On several occasions, I’ve been at a bar or party with an Asian-American friend and when my friend is getting a drink or off to the bathroom, a man (it’s always a man) will ask me, “Where is she from” or “What type of Asian is she?” I usually try to deflect the former question with “She’s from [hometown]” and with the latter I’ll pretend not to know or ask, “Why does it matter?” They either roll their eyes or ask again another way. I really don’t know how to deal with this situation productively as an ally. I usually don’t mention it to my friend both because I feel it’s my responsibility to deal with it and because we’ll probably never see the offending person again. I don’t even really know if it’s something that would upset her, but I know nobody’s ever waited for me to walk away so that they could ask my friend what kind of white I am. How should I handle these sorts of perpetual-foreigner questions? Should I tell my friend when it happens?
I really like how you’re thinking about your friend’s experience being on the receiving end of this kind of interest instead of obsessing over what these men are doing, how they’re feeling and why. But it’s worth making explicit, though it is implied in your question, that these men are probably, at least to some extent, fetishizing your friend’s ethnicity. I discussed the situation with Robin Zheng, an assistant professor of philosophy at Yale-NUS College, in Singapore, who wrote “Why Yellow Fever Isn’t Flattering: A Case Against Racial Fetishes.” While she noted there’s a possibility that what you’re hearing from them is sincere curiosity combined with general discomfort around race, it’s more likely a manifestation of “yellow fever,” which is a racial fetish that involves a preference for Asians, especially women.
Why is that a bad thing? Well, a racial fetish is different from — and more harmful than — a simple dating preference, and it has to do with the effect on the person who’s being lusted after because of their ethnicity. “In my view there are two things that mark a racial fetish,” Dr. Zheng said. “It makes its targets feel depersonalized and like they’re not being treated in a way that respects who they are as individuals, and it serves to solidify and reify racial categories and a racial taxonomy which is inevitably a hierarchy, sending the message that some people, because of their race, are somehow different.”
I want to point out that this definition focuses on the impact on the targets of this behavior. As Dr. Zheng told me, “If we are trying to communicate with people on why it’s problematic, it’s more effective to focus on the effects of the targets because then you don’t get mired in these interminable arguments about what’s going on in someone’s head.” (Is it just that the guy loves Japanese culture? Was his first girlfriend Vietnamese? We don’t care!)
That should inform what you do about it. Sometime (not when you’re in the middle of a fun night out! Reminding someone that people are looking at her and seeing only her ethnicity can be a buzzkill) find out how your friend sees these kinds of questions. Don’t make any assumptions and “don’t let your eagerness to be a good ally make you skip the step of finding out how your friend feels,” Dr. Zheng said. Also remember that she has been Asian long enough to make it to drinking age, so it’s very unlikely that any of this is new to her. Don’t act as if you’re breaking news when you share what’s been happening.
Also, don’t assume your friend has a negative reaction to this kind of interest. Dr. Zheng reminded me that in some cases, people are actually OK with being fetishized because of a sense that if this didn’t happen, they would be excluded altogether. It could be she’s totally disgusted by the way these men are asking about her background, or it may be that she’s dated people with a similar fascination with her ethnicity, and it’s felt OK to her — or maybe she just doesn’t care either way. You won’t know until you ask her.
Assuming her response isn’t along the lines of “Next time it happens tell him I’m Korean and give him my number!” and she doesn’t find it flattering or acceptable, ask her if a response like “My friend doesn’t like it when guys fixate on her ethnicity, so I’m not going to talk about it with you” would be good. This is more effective than throwing the guys off by providing the name of her hometown (although I have to admit that I like how clever that is and how it probably flusters them) because that would suggest to the guy that he’s simply asked the question in the wrong way.
Dr. Zheng pointed out that there’s been a lot of consciousness-raising in recent years around microaggressions like asking people of color “Where are you really from?” but it doesn’t really fix things if people only understand that it’s problematic at the level of etiquette or proper wording. So the guy could walk away thinking he’s simply expressed his sincere interest in the wrong way, when in reality his whole approach is contributing to a set of stereotypes that perpetuate racism.
I think that’s all you need to be a good ally in this situation. You astutely said that nobody’s ever asked you what kind of white person you are, but it seems clear that one part of that answer would be “the kind who’s a good friend.”
Jenée Desmond-Harris is a contributing Opinion writer and writes the “Dear Prudence” column at Slate.
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