There are many ways to strangle communication. We can misinterpret, not pay enough attention, pay too much attention (to ourselves!), and of course assume. It is much too easy to do. A recent case in point is last Thursday’s hearing by the House Foreign Affairs Committee on international and foreign affairs. Freshman congressman Curt Clawson, in his first inaugural meeting, addressed Nisha Biswal and Arun Kumar—who hold positions at the State Department and Commerce Department—as foreigners. He didn’t recognize they were government officials and US citizens, but assumed they were presenting on—well, what exactly what that was was unclear. But it was related to “foreign” affairs. Clawson reportedly addressed questions to both Biswai and Arun about “your country” and “your government”. Confusion and embarrassment ensued.
So this is what was clear…. He was making an assumption. Granted, it was congressman Clawson’s first day and he was sitting on the subcommittee on Asia and the Pacific. Bless anyone who has to experience the trauma and tribulation of a new job and the miscommunication it might entail. But this situation of misrepresentation is not uncommon—it is actually prevalent. As Asian Americans we face it consistently, whether it’s being addressed by the way you look or by the last name you have. So then how exactly do we acknowledge it when we do have to face it? It’s uncomfortable and embarrassing for both parties. Does a congressional meeting keep running with awkward pauses and confused members? Mistakes can be made in innocence and should be forgiven, but constant misrepresentation is hard to ignore. Issues of identity are complicated enough and tricky to handle (see Tiffany Ran’s thoughtful commentary on page 11), so, rather than making those assumptions, we should acknowledge confusion and not be afraid to apologize for our mistakes whenever we deal with identity.
Clawson did apologize. On Friday, he told USA Today “I made a mistake in speaking before being fully briefed and I apologize. I’m a quick study, but in this case I shot an air ball.” (end)