Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.
As first years, we thought Swarthmore would be our queer utopia. We thought the Swarthmore Queer Union (SQU) could serve as our second home, where we could build strong bonds to escape the shaming and rejection of queerness we had experienced. We wanted to follow Dan Savage, leave our families behind and find love, respect, and acceptance in a newer, better, queerer, family. That didn’t happen. While SQU is a space for queer people and many of them do seem to love it, it doesn’t seem to be a space for us. It took us a while to realize that maybe this is because in addition to being queer, we are also Asian.
To many, our Asian faces become invitations to exotify us. When other queers have flirted with us, they have said things like, “You know, I’m actually really familiar with the kama sutra” and “I love how Asian guys are so hairless!” and “I’m really interested in Asian culture” and “I LOVE spicy food.” Instead of seeing the person in front of them as a person, we often instead became another dish on their orientalist menu. Instead of a collection of life experiences, interests, and struggles, they often instead see a collection of stereotypes: submissive one-dimensional playthings for them to take as their own.
These people exotified us because we were Asian and queer. We didn’t initially know how to handle this treatment because we had no one to show us that facing exotification, among many other things, was among the struggles of being queer and Asian. What role models did queer Asians have growing up? In our communities, we had no one to reach out to. And there is little to no Asian-ness in mainstream queer media, and little to no queerness in mainstream Asian medias. Shows like Queer as Folk (early 2000s gays on TV! But the only Asian character is a Japanese prostitute who doesn’t speak English) and Grace and Frankie (it doesn’t hesitate to appropriate our cultures) that are held to us as beacons of gay hope are as white as they are gay.
And while we’ve personally figured out how to deal with our Asian-ness, white queers still haven’t. They whitewash our narratives, not understanding that our oppression is also racialized and that their naive empathy is imagining such oppression away. They do not understand that they erase our histories, often painful histories of colonialism, in which colonial powers institutionalized and reinforced queerphobia by law. They erased or stigmatized non-binary genders from many of our histories and imposed their own understanding of gender. This means, for example, that today East Asian men are stereotyped as inherently effeminate. They do not understand our cultures or societies, shaking their heads at our “backwards cultures” and proposing that their magic bullet — “more education” — would somehow fix them. They say this as if they can simply transplant what has worked for them without the slightest examination of the cultures and places they seek to fix.
They do not see that the way our families work are so often inherently different from theirs. When we tell them our stories, they jump to tell us to cut loose our “toxic ties.” Our families are far from perfect, but they are integrated into and function within larger societies in a way that most white families don’t. Our communities are often far more collective, and our queerness can affect the well-being of our families in real, tangible ways. “Be yourself” and “no one can tell you what to do” don’t make sense for us, because our actions can have material, and sometimes violent consequences for the people we love. We have come to respect our own queerness, but we also cannot act without these considerations.
When queer people, such as many in SQU, view us through white-tinted lenses, we look like bad, inhibited, self-hating queers. They think we need to become more comfortable with ourselves so that we can follow their path. But for so many of us, we were on that path until we realized that it made no sense for us. They tell us that they too were once bad, inhibited, self-hating queers like us, but one day we too can be “liberated” like them. But their inhibitions almost always did not come from where ours do, and our liberation does not look like theirs does. So we are finding our own, different ways to exist in our communities. Yet the white-tinted gaze refuses to acknowledge and respect our differences. Their sympathy comes off as othering, and their attempts to connect as alienating. Their erasure of our differences leads to them patronizing us instead of listening, and pitying us instead of understanding.
What we need from white queers, at Swarthmore and elsewhere, is a willingness to actually, truly hear us, in spaces and events that focus on our experiences. There needs to be an active effort to get rid of the framework of whiteness through which they automatically process our narratives. White queers need to view us as whole humans and acknowledge the differences and complexities to our lives. We will not be objects for the white gaze.
Avni Fatehpuria ‘18 co-leads PersuAsian. They are Indian and grew up in India away (sort of) from blatant white supremacy and so spend most of their life now being confused by the fact that white supremacy is in fact a real thing and that Americans spell weird. On the other hand, America has like thirty flavors of popcorn, so there is that.
Dominic Sonkowsky ‘18 co-leads PersuAsian. He identifies as half-Chinese and half-white, but is “Asian-passing” enough for most people to view him as a “full Asian,” whatever that means. His upbringing was predominantly culturally Chinese, and he grew up in San Jose, California.