Last night, I took part in a panel debate organised by The Runnymede Trust, on how race influences our ideas around beauty, sex and desire. Chaired by Sondhya Gupta, my fellow panelists were Christina Fonthes and Dr Ornette Clennon, and it was a fantastic evening filled with insightful and stimulating discussion. Follow this link for a summary of our opening presentations, and learn more about the End Racism This Generation campaign here.
My speech centered around the fetishisation experienced by Asian women; you can read it in full below:
First of all I’d like to thank the Runnymede Trust for inviting me here, it is an honour to be able to speak to all of you on a subject I’m very passionate about, which is the sexualisation of race. I’ll be talking about the fetishisation of Asian women, more specifically East Asian and South East Asian women.
So, 2 years ago, I was working in a job that required interaction with customers. A man started a conversation with me, and after the inevitable “Where are you from” question and finding out that I was from Singapore, he asked, “Shall I go there? Does everyone in Singapore look like you?”
There was also the time a man asked if it was true that Asian women had no hair on our bodies, and the time a stranger said, with a look in his eye, “I dated an Asian woman once.”
Most Asian women will have plenty of stories like these, but where the fetishisation of Asian women really reveals itself is on the internet, where anonymity and the lack of perceived need for social niceties allows racist attitudes to flourish. A tumblr called creepywhiteguys.tumblr.com even collates offensive messages sent to Asian women on online dating sites, which makes for some interesting reading. So widespread is the phenomenon of mainly white men exoticising Asian women, that the term “Yellow Fever” has been coined, with sites and forums filled with men ‘celebrating’ this ‘special interest’. The Asian woman is held up as the feminine ideal — having long hair, soft skin, and most importantly to them, a meek and submissive attitude towards men.
But where do these ideas about Asian women come from? It is easy to dismiss them as isolated instances of ignorant, individual men, but the truth is, these comments and attitudes are reflective of our society at large; they both stem from, as well as feed back into, the status quo.
The portrayal of Asian women in the media is seriously problematic. Often, we are rendered invisible, or relegated to the background, or portrayed as submissive, subservient, and in need of a white male hero. Films like The Last Samurai enact the ultimate patriarchal, colonialist fantasy — where a white man enters an Asian community, kills an Asian man, then claims his wife as his prize. And in the musical Miss Saigon, the story centres around Kim’s need to be saved by a white American GI, ending with her sacrificing her life for him and their son. In British TV, East Asian women almost never appear, except maybe for ten minutes in Peep Show, where we meet an Asian love interest with no speaking lines at all.
This stereotyping of Asian women denies us our individuality and humanity, casting us as merely sexual objects for the pleasure of white men. Type “Caucasian” into Google Images, and compare what comes up to what appears when you type in the word “Asian”. It is clear what many think of when they think “Asian” — scantily clad women in sexually submissive poses — ready to please, ready to serve.
6 months ago I wrote a piece for Media Diversified, entitled “I’m Not Your Pretty Little Lotus Flower”, in which I condemned the exotification of Asian women by white men. I received many responses from white men, the most common sentiment being that Asian women exoticised them, and it was therefore the same. The thing is, this idea reveals a lack of understanding of sexism and racism, and ignores the power imbalances at play. Of course, there are Asian women who prefer white men, but this comes from imperialistic notions of white supremacy, the equating of whiteness with power and prestige, and descends directly from colonialism. This is a far cry from the fetishisation of submissiveness and powerlessness that Asian women are subjected to.
So why are fetishisation and stereotypes so harmful? It has been well-documented that sexual objectification is harmful to women. In studies by Caroline Heldman and Lisa Wade, objectification, in particular internalised sexual objectification, has been linked to depression, eating disorders, a decrease in self-worth, a decrease in cognitive and motor functioning, and a lack of political efficacy.
For Asian girls in particular, it creates a society where they grow up seeing themselves through the eyes of white men, their identity a sexual fantasy above all else, moulding themselves to fit the demands of a white supremacist, patriarchal society.
Asian girls and women deserve better than this. We will not be silent, we will not be submissive, we will not be content to be lovable dolls and playthings. We have a voice, and we will be heard.