This happened to me a few times: Someone asks me, “Where are you from?” “Taiwan,” I reply. Five minutes of chatting later, this person surprises me with “So you are from Thailand, right?” At this point, I can do one of two things: (1) Correct this genius I’ve just met; or (2) let it go. Actually, I remember making a similar mistake myself once by saying a coworker was from Columbia during lunch in front of other people not minutes, but weeks, after he mentioned he was from Costa Rica. He seriously corrected me in private after lunch. After apologizing to him, I thought to myself, “Why did he care so much where I thought he is from? Was it because he thinks Costa Ricans are better than Columbians? Why should I care? I’m entirely neutral on that.” And I didn’t expect people to care exactly which Asian country I’m from, either. In order to hide my bias that makes me think Taiwanese are better than Thais, I let it go instead of making sure people remember what I am. To me, a bias is a bias; if I cannot rid myself of it, at least I shouldn’t reveal it.
Actually, it helps lessen my bias thinking Taiwanese and Thais are all Chinese, and it might help the aforementioned coworker the same way if he thought Costa Ricans and Columbians are all Mexican. I would have said the following (bad joke) to him had I gone to Chile before that fateful lunch: “I went to Peru. The whole time I thought I was in Mexico.”
My trip to Chile helped me extend my view on Mexicans, to the level that I had understood black, white, and Chinese people. I now grasp the thought process that, from the vantage point of American society, deems all races of the world as black, white, Mexican and Chinese. Here Mexican and Chinese are abstract terms, as opposed to their conventional, concrete meanings. That means one doesn’t have to hold a Chinese or Mexican passport to be Chinese or Mexican. If one passes for a Chinese or Mexican person based on appearance, language or mannerisms, he/she is Chinese or Mexican. Regarding black and white people—one will first have to be neither Mexican nor Chinese. Then we can just follow the conventional “wisdom” to put a person in the category they are perceived to belong.
Yes, it’s all perception indeed. If we don’t want to treat people as individuals but insist on categorizing them the way we categorize dogs by breed, have at it and make all of our lives complicated with endless conflicts. The foolishness of identity politics gives some people a cause or a movement to preoccupy themselves with, others jobs in the legal field or money from extortion, and still others simply an excuse for personal failures.
That said, if one is still more comfortable living in a society of races rather than individuals, they are certainly free to do so, and even free to stick to the conventional racial categories rather than adopt the new scheme consisting of only black, white, Mexican and Chinese. But would someone who prefers the conventional categories tell me why it makes more sense to lump Indians and Japanese together as Asians than to let Indians be black and Japanese be Chinese? Indians have nearly nothing in common with Japanese, whereas they and black people both naturally have very dark skin. For another example, someone once asked how Native Americans fit into this new scheme. Simple—they are Chinese. Conventional scheme, new scheme—races are all arbitrary anyway. That said, the latest research shows Native Americans migrated from Asia during the Ice Age, which means Elizabeth Warren, Tiger Woods and I have something in common—we all have Chinese blood of differing proportions, which leads to the question: How do we treat people who have mixed blood from multiple races? And a corollary question: Do we really have a black president?
The only answer is: treat people (and presidents) as individuals. If, instead, we arbitrarily lump people together as races and treat one another as representing a race or as being represented by a race, we will be gripped by identity politics or genocide or something in between.