This morning, my family engaged in one of our all-time favorite activities, watching the United States Women’s National Soccer Team play. Today we cheered on from our living-from the United States as they beat North Korea 1-0 in the first round of 2012 Olympic play. Watching the USWNT play over the past few years has been one of the most powerful and important things my daughters have experienced. The names Hope Solo, Alex Morgan, Abby Wambach, Megan Repinoe, Lauren Cheney and Carly Lloyd are known in our house much like sports figures like Kobe Bryant, Drew Brees or Big Papi might be known in others.
Despite the great fun of winning and watching the great play of the United States, as my wife and I followed the commentary on Twitter, we noticed a disturbing trend. Here are just a few examples from some the seemingly innocuous to the blatantly offensive:*
So to point out the obvious and absurd in all of this, all Asians do not all look alike. Still, do this search or this one or this one and you will see ample evidence that some believe and experience the contrary. Sprinkled throughout the tweets you see some folks calling some people out, others including a “I don’t mean to be racist.” disclaimer and others simply wondering outloud.
While it is one thing to call out the North Korean squad for their rough play, it is quite another to wander into the realm of “all Koreans look alike.” While this might not be a huge deal to many folks, this “they all look the same” rhetoric this has been one of THE primary ways that society has historically denied and dismissed the human experience and expression of people of color. Sure, everyone is mistaken for someone at some point in time, but I simply do not think this happens to White folks as much as it does for people of color. For many of my Black, Latino and Asian friends out there, I am sure that we can all list instance after instance after instance when we have been mistaken for a like-raced person who looks nothing like us.
Let me give you an example of how this plays out in real life in an innocent, yet telling way. If I had a dollar for every time that someone made a Bruce Lee reference to me, I would be a very wealthy man. Now you might be thinking, “Well, duh, your name IS Bruce and you ARE Asian.” Sure this train of thought MIGHT might sense if I was also ripped with muscles, was 30 pounds lighter, 2 inches taller and could kill you with a one-inch punch to the heart and but alas, these are not traits that I possess. While I am not actually mistaken for Bruce Lee, it does give insight into the place where people start and usually stop when first meeting me . . . my Asian face and an automatic connection to another Asian face. This plays out even more personally, when I AM mistaken for other Asian Americans in my own church denomination. Despite the fact that I look nothing like Rodger, Joey, Neal or Kye it happens again and again, further illustrating the reality that many people really do think we all look alike.
In the end, seeing this trend in the midst of an event that is meant to bring the global community together, I was reminded that there is still much to do in trying to build better relationships between people of different racial backgrounds. We must be able to take the time to actually get to know each other in a way that does not dismiss the genuine racial and ethnic background/s of a person, but allows us to incorporate these elements into the lens through which we interact with one another. This could be said for many issues that make up our complex existence and unless we are willing to see one another’s humanity in a way that truly incorporates all of those things, we will continue be a people who find ourselves battling across false and one-dimensional dichotomies of race, gender, sexuality, age, ideology, etc.
If you feel comfortable, please feel free to leave your story of mistaken identity as I do think telling the stories of our mistakes and brokenness is one way to help us all move towards some level of forgiveness and healing. Engaging in these conversations about race is certainly not an easy task – community rarely is – but I am convinced and convicted that it is well worth the effort.
*I chose not to publicly call these folks to the extent that I would include the links to their twitter accounts. Many are young folks who I believe are still learning the nuances of social media. My intent is not to bring down the hammer on any one person, but only to point out that issues of race are still in need of addressing in today’s society.