Stimuli: “You are really confident for a Chinese student!”
Immediate emotional response: Okay, I guess this is happening again. Another conference, another social interaction, another stranger, another casual racism.
Immediate facework: Pretend you didn’t hear them. Just smile for a few split seconds. Hold on, body. We’re working this out. Just limbo for a while, okay?
Immediate cognitive evaluation: They seem nice. I’m sure they’re just attempting to be friendly. It’s a conference. Everyone is labouring over small talk. Don’t overthink this. They’re probably regretting their verbal slip right now. No one is self-reflexive all the time. Okay, let’s be generous.
Facework: Issue an ambiguous verbal cue like “hmm?” or “pardon?” or “sorry?”. Maybe contort your body to visually emphasise that I didn’t hear them. Lean your body in! Cup your ears! Maybe they’d take this generous allowance to reframe their words? Maybe they’ve had a moment of clarity? Let’s see. Whoopiedoo.
Stimuli: “I said you’re really confident for a Chinese student! You’re really eloquent and express yourself really well!”
Emotional response: Homgh. This is my life. Will this ever go away? I am feeling gross. What is this grossness, though? Am I feeling offended? Is my pride bruised? I’m not Chinese. I’m not even a student. Should I tell them? But do these facts really matter? It’s not like I can escape the container of my body. Do I even have to escape the container of my body? Why should I want to escape the container of my body? This is on them, not me. Homgh, adult person – you are an academic, where is your wokeness?
Facework: Okay, you should say something. It has been too many silent split seconds. Smile. Maybe smile. Okay, smile. Say ‘thank you’. Maybe acknowledge and register the ‘compliment’ part of this backhanded compliment and then we will work through the rest of this later on. Oh shit why am I hyper-gendering all of this. I am gross. But what other great idea do you have? Okay, no time. Just smile and say thank you.
Cognitive evaluation: Okay, I’ve fulfilled the being respectful bit. But now I feel gross. I need to say something. But what should I say? Would they feel offended? They’re senior to me in rank. What will the consequences be? Am I being stupid and contagious? Hey! That’s my person’s fave song. I miss my person. Okay, please focus. Maybe they wouldn’t take offence. I mean, it’s afterhours and we’re at a reception so surely the rules of decorum are different. And you know, it’s a ginormous conference – I will probably never see them again. And I don’t even know who this person is. Maybe I should just suppress the bad feelings for now and exercise caution. My bad feelings will go away any way. No, wait. This is larger than bad feelings. This is structural. Homgh gods of sociology 101 and spirit of Crenshaw please help me. This is not a good way to be a human being. Say something. You know you want to say something. If not you won’t be able to sleep tonight. And this angst will just fester. I know! Let’s issue a glib response. Generate more lubricant to sustain this conversation because then you’ll have more runway to contort the right contortion of bravery and firmness with self-restraint and some politeness. Wow, I love the metaphor of a runway. I am a baby genius. Okay, please focus. Let’s keep this going. If you shut this down then you’ll lose the opportunity to call out casual racism. Yes, let’s say something.
Facework: “Oh, what do you mean? I’m sure there’s lots of confident Chinese students, and students in general!”
Stimuli: “Well most Chinese students I’ve met have trouble expressing themselves well when they speak to international people. Maybe it’s a confidence or cultural or language thing.”
Emotional response: Okay good job well done, self. They seem willing to extend this conversation. Hooray. Let’s go. But also, what even is “international people” bro? Literally everyone in this room is not Czech so we are all “international people” okay. And like, China is SO VAST and powerful. Who even is the subaltern. Do communications people read Spivak? Why so Anglo-centric. Also, why don’t Shitty Academics <tm> commend POC ECRs for our brain and words? Why do we default to backhanded compliments over our confidence and accent? Why are academics so bad at small talk? Why is it ameriacademia. I want to DM rant to my friends now. Also, maybe they think I am Chinese because I have lost my tan because Swedish Weather.
Cognitive evaluation: Ohhhhhhh, look! They said “culture”! Yes! We have runway!
Facework: Slip into ethnographer decorum. Activate anthropology 101. Say things about East Asian cultural norms and embodied structures of respect and politeness that can be misconstrued as a lack of self-confidence. Say things about cultural relativism. Say things about young scholars learning to navigate different academic systems of collegiality. Say things about the additional and invisible labours involved for some bodies to navigate these taken-for-granted spaces. Personalize this. Tell them about your need to code-switch whenever you hop across Australia and Sweden and Singapore. Go, go, go.
Stimuli: “Yeah, that’s true.”
Emotional response: Yassssss acknowledgement and agreement. Feel all the feelings in gif form in my brain. Also, I am so tired and I want to tap out. The conference hasn’t even begun yet. How many more times will I have to do this this week? This year? In my career? For the rest of my life? Is this my brand now? Where are all my friends? Why is this room so big? Can my eyes scan quicker? Can we go somewhere quieter? I want to take refuge and just sit down and not activate all my senses. I want to eat fries.
Cognitive evaluation: I am so glad I didn’t immediately respond with “I’m not Chinese” or “I’m not a student” or one of these other instinctive but flippant quips. Like, you don’t throw a whole identity category of people under the bus by focusing on distancing yourself from them as if implicitly agreeing with this adult academic conversationalist’s bias. But, okay, see. This person didn’t come from a malicious place. It was genuinely small talk. Bad small talk but small talk. But also, see. You did the thing. Good job.
Somatic plea: Please feed self fries.
And this has been three-minutes in the day of the life of a person-of-colour early career researcher conferencing at an “international” conference with “international” academics.