words and art by Natalie Chuck
TW: racially-motivated violence, racism, misogyny
The month before quarantine was imposed in Toronto, I was suddenly the subject of glares from strangers who I am certain would usually have paid me no mind. They would physically cringe or cover their mouths and noses whenever I, or an Asian friend, would so much as clear our throats in public. This unprompted wave of ignorant behaviour brought with it a feeling of impending doom; one that affirmed that I did not, had not and would never belong in the place where I have lived my entire life.
I have spent countless hours on the phone with my family this last year, dissecting the racially-motivated and violent attacks, the distaste and the tension directed toward the AAPI community. Quarantine has kept us in our homes, providing us more time to worry about the virus spreading around the globe and speculate about which one of us will be the next victim of a hate crime. I recall a conversation with my grandmother, discussing the world outside our windows. After a long pause, she said “you should stay away from people.” Defeated by her words, I admitted to myself that she was right, adding silently to myself you never know who could hurt you.
The burden of unacceptance is a weight carried and shared by all BIPOC people in North American society. The feeling of not belonging anywhere as a mixed-race kid growing up in the GTA led me to reject my Asianess as a survival tactic. Sharing stereotypical memes about Asian people and making jokes at my own expense in my youth kept people laughing, distracted enough not to pick on me. I would call myself out before anyone else had the chance to mock my difference. Every word that left my mouth in conversation with my peers was either sexually or racially charged, in hopes of taking the power away from any person who dared try to define or shame me for my ethnicity or sex.
Others’ intolerance for my immigrant parents, and their status as Canadian citizens, was a reality that nothing could have prepared me for. Any comment about my appearance growing up was jarring to me. My name being mixed up with other Asian girls’ and womens’ in school and at work, my race cited as the basis for romantic interest were familiar experiences during my adolescence.
I have worked numerous jobs in the service industry, an experience that proved that women, specifically Asian women, are stereotyped as docile, silent and accommodating; only one of which I am. In a similar vein, there has been a turn in how Asian women are presented on-screen, with more roles where they simply “happen to be Asian.” This does not rectify the damage done by years of misogyny and racism depicted in the media. These scenes were passed off as comedy, featuring Asian women portrayed as objects to be fetishized and symbols of sexual temptation.
Am I the model other because I make myself invisible until you make use of me?
Or am I the model other because you love my silence, the look of me, the idea of what it would mean to possess me?
When news broke about the shootings perpetrated by Robert Aaron Long, I was numb. I did not think how could this have happened? I could only think of one word and it was: yes. This attack confirmed an unwavering certainty, a deep knowingness to which I am sure many of my fellow AAPI women and femmes can relate: we knew that an attack like this would be made against us soon. Long is only two years younger than myself and although he is not Canadian, he does represent problematic, othering attitudes about Asian women and Asian culture in the American consciousness.
I was unsurprised upon hearing this news, and I resent that I feel justified in saying that. American culture treats Asian women as sex objects to be consumed, oggled at and to be taken advantage of. This act against my AAPI sisters will continue to reverberate indefinitely through our communities, a tender spot that will remain on each of us forever.
It is our white supremacist society that is broken. There is a lack of reciprocal respect for the ways that individuals express their cultural identities authentically. Feeling as though we are good people and feeling safe are very different objectives. Prevailing capitalistic ideals of success negate the beauty and power in cultural identification and uniqueness.
I recognize that my own light-skinned privilege is the result of aesthetic considerations related to white supremacy and capitalism. I also acknowledge that misogyny is not a mentality held by white men, BIPOC men or even by white women alone. I, too, am learning how to unbuild my own preconceived notions of beauty and rightness. Independent, feminist thought is something we are all capable of, once the primary objective of our social justice becomes the pursuit of equity and mutual respect.
I challenge you to address the privilege that lies in your ability to turn a blind eye, citing the myth of the model minority as an excuse for your ignorance. I challenge you to address your racial biases.
I challenge you to ask yourself whether you feel threatened by the person standing before you or threatened by what it would mean for them to treat you the way that they are treated.
It is never too late to change. It is never too late to change your mind.
I am inviting you to understand that the root of our pain comes from years of alleged assimilation, an attempt to erase our beautiful difference.