Piece Comment

Review of Secret Asian Woman

This intensely personal, engagingly produced piece dives into a crucial gap in perception that often separates people of color from white Americans. What constitutes racism? In the day-to-day of race-tinged language, which comments and questions are offensive? Which are harmless -- and "minorities" who object should lighten up and get over it?

Dmae Roberts isn't getting over it. As a multi-ethnic American, half Taiwanese, half white, she's bone-tired from a lifetime of remarks and interrogations that exoticize and marginalize her. "Hai-YAH!" (accompanied by a karate chop). "Do all Asians eat dog?"

As Roberts well knows, some (non-Asian) listeners may bristle or roll their eyes at various points in the piece. Everyone agrees that a cross-burning is an act of racism. In Roberts' view, so is using the term "Oriental" or "Chinese fire drill." (Outdated and insensitive, yes, but worthy of the R Bomb?) In a couple of instances, the piece unintentionally reveals how hard it can be for ANYONE to tread these linguistic minefields, and how embedded in the language some problematic phrases are. Roberts and interviewee Velina Hasu Houston say they object to the term "mixed-race" because "mixed" has historically derogatory connotations. But elsewhere in the piece, each calls herself mixed-race. Dmae tells of having used the term "Oriental" when she was young until a college professor explained its imperialist, exoticizing origins. There's little sign Dmae wants to cut white people slack for needing that kind of education.

If Roberts seems sensitive, I imagine most people of color will understand. Some white folks will, too, to some degree, especially if they've had an extended experience as a racial minority. (Pardon me getting personal for a moment.) I'm white and I lived in Japan years ago. During my two years there, I received several overt expressions of hostility based on my race (or nationality, or non-Japaneseness, or something). But what really wore me out were the casual, almost daily reminders that I was Other, that this was not my place. "You Americans are funny and loud." "Japanese should learn to be more lazy like Americans." "We Japanese are [insert adjective]; you gaijin are [insert opposite adjective]." The chip on one's shoulder does tend to grow. Eventually, a stranger in a restaurant could say, "You use chopsticks very well!" and I'd be ready to take a swing.

I could choose to come back to the U.S. and reinhabit my place in the majority, the default race that doesn't have to explain itself. Dmae Roberts doesn't have that option; the U.S. is her home. Some claim we're in a postracial time, but Roberts insists, rightly, that we've got a lot of work to do. She's angry that she still has to hear this stuff, and she's bravely decided to say so. No doubt she speaks for many. Racism (no matter what you call it) lives, and it hurts. It keeps us apart. I hope "Secret Asian Woman" gets aired, and discussed, widely.