Why did people assume an Asian woman was the nanny?
By now, most of the Internet seems to have seen the video of a BBC interview being interrupted by two small children.
International Relations professor Robert Kelly’s interview about South Korea was briefly interrupted when his two small children walked in.
He managed to keep his composure, and his wife ushered the two young intruders out.
The video has been viewed hundreds of million times – and delighted hundreds of thousands of people on social media.
But it didn’t go unnoticed that many people – including some media outlets, had assumed that Prof Kelly’s wife, Jung-a Kim, was the nanny.
It’s sparked a wider discussion about assumptions about race, gender, and mixed-race couples.
Was it reasonable to assume Ms Kim was a nanny?
Jung-a Kim ushered the children out quickly while Prof Kelly continued the interview
Some families in South Korea do hire nannies – especially if both parents work long hours.
But many people feel the assumption that Ms Kim was a helper, rather than the children’s mother, was grounded in racial stereotypes about the roles played by Asian women.
Not everyone thinks this is fair. Some have argued that the look of panic on Ms Kim’s face, and the way she speedily ushered out the children, suggested that she was the nanny – and concerned for her job.
But others say she behaved as only a mother would – and that she was obviously anxious that her husband’s interview not be disrupted further.
Either way, it’s fair to say Korean speakers would have known she was the mother – because during the video, the daughter appears to say: “Why? What’s wrong?” and “Mummy, why?”
What sort of assumptions do people make about Asian women?
Conscious – or unconscious bias, does happen sometimes.
When I was at university in London, most people I met assumed that I (as a British Chinese student) was studying either medicine or economics – when I was actually studying English literature.
It was a little annoying, but not a huge deal. But sometimes assumptions can be more hurtful.
One journalist of Indian descent says when she went to work at a regional newspaper, the receptionist mistook her for a cleaner and asked her: “Are you here to clean the kitchen?”
And Kumiko Toda, an academic of Japanese descent, says a majority of people who meet her for the first time ask her where she’s from – despite her growing up in the UK and having a British accent.
It also seems to have affected how some strangers interact with her.
“I was surprised when chatting about street harassment with my friends who are white – they had quite different experiences,” she says.
“They said they did not experience nearly as much as I did and the comments tended to be less patronising, although just as bothersome in other ways.
“I wonder whether my ethnicity and the perception of East Asian women as being submissive has something to do with the frequency and the nature of the harassment I experience.”
Are people still surprised by mixed-race couples?
Another factor that may have led to the assumptions that Ms Kim was a nanny, is the fact that many still assume, consciously or unconsciously, that people tend to date others from the same ethnic group.
Once, I was at a concert with three male friends – two white English, and one British Chinese – and everyone I spoke to assumed that I was dating the Chinese guy.
Tiffany Wong and Jonathan Smith, a couple in the UK, say they experienced some discrimination from strangers when they started dating, although it was very much the exception rather than the norm.
“We have had people shout stuff at us – once, when we were walking down the street, a guy yelled ‘it’s so sad you’re going with an Asian girl’ to John,” Tiffany says.
Some of their colleagues and family were also initially surprised when they realised they were dating someone of another race.
“When I mention my fiancee at work, people normally just assume she’s Caucasian, and they might be surprised to learn she’s not. It’s not offensive – it’s just that their first thought is that you date someone from your own race,” John says.
Does everyone make assumptions though?
Some have argued that assuming that Ms Kim was the nanny is a sign of white-centric bias.
But others have argued it’s a chance for people to revisit their assumptions.
And assumptions about race can be a two-way street.
Helen (not her real name), a Filipina nanny working in South Korea, says she has noticed that some “Koreans are very particular about skin colour” and appear to discriminate against some people with darker skin.
Meanwhile, Andrew Wood, a BBC journalist who worked in South Korea for two years, says he was often mistaken for a US soldier while he was there.
“Taxi drivers would rarely stop for white men on Friday or Saturday night as they allegedly assumed white men were drunk soldiers who would vomit in the back of their cabs.”