When the elevator doors opened, a man I didn’t recognize stood before me.
It was my first time visiting this apartment building, a nice condo in a well-to-do Brooklyn neighborhood. I was gathering with some friends to watch football. In my right hand, I held a white plastic bag; inside, a six-pack to celebrate NFL Sunday.
The man moved to let me pass as I exited the elevator and walked into the hallway. It was a random encounter with a stranger, the kind that happens countless times on any given day. I paid the man no mind — until I heard his voice from behind.
"I’ll hold the door for you," he said, now inside the elevator and peering out.
I turned my head, momentarily confused. "Oh, I’m not going back down," I responded. The elevator doors closed, and he was gone.
It took a second before I realized what had happened. I looked down at the white plastic bag in my hand. My outfit: a hat and weekend sweats. I’m Asian. The mental calculus yielded an instant answer: This guy thinks I’m delivering food.
I was neither shocked nor even particularly offended. It wasn’t the first time I’d been mistaken for a food-delivery man, and this microaggression had at least been polite. But the rapid-fire thoughts started to fill my head. Should I be offended if a non-Asian thinks I’m delivering food when I’m dressed like I’m … delivering food? Is being offended in itself offensive, given that delivery men are some of the hardest-working people in the city? Does the microaggression lie in the man’s involuntary thought process or in the act of him verbalizing his assumption? Hmmm, what the fuck, am I actually a little pissed off now?
I knocked on my friend’s door; he let me in. I handed him the six-pack with a smile and took a seat among a group of people — none of whom were Asian. I didn’t say a word about what had just transpired.
We watched the games and drank.
Later that day, I hit up my group chat.
The internet has long served our tribal inclinations. First there were AOL chat rooms, then message boards, then Reddit groups — places where tribes could find fellow members and communicate.
Social media blew open the borders. Today, we mark our growing tribal territories by who we follow, or who follows us. One positive byproduct of this is that tribes can now attract those from the outside. Case in point: I deeply enjoy Black Twitter, to the point where I’ve actively sought out and collaborated with some of its heroes.
Still, "inside" jokes on social media are knowingly performed in front of an audience that may or may not understand them. That said, not everything we say or think should be consumed by everyone on the planet. What usually ends up on public platforms are not raw opinions, but ones that are slightly cooked. (How long they marinate depends on the chef.) We all know the misfortune that can befall a person, our president notwithstanding, who gets too candid in a public forum.
The private group chat, by contrast, is a relatively safe space. It is purposefully cordoned off from outsiders. The tribes to whom you belong — your family, your company, your intramural soccer team — probably have their own private group chats. The Golden State Warriors famously have one, "a place every player can go to listen to each other’s thoughts, share opinions, bounce off of each other and know that nobody is going to violate the trust." (And to send each other Russell Westbrook memes, surely.)
But tribes exist within tribes. Imagine if the Warriors had a second group chat, limited to players who get significant minutes. Open that nesting doll and you might find an even smaller one, composed of Golden State’s All-Stars. As those concentric circles get smaller, the level of trust and candor will only grow bigger. Your closest tribe comprises people who can most relate to you.
And if you are a minority, that means your tightest circle will inevitably be those who look most like you.
My primary group chat is with six Korean American friends, none of whom I grew up with. We all work in creative industries and generally share the same pop culture tastes and political views. Ages vary, as do locations; some live in New York, others in L.A. The essential common thread? We grew up in Korean households and are yellow in a country that is largely not.
The purpose of our group chat is not to vent about racial discrimination. There is occasionally some of that, of course, but more often than not it’s just unfiltered conversations — the kind that you have only in private with people you trust. We roast each other, in English and Korean. We deliberate on our favorite Japanese AV idols (if you don’t know the term, guess). We debate the use of the word "faggot" in rap. We test out unformed ideas. We slander the shit out of Steve Harvey. And, always: Did you hear what happened in Koreatown last night?
Lest you think my chat group is full of degenerates (though you might be right), I should tell you that the people within are the kind who are frequently asked to speak on or moderate panels about Asian American issues. In those public spaces, we are earnestly asked to respond to the racial indignity du jour, and discuss the persistent problems of "representation" or "appropriation" or "emasculation." We tell the people what they want to hear.
Behind the closed doors of our group chat, however, we can talk more frankly about, or even ridicule, these sensitive topics. Most recently, it’s been the Korean American woman who was reportedly rejected by an Airbnb host because of her ethnicity. An unfortunate incident, for sure. Here are related highlights from the group chat:
Anybody else tired of this Airbnb story
Why she keep crying tho
“One word says it all. Asian” is kind of an ill mic drop
That’s hashtag-worthy: #OneWordAsian
Man, traffic’s crazy right now #OneWordAsian
I realize now that I am making a private conversation public. Apologies to the victim; judge me if you must. In talking to my coworkers about their own group chats, I learned that many also use them to shield "problematic" commentary. A black female colleague admitted to me that after Bill O’Reilly publicly insulted Maxine Waters’s hair, her chat group, too, joked on the congresswoman’s wig. A white female colleague who’s part of what she calls a "women who are sick of old white men and their shit" group, told me that they’ve lately turned to trashing Ivanka Trump. Our harshest judgments are levied, in private, against our own.
It should be noted that white male nationalists use chat (and, reportedly, a new, private Twitter imitator) for their own reasons. Honestly, I can’t begrudge them this, even if their sole purpose is to be hateful and exclusionary. Tribalism is a human impulse, after all, and private is private. Do white liberal males use their group chats to fire off the non-PC jokes they are not "allowed" to say out loud anymore? I suspect yes, and I don’t begrudge them, either. Everybody needs a safe space.
Of course, the tech giants are eyeing the daily ubiquity of group chats. Private chat apps like Snapchat and WhatsApp continue to add features to promote users sharing more publicly, because that’s how the services can be monetized. Our safe spaces are slowly being infringed upon for the sake of profit.
I’m not worried. If one secure chat closes, another one will open.
When I was growing up, my mom and dad would frequently meet with their respective circles of friends in little Korean roundtables to trade gossip, recommend local services, and commiserate about the immigrant experience. As an adult, I have a similar support group — except mine is in my pocket everywhere I go.
After I left my friend’s house on the day of the elevator mix-up, I finally addressed my tribal council in iMessage: Who here has been confused for a delivery man before?
We all had; we all understood.
I added: Do I really look Chinese to you?