanghai, a rather homogenous city, I never learned the concept of “microaggression” until I came to college. I used to connect racism with images of bullying or overt violence. However, experiences like this have taught me that racism comes in many forms. And sometimes, it can be as simple as being called by someone else’s name.
When you mistake me for the only other Asian woman in the room, not only are you insulting our appearances, you are also erasing our identities and individualities. On one hand, it reinforces the idea that Asians belong to an inferior race that does not deserve to be distinguished from one another. On the other hand, it perpetuates the sense that Asians in the United States will always remain the outsiders of the community.
It reinforces the long-lasting idea that Asians will always be the outsider in the US society
As I think back on this experience, I can’t help but connect it to the rise in anti-Asian hate crimes in the United States. From the Asian grandmother who was attacked in San Francisco to the six Asian American spa workers who were killed in Atlanta, I now understand that those are just two small incidents in a long history of racialized violence and prejudice. While the recent hate crimes being covered by the media are often brutally violent or sexual, racism does not always show up so explicitly.
In fact, I think that one of the key features of racism towards Asian Americans is its subtlety. Asian Americans are often known as the “model minority,” which comes from the myth that they are the polite and law-abiding minority group that has obtained more success in the United States than other minorities through their talent and striving. Despite its seemingly positive connotation, the model minority myth actually harms the Asian American community because it erases the differences between individuals, ignores the diversity between different Asian cultures, perpetuates the idea that Asians are forever foreigners, and delegitimize the actual racism that Asians face in the United States.
In addition, Asian women in the United States have long been hyper-sexualized, as can be seen from the recent Atlanta Spa Shooting, while Asian men have been desexualized and deemed unattractive. These stereotypes have subtly yet deeply hurt the Asian American community.
I remember going to Peppercorns Kitchen in Evanston last February and hearing that they have lost most of their non-Chinese customers due to fear of catching the virus. I remember my Asian American friend telling me that someone took off their mask to cough on her on the streets of New York. Another Asian American friend who was told to “go back to your country” on a CTA train.
All of these moments, little by little, add up to a giant wall, one that has been built against Asian Americans, identifying them as the outsiders who will never truly become American.
So if you happen to confuse one Asian person for another, apologize. Understand that this is hurtful and disrespectful because you are identifying them solely by their race and not their work or personality. Make a conscious effort to pay more attention to people and give them the respect that they deserve next time.
(Graphic credit: Meher Yeda)
Editor's Note: The views presented in this story belong to the writer and are not necessarily reflective of North by Northwestern as a whole.