“Wow, you speak such good English!”

I work in retail.  This means that I am constantly interacting with a large variety of people and making small talk with people who hold a wide range of beliefs, views and opinions.  Though most of these chats are superficial and consist of little more than simple careless exchanges of “how are you?” “good, how are you?” “good!” … “have a good day” “thanks, you too!”, I sometimes have more in-depth conversations — though often superficial conversations — with customers who typically have no where to go.  I can’t complain too much because I must admit, I enjoy these short conversations with strangers who sometimes make me giggle, sometimes make me happy, sometimes make me think, or even rarely make me angry.  My favorite is when these “stranger conversations” make me think.

I cannot tell you how many times I have heard a person say to me, “Wow, you speak such good English!”  I always cringe a little as a small piece of me dies inside when I hear this, but I am not at all surprised.  It’s the curse of being an Asian American (or a Latino/a American) — that is, the curse of being seen by the general majority (read: White Americans) as the Perpetual Foreigner.  Because I look “different”, I am automatically deemed as an alien, or as a foreigner, in the eyes of those who look like the idea of the White American.  I am seen as someone who must have immigrated or relocated to the United States from some sort of second class society or third world country in search of a better life.  I am seen as someone who must be fluent in my “native language” and who is struggling to quickly learn English for easier assimilation into American society.  This Perpetual Foreigner view instills into the minds of White Americans that I, along with all other brown skinned Americans, must be from somewhere outside of the United States, and thus, must speak English with some sort of accent.  This is why it surprises White people that I “speak English so well!”.

The United States is a country built on immigrants.  Its citizens are a blend of people of a myriad of differing ethnicities who have ancestry tracing back to a vast number of nationalities.  Unfortunately, very early on in the process of settling and establishing the United States, the concept of race was invented by those who deemed themselves “Whites” (and therefore better than those who were deemed “Non-Whites”), thus beginning the institution of systemic racism.  This invention proved to be extremely beneficial to “Whites” — they were able to control and hold power over every aspect of the development of the United States at the expense of those “Non-Whites”, or “Others”.  This invention grew as the institution of it forcefully expanded, creating what we know today as the United States of America.

What does all this have to do with me being seen as the Perpetual Foreigner?  What does it have to do with White people proclaiming to me “Wow, you speak such good English!”?  The fact is, within this framework, when a White American looks at a person of color and immediately thinks to him or herself, that person must be an immigrant or i wonder where that person is from, this White American is subconsciously thinking American is White.  Within this frame of thought, there is no room for people of color in the United States, and there is absolutely no room for racism to die.

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1 Comment

Filed under Everyday Encounters

One response to ““Wow, you speak such good English!”

  1. allyssamarie

    “The United States is a country built on immigrants. Its citizens are a blend of people of a myriad of differing ethnicities who have ancestry tracing back to a vast number of nationalities.”

    You are spot on! I am so sorry that you’ve gotten such insensitive comments! How do you handle it? I’m wondering what you say in response. I would probably be speechless…

    “The fact is, when a White American looks at a person of color and immediately thinks to him or herself, that person must be an immigrant or i wonder where that person is from, this White American is subconsciously thinking American is White.”

    I would just be careful to not group all White Americans in together – there are definitely many people who are in the same frame of mind as you and I – people who know what structural racism is, and don’t want to support it. Thank goodness! We need more of them!

    It’s frustrating though – I, being a light-skinned Hispanic woman, have not gotten the comments you have – however, I have been told time after time, “Wow, you don’t ACT Puerto Rican!” Because of course we all act alike, right? Ugh.

    I have also been in rooms with White people who say blatantly racist things, not realizing that I am part Latina and I have black family members…

    Anyway, keep writing! You are so eloquent and well-informed! Thanks so much for sharing, and I look forward to hearing more from you =]

    Also – you might be interested in looking through this website, and perhaps doing the weekend anti-racist training with them in NYC. I did a few years ago and it was AMAZING to be around other people, sharing stories and learning together about a pressing issue..

    http://antiracistalliance.com/

    Thanks again for sharing!

    ~Allyssa

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