Compliments are defined in the dictionary as polite expressions of praise and admiration.
Ergo, by their very nature, compliments are meant to be sincere and flattering, whether they have to do with one’s character, appearance, taste, or any combination of the mix.
Yet Asian Americans face a unique conundrum in receiving compliments from non-Asians because, in many cases, the comments tend to be laced with preconceived notions of race and the giver’s presumption of their superiority.
Allow me to explain: “You’re ____ for an Asian.”
The above example implies the person giving the compliment deems themselves to have a presiding knowledge of another person’s surface characteristics, regardless of how they are as a person.
What you fill into the blank may be honest, well-meaning observations, but adding race into it is more a reflection of your personal biases over the complimentee’s accomplishments.
At first glance, your intentions seem harmless – and they are! We have all been guilty of stereotyping from time to time, but it’s important for us to be cognizant about how supposedly kind words can reinforce negative, uninformed stereotypes.
The tricky truth underlying the theme of this article rests in the fact that you were aiming to help, not harm.
Yet weaving race into the context of a statement like that above sets up a template for how you think a person should be. With that in mind, your statement is not a compliment, but rather your personal surprise.
Someone else’s reactions to your words are never up to you to decide – that definitely applies to racial comments for people of all races.
Someone’s intentions don’t change the very real racial microaggressions Asian people experience in the name of compliments – nor how those microaggressions impact how people perceive us or how we experience the world around us.
Moreover, when an Asian American possesses a trait uncharacteristic to the stereotype, it’s often assumed he or she must not possess any of the other stereotypical traits either. Remember when Mean Girls had very distinctly separate tables for the Asian nerds and cool Asians?
When a white person compliments someone of Asian descent, it’s common for them to highlight the difference between the two groups in order to attain the same level on the white plane of standard.
As ironic as that sounds, stereotypes are so unconsciously internalized through the media and everyday life that this may not even have occurred to you. And that’s okay! That’s what I aim to explain right now.
Here are a few other well-meaning and purportedly playful compliments that can actually perpetuate harmful stereotypes and leave us feeling ostracized and excluded:
1. ‘You’re Just So White for a _____’
My fellow “coconuts” and “Twinkies” can attest to hearing this from a white person, and how it almost exclusively is meant as a compliment.
For those of you unfamiliar with the terms, a coconut is someone of South Asian descent who “acts white.” In other words, they are brown on the outside and white on the outside. Twinkies, a yellow cream-filled snack, apply the same logic to those of East Asian descent.
Clever as they may be and endearing as they may seem, calling your Asian American friends these nicknames definitely implies white supremacy – and that your friend acts contradictory to your stereotype about how people of their ethnicity behaves.
It also entails that the Asian Americans who have white friends or engage in activities not prescribed as Asian are essentially white.
It undermines an Asian American’s efforts in fitting in and engaging in their everyday experiences purely based on physical appearance.
It also belittles our culture.
And within the Asian community, the internalization of this comment results in a much less endearing connotation.
When an Asian alleges another Asian of being so “white,” it is often accusatory of someone who has abandoned the characteristic traits and interests of his or her own race for the mainstream’s.
In an essay for the Odyssey, Julianne Wey writes that in her effort to absorb all elements of western style, she said: “I shied away… from anything that might lump me in with the stereotypical Asian dorks who only hang out with Asians and talk about only Asian things.”
The catch-22 with whiteness is that it often leaves one stranded in between identities; when someone strays far from the norm of Asian culture, it is noticed by both white people and Asians.
Without consciously realizing it, so many Asians have internalized these white ideals and supremacy and use it as ammunition against their own.
Despite the vast diversity of immigrant population in western culture, “whiteness” is still very much the default. The promise of the American Dream is advertised with visions of white people who are powerful, wealthy, and respected – visions that drove most of our ancestors out of their homes and into this country in the first place.
We are essentially socialized to strive towards whiteness while trying to maintain every remnant of our shattered-then-shoddily-rebuilt culture. When so many Asian Americans growing up see only whiteness in pop culture, they’re driven to adopt it.
When a white person commends whiteness in a non-white person, they are validating our identity crises.
This “compliment” alone is enough for an Asian American to abandon their culture or worse, feel embarrassed by it.
2. ‘You’re My Token [Ethnicity] Friend’
Again, this comment comes from a kind place, but it makes us very cognizant of our otherness – as if I’m supposed to act a certain, stereotypical way to be the righteous representative of my race how you see it.
The first time a close friend of mine called me her token Asian friend was early in high school, and as if I wasn’t struggling enough with my identity is an erratic teenager, I was now incorporating race into the mix.
What did being a “token” friend mean?
I thought back to what my ethnicity implied in America. Did my friend expect me to help her with math homework? Did she think I’d make a good student council president? Did she want to eat chicken tikka? It turned out, she expected at least two of those things.
Calling someone a token friend almost implies that people of different cultures aren’t meant to be friends and it’s a miracle when they are.
It also serves to invalidate the Asian Americans are in fact, American. Yet we are constantly othered based on something as superficial as appearance.
“Token friends” are a withered concept of those who serve the purpose of assuaging racist microaggressions, a sentiment I know black people are all too familiar with (a la “I have black friends, so I can say [incredibly racist statement]”).
To token friends everywhere, you’re not tokens or hatesplainers. You are friends.
3. ‘Of Course You’re [Adjective], You’re [Race]!’
I went through a yoga phase in high school where I’d religiously attend classes almost every single day in any way, shape, or form. Through lots of practice and obsessive determination, I had cracked down some of the toughest contortions.
So when time came to help out a fellow classmate with a tricky pose, she predictably retorted: “Of course you’re good at yoga! You’re Indian!”
I halfheartedly thanked her and remember feeling undeniably heated the rest of the day. And no, it wasn’t because of the hot yoga.
This seems to me the oddest combination of humility and self-preservation if there ever was one. It’s when a white person acknowledges a skill they don’t have, but they don’t have it only because it’s out of their control.
It’s not in their DNA, whereas yoga is supposed to be in mine, right next to high SAT scores and a degree in medicine.
No Asian American – or anyone else for that matter – has excelled in school or in anything without working hard.
This “compliment” is the trickiest to confront because it’s so well intentioned we’re often blind to the fact that attaching praise as a consequence of race wipes out all the hard work you’ve ever done to even be receiving that compliment in the first place.
4. ‘You Don’t Even Smell Like [Ethnic Food of the Complimentee’s Culture]’
Yes, this is real.
Yes, I have been told in the most genuinely astonished manner that I don’t smell of curry, as if my countrymen begin every morning by dousing their skin in masala and lathering their hair in turmeric.
But unfortunately, food has even worked its way into backhanded compliments.
Referencing a culture’s cuisine in an effort to connect with that person comes across as conspicuously rude.
Most Asian Americans who grew up in western culture have been mocked for bringing any modicum of ethnic cuisine in their school lunches because meals that aren’t burgers or fries or steamed veggies inevitably smell different.
This “playful” comment can be a trigger in resurfacing ugly childhood instances of racism. I don’t want to speak for everyone, but I can almost guarantee most of us have been there.
5. ‘You Speak English Really Well’
After spending a large chunk of my childhood in Singapore, I moved to the US when I was 16. Many of the new people I met in school were quick to tell me how good my English was, considering I had just moved to the US.
This was, of course, before I told them that English is one of the national languages of Singapore. And I went to an international school.
Although I did spend a few years in a non-western culture, I know many of my Asian American friends who have lived in the US their whole lives continue to earn praises on their stellar grasp of English, regardless of whether they have an accent or not.
Such a comment implies foreignness and devalues a person’s American status.
A YouTuber who goes by the name of Angry Asian Woman points out in her video: “Not only are there Asians [in America], but there are Asian Americans, and among those there are many people that don’t speak any language other than English.”
A solid grasp of English is essential to living in America.
There are countless Asian Americans who exclusively speak the language at home or speak another language at home while using English in school. In the case of an Asian who has grown up their life in Asia and is pretty new to western culture, you can still bet their handle on English is solid.
After all, the populations of Asian countries make up some of the top ranked English speakers in the world.
6. ‘You’re Attractive for an Asian’
This comment affects both men and women.
Tying race into complimenting one’s appearance is dangerously teetering on racial fetishism – something Asian women are all too familiar with. Those who think this comment aren’t too far away from those who exotify and objectify an entire race of women.
Someone’s race should not be a prerequisite for dating them.
This comment for men insinuates more of a relief, as if for some reason being Asian counts as a strike against them. Well, the reasons are in the following pervasive stereotypes about Asian men: they have small penises, they’re effeminate, they’re nerdy, and they aren’t athletic.
Asians – or people from any of the 48 different countries encompassing one jam-packed label – are typecasted to be smart and relentlessly driven without much regard for appearance.
So when an Asian American is found by someone to be attractive, they are immediately judged under white standards of beauty.
Hence, “you’re pretty for an Asian” – or, “you’re pretty for a group of people that I had thoughtlessly stamped to be unattractive because they don’t fit the media’s standard of beauty, which is usually white, tall, thin, and blonde.”
Calling an Asian man “attractive for an Asian” reinforces ignorance and your adherence to stereotypes. With both men and women, it’s important to not reduce a race to its body parts.
These backhanded compliments may appear to be painstakingly obvious, yet most Asian Americans have experienced such forms of racism.
Despite your well-meaning efforts to praise someone of Asian descent, referencing specific contemporary stereotypes about Asians reinforces whiteness as the ideal – an “ideal” non-whites will never perfectly match up to despite spending the majority of our adolescence hopelessly trying.
And in an effort to find similarities in your non-white friend by boasting your purported knowledge of their culture, it may come across as half-hearted or worse, unintentionally racist.
So how are you going to give compliments now? Easy. Just leave race out of it.
While it’s important to be cognizant of race in order to acknowledge an individual is affected by opportunities and perceptions, bringing it up in a casual instance tends to be unsolicited.
Any of the above compliments mentioned above will achieve its fully intended flattery and kindness without adding your astonishment of their achievements not being in line with their pervasive stereotypes.
If we can all take heed of these methods, we can leave a person to be whoever they want, look however they like, and like whatever they like without feeling pressured to prescribe to an identity.
Nikita Redkar is a freelance writer in New York City who currently interns for Fusion Network where she writes about diversity in pop culture and how it’s shifting the current landscape of racial and gender politics. When she’s not writing, she is taking classes in sketch comedy and reading bizarre astronomy theories. She likes cute animal gifs and dislikes long walks on the beach, plagues, and other cliches.