After the clip of a professor’s family interrupting his BBC interview went viral last week, many viewers concluded a frenzied woman who appears in the video to be his nanny. This snap judgment belies an important fact: Many people posses racial biases about Asian women and white men ― namely that it’s surprising they would be equal partners in a relationship. Have people never been to Brooklyn?
But seriously though, as we all watched the adorable clip that proved to be the delightful distraction we all needed on a Friday, the Internet was awash with people getting their relationship wrong. Professor Robert E. Kelly’s harried “nanny” was indeed his wife, Jung-a Kim. She ran in to grab the kids who waddled into the room while the political science professor, who works in South Korea, tried to keep a straight face during his interview.
Kelly didn’t respond to HuffPost’s request for comment.
So what was at play here?
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One factor contributing to our snap judgement that Kim was not Kelly’s equal could be the fact Asian women are often depicted in the media as being subservient to men ― particularly white men.
Longstanding stereotypes might result in us subconsciously seeing an Asian woman next to a white man in a very limited way ― that she is under his thumb.
“There are stereotypes of Asian women as servile, as passive, as fulfilling some kind of service role,” Phil Yu, who runs the blog Angry Asian Man, told the Los Angeles Times. “People were quick to make that assumption.”
These longstanding stereotypes play a role in shaping the fact we might subconsciously see an Asian woman next to a white man in a very limited way ― that she is under his thumb.
These biases also explain why some may have projected a panicked and fearful reaction on to Kim. And that reaction likely made the most sense coming from someone in a service position such as a nanny ― instead of simply an embarrassed parent. Others also assumed she was an “immigrant nanny,” apparently failing to consider the fact that Kelly and his family live in South Korea.
Twitter users noted that Kim may not have been acting “fearful” ― but pointed to the fact that, simply, she was simply behaving as many Koreans do. But her reaction tapped into our racial and gender bias and caused people to assume she was the “nanny.”
Kim may not have been acting "fearful" -- but rather, simply, Korean.
South Koreans — male and female — are instilled with the value of maintaining honor and “saving face,” or “chemyeon,” in Korean.
The phenomenon is rooted in the Confucian ideal of respect for parents, elders and ancestors — a duty to others that is greater than oneself. Her behavior was standard among Koreans, who value upholding family honor. Viewers’ unfamiliarity with these cultural nuances could have influenced their perceptions that Kelly’s wife was the nanny.
Soraya Chemaly, a writer, activist and Director of the Women’s Media Center Speech Project, broke down the issue from both a gender and race perspective in a blog for HuffPost. She herself mistakenly labeled Kim as the nanny and apologized for it, saying: “I erred in the wrong direction and had to think hard about what that meant.”
Chemaly breaks down how longstanding issues of both gender and racial bias might influence how we might see relationships today:
“The distinction between ‘wife’ and ‘nanny’ is one of status, relative both to men and to other women.”
And Chemaly later explains that inter-racial marriage is still statistically outside any frame of reference for most people, so that influences our perceptions as well:
“If the man and woman in the video had looked ethnically alike, few people would have paused to consider whether or not they were married.”
Of course, the harmful phenomenon of making uninformed assumptions about a person isn’t applied strictly to Asian women. Latina, black and women of many other ethnicities have long spoken out about mistaken identities. As Rose Arce wrote in a piece for CNN:
“I’ve been mistaken for babysitters all my life ― or waitresses, sales clerks, even the occasional cleaning lady ― but it’s a whole new experience to have it happen in front of my child.”
In any case, thank God for our Internet heroes, calling out our unconscious biases and reminding us of the lessons to be learned.
Pretty solid advice.