real life

'I have been mistaken for the #WrongAsian. There's nothing funny about it.'

A few years ago, I was walking down a corridor at a former workplace when a colleague stopped me.

"Hello!" she said, brightly. "I didn't know you were here. It's so great to see you back!"

A few thoughts rushed through my head at once:

I haven't been anywhere.

Or have I?

No, I haven't.

I really need to pee.

What is she talking about?

The question though, was really: Who is she talking about?

There was only one other Asian woman on the same floor (yes, Asian people are underrepresented in mainstream media, tell me something I don't know) and she was on maternity leave. She and I looked nothing alike. Our hair, facial structure, physique, even our dress sense - there was nothing similar between us.

Except, of course, for our race.

As the truth was dawning on me, so too was it dawning on my colleague. I could see her face turn red in embarrassment, and, not wanting to embarrass her further by pointing out she had mistaken me for another Asian woman, I smiled and said, "Well, it's good to be here!" and ran off to the toilet.

I really needed to pee.

**********

Over the weekend a few media outlets confused comedian Ali Wong's husband, entrepreneur Justin Hakuta, with actor Randall Park. Wong and Park starred in 2019's rom-com Always Be My Maybe together. 

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This is nothing new, of course. I mean, the hashtag #WrongAsian exists for a reason.

Veteran actor Michelle Yeoh has been mistaken for actor Fala Chen. Australian actor Chris Pang has been mistaken for Canadian actor Simu Liu. People magazine thought Ronny Chieng was Park (Randall Park sure is popular) and Chieng's wife, Hannah Pham, was Jae W. Suh. 

In Australia's media, Remy Hii often gets mistaken for fellow Malaysian-Australian actor Jordan Rodrigues. 

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It's not only Asians, of course. Remember when Who magazine mistook model Adut Akech for fellow model Flavia Lazarus?

Comedian Nazeem Hussain has to constantly remind people that he is not commentator and The Project co-host Waleed Aly.

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These are just a few examples in the media, but you get the idea.

According to an article by the BBC, being mistaken for another person of the same race can happen to anyone, regardless of skin colour, although experts agree that in "majority-white spaces, misidentification happens more frequently to people of colour."

Part of why this happens comes down to science: We have a bias when it comes to our own race. This means we identify people of our own ethnicity better than those of other ethnicities.

In 2019, Brent Hughes, a psychology professor at the University of California, and his team published research based on an experiment they conducted involving the area of the brain used to process faces. They presented a series of photos showing black and white faces to a group of white participants. The photos were digitally altered by various degrees.

The participants "reacted strongly to the most subtle differences in the white faces, but didn't register even very different black faces apart." As Hughes put it, the black faces were treated as though they weren't faces.

"You see someone as part of another group, and you process them: you identify their racial group membership. And then you sort of cut processing off at that level. People lack the motivation to process an individual more deeply," Hughes said.

Previous research showed that while people of colour also identified other people in their own race better, they also were "more adept at identifying white faces compared to the other way around."

This is due to power dynamics. Basically, we pay more attention to those who are "dominant" in society.

**********

I was collecting my various packages in the mailroom when the mailroom guy said, "Here's another one for you, Cindy."

He held out the package. I looked down at it. It was addressed to Cindy, someone in the same building and a good friend of mine. Cindy and I often went to the gym together and then collected our packages afterwards.

"I'm not Cindy," I told the man.

He looked at me. "Oh!" He took the package back and looked at me again.

"Oh!" he said once more. His face started turning red.

"I can take it up to her if you'd like?" I said, not wanting to embarrass him any further by pointing out he had mistaken me for another Asian woman. 

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"No, no, no," he said, face still red.

Cindy and I laughed about it afterwards. What else can you do?

**********

I know this is an article about race, but I can honestly tell you I really dislike talking about my ethnicity.

As a Chinese woman, I'm hyper-aware of the line between experiencing racism and internalised victimisation. I don't want to cross into the territory of "woe is me" and "look at my pain" or some other palaver.

Despite experiencing racism, I am not a victim. Casual racism is borne from ignorance, not extreme prejudice. I am privileged to live in a society where I can talk openly about race and racism, and to not be penalised for speaking out.

So, I only want to say something when something needs to be said. And something needs to be said about mistaking people of colour for other people of colour - whether that's in the media, the workplace, a restaurant, or anywhere else.

STOP DOING IT.

That's what I would like to say. Please, just stop. 

Because while I have laughed it off a number of times, it's not funny. Like many people, humour is my defense mechanism. It's always engaged when it comes to casual racism. I have laughed off so many microaggressions of casual racism. Even the word "microaggression" minimises it, doesn't it? Micro. A small thing. Just a minor inconvenience; here one moment, gone the next.

Get over it, you say.

Have a sense of humour, you say.

But when it keeps happening, it gets harder to brush off. It burrows in deep, and carves out a space in you.

Here's what it really feels like when you mistake me for another Asian person - It makes me feel invisible. You're looking at me, but you're not seeing me.

It also makes me feel like I am only my race. That all the other parts that make me me are superfluous. Discarded and unnecessary. 

It's an awful way to feel, and I'm sure you would never want to do that to someone on purpose.

If you're in the media, do your homework. Research the person. Put up the right photo.

Expand your friendship circle if you can. If everyone you associate with looks like you, then it can be pretty hard to diversify your thoughts.

When you meet people, look at them. Really look. Note their characteristics, not just their race.

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"When you meet people for the first time, look at their face. Notice the details of the face and in particular, think about their situation," Susan Fiske, a psychology professor at Princeton University and an expert in bias and stereotyping told the BBC.

"Thoughtfulness in individuating people when you first encounter them can help, and then you're less likely to mix them up with other people."

I can't speak for anyone else who is Asian because we are not a committee. I am not a representative of the entire Asian race. We are, like everyone else, individuals with our experiences, opinions, and worldviews.

But here is just a sample of what other Asian people have to say about being the #WrongAsian.

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**********

There were about 15 of us at the media-only event. As we mingled in the cafe by the water, a waitress came to give me my coffee - except it wasn't what I'd ordered.

"I think this must be someone else's," I told her. "I didn't order the chai."

"Oh! Sorry, I thought you were..." She blushed, looking uncomfortable, and her eyes went to the only other Chinese woman in the throng of media people.

I didn't want to embarrass her further by pointing out she had mistaken me for another Asian woman.

I said, "It's OK."

It wasn't.

It isn't. 

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