To walk through America as an Asian woman is a precarious thing. It means not only walking between two cultures but also walking the tightwire that hovers between racism and misogyny. It is a balancing act born from colonialism and violence, from xenophobia and the patriarchy.
I have walked this tightwire my whole life, and it has often left me feeling like being an Asian woman is a liability. Being a racial minority and being a woman each come with oppression of their own, but being both heightens our marginalization. Asian women are often portrayed as relentless sirens, exploiting the attraction of men. For generations, Hollywood has depicted us as femme fatales, luring men with an imagined Eastern strain of sensuality. The stereotype implies that if they can’t resist us, it’s not their fault for not being able to control their impulses, it’s our fault for being too tempting.
It isn't only Asian women who are used as scapegoats for the vices of men, but Asian women (as well as other women of color) have been seen by American society as particularly wicked for generations, especially in contrast to more "wholesome" white American women. The Page Act of 1875 created a barrier of entry to the United States for Asian women, especially Chinese women, who were effectively barred as undesirable under the assumption that they were sex workers. This sort of anti-Asian sentiment can also be traced to the yellow peril, a racist ideology used to strike up fear that Asians would somehow destroy the West's cultural values.
Asian women aren't the only ones who still experience the brutal legacy of this generations-old concept; it is an othering we experience regardless of gender identity, and that is evident in the wider surge of hate crimes that have targeted the Asian community for over a year, ever since the outbreak of COVID-19 ushered in a wave of racism against Asians not just in the United States but all over the world.
Stop AAPI Hate released a report breaking down the hate crimes against Asian Americans between March 19, 2020, and February 28, 2021. Men reported 29 percent of the crimes, trans and gender nonbinary victims reported 2 percent, and those who preferred not to specify gender reported 1 percent. A staggering 68 percent of hate crimes were reported by women.
It’s an upsetting statistic, but not a shocking one — if you’re an Asian woman, that is. In spite of the fact that every Asian woman I have spoken with about this issue recounts being objectified on the basis of their sex and gender, racism against Asians is often overlooked. People have told me that I’m not truly oppressed, that as an Asian woman in America I am part of a privileged class, a stereotype stemming from the model minority myth which upholds the false idea that most Asians are wealthy and successful. In reality, Asian Americans are economically stratified; poverty rates among several Asian ethnic groups are significantly higher when compared to the overall U.S. population.
Asians are not a monolith, but viewing us as one is just another marker of the racism we experience. The model minority myth is often used to dismiss and silence us. Any oppression I perceive, I have been told, is in my own mind. It’s proof that I’m thin-skinned. It’s proof that I can’t take a joke. When men call me “Ling Ling” or a “China doll” and tell me I am so sexy, so mysterious, so sensual, so different from American girls (never mind the fact that I am American, too), I am supposed to view it as flattery, not as marginalization.
As a Filipino American, I have felt this crossroads of racism and misogyny particularly keenly. I have had military veterans approach me to tell me how much they enjoyed being surrounded by Filipino women when they were stationed at Clark Air Base or Subic Bay. Others have expressed their dismay that the Philippines is no longer under American rule, saying, “We used to own you, you know.”
The internet is filled with videos and tutorials on how to seduce Filipino women and catalogs our qualifications as brides. Most of the men who avail of this “guidance” want to marry us not because they respect us, but because they want to own us. A decades-old list that begins “You may be married to a Filipino if,” says “you are pretty proud of yourself because you think you snagged up for yourself some unique, rare, tropical goddess type until you go to the Philippines and can't tell her apart from anyone else in the whole country.”
Racism and misogyny are two sides of the same coin, two forms of oppression that derive from a need to dominate. To walk through America as an Asian woman is a precarious thing, but it is also a dangerous thing, and it shouldn’t be this way.
In light of the wave of hate crimes, Asian American women are being asked, “When do you think you will feel safe again?”
How can we answer this? We don’t know when we will feel safe again — if we’ve ever really felt safe at all — because we don’t know when racism and misogyny will end. Our oppression is so normalized, so woven into the tapestry of this country’s history, that we cannot possibly know when we will feel safe.
The real question is this: When will America ensure our safety?