Wait, was that racist?

This is probably my most personal podcast of this series. I’m chatting with my good friends, Dr. Jessica Soedirgo, Assistant Professor of Political Science at the University of Amsterdam and Dr. Hae Yeon Choo, Associate Professor of Sociology at the University of Toronto, about our assorted encounters with anti-Asian racism.

From seemingly benign encounters that show how the academy doesn’t actually see us as belonging—like mixing up Asian colleagues, or mistaking us for students, or the constant compliments about our English—to actual harmful moments that we still need to heal from, one of the challenges of giving voice to anti-Asian racism is that it oftentimes feels like it barely registers. Yet, Asians in the academy experience racism everyday, while struggling with the acute rise of anti-Asian sentiments, which has been amplified since the start of the pandemic. My hometown of Vancouver was even named by Bloomberg as the ‘Asian hate crime capital’ of North America. And it has also only been two months since the Atlanta shootings, where a man with a self-proclaimed Asian fetish murdered eight people including six Asian women.

On this episode, we talk about dealing with anti-Asian racism when institutions barely acknowledge its reality and fighting against insidious, everyday forms of microaggression.

If you want to get involved in combatting anti-Asian racism, check out Anti-Asian Racism Undone, presented by Scholar’s Strike Canada on May 29 and 30, 2021. Visit www.scholarstrikecanada.ca for more information.

Related and Mentioned in this Episode


Ethel Tungohan 0:05

I’m Dr. Ethel Tungohan, an Assistant Professor of Politics at York University. This is Academic Aunties.

Since we last spoke, I’ve been quite stressed out. I thought that the end of term would give me much needed respite from the anxieties of work. But this has proven not to be the case. This is what happened. I, along with many of my assistant professor colleagues have been waiting for months to learn whether or not we’ve been granted tenure. I knew the decision would take a while. But then I started to hear from happy colleagues who received their tenure letters, while there was radio silence with my file. Imagine my shock when I found out that my tenure file, which passed unanimously at the department level, never got sent up to the Dean’s office. From the end of October until the beginning of May, my file did not go up the required levels. And though this oversight is starting to get resolved, and my file is now with the Dean, I couldn’t help but wonder what do these oversights tell us about how the institution values our work? The fact that this happened to me and to another colleague in my department, another Asian professor, during Asian Heritage Month is so richly ironic.

As Professor Roland Coloma notes in a 2013 article, Asians are both invisible and hyper-visible. On the one hand, we are coded as hard workers who stay in the background. Yet on the other hand, there are circumstances when we are also perceived as threats. It reminds me of an article that was published in 2010 by Maclean’s magazine, asking if certain universities in Canada have become “too Asian.” I was a graduate student at that time, and I was furious. What does it even mean to code universities as being too Asian? Is there a tipping point where we can’t have too many of us? And then I talked to a white colleague about it, who then said, “Why are you so upset? The article actually says good things about Asians, that you’re hardworking and smart.” This is the problem. How do you fight back when racism isn’t so obvious? Can we even call these so called compliments racist? How do we deal with the model minority stereotype? And how do we resist it?

With me today are Dr. Jessica Soedirgo and Dr. Hae Yeon Choo who unpack these tensions.

Jessica Soedirgo 2:36

Okay, so I’m Jessica Soedirgo I’m an assistant professor, as of seven weeks ago, at the University of Amsterdam in the Department of Political Science, and my work looks at conflict, religious and ethnic, in Indonesia.

Hae Yeon Choo 2:53

Hello, my name is Hae Yeon Choo. I am an associate professor of sociology at the University of Toronto. I’ve been teaching here for 10 years. Before this, I was a PhD student in Wisconsin Madison in the US for seven years. I’m originally from South Korea.

Ethel Tungohan 3:11

This is awesome. Welcome Auntie Jessica and Auntie Hae Yeon. Let’s talk about grad school itself and academia as a whole. So Jess, and I…people would think that I was her. Right? So they would call me Jessica. And, Jess, you would be called Ethel too, right?

Jessica Soedirgo 3:31

I remember so Ethel had just graduated. And then I went to APSA, the American Political Science Association meeting. And I just met this professor in their office probably four weeks before so I assumed that they remembered who I was. But they were like, didn’t you graduate already? Like why are you here? That’s like…just like then I realized that they totally thought I was Ethel, which is so odd. Right? It’s like I said, I think they were, like, they had gotten the announcement that you’d finished and then they were link, why is this graduate student in a how to write a proposal seminar?

Ethel Tungohan 4:13

You didn’t tell me that! Are you serious? Yeah. It’s so odd as well. Because this is…this happens to all of us, right? Like I remember…who was that I was talking to…this was back in grad school, and we had just started but then they were talking to me about like, conflict zones in Indonesia. And I was like, “Yeah, okay.” Because that’s not my research, right? And then you just kind of walk away and leave and I got coffee at the Second Cup downstairs and I then had kind of the lightbulb dinged and I was like, oh my god they thought I was Jessica….and Hae Yeon, we don’t look alike right? Jessica and I. Can you confirm to our listeners?

Hae Yeon Choo 4:51

Yes. You don’t look alike. And you know, it doesn’t stop in grad school, right? We experience that when we are professors as well.

I’ve heard it from even more senior colleagues who who’ve experienced that, even among people who are colleagues who’ve been together in the same department for more than 15, 20 years. This kind of mix up, unfortunately continues to happen for many Asian faculty members, and I’m sure to other racialized faculty members as well.

Ethel Tungohan 5:23

For sure. And has this happened to you? Or have there have you faced other weird microaggressions specific to Asian academics?

Hae Yeon Choo 5:33

The mixups certainly have happened to me. I think it would be rare to find somebody to whom this doesn’t happen. If you’re an Asian woman, or even an Asian man, it does happen very…I would say, at least a couple times a year. It’s also more common, to me, to also be mistaken as a student, or as a staff member. That does happen quite often, I think. And the idea that we somehow look young, I mean, you know, they mean it as a compliment. But…

Ethel Tungohan 6:06

Yeah, let’s touch on that. They mean it as a compliment. And we’re socialized into thinking it’s a compliment, but it’s actually not when you unpack it, right? Because certainly, I’ve had colleagues in my current job who say, oh, but you look so young, you know? Or even graduate students who would say, “Oh, yeah, how old are you? 25?” And it’s like, this is right before teaching a class and you’re thinking, well, first of all, I don’t want to out how old I am. That’s kind of weird, right? And secondly, what does that imply?

Hae Yeon Choo 6:39

Well, I think it’s the assumptions that we are inexperienced, we are kind of…don’t have the same level of competency, or you know, things like that. And it’s kind of like complimenting your English or lack of accents, or, you know, those kinds of compliments, quote, unquote.

Jessica Soedirgo 7:02

I just want to add, I would say that, it’s, I don’t know about the young thing, but definitely being mistaken for a student. It’s like, it’s, you know, for a long time I kind of was, I guess I shouldn’t be mad about it, because it’s a compliment. But in some, in a lot of ways, it’s because people can’t imagine you in that position.

Ethel Tungohan 7:24

And the funny thing is, I find that I try to combat that by dressing up. But I remember one of the comments I got from a colleague was when I was wearing like, this banana republic, like, I don’t know, like, dress suit. I was thinking I look professional. And yet this colleague was like, how old are you? And I’m just like, dude, I’m wearing like, I was trying to get the attire of what I think a professor should look like, in order for me not to have to face these questions. And yet, I still get asked this?

Hae Yeon Choo 7:56

When I first teach a class, in the first class, I usually mention that I’ve been teaching here for 10 years. And you sometimes the students like are visibly surprised, right? Yeah, because it’s easy for some people to see you as a junior faculty. But it’s also harder, I mean, going with what Jessica said, you know, it’s harder for people to imagine that you’re mid-career or senior.

Ethel Tungohan 8:33

I’m also starting to think of other like microaggressions that we just kind of take for granted as well. And quite frankly, like, I think, this current political moment, and we’ll go back to that in a second, has elucidated to me how invisible anti-Asian micro-aggressions or aggression-aggressions are, and we’ve just kind of accepted it as normal. So another example that kind of came to mind was, how, how food can be markers of other otherness as well. I remember, in my previous graduate school department, we would have these potlocks, right? And when I was starting, I didn’t realize that there was a cultural script for some, not all, but for some of these potlucks, depending on the host where the food that you bring is supposed to embody like Bon Appetit chic, right? Like it’s not supposed to be, you know, quote, unquote, like ugly food. It’s supposed to be I don’t know, like charcuterie, cheese, grapes, hummus, tzatziki…okay, I’m just listing out a bunch of different foods, maybe I’m hungry because it’s almost lunch…but I brought–do you know those walnut cakes that you buy in Koreatown, those little balls–and so I like bring this plate and I’m like here is my plate. And you know, go to the potluck. Our host, a faculty member graciously takes the plate. And then we’re kind of sitting there, you know, drinking wine and talking. And I notice that my dish remained in the kitchen. And at first I was like, “Oh, the table was full,” right? Like, she probably was going to bring it out later. But then another grad student came and brought, like a Caesar salad or something. And immediately it got placed at the table. And so, you know, didn’t think about this for like, 15 years. And then I remember this, this year after where people were posting about anti-Asian microaggression. And I was like, that’s messed up. Right? Like, you know, food is being seen as markers of otherness.

Jessica Soedirgo:

I mean, that’s so interesting. I thought the one area–and I totally hear you with when it comes to food–but the one thing that I get nervous about is always like wine. You know, maybe that’s a class thing. But it’s also I think, cultural backgrounds, like, you know, Indonesia is not a big wine drinking country. And so I don’t really know anything about wine, like even now, you know. When I think in a lot of like, in the job market, or even in during grad school, where you, you know, you have wine with faculty. You know, a lot of people grew up with that. But, you know, I certainly didn’t. That was something that gave me a lot of anxiety. And I would also say that I think, even growing up there’s a policing or, you know, I think there’s some things seen as, like, gross sometimes about Asian food, right? And I think that’s changing in many contexts. But it’s weird how a lot of these like, traumas from childhood kind of like, you carry them with us. I remember, like every time I would go in the beginning, when I would like, bring my lunch to eat, and you know, where the grad students would eat together, I would try to always have, like, non-odorous, or like, “palatable” food, you know, to bring. And it was weird, because I didn’t even think about why that was. It was almost like second nature to me to do that.

Ethel Tungohan:

Yeah, I mean, who, at least people for people who grew up here, who didn’t get bullied for bringing, like, you know, noodles, because kids would be like, “oh, they’re like worms,” and they’re not like worms. I don’t know what worms taste is like, when they don’t look, they do not. They’re not like worms, right?

Jessica Soedirgo:

And pasta looks like worms.

Ethel Tungohan:

Yeah, it looks like worms. Exactly. Exactly. Right. And then it’s evolved, right? Where we still bring our kind of culinary hang ups because of these, like, racist behaviors that we experienced when we were growing up. And like our colleagues are like, “Oh my gosh, look at my chicken adobo.” And you taste it, and you’re like, “….mmmm?…” Oh, you know, it’s not, you know…and they’re so proud of it. So it’s kind of it’s like, it’s like our bullies have become cultural voyeyrs. Right, so it’s like shifted and twisted.

Jessica Soedirgo:

And sometimes you’re not even see that as like, the legitimate authority on your own food. So I remember, you know, at a party, this one person…so there’s this Indonesian salad called gado gado. It’s has eggs in it, it’s lettuce and it has a peanut sauce on it. And this person had this cookbook that had Asian cuisine. And he was like, he asked me like I make this gado gado soup all the time. It’s really good. And I was like, “Oh, well, you know, it’s not…” And he’s like, “is it authentic?” And I was like, “Well, you know, in Indonesia–and by the way, like gado gado is from the region where my mom grew up– I was like, “Well, you know, I mean, the ingredients look, right. But usually in Indonesia, it’s a salad and not a soup.” And then I found out that guy literally went…like after I told him that it wasn’t authentic, he went to the white guy who’s a white student who, you know, we’re friends. But he he also did research on Indonesia. And the guy asked him the same question. And he said the exact same thing, obviously, because there’s no such thing…Indonesians don’t have gado gado soup. And I remember being so mad about that, because I was like, what makes this…like, this is my food. You know, this is the food I grew up with. Why did you need to confirm with someone else that you thought was more of an expert than me on the food that I eat?

Ethel Tungohan:

So this is what I mean, right? Like, these are the encounters that, you know, on the one hand, it’s it’s fine. Like, it’s not like, you know, it’s not like it harms you outright, right? But I feel like this is death through a thousand paper cuts because it’s an accumulated lifetime of these encounters that I find really distressing to have to, to have to grapple with. Right? Do you know what I mean? It’s like, like, then you will be petty just if you confronted the guy and was like, I mean, at the party, if you were like, how dare you? How dare you? Do you know what I mean? Then it becomes, you become the weird one, right? Like, but how do you then respond to it?

Jessica Soedirgo:

I think it’s not just…in many ways it’s a microgaggression, obviously, about a dish that’s a salad or soup. But in many ways, I think what made me upset about it was the question of authority and who, who has the authority to speak on, you know, on issues related to a place that I also study, you know, and who is given…whose opinions are given more credit?

Ethel Tungohan:

Have you ever been in spaces where people tell you, or tried to inform you about, “What’s it really like in Indonesia?”

Jessica Soedirgo:

I definitely remember one moment in grad school where I…I’m trying to figure out how to not name names…but it was a fellow grad student. And it’s…firstly he wanted to write about an incident of violence that my father had basically gone through, not like he wasn’t a victim in the same way, but I remember sharing it, and then the person basically said that my interpretation was not accurate. And you know, and now that I have had distance with it, I understand that this person was coming at it from a scholarly, wanting to have a scholarly debate about this particular incident. But it was so like, close to my personal experience that it’s, you know, I’m trying to share and engage and then the person was like, your interpretation of the history is wrong. And I remember just even saying, like, I’ve been studying Indonesia for five years. And that person was reading about this for, for the summer, you know, like, three months, this person had read about this case. And, you know, at that point, I just felt really upset, because I was like, well, I’m Indonesian, but also, I’ve been like studying this for five years, so, or four years at that point,

Ethel Tungohan:

For sure. And I feel like that’s when it gets a little bit tricky as well, right? Because we have to establish that our expertise, you know, and our lived experience is not equivalent to this person reading something, right? Like an article that they read does not equate to your expertise and your lived experience. And again, these are encounters that are so commonplace, and it’s so hard to know how to react in the moment itself.

Jessica Soedirgo:

Just to jump in on this point. I just had a story where a chair of a panel at the International Studies Association meeting once told me…he basically…he literally, it was it’s almost a direct quote, he said, I don’t believe your justification for your case selection, because I know that you just wanted to go home.

Ethel Tungohan:

What did you say?

Jessica Soedirgo:

I said something that was…I just said, my response was to, you know, defuse tension. And so I, I just like, laughed it off. But I should not have done that. You know, in the moment, you don’t know what to say to that. And so I just, you know, made a joke or whatever.

Ethel Tungohan:

Let’s, let’s start talking about, you know, kind of the hardest topic that I think has kind of caused us a lot of anxiety. The last few weeks, the events of Atlanta, happened, I think about two months ago, right? And it was in the US, but I think it kind of brought up a lot of our increased experiences of anti-Asian racism in the time of COVID. And also, I mean, it precedes that, but I think it’s intensified during the time of COVID. Um, and I guess one of the things I wanted to ask was, why was it so hard? Why do you think it was so hard to get people in our respective institutions, or even in our daily lives to recognize that this was actually an anti-Asian attack?

Hae Yeon Choo:

You know, after the Atlanta shooting some, for me, that kind of was the occasion that I felt, finally people are seeing this, the rise of anti-Asian racism and violence, and that made me very sad. I really felt like, at that time, the kinds of anti-Asian attacks and violence have been rising for more than a year and it’s what’s happening in Toronto and Montreal, New York, San Francisco and everywhere. So it really didn’t need a mass shooting for people to see that but but at the same time, I do think that was a turning point for many people, my colleagues, my university, my department to see what anti-Asian racism looks like.

Ethel Tungohan:

So Hae Yeon, like you have been so active in terms of illuminating the realities of anti- Asian racism and specifically gendered racism facing Asian women in particular. What was your impetus in organizing these panels with representatives from different Asian activist groups? Like, what was the goal? And how did you keep kind of going on when it comes to organizing in the midst of also feeling intense pain?

Hae Yeon Choo:

Yeah, at that time, when the shooting just happened, you know, we just felt like, we, especially my close colleagues in Korean studies, community and other Asian communities, we felt like we really have to do something, so that we create a space where people are not isolated. People can come together to talk about how this is affecting us. But also, you know, we still are kind of hung up on “is this racist?” Is this race? A gender issue? Is this like a sex work issue? Like what kind of issue is this? That kind of binary framework. So I do think it is important that we bring in different community organizations and people who are working, who’ve been working on these issues for for many years, to see that this is not new. And this really is a complicated issue that have different multiple dimensions.

Ethel Tungohan:

The fact that you are debating even internally about what is this… race, is this sex? Is this about occupational discrimination, like, like class discrimination, right? Because some of the people, some of the women who were killed tragically, were sex workers as well. So how do we kind of navigate these complexities, but also recognizing that, within Asian diasporic communities, we’re not a monolith, right? Like we have diverse groups from diverse cultural backgrounds, but also diverse class positionalities, right?

Hae Yeon Choo:

Yeah, I actually think, you know, hypothetically, if this kind of mass shooting of Asian massage workers, if it happened three years ago, before this kind of more visible Asian, anti-Asian violence that many people experiencing on the street after COVID, if it happened before that I actually don’t know whether the Asian community would have come together in the same way to support…to mourn these women. And I think there’s a lot of work that we as Asian community members should do to address that.

Ethel Tungohan:

And I think what’s interesting is that you’re right, like, I mean, reflecting on the last year as well. And COVID, and how it was kind of initially seen as the Chinese flu, Wuhan flu, and then it kind of evolved and mutated into being seen as something that Asians have, right? I’m still finding it hard to kind of grapple with that. And maybe some of us haven’t had direct encounters with racists during COVID. But I think some of us, myself included, have embodied like internal bordering practices, where I don’t go to grocery stores that are Western, because I don’t feel safe. And I don’t want people to like, stare at me weirdly, right?

Jessica Soedirgo:

I mean, I lived in in Dupont Circle in Washington when I was in DC, but I essentially only didn’t go early in the morning, because I wanted to make sure that there would be people there. Though, you know, I guess, having a lot of people doesn’t necessarily keep you safe. But I felt like there was a higher probability that someone could come to your defence, if, you know, there are more people there. So I remember, you know, telling like, like a friend of mine, who was in DC at the time, and he’s, he’s a, like, he’s of Filipino heritage and he was like, hassled quite a number like two or three times and I was like, don’t go running in the morning. So it’s, it’s interesting. Not interesting, it’s terrible like what I now think about.

Hae Yeon Choo:

Yeah, I’ve been pretty careful about, maybe too careful, about not like walking by myself. Things like that in a way really makes me kind of mad because that way of being in the city I’ve never experienced before. And that’s because I’ve, I’ve been attacked on the bus, earlier in the pandemic, you know, like the whole Chinese thing and that’s kind of made me change my relationship to public spaces.

Ethel Tungohan:

I’m so sorry to hear that. I didn’t, I didn’t know that, like, did someone just call you a name? Or, well, not just, but what what happened?

Hae Yeon Choo:

Yeah, somebody was trying to kind of get at me by saying like, “Why do these Chinese people have to bring COVID to our country?” You know, and all that. And, I mean, actually, some people had to, like, actively step in, because the person was coming at me. So. And that was like, very early in a pandemic, like, February of last year.

Ethel Tungohan:

I’m so sorry. That’s not okay. And, you know, I don’t want to minimize it. That’s violence. This seems to be a recurring theme in this hangout, right? Like, how do we react in the moment, when confronted with violence, in your case, in this story, and when when we encounter like, comments that are at face value benign, but are actually harmful?

Hae Yeon Choo:

Well, I think in cases like this, the best you can do is to protect yourself. If it’s like extremely risky, then I think it’s much better to leave. And in some situations of microaggressions, even in a university setting, I think in many cases, it’s better to leave and leave it at that. But in other cases where interventions are necessary, and maybe helpful, one trick that I have, when I hear kind of, you know, comments that are problematic. You can ask, “What do you mean by that?” And you shift the focus, and make the other person explain whatever the person said.

Jessica Soedirgo:

I mean, I would say that either…and I remember in a previous episode, you’re saying how academics are conflict averse. I feel like I’m both Canadian, and my parents grew up in Java. And so I’m like, double conflict averse. And so you know, I think what I’ve been trying to do, recognizing that this is something that I struggle with, is to be more intentional about, you know, speaking up when I can. I think that, you know, this is kind of behavior, like keeping your head down, is behavior that I’m trying to unlearn and and so, you know. I beat myself up a lot. If I, you know, when when I don’t say something in the moment, because I don’t know what to say, or I freeze up. But I think it seems to me is that what I’ve seen in myself is that the more you do speak up, I think the better you get at it. And so it’s about sort of pushing yourself to say something even though you know, it feels risky, or I’m trying to, to practice.

Ethel Tungohan:

Practice makes perfect, right? Absolutely. I love that. It’s kind of like, you know, we have to be strategic. But the more that you speak up, the easier it becomes. This is the final question, and then we’re gonna wrap up, because this has been such a rich conversation, and I’m going to think a lot about your words of wisdom. One thing I wanted to pivot to, because this is something that a lot of folks have emailed us about is how do you reorient yourself and learn who you are outside the academy?

Hae Yeon Choo:

You know, one thing and this goes back to a bit of the Atlanta shootings, I’ve been thinking about for the past couple months. I am Asian Canadian, you know, I’ve been here for 10 years. And, but for some reason, I haven’t been involved in Asian Canadian communities in a way that I would like, and these past few months and past year have really taught me, you know, what, like, asked me like, what, why, why is that? Of course, we’re busy with work and all that. But I do think it’s good that we think about which communities we belong, other than our jobs. I thought I’m kind of at the university. That’s my community. But I think I’m trying to do more, to be more involved in the community recently.

Jessica Soedirgo:

Well, you know, I think, in many ways, this pandemic has sort of reinforced the need to, you know, be someone outside of your job. But I think you know, what I’ve been realizing over the past year is like, you know, how will people remember you by or like, how will you matter to people when you’re gone? And it’s not…like sometimes it’s your work. Sure, but I think often it’s the relationships that you build.

Ethel Tungohan:

Thank you so much. Auntie Jessica, Auntie Hae Yeon, you have imparted such wisdom and such clarity and such loving advice that I am so honored that we were able to share this space.

This conversation made me think of a few things. We need to nuance our understanding of resistance. Doing something doesn’t mean doing something instantaneously. We can and should give ourselves time and space to reflect. We have different ways of resisting microaggressions and actual aggressive behavior, and you should do what feels right for us and what keeps us safe. Also, it is crucial to carve out generative spaces of support. In that theme. There are a bunch of events coming up on May 28 and 29 for Asian Heritage Month organized by Scholars Strike Canada, which I link to in the show notes. And finally, because this gave me so much joy and hope, listen to the song “Racist, Sexist Boy” by the Linda Lindas. If you’re on social media, you may have seen this already. If not Google it. It’s my rallying cry for the summer.

That’s Academic Aunties for this month. If you like this podcast, help spread the word. The best way to do that is to leave us a review on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you get your podcasts. It really helps. If you want to get in touch with us and read all the show notes for this and other episodes, visit academicaunties.com. We are also on Twitter, so follow us. We’d love to hear from you.

Today’s episode of Academic Aunties was hosted by me Dr. Ethel Tungohan and produced by myself and Wayne Chu. Listen to us next time as we talk to more academic aunties. Until then, take care, be kind to yourself and don’t be an asshole.