People often think that Asian people don't experience racism; however, you could ask a handful of my friends that could attest to the fact that we do in fact experience racism. One of the most common forms of racism that people experience in a falsely "post-racial" and white-liberal environment (e.g. Seattle, liberal-arts colleges, the University of Puget Sound) is racial microaggressions. The term "microaggression" was coined in 1973 and is generally defined as “brief and commonplace daily verbal, behavioral, or environmental indignities, whether intentional or unintentional, that communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative racial slights and insults toward people of color.”
Microaggressions, while not overtly or immediately violent, can cause a person to experience internalized racism or long-term psychological harm. Microaggressions are well known amongst communities of color, particularly students of color on predominantly white campuses. Racial microaggressions are often similar across non-white racial groups, but here are some that are commonly aimed at Asian students.
1. "Where are you from?....No, but like... where are you FROM?"
This is arguably the most common and universal microaggression experienced by Asian people. The assumption here is that we aren't from the U.S. and have foreign heritage or origin even if we have lived in the U.S. our whole lives.
For example, I was in my AP Gov class my senior year of high school and I had a substitute teacher. I walked in late and she said "Where are you from" ...I interpreted this as "Where are you coming from" and I handed her my pass and said "Oh sorry, I'm coming from my counselor's office." She accepted the pass and smiled and said "No, where are you from?" I was still confused and just stared at her for a brief second. The whole class was looking at me, and I walked towards my seat. She asked again, "Where are you froooommm?" Finally I understood what she was trying to ask, but I could not believe she was asking me this 30 seconds after walking into a room and in front of my whole class. I looked at her, and through gritted teeth said, "I am from South Korea." She stopped smiling and said "Oh, well, I am sure you'll enjoy this film anyways." She proceeded to play a documentary film about Chinese school kids learning about democracy. I realized that she was originally trying to ask me if I was Chinese without asking me if I was Chinese. I also realized that she had hoped I was Chinese so I could speak about the film. I thought that her harassment was over, but it was far from done. This substitute came and stood right next to my desk and threw racist microaggressions at me for the remainder of the 80 min class. Some of the golden ones include:
"I'm sure this is pretty similar to your heritage"
"Does this remind you of your upbringing?"
To both of these I replied: "I am South Korean and I was adopted. I have always lived in the United States."
To this she said: "Oh but I'm sure you still know about your people." For the remainder of the hour she just kept repeating statements and questions about "'my' people" and "heritage."
2. "Ewww, what is that?!"
This microaggression is also known as "A lunchbox moment," which is also a common xenophobic microaggression against immigrants of any race. Lunchbox moments often happen in school cafeterias where many children either have simple sandwiches or school bought lunch. However, these moments can still happen to adults while out in restaurants, at work, or even in your own home. Growing up adopted, I never had a packed lunch that evoked this othering situation but I have experienced my fair share of them. Some people might say that in schools "kids are just kids" and are insensitive about anything they don't know. However, kids are a reflection of the way that we raise them and the things that we familiarize them with. I'm not implying that you need to "culture" your child by taking them out to as many international restaurants as possible, however, we need to teach children that othering people via food or hurtful statements isn't okay.
Furthermore, I still experience this as an adult. In fact, I have experienced lunch box moments more as an adult than as a child. I often hear derogatory comments about spices, meat, fish, and dish names while in restaurants or in my college dining hall. These kinds of comments create a hostile environment, particularly for children, because it indicates that the food associated with someone's identity is disgusting to the majority. Lunch box moments have often forced kids to try and assimilate their lunches in school and stray away from eating food from their own culture and eating "American" food. Additionally, the othering of food has always bothered me because white-liberals are particularly into the idea of cultural appreciation via food and are often really into Thai, Vietnamese, Chinese, Mexican, etc. food and love to "discover" "ethnic" foods-- however, when it comes to people from those cultures eating their own food in school or in public, white-American people often feel the right to comment on it.
3. "You're such a bad Asian"
This one is usually used in reference to something deemed "Asian" that a racially Asian person can't do or doesn't know how to do. I've heard this one in reference to Asian kids who can't do math, who get bad grades, who don't know how to make rice, who can't use chopsticks. Let's talk about why this sucks. Asian people are Asian regardless of if they can do those things and NONE of those things are inherent to the racial category "Asian." Calling someone a "bad" Asian can really make them feel negatively about their racial categorization and often feel conflicted about leaning into Asian stereotypes or assimilating into whiteness. The only thing that makes you a "bad" Asian are the things that make anyone a "bad" person, you know, like murder, assault, killing puppies, or hating chocolate.
4. "So, you're Chinese?...Japanese....Korean????"
Well yes, I am Korean, but...
Did you know that the Asian continent reaches from Kazakhstan, down to India, and around to Indonesia? Additionally, a lot of people in the legal boundaries of China don't identify as Chinese. People that we visually racialize as "Asian" are usually Southeast Asian or East Asian. A lot of people recognize Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam, China, Korea, and Japan because the majority ethnic groups from those countries have racial monikers that people have deemed "Asian." This question usually follows questions about "where" people are "from." If someone tells you that they are from a small nation, city, or country that you have never heard of, don't ever follow up this this question with a guess on what Asian country the person is talking about. You are the one who asked, so you get whatever the person's answer is. If someone says they are from Mandalay and you have no knowledge of the geography of Myanmar, then maybe you can go look it up on google for yourself and you don't need to make that person feel worse by saying "Oh so...you're Chinese...Japanese.....Korean...???" just because those are the only three Asian countries that you know. Not to mention, a lot of SE Asian countries have HORRIBLE histories with the governments of China & Japan in particular. If you want to know about someone's national heritage, you might want to think about why you want to know in the first place. Are you just asking to ask? Do you even know this person? Is it relevant to anything?
5. "Can you read this?"
Usually this microaggression is accompanied with a non-Asian person holding up a picture of some characters (usually Chinese or Japanese) or holding an item from an Asian market (usually written in an East Asian language). This usually includes East Asian languages because, again, non-Asian people racialize Asian people as being Chinese, Japanese, or Korean. Usually the person is holding up some meaningless text that they probably don't really need to read. It's almost like they are testing us for our "Asianness" assuming that we can read the set of characters they are showing us, regardless of the language. It's Asian, so we should know it.
The problem with this is, oh yeah, languages between countries and regions in Asia are VASTLY different! Weird how that works the same there as it does in every other part of the world. In fact, there is a LONG list of indigenous languages plus 12+ spoken languages in China alone. So yeah, there are hundreds of distinct languages and dialects spoken all across Asia. Every time some ignorant person asks me to read some characters for them, I just want to reply "Yeah it says 'racist.'"