06/23/2014 01:47 pm ET Updated Sep 24, 2014

"I'm Sorry to Say This About the Chinese"

From time to time, people who are about to condemn the Chinese apologize to me. They preface their comment with, "I am very sorry to have to say this," and they give me a pitying look.

As a Chinese American, I usually have shrugged off both their denunciation of the Chinese, which I take to refer to the Communist regime that my grandparents fought and ultimately fled, as well as their preamble, regardless of its sincerity. I figure their mistake is inconsequential: I am not Chinese in the sense that they mean, so I suppose there isn't any reason for me to take offense at what they have to say about a people with whom I do not identify other than appreciating dim sum.

I wonder if I am making a mistake that I will regret. It's worth thinking through the line of reasoning that is implied. The speakers feel compelled to ask my forgiveness in advance, even as they are induced to complain to me about the Chinese -- why?

It isn't about how I see myself. It's about how they see me: Chinese, not American.

They are making an association that is aggravating though futile to protest. They are not asking for pardon at random. They do not look around to express pre-emptive guilt to any listener.

Yet they are not quite aware of what they have expressed. They are suggesting what they are about to say, such as that the Chinese are dishonest or dirty, might have to do with me.

They want to assure themselves as much as me. They are being reasonable. They don't mean all Chinese; only in the abstract "the Chinese," not the real person in front of them. Their remarks do not prompt for them concerns about discrimination, because they are speaking about foreigners rather than minorities -- people outside the protection of our community.

What, then, is an appropriate response on my part?

I could agree with them. I could declare I don't like the Chinese either, and, while I am at it, I could insist I'm not like the Chinese -- at least not in that respect. Although that offers my acquaintances the satisfaction that someone whom they perceive as Chinese has verified their assessment, it has the disadvantage of making me by that same standard appear self-hating.

I could disagree with them, but that would verge on impolite. They have taken the trouble to excuse themselves before they regale me with their opinion. I would seem huffy if I were to protest. They would regard me as too sensitive.

Or I could be grateful they have exempted me. They don't mean me. They want me to know they have not confused me with others. The problem, of course, is that they do mean me. Or they have the option to, because they determine whether I escape. Their desire to have their stereotyping excused betrays them from the start, because they don't want to acknowledge that their generalization violates shared ideals against using racial categories.

Perhaps we are improving. Someone apologizing to me for their hostility toward China is better than someone asking me to apologize to them for the same.

They may be imputing the actions of China to me. But they are not holding me responsible.

It's still tedious to repeat to people which side you are on. Forget about dissuading them from framing the world by such a clash of civilizations.

The same is true of many other identities ascribed to people. The person who utters the statement about Africans in Africa or Jews globally in the presence of an African American or an American Jew, respectively, tries the same ploy. Ironically, observers sometimes accuse not the party who has made the racial insinuation of doing so, but instead the party who has pointed out what has been done: They are said to have played "the race card."

We may draw distinctions we regard as significant, between Chinese and Taiwanese, Chinese and Hong Kongers, Chinese and Chinese Americans: culture, language, upbringing vary. The passport we hold matters. To many others, however, none of these differences make a difference. Race, ethnicity, blood is all.

None of the above is to argue that the Chinese (or anyone else) should be protected from criticism for their record on human rights, the environment, trade policies, or military aggression. It is to affirm what we say we believe. Guilt is individual, determined through due process. That is our ideal.

"The Chinese" as a group have done nothing because "the Chinese" are an abstraction incapable of doing anything, despite the enduring image of them as a faceless horde. Chinese persons, companies, and governments no doubt have committed wrongs. Maybe in China they persist in the notion that "ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny" -- the asserted biological basis for racial stereotyping. Our norms in America are democratic.

A nation-state is not the same as a racial group. Saying "the Chinese," whether with authority or a disclaimer, is likely not useful to any discussion about the Chinese, apologetics notwithstanding.