By Rachel Ly, Feb. 16, 2021
“Does this person actually like me or does he like me because I am Asian?” This is the inescapable thought that runs through my head whenever a man shows any interest in me.
For the entirety of my life, my race always came before any other quality about myself. It either attracts or repels people. This took a toll on my self–esteem and idea of self–worth, facing the reality that I cannot avoid other people’s perceptions of me. I know I am more than my body and culture, but sometimes society makes me feel otherwise.
Asian women are historically seen as shy and docile, but also erotic and submissive. I noticed that the people who find interest in me expect these qualities to be true. Most of my encounters with men include a longing to exclusively date Asian women or a desire to “experience” one.
Subconsciously, I created red flags to avoid being racially sexualized. If a conversation starter is a question about my race or whether I binge anime, my guard is up. I am already anticipating their attempts to speak Mandarin, ambitions to try street food in Thailand and plans to visit Japan someday.
These conversations are similar and empty — I am sick of pretending to be interested out of consideration for their feelings, while sacrificing my own comfort. I also built a habit of needing to know if a person has a pattern of dating Asian women — constantly wary about being fetishized and objectified.
Fetishization perpetuates behavioral and sexual biases about a person. These associations become more damaging than beneficial. Understanding the experiences of women of color means to explore how the media portrays them as well.
Anime is growing in popularity worldwide, attracting a larger international audience than ever before but it is too common that the anime industry does a disservice to Asian women. In many animes, women are portrayed as eager to please with unrealistic proportions and high-pitched, youthful voices. An article written by The Artifice argues that “women are needlessly and unrealistically sexualized by the anime industry in order to pander to a male audience.”
In the case of Black women, they are often hypersexualized, leading to media portraying them as promiscuous women, never the “All-American” girl next door.
For example, Gigi Hadid wears a see-through dress with thigh-high boots and is considered high fashion by major magazines. Nicki Minaj wears the same exact outfit and receives criticism for being “too scandalous.” Black women are frequent targets of slut-shaming. This starts at a young age, stripping them of their youth and innocence.
Whenever people describe the appearance of Latinx women, their usual adjectives are “spicy” and “caramel,” which are words that are used to describe food—an act of dehumanization. They are expected to be extremely curvy and seen in tight clothing. Their accents are recognized as alluring and exotic, leading to roles in television shows where they often act as the sexy immigrant with a heavy accent. Sofia Vegara and Salma Hayek are two of the most famous Latinx actresses, acting as the blueprint for Latinx women in show business. But their role often misrepresents Latinx women, enforcing these expectations on them in order to be “desirable.”
Painting women of color as different types of sex symbols attracts people who exotify us and seek us out for our stereotypes rather than our character. We are not sexual conquests or objects that spark curiosity. This enables people to never truly respect us, only expecting us to fulfill a fantasy that they made up in their heads about who they think we are.
I’ve been told “you’re pretty for an Asian girl” or “Asian women are/aren’t my type” more times than I could count. Backhanded compliments I receive about my race are nothing new and I know other women of color are told different versions of the same statements.
My desirability should not be subjected to an identity of mine. It is not flattering to be “pretty” for my race because it is implying that we are conventionally unattractive — forcing women of color to believe that Eurocentric standards of beauty are the only standards of beauty. An entire race is not a “type” because it implies that everybody of a specific race is the same, which is both ignorant and racist. A person’s racial identity is not a sample at Costco; there is nothing to try.
At one of the many retail jobs I worked, one of my coworkers felt bold enough to blatantly state, “I’ve wanted to try an Asian girl” in front of me and other coworkers. I was the only Asian woman around, so I knew that it was an indirect statement toward me. I felt uncomfortable and embarrassed, but I did not know what to say or do, so I chose to walk away. Looking back, I wish I was more vocal about how degraded I felt in the moment.
Women are already oversexualized enough, but being a person of color adds another layer of issues that non-POC do not always face. Women of color specifically deal with fetishization, stereotyping, exotification and dehumanization. This affects our sense of self-worth and traps us in constant cycle of skepticism about potential romantic partners.
I cannot control what people’s perceptions of me are, but I can control my own actions and how I choose to respond to racial biases. Society forces women to put the comfortability of others before ourselves, but to break the cycle, we need to put ourselves first. This means calling out racially motivated advances and being more vocal about the sexualization of our culture.
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