The reality of confrontation — Part 2 of 2: Why Black and Asian women differ when faced with racism

By Stacy Nguyen
Northwest Asian Weekly

Image by Stacy Nguyen/NWAW

Read part 1 of this story here.

Recently, while Michelle Tran rode the bus with her cousin, Tran’s cousin made a comment to a woman who took up multiple seats on the bus. The woman responded with a negative comment about her cousin’s race.

“My cousin was very confused by it, and it was almost as if she was too flustered to say something. I think she tried to think of something to say, but she couldn’t get it out in time.”

Recalling a moment in the library when she also found herself mute against racial insensitivity, Tran speculates that a reason why Asian women rely on indirect confrontation is because they aren’t as tapped into race as Black women are. Perhaps, Tran said, it’s not that Asian women don’t want to speak up, it’s just it takes them significantly longer to.

“I think since Asians don’t discuss race as much as Black families do, it takes us longer to qualify what is racist and what is not,” said Tran. “And in the split second of thinking about it, the moment passes by. It’s too late by that point.The [perpetrator] has already left, or you have already left.”

Marquita Prinzing, an elementary school teacher who is half-Black, half-white, said that in her experience, zooming in on racist moments is the easy part. What is more difficult is the examination that typically comes after. “Sometimes, I think Black people are always on alert, always noticing [racism],” she said. “To the point where, sometimes, they actually have to stop and [second-think themselves, saying,] “Wait, is it or isn’t it?’  It’s also fairly common for us to [discuss what is and isn’t racist among ourselves.] Part of that is trying to clarify it and measure it.”

Tran and Prizing are responding to new research, titled, “Bitter Reproach of Sweet Revenge: Cultural Difference in Response to Racism,” by Elizabeth Lee, Jose Soto, Janet Swim, and Michael Bernstein. The research, made up of two studies, found that compared to Black women, Asian women are reluctant to directly confront, or call out, perpetrators of racism.

Imperfect data

“I can see how people see this research as reinforcing stereotypes,” said Lee, the lead researcher. “But at the same time, I see this research as pushing ground with discrimination research, because it shows that Asians are responding in a way that no one has measured in the past.”

In Lee’s first study, there were 34 Asian and 36 Black participants, all female undergrads at a large public university. The mean age of the participants was 18.9. Most of the Asian participants were East Asian. Within the Black group, 13.9 were born outside the United States. Within the Asian group, 47.1 percent were born outside the States.

The second study examined 23 Asians and 16 Blacks from a satellite campus of a large university. The mean age was 20.2. About 6.3 percent of Blacks were born outside the United States. About 65.2 percent of Asians were born outside the United States.

While the numbers are generally a fair mirror of the larger population, according to the U.S. Census, Lee’s research has faced its share of critics who wonder of the results were skewed because of the high number of foreign-born Asians in the studies.

A blog post on, run by Jen Wang and Diana Nguyen, stated, “Can you lump 2nd generation and 1.5 generation Asian American women together in a study like that?”

“We tried to get as diverse an Asian sample as we could, just so Asians are represented as widely as possible,” said Lee. “We knew that this would be a concern that readers would have, whether the Asian women are native-born or foreign-born, first generation or second generation. We did do analyses where we compared the first and second generations and foreign- versus native-born [populations] and we didn’t find any meaningful difference between the groups.”

Lee attributes some of the limitations of her research to lack of resources. “For future research, definitely, [a wider sample] is the goal, so that it’s not perpetuating this standard that’s in the research right now, that all Asians are [homogenously] ‘Asians.’”

Perpetuating stereotypes

“If people are offended [by the results of the research], if there is harm that has been done, then that needs to be recognized as a very valid response to this research,” added Lee. “Unfortunately, that’s kind of the cost to be paid when you’re a researcher. We’re pointing out there are racial difference, that race correlates with some kind of behavior.”

Lee’s research is noteworthy in that it measured indirect responses to racism.

“Previous research flattened this and tended to only looked at the verbal ways in which people respond to discrimination,” said Lee.

In one of the studies, Asian or Black woman instant messaged with someone they perceived to be a white male (but who was really an ally of the researchers following a script). The participants were tasked with carrying on a conversation about relationships. The ‘male’ would make a racist comment at some point in the conversation. After the interaction, the women were presented with good flavored jelly beans (like cherry) and bad flavored jelly beans (like vomit). They were asked to pick out some to give to the male. Black and Asian women responded similarly, both withholding good jellybeans from the person they were interacting with, to subtly punish him for being racist.

“Feeling offended did not correlate with response for the Asian women,” said Lee. “I want to highlight the point that Black and Asian women were equally offended by the racism, which has implications for the unfair stereotype that [states that] Black women get overly offended by racism. Black women were not more offended than Asian women, but they were more likely to directly confront the racist perpetrator the more offended they were.  These nuances in the behavior of targets of discrimination get lost in the gross generalizations of stereotypes.”

The takeaway

A limitation that both Prinzing and Tran pointed out about the research was that it didn’t have the chance to examine the role the relationship between the perpetrator and the woman plays in whether a woman confronts or not. Prinzing also noted that it’s very easy to confront someone over instant messages, because there is a degree of anonymity in the interaction.

“How I react will depend on how well I know the person,” said Tran. “If it’s a stranger, I’d be more likely to go ahead with calling them out. But if I knew the person, I’d cool off a little bit, leave the situation, and then come back to talk it out because I value a relationship with a friend more than I care about what a stranger thinks about me.”

“The relationship between the two people and the power differentiation between two people is an important factor in how someone will respond to racism,” said Prinzing. “Power in race is a bigger issue than just the offensiveness of racism.  It’s easy to just be generally offended by racism [and confront someone based on that], but it becomes different if someone [of a different race] is in a position power and is disrupting something you want to do. … Then, [drawing from history,] it’s about: Can you vote? Can you work? Can you go to school? Can you move up? Confronting someone in a position of power may end up hurting you. It’s not always the best method.”

Though, Tran and Prinzing do generally think that suppressing responses to racism is unproductive.

In 2010, Alvin Alvarez and Linda Juang from San Francisco State University saw their research published in the Journal of Counseling Psychology, titled, “Filipino Americans and Racism: A Multiple Mediation Model of Copy.” The research focused on subtle and common forms of discrimination that Filipinos face and found that when people deny or fail to acknowledge racial discrimination, they generally end up feeling worse about the incident. Men who reported racist incidents to authorities — a more indirect response — or who challenged the perpetrator — a more direct response — found themselves less distressed overall, with increased self-esteem.

“I am supportive of direct confrontation, whether individually or as collective action, because it is a useful and understandable response to being a target of racism,” said Lee. “But there are other responses to racism that minorities engage in that can also be useful.  Because discrimination research has historically focused on perpetrators of discrimination, not the perspectives of targets, we are only beginning to scratch the surface of what purposes do different responses achieve. Once we better know why diverse targets respond the way they do, we can better know what implications these responses have for different outcomes, such as perpetuating being a target and maintaining one’s health. … We all have a diverse set of identities that are associated with their own needs and stressors that should be represented in research.”

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Stacy Nguyen can be reached at

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