thedeadparrot (thedeadparrot) wrote,

Beauty, race, and reclaiming my anger

I have been angry lately because I feel like have a lot of anger to make up for. I've been thinking about race in general and my race in particular, and how I've spent so much of my life identifying as white because it was easier, because it was expected of me, and I've been trying harder lately to say, "No. Fuck that shit. That's not who I am. That's not what I've experienced."

I've spent too much of my life thinking that none of my white friends understand my anger because it's not valid, that I shouldn't get angry because it means rocking the boat, it means making other people upset, and I'm a good Asian girl. I don't do things like that. It means that I've noticed race, and I shouldn't do that, that makes me a racist.

I want to change that now. I want to get angry and say so and have reasons for it. I want to say what I've been pushing away for so long. I want to talk about something that has made me so upset for so long, I still have the scars.

This is about constructions of beauty, and about my own issues, and about racism.

So, I remember being five and knowing, knowing that a girl has to have blonde hair and blue eyes in order to be pretty. I mean, sure, brown haired girls could be pretty, too, but you needed to be blonde in order to be pretty enough that men would fight for you, to fall in love with you, to rescue you when you were in trouble, to marry you so you could have a happily ever after. That's what Disney and the books I read told me, after all. They'd go on and on and on about how beautiful character X's hair was and how gorgeous her eyes were, or the princess the prince would fall in love with on first sight would always look like that, and I'd go, 'huh, so that's what it means to be beautiful.' This was one of the basic assumptions I had growing up, to the point where I got confused by how Snow White was apparently the most beautiful woman in the land, even though her hair was black. My young mind, it was blown.

Needless to say, I do not possess golden flowing locks or sparkling sapphire orbs. I have black hair and brown eyes, like my parents do, like all my extended family does. I still remember being five and spending lots of time wondering whether or not hair dye would fix this problem. Because it was all about the hair color, really. A hair color that wasn't mine and would never be mine.

So I grew up, and I learned how foolish my young assumptions were, and I moved on. Then I read Memoirs of a Geisha by Arthur Golden. There's a metric fuckton that is wrong with this book (from both a feminist and an anti-racist standpoint) but I'm going to focus on just one and how it affected me.

I read it because a few of my friends told me how wonderful it was, and I was a little interested, because hey, characters who look like me, yay! So I caved in eventually, and when I finished it, I remember thinking only a white guy could have written this. I was about twelve at the time, and not very up on my feminist or anti-racist theory, just so you understand how viscerally the book pissed me off.

For those of you who don't know, the main character of the book, Sayuri, is ethnically Japanese and has most of the features of ethnically Japanese people, but with one small difference: her eyes are blue. This would have been a minor speedbump in my enjoyment of this book if it was brought up infrequently, because I'd read lots of books from the perspectives of people who don't look a lot like me, what was this small thing to bother me?

But Golden doesn't do that. He harps at least once in practically every chapter about how this means Sayuri is 'full of water' and how SOOPER SPECIAL she is because of her eyes. If I drank and played drinking games and in particular, played one where I did a shot every time the Sayuri's eyes were mentioned as SIGNIFICANT, I'd probably have to have my stomach pumped one-third of the way through reading the book. Not only does Sayuri's eye color mark her as special, it also means she's BEAUTIFUL, more BEAUTIFUL than the other geisha who only have boring brown eyes. They are also SOOPER JEALOUS of her and her BEAUTY(eye color) and are mean about it, because they don't have what she has (her eye color). If you can't understand (a) how this is problematic especially because it was written by a white guy and (b) how this fucking wrecked my preteen self, still struggling with the gender roles that had been assigned to me, then you haven't been paying attention. I suggest you go back up to the top and read again. Or possibly go look for some reading on race theory.

Obviously, trying to emulate Western beauty has been a thing amongst East Asians, so maybe it isn't that strange that a geisha house would find blue eyes important, so maybe it isn't unrealistic or dishonest to that time. But it's still painful and upsetting, and I remember wanting to hurl the book away but still stubbornly sticking it through to the end just so I could say I did. I remember getting angry and pushing it away, because it seemed stupid and petty.

I haven't really talked to people about this before in any depth, because when I have tried before, I have gotten blank stares in return. I thought that maybe that was because I was making a big deal out of nothing, that maybe this was me getting irrationally angry over a tiny detail. What does it matter that her eyes are blue? She's still Asian, isn't she? It's just a stupid detail, right?

Looking back, now, I can see most of those failed conversations happened with white people about my own age. That they didn't understand the fuss because they aren't like me. Their frame of reference was totally different from mine. They didn't understand that this book was telling me that that my eyes are ugly and I was ugly and what I really needed to be beautiful was some white girl eyes, some Western eyes.

I felt almost physically slapped years later when I saw Ziyi Zhang wearing blue contacts in the movie trailer for the first time. I felt sick to my stomach and I wasn't sure why.

So this is me, being angry, because I can be, because it's not wrong that I am. It's not all in my head simply because it hurts me more than it hurts them. My anger is real, and my anger is important, and my anger shouldn't be pushed down, pushed away.

I like my eyes (even if my eyesight is getting progressively worse and worse). They're brown with flecks of black, and they're hard to see behind my glasses. Most importantly, they're mine.
Tags: feminism, isms, racism, rants
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