What I Am Is Tired of You Asking What I Am

Once at work I was approached by a couple of older white men. I greeted them with the usual “Hello, how can I help you?” to which one of them paused before asking, “Where are you from?”

Tight-lipped but cheerily I answered, “I live in Sunnyvale not too far away from here.” The two men looked at each other and the bald one tried again, “But where are you really from?” to which I answered with “Well, I was born and raised in San Jose but I moved here for middle school. Now what can I get you today?” They were persistent and kept at it: “But what are you?” and so on as I smiled my customer service smile and completed their order so I could get to the next customer.

These experiences are not limited to strangers, but also by young children I come across, classmates, and coworkers alike. It’s more than understandable that these types of questions are rooted in good intentions and may simply represent misplaced curiosity. At the same time, though, questions such as these imply many things for someone who has heard them countless times.

“What are you?”

This is very likely the worst possible thing you could ask a person. Pose your question like an educated adult if you are asking for such personal information. When you ask like this, you are expressing amusement or curiosity over someone, or something, that seems novel to you. It communicates that the person you’re asking is fundamentally different than you. It is also a question that comes from a position of privilege, as you are demanding an answer from someone who may not fit your norm of what people should appear like.

Think of it this way: you wouldn’t ask this question if you were asking someone what breed their dog was. If you asked, “What is it?” the owner would respond “It’s a dog” as appropriate. When you ask the owner, “What breed is it?” you’re more likely to get the answer you’re looking for: “It’s a collie-corgi mix.” People like to think they are more than dogs, so frame your questions appropriately and specifically.

“Where are you from?”

A question like this may as well be asking, “Where are your skin color and facial features from? Because it can’t be from here!” It’s something that implies a person is from here, and that the person you’re asking is less American than you or doesn’t belong here as much as a blue-eyed, pale-skinned person does.

Furthermore, nationality is not the same thing as ethnicity. When thinking about where one is from, one will typically think of what town they grew up in. Oftentimes, however, providing this information is hardly enough for the inquirer.

“No, where are you really from?”

On the surface, this might seem like an innocent appended inflection to the original question in order to convey a more distinct meaning. It’s a waggling eyebrow of sorts, a roll of the eyes that says, “Oh, you know what I mean. Just tell me” as if the person you’re asking is keeping a great secret or is being unreasonably dodgy with information you’re entitled to.

Here it’s clear you are demanding a change in an answer you were not happy with. People don’t like having their worldview challenged. When I told the customer I was from Sunnyvale, I guarantee he was clearly expecting an answer more along the lines of “China” or “Thailand”.  I knew that, and he knew that.

With this question, you’re trying to see how people of color fit against your own knowledge of what they appear to look like, and that’s not okay. You’re subjecting an individual to a form of objectification for your own viewing pleasure. A person may say, “I’m from Texas” as the asker shakes their head and repeats the question with emphasis in order to just understand where that dark hair and brown skin came from.

Similarly, sometimes the person who’s asking will go straight to the point and ask, “What kind of Asian are you?” or “You must be Filipina!” The thing is, no one wants to play your game of arguing ethnicity. Oftentimes a question like this is followed by a verification of a stereotype. Examples of things educated, older, people a combination of both would tell me: “You can’t be Vietnamese, your eyes look too big,” “You must be Vietnamese, your skin is too dark for you to be Chinese,” or even “Oh, that was my second guess. I can’t tell the difference between all you Asian people!”

Me neither. The reason is because “Asian” is an incredibly broad term. Your stereotype-laden questions homogenize a vast continent’s worth of individuals, all with variations. China alone has over 50 different minority variations. There is no such thing as being able to tell what a typical Asian person looks like.

All of these women are Asian, yet they all look distinctly different. “Asian” is an extremely broad term and there is not necessarily any one way of determining someone’s ethnicity from their appearance. Attempting to do so is a blatant use of stereotyping.

“Why are you so offended?”

Inquirers can often become agitated when they are checked for their questions and do not receive a direct answer, or do receive an answer that fails to satisfy their curiosity.

I’ve read several other articles on this issue and like to scroll through the comments sections by people defending their “curiosity”. Most of these people assert that they never meant to step on anyone else’s toes, that there’s no way they could possibly know how sensitive a question is going to be to someone else, and finally that people of color should take these opportunities as teaching moments instead of getting angry.

No one owes you a lesson or an answer to an ignorant, rude, or insensitive question. You need to take responsibility for the way you pose personal questions, and take backlash with grace. Have that mistake be your own teaching moment.

Things to realize

These questions are poorly worded at best. They reinforce the idea that white is the default to being American, and that everyone else is a foreigner. That’s a pretty limited worldview and is insensitive to those who identify strongly with American culture and this country.

A question can be inherently good, as stated earlier, but having an anticipated answer in the back of your head is very possibly bad. This results in pressing people of color for more information they may be willing to share just because their initial answer wasn’t sufficient enough. It’s an example of privilege, because privilege means you don’t like being told you’re wrong because you can’t possibly be wrong.

Creating an open dialogue about race relations and your curiosity can help foster stronger connections and a better understanding all around.

Note also that these can be sensitive for reasons deeper than the irritation of being asked the same questions over and over again. Regarding nationality, some people are not from the same country that their ancestors were originally from. People can be born in Mexico even if their parents are originally from Albania and later move to the U.S. A white-passing person may have been born in Korea and have lived for less time in America than a third-generation Korean-American classmate. Furthermore, prying into details of ethnicity can be a touchy subject for those who may not entirely know the answer due to an unconventional relationship between their parents, and it can be genuinely difficult for them to share details of their background.  Understand that this subject is not necessarily something everyone will want to be completely open about.

How to do better with your curiosity

First tip: just don’t ask. People will volunteer the information on their own time if you are able to build a good enough relationship with them. Questions regarding ethnicity, or nationality, will almost always be irrelevant if the person is a complete stranger.

On that note, think about the context of wanting to ask. How well do you actually know this person? Are you having a discussion about heritage or are you making small talk? Based on how much you know this person, how do you think this kind of personal question would make them feel? Most importantly, why do you ask and what are your motivations?

If you do in fact feel that the question you have in mind is appropriate for the person and the situation, just be direct. Don’t use any of the bolded questions in this post. Get to the point, and make it clear what you want to know and why: “Out of curiosity, if you don’t mind me asking, what’s your ethnicity?” Be sure that your question gives the person you’re asking a way out if they feel uncomfortable. Most likely, though, they will be more than happy to tell you all about your roots. Just be transparent in your intentions.

At the same time, be prepared for a complicated answer, or even a disappointing one. Don’t press for more information than the person is willing to provide. Some people may not know everything you are looking for, and some people may have lived here for eight generations. Not everyone has an exotic or exciting backstory. We’re just as American as you.



Your “Preference” is Not Preferable: The History and Harm of Asian Fetishism

**Disclaimer:  In this article I focus on the fetishization of Asian females. I acknowledge that there are prevalent fetishes of other races and they are just as problematic. I acknowledge that I cannot speak for or from the POV of the LGBT community, male Asians, or any other race, though I recognize the problems associated with all these groups. I write this from an Asian-American female-identifying perspective.

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As I was researching the socioeconomic progress Asian-American women have been making over the past decade, I found it immensely ironic that I came across this above advertisement that offers me an enticing “DATE NOW” button that may as well read “GET YOURS TODAY.”

There are blogs dedicated to “hot Asian women.” There are porn categories dedicated to Asian women. “Yellow fever”, an actual sickness that kills 30,000 people globally per year, is a term noted by urbandictionary.com as a “Sexual obsession felt by a non-Asian (usually white, usually male) towards Asians of the opposite gender.” It was a major reason why Wong Fu Productions propelled into fame among U.S. college students with their 2006 cringeworthy first major short film Yellow Fever. In an attempt to satirize the complexities of interracial relationships, it actually perpetuates the prevailing idea that Asian women are passive, one-dimensional objects of desire to be conquered.

This concept, Asian fetishization, is deeply ingrained in our cultural subconscious as a result of white colonial history and the nature of Asian women’s depiction in popular media.

What is it exactly?

Any type of racially-based fetish is the exotification of groups of people based on their race. It is the generalization of individuals based on a stereotypical image.

What’s a fetish, again? Aren’t those sexual?

A standalone fetish does not harm anyone, as it should always involve mutual consent from all those involved. For this reason fetishes come with the idea that people have the ability to move in and out of the fetish space. Fetishes are self-chosen lifestyles, self-determined actions, or involve the sexualization of a body part.

The term “Asian fetish” itself is indicative of very racist undertones, reducing a vast group of people into sexual objects. However, for lack of a better term and for the accessibility of this discussion I will refer to it as needed.

What about preferences? What if someone just happens to be attracted to a certain race?

This is a very popular argument in defense of Asian fetishization.

The important difference between a fetish and a preference (or attraction, or a type) is that a preference does not project a personality onto an individual. Preferences make no assumptions about a person. A person can absolutely have a preference for people with red hair or people who wear glasses. A person may have a thing for artists or athletes. A person can be attracted to others who are outspoken or intellectual. These are all isolated traits that are, by themselves, not sentient. Groups of people with ancestry tracing back to an entire continent are.

Racial fetishes use stereotypes to assume characteristics that are applied to an entire racial group. A guy could have a fetish for docile Asian girls with the presumption that all Asian girls are docile. People can control whether or not to wear their hair a certain way or work out if they believe that will make them more attractive. However, people cannot amp up or scale down how much of their race they represent based on problematic stereotypes.

Why are racial fetishes, especially Asian fetishes, such a widespread thing?

It may trace back to the prevalence of the rape and sexual exploitation in the context of war when American soldiers went abroad and formally occupied the Pacific Rim in the mid-1900s. In Mis Jenkins’ article for Persephone Magazine entitled “Asian Women, American GIs, and Modern Rape Culture”, the author writes, “Much of the concept of Asian women as sexually submissive comes from the victimized condition in which American soldiers found these women when they arrived in combat zones throughout the Pacific.” Women latched onto these men for protection in the wake of their country’s impoverished and war-torn state as well as onto the empty promises GIs made of a prosperous life in the U.S.

The stereotypes around Asian women are perpetuated in their portrayal in pop culture, such as in the musical Miss Saigon about a woman who kills herself when her white lover abandons her. This is something that is arguably echoed in J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series with the portrayal of the exotified Cho Chang who’s described as crying more than speaking over white lovers.

“I don’t think I am being racist when I say I am more attracted to Asian women over other women. Wouldn’t it be racist to not find Asian women attractive at all? I feel like this is a double standard. I don’t want to feel like I am being racist whenever I am attracted to someone who happens to be Asian”

Statements like these fail to acknowledge the inherent racism in projecting a hierarchy in attraction of races in the first place. They also fail to recognize the agency of the individual Asian woman because they are not ever always going to be the same.

This sort of defense tends to come from non-Asian males, but is also used by Asian women who aren’t willing to analyze the objectification of their sisters. Vivienne Chen of the Huffington Post who writes in her piece “So, He Likes You Because You’re Asian”:

“The messy body-image politics of our native cultures, combined with the even messier sexual politics of interracial dating, are constantly conspiring against us Asian American females. The sooner we admit this and treat this with some good humor, the sooner we can stop flipping tables every time out new date has a few too many Asian girls on his Facebook friends list.”

Chen essentially excuses how Asian fetishization is so deeply ingrained in our culture and asks Asian Americans to acquiesce to the oppression inherent in the objectification. It’s not uncommon for moderates to step into the discussion and ask that Asian American women stop “overreacting” to all the attention this issue gets in pop culture or media. This is a way of further silencing our voices in reclaiming autonomy and identity, and it is destructive.

We can be attracted to people for various reasons, but racist stereotypes and exotification should not be one of them. As Reappropriate.co’s writer states in her response to Chen’s article “So She Wants to Defend Asian Fetishism”:

“The simple act of objectifying a person based on their race is, in and of itself, racist.”

We shouldn’t accept dehumanization just because it’s in the realm of romantic or sexual relationships. When it’s harmful, it’s harmful. Fetishization that denies people their individual histories and considers race a palpable feature cannot be equated to simply finding someone attractive.

Reappropriate addresses the narrow-mindedness that comes with racial fetishization, “Limiting oneself to dating only a certain physical type—racial or otherwise—is as superficial as it is racist, and is almost a guarantee to miss out on the potential love of your life.” Some people when called out on their racial fetishes feel personally offended for not being allowed to “appreciate” other cultures when they express their preferences. The thing is, seeking out pre-conceived ideas about an entire race of people, rather than seeking out individuals, is not appreciation. Reducing people to damaging stereotypes and generalization is not appreciation. Appreciation is taking a person for who they are, and it is engaging in respectful dialogue about culture the way a guest would.

“I’m not sure if I have a racial fetish. How can I tell?”

Do you think you like a certain race because of things you assume about it?

Assumptions that lead you to what you consider desirable traits would be considered fetishization.

Do you say you like certain features associated with a certain race?

Sorry, your generalizations constitute fetishization because race encompasses so many variations. Asia itself happens to be the most populous continent. When you stick a catch-all label for your preference “I HAVE A THING FOR ASIAN GIRLS” you have to realize that you might be thinking of East Asians like the Japanese, Korean, or Chinese but you are still referring to a term that Indians, Mongolians, Indonesians, Filipinos, and more identify with. There are way too many countries that constitute Asia to be able to make broad generalizations about physical features. This mentality is ignorant to the diversity of Asian people.

Lucy Liu plays the hypersexualized “dragon lady” trope as part of her seductive masseuse disguise in Charlie’s Angels: Full Throttle. Asian women historically are rarely represented as having agency or a role other than a sexual object.

You must also think critically about where you get the ideas of general Asian features from. Television? Movies? Sidebar ads about Single Hot Asian Chicks In Your Area? Celebrities? Think about where your ideas of race come from. Also, think about how race is a social construct, and no tangible meaning. This means it therefore can’t be projected onto individuals.

Do you consciously exclude certain races from your dating pool? Or do you single out one race of people you prefer to date?

This is not even fetishization at this point. That’s an example of textbook racism at work.

The problems and consequences of racial fetishization

Exotifying a person of color reaffirms white as the norm. It is additionally damaging to the already skewed power dynamic prevalent in race relations. People of color are reduced to objects of desire. Fetishization compromises a person’s identity and personal history for one’s twisted fantasies.

Equating an Asian girl you meet with a Kpop star or an anime character reduces her to a caricature perpetuated by popular media. It is seeing Asian women as mere representatives of a racial whole. It means that any Asian girl will be just as good as the next, reducing her to one of millions of dolls with features constructed by your imagination. It robs her of her autonomy outside of a genetically decided makeup. A fetish based on race is racist because it is treating a person differently based on the color of their skin and as treating her as less human than you. Racial fetishes perpetuate disempowerment of all women of color’s agency over the control of their perception.

What can we do about racial fetishization?

If you have a feeling you have an internalized racial fetish, examine the reasons behind the preferences and decide for yourself if it has a stereotypical basis. Do you legitimately happen to live in a community that happens to be heavily populated with Asian people and don’t have many options when it comes to dating? Or are you inexplicably more interested in Asian girls because you inherently equate them with the giggly, sensual caricatures you see on the internet? Think about the media you consume and if there may be any connection between that and your own ideas about what is attractive in people.

Acknowledge how messy relationships are and how much more complicated they are when considering the inevitable mixing of race, history, and culture. Please don’t excuse your actions by claiming to be “colorblind.” All of this can be an inadvertently political thing! Acknowledge, then that every time you think it’s normal to have a preference or normalize when your friends do, you become part of the problem that keeps these women objectified.

Attraction is a weird thing, and falling in love is arguably a weirder thing. Be aware of any biases you may have and actively work on rewiring yourself in order to understand the bigger consequences of your actions and thoughts. Think about the fact that generalizations of race is not going to be a good indicator of what a person is going to look like, behave like, or think like. Be attentive to your language as words have power. It’s very simple and much more descriptive to say, “I think darker skin is beautiful and I’m really attracted to brown eyes” than specifying an entire racial group.

We all want to be considered individuals. An important way of doing this is refusing to buy into the stereotypes presented by the media and love people for who they are rather than for the color of their skin.

Cultural Appropriation Explained, and What We Can Do About It

Cultural appropriation is a complicated yet socially significant concept that powerfully affects and reflects the way people from different cultural identities connect with each other.

It is pervasive in my personal experiences. It’s when a non-Asian boy can wear a rice paddy hat for multi-cultural week and be perceived as trendy for it, whereas if I’d gone to school wearing the same thing I’d be perceived as backwards and be harassed for being a FOB. I saw it one Halloween when hordes of white girls wore headdresses and feathers in their hair and paint on their faces as part of their “Indian costumes.” I see it in the Facebook pictures of the tattoos my peers pay for of religious symbols from other cultures because they look exotic and they can relate to them “spiritually.”

Singer Lana Del Rey’s music video for “Ride” featured Native American aesthetics, such as her headdress seen here, taken out of cultural context. When cultural appropriation is modeled in popular media, imitation runs rampant. 

Those guilty of cultural appropriation can find it easy to feel personally offended there might be something wrong with “appreciating” a culture outside their own and cry for “freedom of expression.” This is understandable in a country as diverse as ours and because of the innate fluid nature of culture change itself. However, cultural appropriation and the looking down thereof stems from a history that has not always been so accepting or welcoming of different cultures.

What does it mean, exactly?

Cultural appropriation is the process of one culture taking parts from another culture. Specifically, it usually is a dominant culture taking symbols or practices from another culture without fully understanding them or using them in ways they were not initially intended.

Why does it happen? What causes it?

It is simply the consequence of centuries of the assimilation and exploitation that stems from white colonialism and imperialism. The newcomers establish their home country’s culture as the norm and adopt any of the conquered kind’s and people’s artifacts, symbols, rituals, and other practices as they see fit. White privilege today, within the realm of cultural appropriation, is the continuing belief that whites are free to barge into other cultures at their whim and taking what they like while disregarding context, history, and any else of the less flattering parts of what it means to be a part of the latter culture. It’s a power play.

Aren’t people of color appropriating white culture all the time?

It is impossible to culturally appropriate “white culture.”

This is because of, again, the idea of white privilege as a consequence of a violent history. Where white is the majority, white is the norm. My mother would not be able to walk into work wearing traditional Vietnamese ao dai without looking unprofessional and out-of-place by Western standards. My aunts advise me to use skin lightening methods because though their respective husbands each found something attractive in their sun-kissed faces, they know that I must conform to a Western ideal of beauty in order to be socially accepted and socially mobile in this culture. I cut my hair a certain way, listen to certain music, talk a certain way so I don’t have to deal with being called a FOB or be asked if I can speak English. I personally am torn between my parents’ culture and the one here I was physically born into. Assimilating to survive is not a choice and could hardly be considered offensive. Assimilating to the white norm is practical, but cultural appropriation is entertainment.

L’oreal advertisement for Rosy Fairness skin whitening cream that touts “fair” skin as the ideal to aspire to over the less desirable “yellowish complexion.” Products such as these perpetuate the notion of white superiority in beauty standards and reinforce assimilation to these types of ideals.

What are the consequences of cultural appropriation, then?

Cultural appropriation involves the picking and choosing of specific aspects of the culture in question, aspects that are exotic and appealing. This appropriation creates a caricature of the culture and even propagates racist stereotypes.

Cultural appropriation commodifies, cheapens, and sometimes even sexualizes, and thereby dehumanizes other cultures and their respective people. It takes what is prized and precious from other cultures and mutates them into whitewashed products completely out of cultural context. It ignores and erases history, and it ignores and erases culture.

Selena Gomez’s performance during the MTV Movie Awards show in 2013 caused an uproar amongst the leaders of the Universal Society of Hinduism because of the way she used the symbol of the bindi on her forehead as a fashion accessory and failed to recognize its religious significance.

What can we do about cultural appropriation?

The mixing of cultures is inevitable and it is natural for people to take an interest in others’ backgrounds. What is needed is cultural exchange, or the idea of approaching learning about other cultures from a stance of humility and respect. Time to understand another culture and an awareness of the boundaries a guest has in approaching another culture are essential in fostering a healthy exchange of sharing and appreciation.

The condemnation of cultural appropriation isn’t cause for over-analyzing , tip-toeing around anything that might seem remotely out of one’s own cultural sphere, or policing others’ actions. Rather, it is an opportunity to become acquainted with the diversity and most importantly being mindful of how the way we carry ourselves can be representative of identities larger than us.