A reader named Robin, who is Japanese American and born in Iowa and bakes apple pies, sent me this email:
“I was wincing yesterday when Martha Stewart asked an asian american woman in the audience (Sumi somethingorother, who baked an apple pie for Martha’s contest) “Where are you from?” and the woman said with no accent “Oh I’m from here…New York City.”. Martha continued with the (stereo)typical line of questioning something like ‘where are you really from because if you are from Asia it’s unusual to make an apple pie’. I don’t have it verbatim but it was painful. Just another “What ARE you?” type of conversation. I really don’t think Martha is a bigot but as she is the standard bearer of suburban white women I think it was totally disappointing for her to go down that path as if it were totally fine to question someone with Asian features about where they really come from.”
She sent a link to Martha Stewart’s page for the pie show, but there isn’t a video of the entire program, at least not yet. It looks like they only upload excerpts instead of entire shows, but I’ll keep an eye out for YouTube postings of this segment.
UPDATED: Today, Robin commented below on this blog post with a clarification:
“The video is up, check at the 2:00 minute mark:
“Verbatim it’s :
‘Where do you come from?’ (answer Here NYC)
‘Oh you do, oh, okay, because if you came from Asia this would not a typical pie, right?’ (answer ‘right…right…’ you can kind of hear the ‘what the heck!?’ in her tone)
“So it’s not as blatant as it struck me the first time but still the question and that type of follow up would be seen as really bizarre if she asked it of someone with a German name.”
It may not be as obnoxious as it could have been (I agree with Robin that Martha’s probably not a racist), but it still betrayed Stewart’s expectation that the audience member with an Asian face was a foreigner. She even sounded disappointed when the woman said she’s from New York, because Stewart wanted so badly to make her point about Asians not baking pies.
I can understand why Robin was dismayed when she first saw the exchange, and I agree that Stewart wouldn’t ask the other pie contestants where they came from — just being Asian was enough to prompt the question from Stewart.
This happens more often than you might think.
Most non-Asians I know laugh and can’t believe that this happens at all, or worse, think that it’s just a sign of Martha — or anyone — being sensitive to one’s culture to ask where they’re from. But remember, they never ask a white person with no accent where they’re from.
And yet, almost every Asian I know — old, young, all ethnicities — have had this conversation or some variation of it, with someone. It’s a sad reality of life in these United States that no matter how many generations we’ve been here, or how “American” we think we are, we’re simply not accepted as American by some … well, Americans.
Here’s how the first chapter of my book, “Being Japanese American,” which was published in 2004, starts:
“You speak such good English!”
Most Japanese Americans have probably heard this backhanded compliment, and then suffered through a variation of this conversation.
“Really, your English is so good, what nationality are you?”
“No, really where are you from?”
“Oh, you know what I mean. Where’s your family from?”
Then the other person walks away thinking you’re a jerk who’s being difficult. But what’s difficult is the inescapable feeling that you were not being taken seriously as an American, not just as an American citizen but as a person who is American.
Believe me, this conversation happens all the time, even today.
And as Robin points out, when someone as prominent as Martha Stewart makes such a blind, white-privileged blunder, it sends a message to every suburban housewife of all colors (though let’s face it, I suspect the demographics of her audience skew extremely Euro-centric, and yes, I’m making a stereotypical generalization here) that people with Asian faces are all foreigners, and are not American.
And that’s NOT a good thing….