Atlanta Killings: Today we disappeared

I like hats. I wear them because I think they flatter the shape of my head. But today I wanted to wear a hat for a different reason, and a mask not for COVID, but because for the first time I didn’t want anyone to know that I was Asian. I’ve encountered prejudice all my life as an Asian American but for the first time I was truly scared to be a woman of Asian descent in America. What identifies me by sight as Asian, I wondered. Are the hat and mask enough? In spite of the endless caricatures and stereotypes, it’s not the eyes. Ching Chong Chinaman — I can still hear the mocking as the other kids put their fingers at their temples and pulled up the corners of their eyes. But anyone who knows a lot of Asians knows that the shape of our eyes is diverse, not anything remotely resembling the slant-eyed caricature. No. It’s the hair. That’s how I know in a subliminal amount of time if someone is Asian. You can tell by the hair. The writer Nora Ephron once wrote that Asian women never have a bad hair day. Haha. But yes.

Maybe it’s the straight black hair that white men fetishize. That’s a word we’re going to hear a lot in this news cycle — fetishize. I’ve never used it before but I’ve been the object of it. I have heard countless times from white men, from ones I was dating to complete strangers, express their disappointment that I don’t wear my hair long, down to my waist. Without a prompt or a question on my part, just plain tell me with obvious disappointment, as if my hairstyle needs to satisfy some expectation of theirs. And how about this — “Smile!” How many of us have heard that? Do men ever get that — strangers telling them to smile as they walk down the street? When I was younger, that would happen all the time, less now that I’m a bit old to be the vessel of someone’s racist fantasy. It was apparently ok for them to tell me what to feel, and if I didn’t feel like smiling (which is… obvious, isn’t it?), to get up in my face, literally, and demand it.

Today my sister went to Whole Foods and asked for a cut of salmon. When they didn’t remove the skin as she asked, instead of repeating her request as she normally would, she self-consciously accepted the piece of fish and left the store, for fear of “making a scene,” of being noticed. This is how we disappear, more and more. I under my hat and mask, my sister rendered voiceless at the fish counter. She and I live in different parts of the country. We are highly educated, accomplished professionals and have long fought personal and professional battles to be seen through all the misogyny and racism. But today, we disappeared.

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