“I might just be your biggest fan,” I once wrote to David Sedaris in an email, “This line, admittedly, was stolen from how you talk about Tobias Wolffe in Theft by Finding.” I don’t think Mr. Sedaris ever got my email, or if he did, it didn’t warrant a response, but still when I went to see him speak and sign books in Washington D.C., I was the combination of nervous and excited one gets when getting to bask in the glow of someone you admire.
The crowd was what one could expect of a bookstore in suburbs of Washington D.C., mostly older white people. The owner of the bookstore said that Mr. Sedaris elected to have it at the store so it could be free and accessible to all who were interested. I, on a meager fellowship stipend, certainly appreciated this, and beamed at his consideration.
The room was full and everyone seemed just as excited as I was to see him. He came out in plaid shorts and a white embroidered button down, and greeted the crowd with some comments on DC. He then wanted to read a piece he wrote for PBS, he said his prompt was to write about something that annoyed him. His choice subject was how people were just too sensitive nowadays. The crowd of the older, white liberal elite laughed just at hearing it described.
He illustrated his piece with two specific interactions with Asian women. The script both times was essentially:
Him/his friend: Have we met before?
Asian woman: I sincerely doubt it. You are [like has already happened four times today] probably mistaking me for someone else who is my race.
“Not everything is a microaggression,” he concludes.
In both instances, he says, he was trying to make polite conversation (he explains that his friend, is as the British say, a bit touched), and that was met with hostility? Where is the common decency? How could these women not have made the effort to understand where he or his friend was coming from? Why did they have to be so negative?
The crowd laughed at these ridiculous women. Lighten up! You are being too sensitive! My face turned red as the all white room laughed at these Asian women, who reacted as I would have if I had a bad day. Women, who reacted the same way many people would have if they had to answer the same question for the millionth time. A question that might have been sometimes thrown at them with animus, with bigoted intentions, a question that was unexpected when they were just trying to have a nice conversation with an author.
Mr. Sedaris’ larger point was to ask, when can we begin to interact with other as people and stop being offended? Can’t we just all get along?
And I understand these questions. I have them too.
Wasn’t I the one who went to a reading to laugh with my favorite author but left feeling affronted? Why did I feel uncomfortable as the minority in a white crowd when that was nothing new for me? Couldn’t I stand there and happily laugh with those other fans? Had political correctness gone too far and now I was part of the problem?
These are questions that might require interrogation for me personally. But his piece asked these women to give him a break, see his humanity and where he was coming from. But he didn’t seem to offer them the same favor. He didn’t take the time to reflect that people of color are frequently called upon to take good natured comments with a polite laugh. Asian women’s stereotypes are frequently “positive”: docile, demure. And so when we venture to break those stereotypes, it’s often met with confusion like if Hello Kitty were to become vocal and yell, “fuck you!” If the crowd and Mr. Sedaris hadn’t somewhat internalized these stereotypes why did both examples have to be Asian women and why was their ire funny?
I believe Mr. Sedaris is a good person, I believe many people who commit micro aggressions can be good people. I just believe their scope is limited and they don’t understand “well I wouldn’t be offended” isn’t the definition of empathy. With a fair amount of confidence, I can say Mr. Sedaris simply has no idea what it’s like to be an Asian woman, and especially what it was like to be an Asian woman in the room that day. He doesn’t know the hurt of being mistaken for someone else repeatedly or seen as a perpetual foreigner. He certainly doesn’t know what it’s like to be an Asian woman and hear your frustrations turned into a punchline.
I listened to the rest of the talk feeling increasingly uncomfortable, alternating between dismissing my own discomfort and enjoying a talented author. By the end I still wanted to tell him I was a fan and have him sign my book. The woman before me was a white woman who seemed nervous to talk to him, as was I. He was polite and kind, trying to make conversation.
He asked her, “Did you think that piece was offensive? I don’t think it was.”
She said, “No, people are too easily offended nowadays.”
I was shaking as I went up to the table. My voice was cracking and I felt like I was going to pee (a sign of nervousness). We made light chat and he signed my book. He seemed to be inviting opinions, and I knew I would feel silly if I didn’t say anything, so I told him that as an Asian American woman, I didn’t enjoy his piece.
I observed his eye twitch and his nose scrunch up, facial tics that he frequently writes about and apparently does not exaggerate.
“Well I wasn’t talking about you, I was talking about those specific women,” he said.
I told him I understood, and maybe those women are frequently rude to everyone, but their ethnicity was indeed part of the joke, and that making it a punchline allows others to dismiss other Asian women’s complaints.
He, sitting there in his embroidered shirt looking the same age as my mother, repeated, “but these are specific women.”
I told him that Asian people are frequently called upon to represent their whole race, and it was difficult to listen to his story as an Asian woman and not divorce those ideas. He, an older gay white man, listened to me, a young Asian woman. And I appreciated that.
He said, okay.
I said, I’m a fan. Thank you.
He gave a tight mouth smile.
I don’t think he knows what it’s like to be me, just as I don’t know what it’s like to be him. He probably stayed at the bookstore for several hours as he is known for doing, talking and listening to his long line of adoring fans. He, in his five-star hotel that night, might have reflected on microaggressions he has been on the receiving end of, realized he frequently and easily laughs them off, and wondered why I couldn’t have. Or he might not have even thought about our interaction again, as the piece was published unchanged.
But I feel certain that he didn’t, like I did, return home and cry a little bit, wondering if he had embarrassed himself in front of his favorite author. He probably didn’t go home as a young Asian woman who that night felt like an overly sensitive, powerless speck.
Our positions in life are worlds apart. But we both have been on the receiving end of microaggressions. Maybe he felt that as I talked to him.
But, at the very least, I hope he wasn’t offended.