“Ugh, I want babies like you! Mixed babies are so cute,” my Asian friend said enthusiastically after scrolling through posts tagged with #mixedbabies on Instagram.
I chuckled and said “thank you?” in an attempt to pass her comment off as a joke. I had dealt with this comment so many times before that I’d been completely desensitized to it. I would rather brush it off as a compliment and move on than go through the emotional labor of explaining why it was problematic. After all, if someone thinks I’m attractive, how can I take offense to that?
But these “compliments” remind me that I am constantly sexualized for being a mixed, partly white womxn.
I recognized that people fetishized my appearance from a very young age. As a child, my mom paraded me around at social gatherings with Chinese aunties who would not stop gushing over my “different” — as in white — facial features. She even joked once that she married my dad so she could have a kid that “looked like Shirley Temple.” So she never hesitated to capitalize on the attention that having a mixed white child in China got her.
Once, I was scrolling through WeChat (the Chinese version of Facebook) when I noticed that my mom posted a selfie of me she had edited to make my eyes bigger and skin lighter. She captioned the photoshopped picture with, “Cheers to a beautiful girl.” Chinese aunties were swooning over the photo with comments like, “Wow so beautiful, just like Barbie!” and “Look at that curly hair and the tall, straight nose.” I was completely caught off guard. I confronted my mom and asked why she edited and posted the photo without my consent.
She answered casually, “I thought you looked nice. You’re my daughter, I’m proud of you.”
I was floored by the fact that she didn’t notice the blatant fetishization she was complicit in. She didn’t recognize the irony of saying that she was “proud of me” while posting a photo of my face that was edited to bring out my white features. This post wasn’t like other moms posting about their daughters’ dance recitals or piano performances. She made me look white, as if passing as white were some big accomplishment.
But I wanted to be seen as myself, not just as a Barbie doll — I wanted people to focus on my opinions and interests, not romanticize my “pretty” Western features.
During a summer camp I went to in China, some of the Chinese boys made a weeklong bet about “getting” with me. Throughout the week, they would constantly make comments referring to me as the “American girl,” treating me like a prize to be won.
The rarity of my whiteness made me desirable –– having a relationship with me would grant them social power through proximity to whiteness. I was a trophy to be shown off to their friends.
While Asian men used my whiteness as their gateway to power, white men fetishized my Chinese identity as “exotic.” White men treated me as the happy medium between Asian womxn, who they considered “foreign” and white womxn, who were too familiar.
While traveling in Chile, I was cuddling with my Dutch hookup when he looked into my eyes and said, “I like a bit of color. It’s something different. The girls back in the Netherlands all look the same –– blonde hair and blue eyes.”
I was shocked, but I remained silent to avoid confrontation. I was in Chile after all, and I didn’t want to buy into the stereotype of the loud, whiny American.
When I told my friend what the Dutch man said, he scolded me by saying, “You gave him leeway because he’s white! That’s internalized oppression, Gen. Why would you let him say that to you?”
I was astounded by how he recognized my hookup’s comment as dehumanizing, forcing me to confront the microaggression I had faced. I had normalized being someone’s “something different” for so long that it didn’t even strike me as problematic anymore. I didn’t call out the fact that my hookup implied I was exotic enough to be sexy but also white enough to be comfortable and relatable. I only had “a bit” of color, just enough to placate his desire for sexual spice while still being “attractive” by Eurocentric beauty standards.
The idea that he objectified my identity as a womxn of color made my skin crawl. To him and the world, I existed to be sexualized, desired and masturbated to.
But I am not a doll for anyone to parade around and brag about. I am not a dish spiced mildly enough to round out a white man’s palate without challenging his Eurocentric views.
I am my own person, and I refuse to have my mixed identity sexualized.
Genevieve Xia Ye Slosberg writes the Monday column on being a mixed-race womxn in China and the United States. Contact her at [email protected].