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You speak English well.


Macon from “Stuff White People Do” (a site that is on queue to be on a future Friday fave) asks:

“What do you think of the Department of Transportation’s advice? Do you get official advice like this on your job? And do you ever get questions like this from your coworkers?”

He’s referring to the Delaware Department of Transportation’s newsletter (read the whole thing–it’s fascinating) that hopes to give clear instructions of what not to ask your coworkers.  This includes things like “what not to ask your Asian co-worker”:

You must be the new IT person.

All Asians are not IT professionals.

You speak English very well, or did you learn to speak English in America?

You are assuming that everyone who speaks with an accent is foreign born. The fact is that we all speak with an accent; e.g., New England, Southern, British, etc. The appropriate approach should be “I’m not familiar with your accent, may I ask where your accent is from?”

What’s your native language?

Don’t assume because people look differently or speak differently that they are not natural-born Americans or are from a foreign country. Remember we have military bases all over the world; and don’t forget the Peace Corps or Fortune 500 companies with employees and families spending the bulk of their lives overseas.

Can you recommend a good Chinese restaurant?

All Asians are not Chinese. Take some time to study a world map. The world is made up of continents with many countries, regions, cultures, and sub-cultures. Remember the news reports about a vice presidential candidate who thought Africa was a country.

Wow, you are from India! My neighbor Ashok Shah is from India; do you know him?

Think for a minute … do you know every American – or everyone who lives in Dover or Wilmington?

To answer Macon…

Do you ever get questions like this from your coworkers?  Yes, I do get some of these questions from coworkers, but I also haven’t felt completely marginalized by some of these particular questions, and so have never responded in any way that has taught someone that it is not okay to ask this question.  For example, if someone does know another Indian, particularly one with my same last name or similar last name, then it is a chance for me to talk about why some Indians have Christian last names, or that my “native” language is Malayalam, the longest language name that is a palindrome (what age was that drilled into our heads?).  

BC can tell you of how she held me back from starting a fight and getting arrested on our trip to Europe last year when Mr. California Guy was trying to impress his new pretty European female friend, and ended the conversation by telling me that I “speak English well.”   Of course I didn’t think of the perfect comeback (“so do you”) until it was 5 minutes too late.

Do you get official advice like this on your job?
No, but that’s not necessarily a good thing.  Working at non-profits, there is sometimes a condescending attitude of “that’s so obvious” when it comes to “ist” statements.  Although we would hope that the education that human service providers include some cultural competence, it’s not always the case (I’m a good example).  All of us bring baggage to the spaces we enter, and when we feel like we can’t openly share and learn from our own ideas and misconceptions, it is not a safe space.

What do you think of the Department of Transportation’s advice?
I think they are well-intentioned, but a newsletter blast falls short of real anti-racism/anti-oppression work, and only addresses the superficial “whys”.  It also speaks to a real desire to take short-cuts and follow a “dos and don’ts” list, instead of doing the hard work of looking at our own privilege and how we use it to put others down.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. mallory permalink
    2009-05-06 11:13 PM

    I dunno. I would have to say this newsletter is somewhat appreciated by me. Personally, I’m a little tired of the backhanded racism against Asians. And I’m so tired of having to explain why I don’t have a red dot or why my coat continually smells like curry or why I still don’t know how to use the dishwasher. It’s our custom. Our culture. They don’t understand or are ignorant because they’re too enveloped in their own culture so if a newsletter at least prevents them, then I’m just going to let it be.

  2. 2009-07-01 1:50 AM

    Hi, just surfed on to your page. I like the themes, keep it up!! This newsletter is fascinating, I have to forward it along…


  1. Topics about Asians » Blog Archive » You speak English well.

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