The Problem with Exoticizing Asian Women and Children

Whenever I see photos of people from Asia on Instagram that are posted by my white peers, I am disgusted. Often my peers will write racist captions for these photos. For example, one time I noted a photo of a shoeless toddler in a shoe store located in Vietnam that had a caption that implied the irony of the boy’s inability to buy shoes even though he is surrounded by them. This post, and many like it, was taken by a wealthy white peer engaging in voluntourism. It seemed to me that she (and others who post similar photos) had only posted it to be recognized for her trip to Vietnam, not necessarily because she cared about eradicating poverty. When people who identify as feminist post these types of photos, there is a lack of acknowledgment of their privilege and this continues to uphold systems of oppression.

Image via Putney Student Travel, India

The commonality I find between all of these posts is that they are either explicitly or implicitly showing how the so-called “other side” lives. They not only exotify non-Western cultures, but also the poverty many people face on a day-to-day basis. These photos turn the photographed into souvenirs to be kept on phones and looked back on in order to remember the white privileged person’s fun summer trip. They never acknowledge their own privilege in these posts, and certainly not the poverty that they romanticize.

Whenever I see these posts, I am often puzzled because they are shared by people who identify as activists and/or feminists; they are people who attend events such as the Women’s March and are seemingly up to date with current events. To me, we are fighting for the same goal: justice for all women and the liberation of all people from oppression. But their photographs belie their politics. Instead, when I see these photos, I feel demeaned. I feel violated because I could have been that person in the photos my peers are taking had I not been so privileged to live in the United States. How can these peers call themselves feminists and/or activists if they exotify people of color, especially women and children of color?

In my high school feminist theory and literature class taught by Ileana Jiménez, I read Black feminist activist Barbara Smith’s definition of feminism which helped me to articulate the frustration and pain I feel about these posts. Smith writes, “Feminism is the political theory and practice that struggles to free all women . . . Anything less than this vision of total freedom is not feminism, but merely female self-aggrandizement.” The white girls who post photos exotifying people of color are not striving for the “total freedom” Smith writes about, but instead are practicing “female self-aggrandizement.” In other words, they want their own “adventurous” experiences to be affirmed and to feel a sense of social acceptance from peers who are also white and wealthy and so-called “progressive.” 

My high school feminism theory class after our annual 2018 feminism assembly.
Photo Credit: Ileana Jiménez

The affirmation and praise received by the photographer from the white community through the number of “hearts” and likes on Instagram gives the photographer power over the photographed, allowing the photographer to continue with their behavior in exploiting the mere existence of their “subjects.” Within this action, the use of a person of color as a subject implies a system of dominance in which the subject is under the control of the photographer. This is a clear exploitation of the photographer’s position of power, upholding racial hierarchies and the domination of white supremacy. This is the self-aggrandizement of whiteness and white females at the expense of people of color – the polar opposite of their fights for justice and liberation. The self-aggrandizement of white females becomes exploitative of people of color, keeping us down in order for white women and girls to pull themselves up in the racial hierarchy. So, I am constantly surprised at the continued actions of these “feminist” photographers who continue to exploit the lives of people of color for their benefit, even as they supposedly say they are working to free themselves from the patriarchy.

I have come to realize that “the only people who care enough about us to work consistently for our liberation is us,” as said in the Combahee River Collective’s Black Feminist Statement from 1977. People of color are often the only ones who care enough about our struggles against systems of oppression because we are the ones experiencing the pain and are doing the emotional work that comes with the implementation of these systems in our society. In contrast, because our white peers have the ability to choose to opt into or out of conversations regarding the dismantlement of systems of oppression, they are given the ability to demonstrate a lack of concern surrounding issues such as dominance in relation to race. Yet, as an Asian girl of color, I don’t have the ability to opt in or out of conversations, as these conversations concern my life. However, the constant exotification of brown-skinned people through social media and the clear assertion of dominance that comes with this action is only one of the many manifestations I must deal with on a daily basis.

Rachel Kuo, Twitter: @rachelkuo
Photo via Emerson College

When I was younger – before I was on social media – I often heard Asian women and other women of color being referred to as “exotic.” Every time I heard this word, I automatically knew it was a bad thing. As said by Rachel Kuo in her article “4 Reasons Why Calling a Woman of Color ‘Exotic’ is Racist,” “Despite the intention to express a compliment, what is actually being communicated when you call a woman of color ‘exotic’ is a backhanded reminder that we are less normal, less human, and less real than white folks.” The constant exotification of women of color continues the cycle of othering, setting us apart from the rest of society. The dehumanization that comes along with this exotification portrays us as objects to be subjected to the sexual whims and abuses of men, as seen through pornography in which Asian women are made to be seen as submissive.

This dehumanization of women and girls of color can be so detrimental that it starts to seep into our collective consciousness, making it second nature to demean women and girls of color with violence, including sexual violence; for example, when talking about how many girls a guy has had sex with, it’s often referred to as his “kill-count.”

The exotification of women of color also links our natural features to our “otherness,” deeming certain traits as more favorable than others, “a reminder that women of color fail to meet Western, white standards of beauty that favor light skin” as Kuo says. This continues to reinforce the racial hierarchy in which traits held by white people are preferred over those of people of color. White superiority is so deeply ingrained in our society, that even my grandparents have commented on my complexion being too dark. And I’m a light-skinned Asian girl.

When I was only ten years old, my grandparents told me my skin wasn’t clear or white enough, telling me that no boy would like me if I had blemishes on my face. This teaching that whiteness is superior starting from a young age leads to internalized racism. Even as a 12-year-old, I would look down on Asians who dressed or presented as “too Asian” or “clearly foreign and FOB” (FOB meaning “fresh off the boat”). I distanced myself from them, giving them looks and quietly believing that I was better than they were because I was more Americanized. At only 12, I rejected those who reflected the parts of myself that I hated. I rejected the way I looked and believed monolids were ugly because I saw them as belonging to “others.” I didn’t talk about my Chinese heritage or traditions in front of my white peers because I became ashamed and believed it separated me from my white peers and white American culture.

The act of dismantling systems of dominance will not happen overnight but we must reflect on Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor’s words from her book on the history of the Combahee River Collective, How We Get Free. She writes, “what you [can] do to confront the oppression you [are] facing” requires self-reflection on not only our oppressors but also ourselves in order to see how we may uphold these same systems. We must recognize our part in these hierarchies, both as the oppressed and the oppressor, and work outside of these systems in order to truly achieve liberation. We must also educate both the young and old because by teaching about the existence of these systems, we will start to implement systemic change. We can no longer uphold the master narrative and teach that whiteness is the ideal, as was taught to me by my grandfather. Instead, we must make people aware of the work they can do to dismantle the master’s house. By doing so, I hope to make people aware of their privilege to work towards dismantling systems of oppression.

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