“I remain not only a stranger in a familiar land, but also a sojourner through my own life….I alternate between being conspicuous and vanishing, being stared at or looked through. Although the conditions may seem contradictory, they have in common the loss of control. I am who others perceive me to be rather than how I perceive myself to be.” (Frank Wu)
When I originally shot the photos for this post in Palm Springs, I intended for it to be a generic outfit post highlighting my favorite $25 off-the-shoulder dress in this gorgeous shade of yellow. But every time I thought about the color yellow, I couldn’t help but be reminded of my skin. Not its hue, but its Asianness. During my sophomore year of college at DePaul, I read a book that changed my life– Yellow: Race in America Beyond Black and White by Frank Wu. And I don’t mean that it changed my life in a metaphoric, hyperbolic sense. After studying his text, I actually switched my minor from Political Science to Asian American Studies, decided to run for (and eventually became) president of the Asian American student organization, and helped advocate for the passage of a significant human rights House Resolution.
Last Friday, President Barack Obama signed another important resolution– H.R. 4238, which passed unanimously with 380 votes. H.R. 4238 amends two federal acts from the ’70s that define “minorities” with terms including “Negro” and “Oriental” that are now insensitive or outdated.
The bill was sponsored by Rep. Grace Meng with 74 Democratic co-sponsors and two Republican ones, who focused on the word “Oriental.” As Meng pointed out, “[Oriental] is an insulting term that needed to be removed from the books.” It’s been awhile since I’ve personally heard the phrase used, but in just the past month, I’ve been in conversations with people who have made jokes about Korean/Asian people eating dogs, had my driving skills (or lackthereof) attributed to my race, and been asked “Where are you really from?”
Given that May is National Asian Pacific American Heritage Month, I hope that my readers will allow me to digress from my typical content for the duration of this post.
Growing up in a region of the country where oftentimes I was the first Asian person that someone had ever encountered outside of the mass media, the phrases, “Yellow Fever” and “Asian Fetish” often hovered in my consciousness anytime a member of the opposite sex would approach me. Although adopted and raised by white parents, my upbringing did not give me immunity from assumptions that my being Asian carried with it certain characteristics, especially ones pertaining to sexuality. Even as a young girl who understood nothing of sexuality, least of all her own, men failed to see the inappropriateness in educating me on the benefits of engaging in sexual activity with Asians. “I hear you Asians are tigers in the bedroom,” or, “I like Asians because their eyes aren’t the only things about them that are small.” Comments that at the time merely made me feel uncomfortable, I now understand to be forms of harassment that hinged on my being an Asian female.
The significance in so-called compliments of this type is that it is the men who receive satisfaction in their being said. They are meant to catch women off guard and by doing so, regulate the interaction and take control away from the women. Control is an ongoing theme in the communication and relations between Westernized men and women of Asian ancestry. A study reported by the National Asian Pacific American Women’s Forum (NAPAWF) found that “APA women have one of the highest domestic violence fatality rates in the nation. 18% of women and children killed in domestic violence-related homicides in the state [of Massachusetts] were Asian, although Asians represented only 3% of the state’s population.” NAPAWF also reported that “61% of Japanese immigrant and Japanese American women experienced some form of physical, emotional, or sexual violence that they classified as abusive” (Violence Against Women Act 2005). The prevalence of sexual violence towards Asian women mirrors the disproportionate frequency of Asian women portrayed as sexual victims in violent pornographic material, which can be found in abundance thanks to the rise of the Internet.
Jennifer Lynn Gossett and Sarah Byrne conducted a content analysis of “Internet Rape Sites” addresses the link between sexually violent pornography and actual violence. Their findings also demonstrated the ways that race plays a significant factor in determining the victims of sexual violence. “In our sample, 34 of the 56 clear images (pictures that are clear and in which the race can be identified) depict Asian women. Eleven of the sites advertise Asian women in their text through use of words such as Asian, Japanese, and Chinese. Nearly half (15) of the sites contain either a text reference to Asian women or an image of an Asian woman.” Although Asian women are not the only race or ethnicity to be portrayed as victims in pornographic material (or in real life), the fact that their race is such an important factor in the advertising is troubling. The concepts of Asian women and victims of sexual violence become not only entangled, but glorified.
Asian female characters in pornographic material set unrealistic expectations that can have polarizing effects on Asian women’s identities. Some may feel the need to live up to men’s ideals of the exotic and sexually submissive characters out of fear that refusal to conform to these stereotypes will make them somehow deficient in the eyes of their partners, while others seek to inhibit their sexuality completely. Asian women, in order to fight perceptions as sex objects, are often encouraged to ignore their sexuality completely. Similarly, the Asian culture avoids the topic of sex, leaving Asian women without the understanding of sexuality’s benefits and consequences. According to studies conducted by NAPAWF, abortion rates between the years 1994 and 2000 “decreased for all racial groups except API [Asian Pacific Islander] women” and “API women have the second highest rate of pregnancies that end in abortion.”
Yellow Fever may not be an actual diagnosable illness, but its symptoms are destructive and dangerous. It represents an underlying issue of racial bias, cultural misunderstanding, and discrimination. While it would have been easy for me to spin a blog post about yellow and how flattering it is for the season, I can’t deny the the deeper meaning of the color or the weight of it that is palpable on my shoulders in this otherwise light summer dress.