“First of all, I do not see how that question was relevant,” Harvard economics major Joseph Choe told NBC News after Trump questioned his nationality during a question and answer session at Problem Solver Convention in New Hampshire.[1,2] Trump had previously made factually incorrect statements about Korean defense spending in relation to joint U.S. and ROK military activities. [3,4] When Choe wanted to fact check Trump on his erroneous statements, Trump asks him “Are you from South Korea?”
Asian Americans are too familiar with these kinds of moments: “Where are you from? No, where are you REALLY from? Where is your FAMILY from?” “Are you a foreign exchange student?” “Wow, your English is really good!” Many Americans, including some Asian Americans, are not aware of the oppression and racism that Asian Americans experience in the U.S., but this is an example of a situation that points toward some of these greater issues. Sure, Asian Americans are stereotyped from time to time and encounter the occasional racist comment every now and then, but does that constitute oppression?
The interaction between Choe and Trump is an example of a microaggression. The microaggression has become a hot-button topic in popular culture used to characterize one type of present day oppression. Some argue that microaggressions are hardly substantial instances of racism, and attest more to the hypersensitivity of the victims, a lack of a sense of humor, even. This is not true. Microaggressions work hand in hand with stereotypes to perpetuate the dehumanization and exoticization of oppressed groups. They confine the identity of Asian Americans to the roles and representations that their oppressors have traditionally associated them with. Microaggressions may seem like harmless comments or understandable mistakes, but they represent a far greater issue. They implicate a darker and more dangerous cultural view that underlies the casual nature of the comments themselves. They bring into question how valid your American-ness is, whether you are one of us, or one of them. This not only undermines and erases our lived experiences in America, including the racism and oppression that we endure because of our non-whiteness, but also perpetuates the idea that we are not “true Americans,” that we do not have an equally genuine claim to America, its politics, economy, culture, or identity. Our loyalty to the country, our constitutional rights as citizens and residents, our lived experiences, they are all on the line as a foreign otherness is imposed on non-white Americans the moment that they meet someone.
When Donald Trump interrupts Joseph Choe to question the student’s nationality, he is questioning the legitimacy of Choe’s stake in the conversation. “What if I actually were from South Korea? Would that have made my opinions less legitimate? I know some people feel like Mr. Trump’s question was perfectly fine, but it wasn’t… it’s obvious he asked that only because I look Asian.”  In his statements, Trump implies that Choe may not belong in this conversation to begin with because he looks Asian and is therefore un-American and inherently biased. Choe is made out to be a foreigner that is attacking the states, not Trump’s erroneous statements, with a hidden agenda from Korea. When Trump says, “Are you from South Korea?”, he is really asking “Why should a non-American foreigner be allowed to provide commentary on an American presidential candidate’s statements on American policies on the American campaign trail?” Through his microaggression, Trump attempts to oust Choe from the traditionally white space that is American politics. And he’s had a track record of this kind of racist behavior; he infamously asked President Obama for his birth certificate in 2008 and continues to feed the Islamophobic and racist myth that President Obama is a Muslim and not an American, even today.  These kind of blatantly ignorant and racist actions are characteristic of Trump’s “politics” and reinforce the attack on Asian Americans and all of non-white America that are trying to claim their fair share of the American identity and all the rights and freedoms that it entails.
Many of us that identify as Asian American are children and descendants of immigrants. We know the complex and confusing burden of our hyphenated labels; mine is Korean-American. The sometimes awkward and seemingly contradictory combination of clashing cultural inheritances posits a dynamic challenge in developing an identity for the “blank”-American. When the American and Asian components of one’s identity seem to counteract each other, it becomes difficult to feel grounded and confident in its validity. The struggle to feel comfortable in a multicultural identity is an experience shared by non-white America. White Americans will not have the validity of their identity, citizenship, or experiences questioned, simply off the basis of their appearance or behavior. Based on the color of my skin, the shape of my face, the size of my eyes, my phenotype, Americans instantly question the legitimacy of my identity and American-ness. Despite the fact that I was American born, American raised, and American educated, my claim to the American experience can and often has been erased within the first thirty seconds of my meeting someone.
Asian Americans has previously been scientifically documented to experience have adverse effects on the life quality because of their inclusion in the “perpetual foreigner” stereotype in America.  The idea that Asian Americans experience a constant struggle to validate their American-ness in the eyes of others and themselves is a major conflict in their American experience. This phenomenon is a real form of oppression that manifests throughout America. I care about my Asian American-ness, my culture, my unique and diverse heritage, because it is up to me as an individual to stand firm in my identity and call out racism, privilege, and oppression, ultimately to deconstruct the systems that perpetuate those forces of inequality. At an individual level, I benefit from privilege as a non-black individual, from my socio-economic class, and gender that allows me to function in society despite the impact of oppressive systems. However, it is important to realize that I am not representative of the whole of my race.
Stereotypes, and the microaggressions that perpetuate them, are inaccurate portrayals of Asian Americans that homogenize the extremely broad population of Asian Americans and erases the experiences of perhaps the most oppressed in that group. Allowing ignorance and racism to be spread by microaggressions and stereotypes is unacceptable, especially in such public and critical environments such as the presidential campaign trail. I do my best to combat these types of oppression part in my community, because I care. I refuse to let stereotypes and generalizations be used to define my American experience and that of other Asian Americans. I care because of the racial inequality and ignorance that is still present in the United States and the continued erasure of the complex and diverse identity and experiences of the Asian American. As Choe states, “Misstatements are extremely dangerous… Ignorance can be easily perpetuated, if we ignore the truth.”