Not Your Fetish
Art by Kim Salac
When my mom was a kid, a white boy had a crush on her. So, the KKK set a cross on fire in her aunt’s front yard. A white boy couldn’t like a brown girl. And although this piece is more about me and my experiences, my mom sets everything up. I am her carbon copy. And I have spent my whole life walking right next to her, step-in-step, hearing, seeing, being right there when the racist questions are asked, when those looks are shot in her direction. And then, when I started going out on my own, or in school, the overt racism started to be hurtled at me.
When my mom was a kid, a white boy had a crush on her. So, the KKK set a cross on fire in her aunt’s front yard.
New Notification from a guy you just met: “I’ve never done it with an Asian before.” As if I was looking in his direction that way. It’s uncalled-for assumptions like these that fetishize me and other Asian women. It’s the same fetishization that killed six Asian women just a few weeks ago. He Snapchatted me as if he was trying to figure out if he was intrigued, or if his body was superior to mine—subverting me. “Would sex be weird with an Asian? Or amazing?” I deleted my Snapchat. Now when new friends in classes ask me for it, I chuckle a little and say “It’s not for me.”
Obviously this was a disgusting, racialized experience. But you know what’s actually worse? Being repeatedly questioned about my race, and whether or not I am “enough” of anything. He knew I was Asian, great. But the people who question my validity are almost worse, because it’s as if I don’t even exist. And no, this doesn’t mean you can fetishize Asian women, because it quite literally kills us. But it does mean that the person in my politics class, staring at me, trying to figure out “what is she?,” is no better. Do I need to pick a race to answer that question?
“Would sex be weird with an Asian? Or amazing?” I deleted my Snapchat.
I think this is the best time to let the world know that the news of those Atlanta women being murdered, Asian women being murdered, broke me down. I stayed up until 2 AM just watching as the headlines were updated and people started to react. I lay in my bed, in the dark, tears rolling down my cheeks and onto my shiny blue pillowcase. That could have been my mom. That could have been my sister. That could have been my grandma. That could have been me. It almost was my mom.
When I was a kid, we lived in Georgia very briefly, in a little suburb outside Atlanta. In that little suburb, my mom was stalked by a white man for months. It escalated to him writing disturbing messages on a notepad while driving next to her on the highway, and my mom frantically calling the police, screaming for help. The police officer’s advice? “Pull over and we’ll come to you.” Pull over, on the highway, when we aren’t there yet, with this stalker, and you’ll be fine. She kept driving. The police were able to corner him. She left. There wasn’t any justice. So, yes, Atlanta hit home—too, too close to home.
I have never referred to myself as a person of color, even though I very much am. My skin is white, and I didn’t think I was hurt enough to refer to myself as what I am, because other people who are more ‘identifiable’ are hurt more often than me. But then I remember the jock that pulled the skin around his eyes back and laughed about how he was “probably Asian.” I hear chink ringing in my ears. “Dumb Asian” being thrown at me even though I was tenth in my class and heading to the revered U-V-A.
My skin is white, and I didn’t think I was hurt enough to refer to myself as what I am... But then I remember the jock that pulled the skin around his eyes back and laughed about how he was “probably Asian.”
In groups of white people, I am the token person of color. In these settings, I’m suddenly asked questions about exotic foods and strange cultural traditions. In groups of people of color, I am the white person. When I’m forced into this identity, all of the racism I have experienced is made invisible, as if it simply disappeared. Where exactly do I belong? I’ve taken countless Women, Gender, and Sexuality classes—so much so that now it’s one of my minors—in an attempt to figure out how to walk this in-between line. I’ve never been much for gymnastics, yet here I am, trying not to fall off of the balance beam.
I don’t have experiences as bad as other people do. I simply don’t. But I am tired of having to pretend I am not pushed out by everyone. Because it feels as if everyone thinks I have somewhere to land, and I don’t. Where do I take my experiences, where do I learn how to advocate for myself, where do people like me go for support? I don’t ever want to whine, and people have made me feel like I am. You don’t have it that bad.
Last year someone decided to go on a commenting spree on the Instagram account of an old friend of mine. On every photo, she put a random word. Almost every comment was an English phrase. On the pictures of me, though? Ni-hao. I went through every single picture and scrolled through every single comment until they were blurry, my tears trying to block the racism in front of me. When I tried to explain the racism to my friend, he wouldn’t delete the comments. “What’s the big deal, Chloe?,” he said to me. When I explained how it was racist and hurtful, he retorted “Why are you mad at me? How was I supposed to know?” That’s the typical white man response. The explaining away of what hurts me by someone who will never experience what I have cuts deeper than I know how to explain. The cold feeling of my cheek against the mat after I fell off the beam.
Where do I take my experiences, where do I learn how to advocate for myself, where do people like me go for support?
A few weeks ago, a close friend of mine who also knows the pain of being many races and accepted nowhere, referred to me as a person of color. Several times. And I was a little shocked. I was shocked because I didn’t think I could be in that space with my white skin. If people couldn’t be racist towards me because of my skin color, then why should I be allowed to occupy that space? But when I heard her say those words, a giant weight was lifted from me. I could stand straighter. My knees weren’t as buckled. I figured out how to get off the beam without getting hurt. Finally someone sees me. I walked into my sister’s room, and asked her if she ever called herself a POC. And she said, “Yeah, around white people. Around my Asian friends, not really.” The same experience repeats itself.
I fully decided in January, after months of contemplation, to run for office at UVA. I ran for Trustees President of the Class of 2022 because I am tired of being the ‘other.’ I am tired of being sidelined. I am tired of having my experiences explained away. I am tired of white people in power saying they care and then not doing a damn thing. I know I have the guts and I know I am well equipped to lead, and I know it despite once being told that I got into UVA because I could mark Asian and Native American for their “people of color quota.” In my first few weeks at UVA, I was interrogated,“What are you?” I was challenged to attend my politics classes as white men in the class, asserting their 'hot takes' and opinions, made it seem as if my right to be there was up for debate. I had to defend Asian health practices in my Gendered Architecture class last fall when a white woman called them “weird.” And I am done with it. I swear I won’t bear witness any longer.
I was challenged to attend my politics classes as white men in the class, asserting their 'hot takes' and opinions, made it seem as if my right to be there was up for debate.
And something unexpected happened during campaigning. It was a tweet that called me a white woman, and it asked why I wouldn’t step aside and let a person of color have the office if my and my running mate’s platform was amplifying marginalized voices. By the time I saw it, it had over 80 likes and a stupid amount of retweets. And I cried. My running mate and I are people of color. I am a person of color. I didn’t spend my childhood dancing at powwows and listening to my chief, sitting at Baba’s kitchen table and watching the news in Japanese, to have my identity erased with an ignorant, stupid tweet. Everyone wants to be fake woke, no one wants to do the work, and it falls on us. It always, always falls on us.
All of my close friends think I’m nice, all of the people I meet in politics settings think I’m a raging b*tch, and anyone in between sees a nice medium. I wonder how much of that has to do with me just not letting people walk all over me. I used to be the ‘yes-person.’ That’s not me anymore, and I’m happier for it. Even just last night I had a white man try to take credit for my presidential win, saying that his “doing me wrong” lit a fire under me and allowed me to focus on my campaign. How kind of him to say, as if I didn’t get the most votes of any presidential candidate for the Class of 2022. How amazing that he made that happen… after graduating from a different college last December.
All of my close friends think I’m nice, all of the people I meet in politics settings think I’m a raging b*tch, and anyone in between sees a nice medium. I wonder how much of that has to do with me just not letting people walk all over me.
What is my point? I have many. But for one, I want you, reader, to understand that I am no other. I want you to understand that your friends that are “mixed”—I hate that term because I am not a dog—are pushed out by everyone. Don’t be the one that pushes them out, too. And white people, step back. Take many, many, many steps back. Because people of color are hurt. We are hurt. I am hurt, and the constant belittlement and theft of our success shows that your colonizer tendencies haven’t abated.
*reader, you may be interested in another identity-centered piece I wrote last fall: “Fear Amplified: Coping In A Pandemic With My Asian-American Family.”
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