Racial Fetishizing Isn’t Flattering

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Column originally published in The Daily Campus on September 26, 2010.

Women of color face double the amount of stereotypes, subject not only to sexism, but racism as well. What often happens to us is that we become objects, fetishized in different ways depending on our race. But no matter whether we are oversexualized or undersexualized, seen as wild or seen as tame, our agency is being undermined.

The New York Times recently published a piece describing the newest trend for Western men, mostly white men in their fifties, sixties, or even seventies, settling down in areas of Thailand with Thai women. This story includes quotes from some of these men, such as Joseph Davis, a 54-year-old man from California. “‘Thai women are a lot like women in America were 50 years ago,’ said Mr. Davis, before they discovered their rights and became ‘strong-headed and opinionated.’”

These are men who go there to seek what they think is an easily tamed wife-child. They take no time to learn the culture or even to think that not all women are receptive to being colonized. A prime example is that most of these men don’t realize that you don’t just pick up a Thai woman and marry her. Many of these women have the expectation that their families will be taken care of as well. Asian cultures tend to have closely-knit extended families in close proximity, and anyone from an outside culture ought to do their research beforehand.

When I type “Asian women” into Google, the entire first page of results, and most of the second, are all sites offering up Asian women more or less for sale, or offering advice on how to snag one of these elusive, exotic creatures. Well, Google searchers, look no more. I’ve got some advice for you. How about you treat us like human beings and not expect us all to be quiet little women who will obey your every command. No matter what your race, all minority women face the challenge of being boxed off in a category. For black women, it is being bombarded with constant images of other black women being caged, chained and dressed in animal prints. For Latina women, it is similar, but with the added facet of being seen as fiery and hypersexualized. And for Asian women, it’s being seen as the docile, domestic doll.

The women of color fetish, whether it portrays black women as wild animals (known colloquially as “jungle fever”) or Latina women as “spicy”, or Asian women as delicate and subservient (also called “yellow fever”) leads to weak relationships that are based on false expectations. More than half of the marriages like the ones mentioned in the Times article fail because of the lack of cultural understanding. As an Asian woman, I take particular umbrage to these stereotypes. I’ve been called many things in my life, some flattering, some not so much, but by far the most heinous offenses are those based solely on my race or gender and not my person. I may consider myself an American, but I do have expectations that my partner understand my cultural background. And I absolutely dabble in these newfangled notions of having opinions and equality. (I probably should tell him this at some point. Well, he knows now…)

Ultimately, these attitudes cause a real problem for women of color. How are we to know whether someone is flirting with us because they have a genuine interest in us as people, as opposed to their completely unfounded imaginary picture of minority women? Of course, there are plenty of men who fall into the former category, but the history of colonization makes it that much harder for women of color to pick them out. We are not exotic beings from another species; we are all human and all different. These racial stereotypes make us into interchangeable, replaceable objects with no personal desires.

Many like to pretend that racism has ceased to exist, or at least that its impact is negligible. But I would caution that racism is a nebulous concept that can manifest itself in a multitude of manners. And that fetishizing is one of the few remaining socially acceptable forms of racial stereotyping.

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Dear Administration: Protect your students. Sincerely, Me.

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This was my email to President Susan Herbst (president@uconn.edu) after hearing about how the writer of an interesting and thought-provoking piece on the administration’s rebranding mission was threatened by both UConn and non-UConn students alike.

I’m a UConn Honors Program & CLAS ’12 alum. I know you are probably inundated with hundreds if not thousands of emails a day, but I hope you take the time to read and respond to them. It has recently come to my attention that a thoughtful open letter written by a current student has been reposted with malicious intent to skew her words, leading to violent and quite credible threats against her. Although I am no longer a UConn student, I am very concerned about the image that this is giving UConn. I am proud of my degree and, in my position as a high school teacher, have encouraged my students to think about and attend UConn for a quality education, but as of right now, I couldn’t be more ashamed of the connection. 

The fact that this young woman is being attacked by UConn students and non-UConn students alike and that this has not been addressed by your administration yet is disappointing to me. This lack of action is proving the premise of her letter–that the actions of the administration and the university implies that you care more about certain aspects of the university (athletics) than you care about the well-being of every individual member of the student body.

And that is reprehensible.

<Updated: Here is the response I received, which, being rather formulaic, says nothing at all:

I firmly believe that our students, like all people, should be able to express themselves without being insulted or degraded as a result. As an institution, the university takes these issues very seriously, supports the right of free speech among all members of our community and stands strongly against harassment or intimidation of any kind. When a student is subjected to harassment, the university works closely with him or her to provide any resources they may need.

For additional information, please find UConn’s policy on harassment here, information on sexual violence awareness here and the student code of conduct here.>

Charity & Solidarity

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So I was on Facebook yesterday (and those who know me know that I am actually surprisingly productive on it, meaning that I use Facebook as a venue for posting interesting articles and theoretically stimulating interesting and provocative discussions among my friends) and I came across this image:

Image

Anyway, it really resonated with me for several reasons:

  1. Whenever I’m walking out of the grocery store or whatnot, and someone comes up to me asking me to donate to XYZ cause. Usually I’ll take the information they pass me and then look into it, but after all of the controversy surrounding The Salvation Army and their anti-gay tendencies, I want to make sure that if I do choose to donate somewhere, that it isn’t supporting something that I’m actually against. So I do want to make it clear that I think that there’s nothing wrong with donations (as a matter of fact, I believe very strongly in supporting causes that need funding, i.e., family planning clinics or domestic violence shelters), per se, but that brings me to my next point.
  2. That being said, I think the problem with charity is that often, people think that it’s sufficient to just throw money at a problem, clap their hands, and consider themselves having fulfilled their civic duty. And that’s something that I think is a serious issue. Often, problems arise because of systemic inequity and cannot be solved purely through money. While money can be a short term solution, as I cited above, the focus should also be on prioritizing these issues so that they no longer exist. So back to the clinics/shelters–my hope is that we’ll be able to become a culture that values bodily integrity and autonomy and treats domestic violence as a serious issue, thus rendering the dire need for funding moot, because everyone will care about the issue and take more active means to promote comprehensive sex ed or prosecute batterers.
  3. Whenever it’s an international issue, stereotypes abound. The typical “white savior complex” appears. In particular, a recent, salient example comes to mind: the “Kony 2012” campaign. I know that my friends (predominantly, though not solely, white) who reposted the image/links or donated did so out of a genuine intention to help. But the problem is stil that at the end of the day, what really happens?

As a teacher, I’d like to think that I’m in the trenches and exhibiting solidarity, and charity. I’m with these kids because I believe that they can succeed and I can help them do so–and that it’s not enough that I’m just “there” in the classroom.

Teaching Language

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Not in the customary sense of teaching an actual language, although I am a high school language arts teacher. Rather, this post is about the instance(s) that sparked the creation of this blog. I had been in a bit of a writing slump, partly due to the fact that I found my old blog unwieldy. So after unexpectedly waking up this morning, I was mulling around trying to go back to sleep. My thoughts wandered to the past couple of days, which were my first days of teaching.

So the first day of class, my co-teachers and I walk in, and we can smell trouble brewing. By the time we get up to teach, the kids are ready to eat us alive. And they more or less do. We start what I’ve learned in teacher-land is called a “whip-around,” though I referred to it as an ice-breaker. The kids were supposed to find an adjective that described themselves that matched the first letter of their name. I was “Lively Ms. L” (although I’ll readily admit I probably was not that lively when I said that). Anyway, one of the kids, R, could not think of a word. His classmates immediately started snickering and muttering, “Retarded R.” R was embarrassed and after a few days with him, I’m not sure he doesn’t need specialized attention.

And I balked. My mind was spinning. If I said, “Watch your language,” I might have derailed the entire lesson by explaining to them why that was inappropriate language, as it’s not universal that people understand ableism. And while that was something I have no problem doing in regular conversation, this was different. I had 11 days to get these kids’ reading levels up to grade level and teach them reading strategy. Monday was supposed to be on behavior management, so that they could behave in class so they could learn. If I derailed the entire lesson, that would go out the window, and we were already running so far behind. When addressing bad language/behavior, we’re told to say, “Don’t do X” and move on, so as to minimally disrupt teaching (which makes sense in context). However, I’m not used to that–because in adult situations, if I told that to a peer, they’d (kind of rightfully) cuss me out. So as much as I wanted to stop and point this out, I couldn’t do it. So I pretended that I didn’t hear.

The other part to this story (yeah, it’s a long one) follows up from yesterday. I got up in front of the class and this time, R instigated the trouble. He started singing softly to himself, “Ching chong.” Now, I happen to be Chinese, although to follow along with my “rule,” I guess, I should add that this doesn’t matter and that you don’t have to be in the marginalized group to be bothered by something. That being said, being the model minority has its own difficulties to navigate. Anyway, I did the same thing. And I’m bothered by it. I don’t think these types of behavior are done from a malicious center, but a lack of education. After all, there is a girl in the class who is borderline MR and the kids defer to her special needs.The question is: how can I do that?

These are not young children with no perception of language. These are teenagers who have probably seen more hardships than I ever will. I’m facing a struggle between my teacher self, who has to pick what battles to fight in a class with little to no customization to behavior management (the first day of teaching was a zoo–there were sticks of gum being thrown, kids walking out of class, you name it, it probably happened), and my feminist self, who tries to go out of her way to educate people on the harms of -ist language.

I guess what I should have done was to go up to R after class and to explain to him, and then separately take the other boys aside too. And that’s probably what I’ll try to do. However, I didn’t know all of the boys’ names at that point, and I had a hard enough time tracking one of them down yesterday for an unrelated issue. That’s not a sufficient defense by any means, but I just wanted to highlight the entire story.

I’m still trying to figure out how to deal with it (and issues similar to it). Our classroom’s management has drastically improved, which means that hopefully, once the class progresses and I establish a good enough relationship with the students, I’ll be able to pull them aside to discuss them.