Posted on March 7, 2022

Misidentification Is Part of Every Day Life for Some Asian Americans

Angela Yang, NBC News, March 1, 2022

When a protester heckled Massachusetts voting rights activist Beth Huang last month thinking she was Boston Mayor Michelle Wu, it was already Huang’s third or fourth run-in with someone who had mistaken her for Wu, the city’s first nonwhite mayor.

“People confuse me and lots of other Asian women for Michelle Wu,” said Huang, the executive director of the Massachusetts Voter Table. “They’ve confused a state rep of Vietnamese descent to be Michelle Wu. They’ve confused a state rep of Korean descent to be Michelle Wu. They must think that Michelle Wu is literally all over the place all the time.”

For Huang and other Asian Americans around the country, such incidents tend to crop up quietly in daily life. This one happened to make headlines, she said, because it occurred so publicly at a news conference.

An “ABC World News Tonight” broadcast this month misidentified New York City community organizer Grace Lee as Michelle Go, an Asian American woman who was pushed in front of a subway train in January, in its coverage of a vigil for Christina Yuna Lee, another Asian American woman who was killed in her apartment.


During its coverage of this year’s Super Bowl, NBC also misidentified the country singer Mickey Guyton as the R&B singer Jhené Aiko during a preshow performance. {snip}

“Every time that happens, it’s not intentional. Or I assume it’s not intentional,” Huang said of her misidentification experiences. “But it does make me think that, often, we are not perceived to be as valuable as individual leaders.”

Simple errors like those usually occur without malice, experts say. But Asian Americans are familiar with a painful history of exclusion in the U.S. that has repeatedly stripped them of their individuality, and many see a pattern in the ignorance that enables such mistakes to occur so frequently today.


“Americans were able to separate Nazis from Germans, whereas many Americans weren’t able were able to separate Vietnamese communists from the Vietnamese in general,” said Scott Wong, a professor of Asian American history at Williams College. “Or they couldn’t make the distinction between soldiers in Japan and Japanese Americans. You had to almost show an allegiance to Hitler or Mussolini for you to be interned during the Second World War if you’re German or Italian.”

While that phenomenon might sometimes be attributed to the cross-race effect — the tendency for people of all races to more easily recognize faces of their own race — Wong said its prevalence when applied to Asian Americans is rooted in that perpetual foreignization throughout U.S. history.

“Many Americans, for the longest time, did not grow up seeing Asian people,” Wong said. “It’s not an excuse now, because there’s a lot of Asians in the country, but it’s a legacy of exclusion and then segregation.”

People today probably aren’t conscious of that context when they mistake one Asian person for another, Wong said. While there’s “nothing malicious” about such incidents now, he said, they are a product of habitual American negligence in learning to distinguish between different Asian people and groups.


Lok Siu, an associate professor at the University of California, Berkeley, who specializes in Asian diaspora studies, said racist characterizations have repeatedly linked Asian Americans through similar stereotypes and that people view and understand Asian Americans only through those lenses when they don’t make efforts to familiarize themselves with other ethnic groups.


Just as health officials in the late 1800s falsely linked Chinatowns to the spread of disease by blaming Chinese Americans for smallpox and cholera outbreaks, Chinese Americans in 2020 once again became scapegoats for the Covid-19 pandemic.

And against the background of tense U.S. relations with China, Siu said, recent government targeting of Chinese scientists is another modern-day manifestation of fear born from the inability to recognize the individuality of Asian Americans.

When all members of a diverse race of people are viewed as one, one ethnic group’s being targeted can mean any ethnic group’s being targeted. The violence against Asian Americans, particularly East Asians, as a result of recent anti-China discourse isn’t surprising, Siu said, because it’s a product of the same phenomenon that has plagued those communities for nearly two centuries.