It frustrates me when the color of my skin makes people think that I don’t speak English. I was on a plane a few months ago, sitting behind the people in the exit row. The flight attendant asked the person whether they understood the requirements of sitting in the exit row; when the person (presumably) nodded, they were told, “You need to respond verbally.”
It brought back a memory of a flight I’d been on previously. I was sitting in exit row, and the flight attendant asked whether I understood the instructions. I nodded — I don’t remember how many times I’ve flown seated in the exit row, but it was enough to be nothing new. Instead of telling me that I need to respond verbally, the flight attendant then asked me whether I understood English.
Just to be clear: instead of assuming that I was bored, or not paying attention, or something else, they immediately decided that I might not know English. This wasn’t even an international flight — I was mostly likely flying between Philadelphia and Minneapolis. I realize this could seem a coincidence or like not a big deal. Perhaps my conclusion that the person’s reaction was racially based makes me sound overly sensitive. However, this wasn’t an isolated incident, and seemingly little things like this just send a message reminding that I’m always potentially viewed as other, as a foreigner, as not belonging — in my own country.
It’s like Marilyn Frye’s birdcage analogy — each individual act of oppression could be dismissed easily, just as the individual wires of a birdcage would not trap a bird. But when those incidents add up, you can see that there’s a larger problem, similar to the way that the wires of a birdcage work together to imprison the bird — if you step back, you can see the cage and not just a single wire.
When I was in high school, the bridge over which I drove to school everyday was under some pretty serious construction. One day, the traffic was particularly rough, and I made an abrupt stop: my backpack fell to the floor with a loud thump, and the car behind me might have bumped into mine. I wasn’t sure what to do (or whether the car behind me had even hit mine, given the noise made by my bag falling to floor), and my school wasn’t too much farther than the bridge, so I just continued on to school, getting more and more worried as I went.
The car behind me followed me until I stopped in the parking lot of our soccer field. The driver and I both got out. I was stammering; I was so freaked out about what had happened and whether anything was wrong with my car (it was fine). I had never had anything go wrong with my car or my driving before.
The other driver asked me if I spoke English. Excuse me? There I was, in my preppy little private school uniform, at my school, and you don’t think I can speak English? I’m not trying to say that people who don’t speak English don’t (or can’t) attend private schools in the U.S., but the idea of someone who didn’t speak English at the school I went to is ridiculous (partly because my school wouldn’t have known what to do with them). Furthermore, I was a high school student who had potentially damaged their car: I think my having been flustered was understandable, not a sign that I don’t know English. If I had been any of my white classmates, they wouldn’t have doubted my ability to speak English.
It’s not really that I have issues with people asking about my English-speaking abilities — the problem is that they ask because I’m Asian.