When the cis man on the street yells his amalgamation of racist and sexist slurs at me, my first instinct is to avert, to avoid, to shrink away. What they see is a young feminine-presenting Asian woman responding to their power play with submission. They see silence, which they take for consent and for confirmation of what they think they know. What they don’t see is the seething rage in my heart or the fist-curling desire to scream back, “I am not here for you. I am not here for your consumption. I am not food. I am not yours.”
All my life, whenever I was harassed, I would feel angry with myself for not reacting more powerfully. Why did I remain silent? Why didn’t I shout obscenities? Why didn’t I have a witty comeback? Why didn’t I let him know that those words weren’t okay? Mostly though, I was angry with myself because I thought I was perpetuating the stereotype of the submissive Asian woman whenever I turned my head and kept my mouth shut.
Because I am a woman of color, the abuse hurled at me is steeped in both racism and misogyny. I cannot separate those intertwining identities. The configuration of my face determines that intersectionality. We live in a world where a woman is shamed for her short skirt before a violent attacker is shamed for his brutality. The same unjust logic faults her for flirting, rather than faulting the rapist for raping. It degrades her for taking any control over her own body. So when men—men on the streets, at work, online, at the café or grocery store, even men I know well—see me as a delicate China Doll or an accommodating Madame Butterfly, it is another axis of burden.
Not only does this culture blame the oppressed rather than the oppressor, it also shoves the burden of defiance on those oppressed. Tokenization means that I am always a representative for my people. Whatever I say, or don’t say, reflects on all Asian women. It’s maddening. So often, I’ve strained under this anxiety because I want to prove the bigots wrong. I’ve wanted to fight back in an immediate and symbolic way on behalf of my fellow women of color. When I haven’t spoken up, I’ve worried that I’m sustaining the generalization of silent and compliant Asian women. In the rare occasions when I have snapped back, I’ve worried that my anger has morphed me into the Dragon Lady stereotype. No matter how I react, the burden remains mine.
It has taken time, but I’ve come to know: It’s not my responsibility to prove my humanity. It is not my responsibility to break any incorrect stereotypes anyone else has about me.
My reaction prioritizes my safety and my integrity, and I shouldn’t have to apologize for it. I shouldn’t have to feel ashamed I can’t do more. So, I am actively choosing to let furor and hunger for justice—rather than shame—burn inside me. The fetishization of my image is not a shortcoming on my part. I know who I am. I am not passive; I am insistent on my survival. I am not weak; I continue to thrive in a world that demands my marginalization. I am not dutiful; I am revolutionary. If other people look at me and see docility and meekness, it is not my fault that they are wrong. It is not my fault if they cannot see women of color as individuals. It is not my fault if they can’t see the person I am in all my complexities: strong, compassionate, vulnerable, resilient, and audacious.
My defiance is expressed in other ways. Through my writing, my education, and my advocacy, I can at least reclaim something. I refuse to live my life burdened by other peoples’ versions of me. Whether I choose to use my voice or not, it will remain mine.[Headline image: The graphic consists of close up an Asian woman with red lipstick screaming with her mouth open. She has short hair and a light colored shirt. She is visible from the shoulders up.]