Resisting the Exoticization of Asian Communities

As a young Asian woman adolescent growing up in a society dictated by the master narrative of white supremacy, I have spent most of my life blind to the ways in which my own people are exploited. These omnipresent forms of oppression are so ingrained in the minds of my generation that they are unconsciously displayed in many forms throughout our everyday lives.

Before I took this class, I understood some of the forms of oppression I have experienced. For example, Asian people experience exploitation because of the model minority myth, a stereotype that negatively impacts the community. Asian people are expected to work hard and be submissive. We are also left out of conversations about racial oppression, and our everyday experiences with discrimination are discredited and diminished. These acts are often subtle but have a significant impact on those who experience them, having experienced them myself. Many important conversations about race often revolve around black/white narratives and fail to include Asian people. Not being apart of these important conversations, many people don’t acknowledge that the Asian community experiences discrimination.

The invisibilization of Asian people in American society leads to the exploitation of our culture and labor that is often unconscious and goes unpunished. In addition, Asian culture has historically been exoticized in the West, with the line between appreciation and exoticization being very thin. The damaging effects that these attitudes have on the Asian community have deeply impacted my experiences growing up. However, it wasn’t until I took a course on feminism in high school, that I realized how the forms of oppression I have experienced, and continue to, as an Asian adolescent are interconnected with every form of oppression that upholds the white master narrative in our society.

Examples of the Master’s Tools (Photo credit: slide from our 2018 feminism assembly) 

Reading Audre Lorde’s piece, “The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House” initiated a major click moment for me. Lorde states: “For the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house. They may allow us temporarily to beat him at his own game, but they will never enable us to bring about genuine change.”  

Lorde’s idea of the master’s tools completely changed the way that I think about how my experiences contribute to upholding broader systems of power. Reading about the master’s tools made me feel less alone in the oppression I experience as an Asian woman. The master’s tools are the systems of oppression, including racism, sexism, and classism, that are interconnected and exist simultaneously. These systems continue the cycle of oppression of all people and sustain the power of the patriarchy. This text made me realize that the exoticization and exploitation of the Asian community are not isolated forms of oppression, but rather are master’s tools themselves.

Acts of exploitation and the exoticization of Asian people create the implicit idea that Asian people are inferior. This “others” and alienates our community as a whole, further feeding the power of white supremacy. White people who call themselves activists often appropriate Asian culture, but often don’t actually appreciate or acknowledge the Asian experience. I have witnessed this behavior continuously in our society and even among my peers. This cultural appropriation by faux activists is one of the most overt examples of exoticization.

The master narrative has trained the eye to see non-white cultures as foreign and separate. Asian culture is frequently subjugated by this kind of exploitation. As I have matured, I’ve seen countless forms of cultural appropriation through fashion alone. On the streets of New York, I’ve seen white people flaunt their graphic t-shirts with Mandarin characters on them, or even wear traditional Chinese silk dresses, both of which were purchased from “trendy” stores. It’s clear that the fashion industry has taken Asian culture and put it on the market to profit off of the white fascination with Asian culture that is seen as “sexy” and “exotic.” When white women and non-Asian people of color contribute to the exoticization of Asian people, they, like Lorde says, “will never enable us to bring about genuine change.” The exoticization of the Asian community prevents the liberation of all people and continues the imbalance of power in our society.

Emma Watson wearing a Qipao dress (Photo credit: Flickr)

It angers me when I only see Asian culture appreciated and seen as beautiful when in the hands and on bodies of white people. On a white girl, a qipao dress might seem trendy, in style, or a fashion statement, however, on me, it would be seen as ethnic and foreign, despite the fact that the dress originates from my own culture. Mandarin characters are slapped on t-shirts as a design, spelling out nonsense and ignoring the significance of the letters. Clothing appropriating Asian culture that is then worn by white people is one of many forms of exploitation and blatantly displays a power imbalance. This power imbalance plagues many different cultures belonging to people of color.

Today, “voluntourism” is another mainstream manifestation of the exploitation of people of color, and of more specifically, the Asian community. Voluntourism is a type of faux activism that often contributes to the exploitation and exoticization of Asian people in the global south. These trips frequently promote the exotification of children of color and people in poverty, most often via social media. This is only furthered by the fact that these expensive trips are mainly composed of people from privileged backgrounds, both racially and socioeconomically.

I often find my Instagram feed filled with photos taken on these trips posted by my white peers. Personally, I don’t have any problem with people going on trips with the intentions of learning and appreciating the lives and culture of people with different identities from their own. However, many don’t travel with these intentions, and the photos they take and post display other, more privileged and frankly, racist motives. Each time I scroll and see “intrusive” photos taken by white peers of people who look like me, and more specifically photos of dark skinned Asian people, feelings of discomfort and even hurt quickly surface.

This simple act of taking a photo can be a form of exploitation. Documenting, displaying, and putting people of color on exhibition uses the physical bodies of people of color to enhance the self-image of the photographer. Even the photo-taking itself establishes an implicit subject/object relationship. The privileged white person has control in this situation while the person of color becomes the object. Photos that are meant to depict people of color in circumstances that read as “poor” or “struggling” to Westerners are posted by white people that consciously or unconsciously aim to be seen as compassionate individuals who empathize with “struggling people.” By doing this, they actually just highlight and celebrate their own privilege which upholds the imbalance of power.

Screen shot of a program offered by a travel company (Photo credit: Rustic Pathways) 

These types of photos stay burned in my memory. Because the act of exoticization has become so normal in our society, I often feel as if my feelings of discomfort are silly or unjustified. The master’s tools, more specifically the exploitation and exoticization of my own people, are so woven into the fiber of our society that even I, a person of color, have trouble identifying and even expressing the emotional effects of the oppressive power that the master’s tools have on me.

How can we resist these specific forms of oppression when they are so deeply embedded in the roots of our society? Even if we were to eradicate the master’s tools of exoticizing and exploiting the Asian community, if possible at all, it would take decades of deep analysis and reflection by all members of society. However, erasing only a handful of master’s tools will never lead to the liberation of all people. Even without the existence of these specific tools of the master, I have no doubt that new tools would replace the ones that currently oppress my community. The widespread patriarchal mentality and reliance on the master’s tools has that power to consume every part of our lives.

In my high school feminism class, we read the Combahee River Collective’s Black Feminist Statement. I am moved when Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor writes, “The Combahee River Collective described oppressions ‘interlocking or happening ‘simultaneously’, thus creating new measures of oppression and inequality.” The intersectional web of oppressions means that in order to liberate all people, we must deconstruct the master’s house, reorganize society, and decolonize our minds. Realistically, this is not something that can happen overnight.

I do not want my children to live in the house of the white master that oppresses them. I do not want the next generation of Asian girls to suffer under the same tools that I have. Reorganizing society begins with self-reflection and calling out those who still rely on and use the master’s tools. While researching about the exploitation of people in the global south through photography, I came across an interesting perspective of a white woman identifying photographer, blogger, and world traveler. Her blog post titled, “The Ethics of Travel Photography”, analyzes her own privilege and influence when traveling to the global south. She shares an honest critique of her own behavior and provides guidelines for other people in positions of power to travel without exoticizing or exploiting people through their photography.

She writes,People are not museum exhibits, so don’t treat them like they are.” She expresses that a photographer has a responsibility when taking photos of a community that is not their own. She uses her blog to guide people away from the use of the master’s tools and emphasizes the need for self-reflection and analysis. Although this is a small act by a single person,  resources and actions such as hers will help us move away from the using the master’s tools and will help us start the long journey into the reorganization of our society.

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