It’s impossible for me to catalog all the times I’ve been in a professional setting when someone thought it appropriate to tell me about my appearance.
Most recently, I was at a literary festival in Georgia. I had just talked about my book for a little under an hour: the 10 years of work I’d put into it, the research I conducted to feel confident inventing a cult of domestic terrorists, and the personal grief and loss underlying the novel. In the signing line afterward, a woman complimented me on my remarks and said she was excited about my book. Then she added: “You’re adorable. I wish I could adopt you.” With a big smile, she walked away.
There was also the bookstore event at which, during the question-and-answer portion of the evening — and in front of a packed crowd with whom I’d just been discussing craft, books, literature — a woman told me how cute she thought I was. There’s the time I guest-taught at a graduate program, and a fellow professor called me and my friend — both of us on the faculty and both of us Asian-American — “little lambs.” There are the innumerable times professional colleagues, people I barely know, strangers even, have told me my skin is alabaster, and my hair silklike and shiny. My skin’s not especially pale, and even if it were, this would be weird, and diminishing. It’s objectifying.
Why is it so weird, you might be wondering. Aside from the colorist comments about my skin, some of these words — adorable, cute, silky, shiny — could be taken, incorrectly, as compliments. I acknowledge that there’s luck, and privilege, in inhabiting a body that others might find appealing. But when I’m at these events, I am at work. I am talking about my profession, not about my hair or skin or any perceived cuteness.
Try to imagine someone commenting on a white male writer’s appearance during his Q. and A. Try to imagine having his appearance repeatedly brought up in a professional setting, as though it’s the part of him that matters most.
Then try to imagine an audience member at a literary festival eagerly addressing this author as Chris — when he is in fact Mark, and a full eight inches taller, with a different hairstyle and wearing glasses different from Chris’s. But white men don’t generally get elided like this. Asian people do. I have a running joke with close Asian-American writer friends that if we have never been called by each other’s names, we might not be friends. This is a joke born of pain, of a hundred too many times someone has called me by another Asian woman’s name, and vice versa. I’ve been mixed up with women many years younger or older than I am, and with East Asians and South Asians and Southeast Asians.
In other words, it’s not just me, not at all. An Asian novelist friend tells me that at three separate events over three days, she was publicly called cute or beautiful three times. When the Netflix show featuring the tidying-up consultant Marie Kondo debuted, three prominent white feminists tweeted that Ms. Kondo was a “pretty little pixie” with “fairylike delicacy” and that her speaking Japanese on her show was symptomatic of America’s decline. When I spoke out against these statements, I was asked why I was getting bothered about a compliment. “You’re so cute when you’re angry,” a stranger told me. “Shut up, cutie,” another said.
“Cute.” “Adorable.” “I wish I could adopt you.” “Pixie.” These are things said by feminists, writers and people who take time out of their weekends to attend a literary festival. A lot of progressive people, and would-be well-meaning people, many of whom, I imagine, would be dismayed to learn anything they’ve done could be thought racist. Because that’s what it is — however well intentioned, it’s racism.
Hollywood is another place full of progressive people who participate, nonetheless, in racism toward Asian people. In the past few years, the white actors Scarlett Johansson and Emma Stone acted in yellowface, playing Asian characters. At the Oscars in 2016, Sacha Baron Cohen asked why there was no “Oscar for them very hardworking, little yellow people.” His punch line was “Minions,” but it was clearly a joke made at the expense of Asians.
好莱坞也是一个进步人士大量参与对亚洲人种族歧视的地方。在过去几年里，白人演员斯嘉丽·约翰松(Scarlett Johansson)和艾玛·斯通(Emma Stone)出演本应是黄皮肤亚裔的角色。在2016年的奥斯卡颁奖典礼上，萨沙·拜伦·科恩(Sacha Baron Cohen)问，为什么没有“给那些非常勤奋的小黄人颁发奥斯卡奖”。他这个玩笑指的是电影《小黄人大眼萌》(Minions)，但显然是在拿亚洲人寻开心。
In the past year, we’ve seen some improvement. In August, “Crazy Rich Asians” was released, the first mainstream Hollywood movie with an all-Asian cast in 25 years. It was a huge commercial success, and many East Asian-Americans said they saw themselves represented in a meaningful way at the movies for the first time. For a while, it seemed that everyone I knew was streaming the Netflix movie “To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before,” based on Jenny Han’s best-selling novel and with Lana Condor as the lead.
在过去的一年里，我们看到了一些进步。今年8月，《疯狂的亚洲富人》(Crazy Rich Asians)上映，这是25年来第一部由全亚裔演员出演的主流好莱坞电影。它是一个巨大的商业成功，许多东亚裔美国人表示，他们第一次看到自己的族裔在电影中以一种有意义的方式出现。有一段时间，我认识的每个人似乎都在网上看Netflix的电影《致我爱过的所有男孩》(To All the Boys I have love Before)，它根据珍妮·韩(Jenny Han)的畅销小说改编，由拉娜·康多(Lana Condor)主演。
Constance Wu, the lead in “Crazy Rich Asians” and one of the best-known Asian-American actors, has become a vocal advocate for better, wider representation. At the Women’s March in 2018, she said: “I march today for Asian-American women who have been ignored, or judged, or fetishized, or expected to be a certain way to fulfill a certain idea of what a sweet girl should be. To that, I say you can be anyone you want to be.”
What Ms. Wu described is a racism of flattening and erasure, a continuing unwillingness to recognize Asian people as full human beings. It’s also, in even the most progressive corners of this country, an acceptable variety of racism, one that dresses up its violence in praise.
This is on a spectrum with Asian-Americans being termed the “model minority,” a toxic label intended to separate us from other people of color, meant to press us into the service of white supremacy. It’s not just the obvious villains, the neo-Nazis, who espouse and support racism. Sometimes it’s also those of us who believe ourselves to be firmly on the side of inclusion.
I think of that book-signing line at the Georgia literary festival and of the regret I felt afterward at not having responded to the stranger’s remark. I wish I’d said more; I’m saying it now. If someone is talking to you about her work, consider not calling her adorable. In fact, don’t comment on her appearance at all.