I almost forgot. . . .
Morning convo at church.
Me: (sitting at the coffee bar – yes, there’s a bar because there’s a cafe in my church’s lobby – watching the service on tv, wearing my lay minister name tag)
Her: *walks up to me, looks at name tag, looks at my face, looks confused, looks back down at name tag* . . .Wen. . .dy. . .Laybourn
Me: *looking Christianly*
Her: *still with a look of pure confusion* . . .Wendy. . .your husband is. . .?
Me: *waiting for her to prophesy me a husband*
Her: *waiting for me to clear up this face-last name mismatch*
Me: No husband.
Her: Your name is Wendy. . .My name is Ray-chel.
I much rather liked the other conversation I had with a congregant who said, “Where are you from? Your accent.” See, context clues. Now I know where the conversation is headed, and I can offer information that is relevant. Memphis. I’m from Memphis.
This incident was much like one I had last weekend while presenting on a panel at a conference. The presider continued to repeat the other panelists’ names as he engaged with the audience and the presenters but only said mine when he absolutely had to (i.e., when introducing me and the title of my presentation). The other panelists had a mix of “ethnic” physical appearances and “ethnic” sounding names, so I cannot say it was because of my physical features (or hard to pronounce name). And, although I did notice that he repeatedly used the other panelists’ names (and not mine), I did not realize how marked this difference was until one of the audience members commented on it after the panel.
Lest you think this name-face confusion is relegated to people of only one racial/ethnic background let me assure you it is not. I’ve had similar experiences with people of a variety of races and ethnicities, illustrating the vast unfamiliarity with the heterogeneity of Asians and Asianness as well as the hiddenness of transracial adoption. The fact that I’m a woman also complicates matters because my last name could be by marriage, hence, the “your husband is. . .” inquiry and with the highly publicized Asian female-White male intermarriage rate perhaps more familiar.
But why does this matter? Outside of these frequent interactions where the confusion is apparent and the underlying assumptions clearly written on their faces, where is the relevance to broader issues? I can easily think of three embedded in these seemingly innocuous events:
- View of Asians as a monolith. This misperception obscures the variability in experiences and outcomes of different Asian ethnic groups. It becomes even more harmful when paired with the model minority myth which serves to diminish and delegitimize discriminatory and racist practices experienced by Asian ethnic groups and other minorities.
- Lack of inter- and intra-racial/ethnic interaction. With limited interaction, it becomes easier to believe stereotypes and myths portrayed in media (and taught in history classes).
- The idea of Asians as a perpetual foreigner marking us as non-American. This is apparent when people ask the “Where are you from?” question. Or the related, “No, where are you really from?,” “No, where are your parents from?,” “No, where are your ancestors from?,” “No, why do you look the way you do?” questions. It is also reflected in the confusion that my last name receives. When Asians are excluded from conceptions of who Americans are, it aids in othering and ostracizing.