Last summer, I had dinner with a guy friend who is notorious for his sexist manners. He ordered for the both of us, and even when I said that I didn’t want anymore water, he overrode my decision and told the waitress that “she’ll have more water.” By the end of the dinner, even the waitress ignored me and only came by when he flagged her down to get me a box for my food (even though I insisted that I was quite alright).

When I recounted this story to my two white female friends, they flared up and were quite enraged. They declared that he was a sexist pig and shared their similar encounters with him. I just nodded along to their stories, not quite understanding why I didn’t feel quite the same amount of rage towards his  actions. When I continued to be friends with him, my female friends expressed sheer confusion. I thought you didn’t like him after the dinner thing. Didn’t you say he was sexist? Why are you still friends with him? Shrug.

Perhaps it’s because I’m not quite feminist enough, or maybe it’s because my tolerance for sexism is higher than my racist meter. Maybe. Then I began to notice that there were very clear differences in how we experienced sexism as white women versus women of color. I complained about a time when a man called me “Asian delight” or when a group of townies put their hands together, bowed their heads, and chanted “Ni hao.” My white women friends looked back at me with pity in their eyes. Wow, that’s so racist. I blinked. Actually that was my sexism story. Oh.

For me, my experiences of being a woman in this country have been plagued by yellow fever, exotification, “go-back-to-your-country,” “you-don’t-belong-here,” and a permanent stamp of foreignness. These are my triggers and the sexism that I fight as an Asian American woman. When my guy friend spoke for me during the dinner as a manner of chivalry and because he thought I was fragile and helpless, it didn’t trigger me because that’s not my usual experiences. If silencing happens, it’s usually because people will think that I’ll just shut up and take it (because of the universally submissive nature of Asian woman), rather than because I am a fragile white flower. Images of domesticity, fragility, and protection have always been intimately tied with white womanhood. Perhaps that’s why my white women friends were so triggered and why I wasn’t. Because even though I knew it was sexist, for once in my life, someone thought I of me as being worth something enough to protect. It just became very clear to me that experiences of sexism is diverse, multi-layered, and even at times contradictory. How do we fight sexism as “women” if the sexist experience that bind us together are not even universal? I guess then the question becomes, What alliances are necessary and relevant? Are they always amongst all women? What are the limitations of identity politics?


Sexism & Racism at 2012 London Olympics

Here is a recent article that I read about the Olympics (especially the NBC commentators) and its sexist, racist attitudes towards a Chinese swimmer. Talk about white privilege.


Sexism, Racism, And Swimming At The London 2012 Olympics
by Guest Contributor Sarah Keenan, originally published at Half in Place

I’ve been a little taken aback this week at the level of racism against China in the British and US media, and on longer-than-usual comment threads on various friends’ Facebook walls. I mean, I know that racism in sport and in the media is nothing new, and I know that being mixed-race white-Chinese, I’m taking the various swipes being thrown at Chinese athletes particularly personally. But still, the obsessive furor that has surrounded the 16 year-old swimmer Ye Shiwen has brought out so many hackneyed Orientalist stereotypes, it would be boring if it wasn’t so hurtful and infuriating.

For anyone who’s been asleep this past week, Ye Shiwen broke the 400 metre individual medley world record, breaking her own personal best time by 5 seconds and powering home in the last 100 meters to take gold in the event. In fact she swam so fast to the finish line that, as has been cited by countless commentators, her split time for her final 50 meter lap was 0.17 of a second faster than that of Ryan Lochte, the US swimmer who won the equivalent men’s event the night before. But rather than congratulating this young woman on an amazing swim and celebrating the small shifts happening to move swimming ever-so slightly away from being the white-dominated sport that it is (I think only rowing has a less diverse group of competitors), Ye immediately became the subject of doubt and speculation. Top US coach John Leonard described Ye’s win as ‘unbelievable’, ‘disturbing’ and ‘suspicious‘, BBC commentator Clare Balding turned to her co-commentator and asked ‘How many questions will there be, Mark, about somebody who can suddenly swim so much faster than she ever has before’, and so began a week of intensive media speculation over whether Ye was doping.

Now like all Olympic medallists, Ye has been tested for banned substances, and has come up clean. But that’s not enough for thousands of armchair commentators who have suddenly become self-appointed experts on what could possibly be the ‘natural’ physique and capabilities of a Chinese girl. The fact that Ye, a young woman, had one lap faster than male Lochte has been bandied around as evidence that she was doping, ignoring the fact that overall Ye’s time for the 400 meters was still over 20 seconds slower than Lochte’s, and that it’s not humanly impossible for women to swim faster than men sometimes. The Daily Mail jumped on board to assert that Ye has an ‘unusually masculine physique’ in an article in which the journalist seems to refer to China and East Germany almost interchangeably. There is of course no denying that Chinese swimmers were involved in drug scandals in the 90s, but to assume Ye is doping because (a) she swum fast and (b) she is Chinese is racism at its most plainly obvious.

Denying allegations of racism, John Leonard and others have argued that their suspicions are not due to Ye’s race or nationality but simply the cold hard facts of “the way she won the race.” Ye’s swim was “an anomaly” that needs to be pointed out and questioned, they assert, ignoring the fact that every world record breaking swim is, by definition, an anomaly. No woman in history has ever swum that race that fast before, it was “an outrageous performance”, Leonard asserts, “unprecedented in any way, shape or form in the history of our sport.” Well, yes sweet pea, on the one hand, that’s what a new world record is, and then on the other, it is not that outrageous. Ye only broke the world record by 1 second, and even at the age of 16 she has been swimming internationally for some time already. Leonard claims that Ye’s improvement of 5 seconds over 400 meters makes her swim suspicious, yet young swimmers often take chunks of time off their personal bests–as a teenager Australian swimmer Ian Thorpe also took 5 seconds off his personal best over 400 meters at the 1999 Pan Pacific championships, and just last night 15 year-old US swimmer Katie Ledecky took almost 10 seconds off her personal best to win the 800 meters freestyle. Yet Leonard is not raising any suspicions there.

But were any of Ledecky’s laps faster than a man’s? Well, it is more difficult to work out because the distance pool swim for the men is 1500 meters rather than 800 meters, so there’s no direct comparison to draw from. It would be well within the mathematical capabilities of the “sports scientists,” coaches, journalists and other commentators to work out her comparative lap speeds, but we won’t know because they won’t bother because Ledecky is not Chinese. She’s white American, and they are supposed to take chunks off their personal bests, break records, and win gold medals. For them, it’s just natural.

And while such sexism and racism is relatively predictable from the tabloid press and bitter US coaches, the more liberal media and all kinds of “sports scientists“ came out publicly raising their well-educated eyebrows over Ye’s performance and analysing her race down to her last stroke. I can guarantee you that Ledecky’s swim will not come under anywhere near the level of scrutiny as Ye’s. Of course, I have no idea whether either of them are on drugs. Both their tests have come up negative but it’s possible that they might still be found positive in years to come as technologies catch up with each other. But I’m no more suspicious of Ye than I am of Ledecky, or of any Olympic athlete for that matter. And whatever happens from here, the level of quasi-scientific objectification of Ye’s body and performance that has already taken place (overwhelmingly by white men), is overtly reminiscent of an Orientalism that has formed the basis for shameful histories of sexual violence and racism.

Unable to offer any actual evidence that Ye was doping, media attention turned to her training regime. Whereas sports enthusiasts generally pride themselves on how hard “their” athletes train and how much they want to win it “for team GB/Australia/ team USA/insert country here,” the Internet was suddenly full of scathing attacks on what, having never been to China and having no understanding of Chinese culture, they assumed Ye’s tortuous training regime and nationalist indoctrination to be. Images from a Chinese article about unhappy children at gymnastic training camps were taken out of context by western journalists to prove how heinous and inhumane the “brutal training camps“ of China really are. Whereas identifying sporting potential at an early age and receiving a sport scholarship to live and train at a specialist institute is held in the highest prestige in Australia, the US, and other western countries, the same practices in China were deemed barbaric, heartless, and reflective of China’s vicious one-party “totalitarian” regime.

Now, I don’t have room here to go into the details of the Chinese political system and the life chances or “happiness levels” of an average Chinese citizen compared to citizens of multi-party western states. But no one reacted to Michael Phelps’ highly anomalous 17 Olympic gold medals by opening up a debate about the variousproblems of the US political system and the desperate measures that US athletes go to in the hope of Olympic glory. And at any rate, anyone who thinks human rights violations and standards of living are significantly worse in China than they are in, for example, the US, needs to have a critical think about the criteria they are using to make those judgements. None of this is to say that they aren’t massive problems with the Chinese state but, ultimately, it has to be asked why it is that when a young Chinese woman wins an event in a white-dominated sport, white men the world over feel both the need and entitlement to prove that she must have either been cheating or that she’s subject to a tortuous training regime unthinkable in the liberated west. So, true to every bad Hollywood movie you have ever watched featuring an Asian woman, she must either be a villain or a victim. In actual fact, Ye Shiwen is the hero in this story, and it’s about time we let her have the credit she deserves for playing that role in these Olympics.

Sprinkle a Bit o’ Pink On That

Last year, I ran a gender and sexuality workshop for the peer advisors here at Brown. When we asked them how their perceived gender affected their Brown experience, a guy stood up and told me: “When I walk into a room, no one sees me as a white male. I’m just [insert white male name here]. There is no sexism at Brown.”

Why yes, honey, of course.

It was actually pure respect for women that led a faceless guy to come up behind my friend at the TWTP dance, grab her waist, and whisper into her ear: “I’m going to break you in,” as if she was some animal or an object.

Silly of me to feel devalued when a guy insists on paying for dinner because “it’s a matter of honor.” Or when he refuses to let me talk to the waitress and insists on doing everything for me because he’s a “gentleman” — cutting me off and telling the waitress what I’m going to order, asking her to refill my drinks anyways when I told her it wasn’t necessary, and flagging down the waitress for a to-go box when I was quite capable of doing so myself — all the while, silencing me and rendering me invisible.

I understand when the Mock Trial team says that having three female attorneys on the same bench would be “too bitchy.” It’s because we females are really all just moody hormonal wrecks, causing inconvenience to the world with our pre-menstrual cycle freak outs.

No worries. I know it’s just to “toughen us up” when guys make girls walk down Thayer at 3am after a booty call. We really just need to learn how to fend for ourselves and stop being oversensitive. I’m sure we will also learn to appreciate those cat calls from drunk guys on the street. I mean, we basically invited them to do so with our short skirts and revealing clothing. We should be flattered.

And always, when women say no, we actually mean yes. We just don’t know it. Even when my friend is turning red and frantically grasping onto her clothing to keep the guy from ripping it off, I’m sure he placed her well-being before his sexual needs. Oh, where are my manners. After you’re done, we should smile and say “thank you.”

Yes, honey. I’m sure Brown is a magical sexism-free place.

How to Hit On An Asian Girl

Thayer at midnight was lit up with neon signs and girls in short dazzling dresses. I caught a glimpse of myself in the Bagel Gourmet window — a girl in a striped blouse, long sleeved blue cardigan, and modest navy shorts. I began to slow my pace. A mob of  drunk townies in front of me were having a difficult time putting one foot in front of the other. A couple of the guys were sober enough to notice someone walking behind them. “Let the lady pass!” they yelled into the air. I had almost reached the corner where I turn into Cushing St. — when a member of the rowdy gang stopped me. Barely able to fix his gaze, he bowed and yelled, “NI HAO!” A roar of laughter from his friends. I quickly maneuvered past him and dove into the safety of my dorm — and into the shower I went, knowing that this wasn’t the kind of dirty, grimy feeling you could wash off.

My friends responses have been “I’ve heard worse.” True. Me, too. I wasn’t sexually assaulted or mugged. I was just an “Asian” girl walking down the street who happened to run into a bunch of drunk white guys — who thought it would be funny to speak to me in Chinese. Maybe that was the only Asian exposure that he had. Maybe he was just trying to be nice and be “culturally competent.” Maybe he was just drunk. You never know his intentions.

But his intentions don’t matter. Well-meaning people can still offend others and perpetuate racist images in society. The incident arose in me various fears and insecurities that I have as an Asian American woman in this country.

I felt as though I looked extremely “Asian.” I’m foreign. Who am I kidding, I don’t belong here in America.

I felt that my hard-fought individuality was lost in the larger “Asian” stereotype. We all look alike to them. Maybe I’m just another Asian girl after all.

For y’all interactive learners, here’s a video called “How to Hit on An Asian Girl,” telling guys out there why talking about chopsticks or yelling Chinese at a random girl is not usually a very effective technique to express interest in Asian/AA women: