Speak out or clam up? — Part 1 of 2: Why Black and Asian women respond differently when faced with racism

By Stacy Nguyen
Northwest Asian Weekly


Image by Stacy Nguyen/NWAW

“Recently, I was hanging out in the library. Somebody came up to be and randomly asked me if I was Korean or Japanese or something like that,” said Michelle Tran. “I said, ‘No, I am half-Chinese, half-Vietnamese.’ They were like, ‘Oh, where were you born?’ And I said, ‘I was born here, two blocks away at the hospital.’ And they said, ‘Really?’ I said, ‘Yes, really.’ They said, ‘Really? Not in Asia?’ I said, ‘Yes, really.’ ”

As Tran continued to insist that she was born in Seattle, the older white man didn’t seem to believe her. Tran was rather stunned, unsure of what to say, unsure if she was reading the situation correctly.

It was after the moment passed, after Tran replayed the situation in her head, that she confirmed to her self that the conversation she was engaged in had racist undertones.

It wasn’t the first time. In the past, Tran encountered others who expressed skepticism when she told them she was born in the States. In other situations, people complimented her for her fluency in English.

Tran is a junior at the University of Washington, studying psychology. Though she is the kind of person who thinks a lot about race and ethnicity, she often finds it difficult to directly confront perpetrators of discrimination.

In that way, Tran is reflected in a new report, “Bitter Reproach of Sweet Revenge: Cultural Difference in Response to Racism,” published last month in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin by Elizabeth Lee, Jose Soto, Janet Swim, and Michael Bernstein.

Methods of confrontation

The authors conducted two studies of college students at a large East Coast university, both illustrating that Asian women were less likely to directly respond to racist comments than Black women.

“Black and Asian women thought they were interacting with another college student like them [via an instant messaging chat program], but it was really a person trained by us,” said Lee, the lead researcher. “We looked at the actual verbal responses that the students gave in response to the comment as well as their indirect response, measured by [good- and bad-flavored] jelly beans given to [the perpetrator] as part of a taste test after the interaction.”

In one study, there were 42 participants. Fifteen received a racist comment: “Don’t get me wrong, but dating Blacks/Asians is painful. Dating Blacks/Asians is for tools who let Blacks/Asians control them.” The remaining 27 participants received a rude comment: “Don’t get me wrong, but dating women is painful. Dating women is for tools who let emotions control them.”

The researchers found that Asian and Black women agreed that the racist comment was more offensive than the sexist/rude comment. When indirect or subtle responses to the racist comment were measured — responses similar to Tran’s “Yes, really” — the researchers found that both Black and Asian women responded in the same way, to the same extent.

“Women exposed to the racist partner gave less good-flavored jelly beans than the women exposed to the rude partner,” said Lee. “So overall, all women used the indirect opportunity to withhold something good from the racist person. The Black and Asian women were equally less nice to the racist person.”

“While the study used the giving of bad jelly beans or the withholding of good jelly beans as a way to measure indirect responses, in real life this may translate to many indirect behaviors not previously examined in past research,” added Lee. “We might document in future research that indirect responses to racism include cutting a conversation short, not making eye contact, not encouraging future interactions, making sarcastic remarks, or other indirect communication behaviors that are nuanced and, thus, more difficult to measure in a research setting.”

Parental influence

From Lisbon, where Lee is doing post-doctoral work at ISCTE-Lisbon University Institute, she described “Bitter Reproach” as a labor of love. Lee, a Korean American, grew up in New Jersey in a nearly all-white area. Due to her racial background, she faced discrimination from her peers from an early age.

“Having that kind of experience early really shaped my desire to try to represent Asians in a really positive way, to bridge different groups so they can understand each other,” said Lee.

“Having experienced discrimination early didn’t make me an angry person, but it made me question why. … Growing up I’d read about interesting health research that neglected to include Asians in their sampling, and that made me want to be a researcher of minority issues.”

For “Bitter Reproach,” Asian and Black women were chosen as study subjects because the researchers hypothesized that these groups would have two starkly divergent responses to racism. Lee and her colleagues point to research conducted by William Gudykunst, Yuko Matsumoto, Stella Ting-Toomey, Tsukasa Nishida, Kwangsu Kim, and Sam Heyman, which showed that Asian culture doesn’t encourage assertiveness in human interactions.

Asians, Lee and her colleagues said, tend to prioritize group harmony over personal desires.

Additionally, the urge to self-silence is often stronger in Asian women than in Asian men, which may cause women to be less confrontational.

In contrast, Lee and her colleagues pointed out that research by David Matsumoto found that Black individuals are more keen to express anger compared to whites and Asians, partly because historical experiences — and American white-Black relations — have shaped the way Blacks respond to racism. Additionally, Lee and her colleagues said that Black families discuss prejudice and race far more often than families from other racial and ethnic groups, including whites.

“I know this to be true [that Black families often address issues of race], though there was no particular time growing up where my parents said, ‘Here’s the conversation,’ ” said Marquita Prinzing, who is half-Black, half-white. Rather that engaging in one defining conversation, Prinzing said racial awareness was consistently touched on early in her childhood, which was split between time in the Northwest and time in the South visiting Black relatives.

“From the get-go, Blacks kids don’t have time to stumble into it. They don’t necessarily have the luxury to figure it out or to define it for themselves,” said Prinzing. “They are required to think about it from a young age. In that way, it’s much easier for me to pick out [racism] when it happens.”

Tran said her parents taught her about confrontation through example. She affectionately describes her folks as people who stand up for themselves. However, topics surrounding race were generally avoided, and Tran can’t quite pinpoint why.

“I never had that conversation with my parents,” she said. “My parents just didn’t really think about sitting me down and talking to me about racism. The closest thing to that my parents ever told me was, ‘If you got a bad grade, and you got it unfairly — be tough.’  That was it.”

The past informs the present

Lee and her colleagues speculate that the tendency for Blacks to directly confront perpetrators of racism may be tied to history. There are celebrated Black American figures like Harriet Tubman, Martin Luther King Jr., and Malcolm X who publicly confronted injustice, who are seen as role models to be emulated.

“With the Civil Rights Movement, you have Black Americans who stood up to racism and are shown as heroes,” said Tran. “In that culture, there might be a sense of pride in standing up for your race, whereas in Asian American culture, there isn’t that same environment. We don’t have the same movement or the heroes that have shown us that standing up for being Asian is prided upon.”

When presented with Lee’s research, Prinzing expressed some skepticism at the findings.

“Maybe, in general, perhaps Black women do speak up more, but I’m not sure it’s something we can definitively say, that Black women confront and Asian women don’t.”

Prinzing is married to Vu Le, the Vietnamese American executive director of the Vietnamese Friendship Association, and said that the majority of Asian women she knows and encounters are vocal, assertive, and strong-willed, though Prinzing acknowledges that her environment may be a bit atypical due to her work and her husband’s. Prinzing, herself, also projects assertiveness and confidence.

She earned her master’s in teaching and works in West Seattle as a fourth grade teacher.

Her class is extremely racially and ethnically diverse — fewer than five students in her class are white — a reflection of the changing racial landscape in the area.

About a decade ago, when Prinzing was a student at Shorewood High School, the environment was vastly different. She was one of a few Black students at Shorewood. Partly due to that, Prinzing immersed herself in Black history.

These days, however, Prinzing said that when she speaks up against discrimination or racism, she doesn’t necessarily draw inspiration from history.

“The message I got growing up from my parents was that there are two things you can do when people discriminate against you or when people are prejudiced. You can confront them.  Or, if it’s something you can’t change or something you don’t want to change, you forget them. … I think whenever I’ve confronted someone in the past, it comes from that place more so than directly drawing [inspiration] from a historical figure.” (end)

Read the second part of this story here.

For more information, visit Elizabeth.lee.socialpsychology.org.

Stacy Nguyen can be reached at info@nwasianweekly.com.

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5 Responses to “Speak out or clam up? — Part 1 of 2: Why Black and Asian women respond differently when faced with racism”

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  4. curly says:

    About the library incident. If the person wanted to confront they could have not answered and said “excuse me” and then walked away. This is taking a risk but sometimes thats what you have to do. It may be harder for a female to do this when accosted by a male due to the increased potential for physical violence so Ms. Tran’s reaction to not confront was probably understandable. I had a similar incident in a bar where they guy followed me across the room when I wouldn’t answer the usual obnoxious questions about where were you born etc. and then eventually grabbed my arm, at which point I got in his face and yelled at him and he walked away.

    People should get it through their head that they should not assume or question whether someone is foreign because they are Asian. Sometimes you can confront sometimes you don’t. When there is an appropriate opportunity, confrontation is something that should done. If someone asks what are you or where were you born you can say “whatever” or “wherever” at which point if they keep asking then they should realize they are being rude and deserve a more confrontational response.


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