When I was younger, my Asian American friends and I would play house. We’d be older, popular and wise to the world. We’d have cars and phones and play dates at the mall. We had freedom there. I could be anyone.
I could even be white.
“Jordan,” my most-loved pretend character, had brunette-not-black, wavy-not-straight hair. She didn’t wear glasses. She played some white-dominated sport like volleyball and went to the mall whenever she wanted. All the boys wanted to date her – even the white boys. She was “American,” as my parents would say. She looked like she belonged.
I didn’t. I can tell stories about being paired automatically with the only other Asian boy in my classes, about “chink!” being screamed through an open car window as my sister and I walked home from school, about avoiding one of the only other Asian girls in my sixth grade class because the bullies were after her, for being too Asian, too quiet.
Instead, I’ll tell what I learned. People treat me differently because of how I look. White beauty norms are narrowly defined: My eyes are too small, and my hair too black, for white people to count as theirs. This means that I am “Asian” – I am labeled, and everything else they know about me will be in the context of that one racial signifier. It means people will meet me and think “Asian,” quiet, boring, studious – or even just “Asian,” chink. It means I am either only beautiful enough for Asian boys, or only beautiful because I am Asian.
As such, I went through some of the requisite identity crises that “fill-in-the-blank” Americans experience: some combination of loving my identity, hating it, loving it while hating it, being ashamed and being proud, and finally, acceptance. The acceptance part, for me and many other Northwestern students I talked to, came in college, but only after much internal conflict.
The constant specter – how will you see me if I am Asian? – is not unique to me or my racial identity. According to Harvard researchers, your brain recognizes race and gender before anything else – 200 milliseconds is all it takes. When the norm is white, all other bodies – Latinx, Asian, Black, indigenous, multiracial, female, male and nonbinary – are marked and processed as “different.” In college, as we meet new people, hook up and maybe fall in love, these split second judgments can make all the difference, especially as a person of color.
“I lived my entire life – and this really affected me – thinking that I was, as an Asian American, inferior to white people,” says Irina Huang, a Weinberg junior in American Studies. Her black hair brushes against her shoulders – you can see where she’s growing out a shaved part of her hair. As she pushes up her rectangular black glasses and cups her chin in her hand, I can see her thinking hard before answering my next question. She’s genuine in her answers, open about her vulnerabilities and clearly used to thinking about race.
“Growing up, my mom would always point out how my nose was really flat, so she would always have me like pinch my nose because she thought my nose would become pointy,” Huang says. “She was like, ‘If your nose was more pointy, you’d be more beautiful.’”
It was the same with her monolids. Her mom would tell her that people with double eyelids were more beautiful – people like her white friends – and Huang remembers thinking, “If I could just change that, I could be more beautiful.”
“White is beautiful” then became something all-encompassing, even beyond beauty. Huang says she so deeply respected her high school’s mostly white faculty that she transferred greater authority and intelligence to her white classmates, too. “I really trusted what my white peers had to say,” Huang says, “so I literally struggled with having a voice.”
For Communication senior Carmen Mackins, who identifies as Puerto Rican and Black, the struggle with identity and beauty began with her hair. In her sophomore year at Northwestern, Mackins switched from perpetually relaxed hair to the Afro she rocks now.
Mackins had her hair relaxed since second grade – coated her hair in chemicals to keep it straight or braided away, so it’d be easier for her to blend in with the white kids in her Upper East Side elementary school in New York City. After years and years of chemical use, the relaxing process had fundamentally changed her hair. “When it’s not super sleek and shiny and looks like it’s being taken really good care of, your hair starts to dry out a lot and break a lot,” she says. “There’s no easy way to save it without going back to the salon a few months later.”
But salons cost money, and heat takes time. Clumps of hair kept falling out due to the stress of the relaxing process, so Mackins first quit relaxers and used heat exclusively. In that period, she would spend three hours every weekend in the bathroom of Allison Hall, showering, blow-drying, flat-ironing.
Then, she gave up heat altogether, and Mackins says that’s when her hair really began to transition. Her natural texture grew in at the roots while the relaxed ends stayed straight, so she started to wear headbands and pull her hair back into a tiny bun. Then, when the natural hair grew out long enough, she cut the straightened ends off. This middle period was the hardest, says Mackins. She felt less feminine and less in charge of how she looked, so she took charge of things she could more easily control – the jewelry she wore, the way she dressed – to draw attention away from her dual textured hair.
Now fully hair-transitioned, her beautiful, crazy Afro matches everything about her: wide open hand gestures, a sunbeam smile of positive energy, an infectious, musical laugh. She stands out so much that NYC street photographers have stopped her in the street (twice) for impromptu photo shoots. Black women (and even a few respectful Black men – though there are the catcallers, always) also pass her mid-commute and say they love the ‘fro, they love the hair, they love the look.
“I realized that I didn’t need straight hair to fit in,” says Mackins. “It’s helped a lot with my confidence level and probably has made me louder as a human being. If I’m going to be noticed anyway, might as well enjoy myself.”
Liz Diamond also struggled with her hair. Diamond, who is Latina and Jewish, sports an incredibly voluminous undercut – curly on the top, shaved on the sides. The SESP sophomore has tortoiseshell glasses and a tattoo on her left arm: “to dare is to do.” But she didn’t always have her hair cut short. Before her freshman year, it was long and always straight. Twice a week, she’d wash her hair for peak maintenance, then let it air dry overnight and spend half an hour straightening it in the morning. On subsequent mornings, she’d have to straighten it again for another 15 minutes, because, as Diamond says with an ironic laugh, “over the course of time, your hair goes back to what it’s supposed to be like.”
Then, in November of her freshman year, she went “buzzer to the head,” she says, for her first short haircut. Diamond was tired of the constant process of straightening her hair, so when her girlfriend at the time also got the big chop, she says she thought about doing it, not doing it, doing it, not doing it, for months. She asked everyone around her what they thought – and finally went for it.
“When the first chunk of hair came off, I was like, ‘Oh my God, what did I do?’” she says. “And then I saw it and I was relieved. I’m very happy with it, and it’s just so much easier in my life, and I feel so much more me.”
Diamond says she’s found it a lot easier to present herself as more obviously queer – and exist as a Latina woman – at Northwestern than in the white Colorado suburb where she went to high school. “Looking around in my classes, the likelihood of there being a person of color, even if they’re not necessarily also Hispanic, is just so significantly higher that I feel safer,” she says. “Knowing that I won’t be the only one in any given scenario is really comforting.”
In a way, the short ‘do shields Diamond from being too worried about fetishization. She points at her short hair and mentions her revolving closet of T-shirts and jeans, contrasting it with the ultra-feminine, longhaired J-Lo stereotype of Latinas who ooze sexuality. “It presents its own kind of problems,” Diamond says, “when I don’t feel as Hispanic because there’s no ‘less feminine identity’ for Latina women.”
Unfortunately, many people of color do feel threatened by fetishization. White beauty standards are turned on their head, and suddenly, what makes you different now makes you exotic. You become an object of sexual desire, but you’re just that – an object. It’s stereotyping, but by another name.
“‘Papi’ – it’s dad in Spanish,” says Pedro Alvarado, a Weinberg junior, “but that oftentimes gets circled into fetishization.” Alvarado is 100 percent Mexican-American, but he says he gets mistaken for “every brown ethnicity” because of his lighter skin and accent-less English. It’s only when he introduces himself by his very Latino-sounding name (or when a match sees his name in his dating app profile) that people can really “place” him.
“I’ve had people on apps, before any person-to-person contact, like, ‘Oh, can I speak Spanish to you?’ And they’ll only speak to you in Spanish,” he says.
Are they Latinx, the Spanish speakers? Alvarado shakes his head, emphatic. “No.”
Alvarado says he’s even seen “looking for other white people” on multiple Grindr profiles. “How does that not look bad to you in any sense?” says Alvarado. “It’s just crazy to me that people consciously think this. If it’s subconscious, I give you the benefit of the doubt, [but] like outright saying ‘looking for white guys’ is crazy to me.”
According to Alvarado, it’s common to include racial preferences in dating apps, especially on Grindr. The app prompts you to choose your ethnicity or race to be displayed on your profile, and Alvarado chose “Latino.” So if Alvarado gets a message, he’ll check the other person’s profile first. If he sees “Latino plus” or “Really into Latino people,” he ignores the match completely.
“Before I met my boyfriend, I would use Grindr and people would literally have on their profiles like ‘no Asians’ or ‘no Black people,’” says Paul Salamanca, who identifies as Filipino American. With his bowl cut, circular wire glasses and septum piercing, Salamanca looks so hip that I am slightly intimidated. But he talks to me like we’re already friends, flashes deep-set dimples that make me grin back. At this point though, he is incredulous. “While racial preferences are racist, they’re also so present,” he says.“I feel like a lot of gay men feel like it’s okay to just be like, ‘no Asians.’”
These racialized dating preferences span the sexuality spectrum, outside the world of Grindr and other dating apps. Mackins, who describes herself as light-skinned, says fewer men of the “white toast variety” approached her after she adopted an Afro.
“Preppy, upper-middle-class [boys who] always find a traditionally beauty standard-following white girl, those kind of guys approached me less, which honestly I was fine with,” says Mackins. She says she doesn’t have a type – her dating range is wide – so she didn’t really care about the loss in demographic.
But it was a bit of a shock. “It was like” – she snaps – “I don’t fit their standards anymore,” she says. “Whatever image they have as the ‘ideal girl,’ I’m not that anymore. Which is super interesting, how one little thing can eliminate me from a category of interest.”
The other extreme was just as bad though, if not worse. For Mackins, the fear was being what she called “the light-skin dream” for Black men who see her as a rare find: just Black enough, but light enough to be attractive.
“Occasionally I’ll think of past hookups and past relationships and be like, was I that for them?” says Mackins. “I don’t know everyone’s dating history, so I can’t make that kind of assumption, but I still wonder sometimes. That would make you feel more like a thing than a person.”
Sometimes, problematic behavior doesn’t become evident until post-hookup or even post-relationship.
For Leondra Downs, a Weinberg senior, fetishization by a white ex-boyfriend really stuck to her. Unlike Mackins, Downs has never been ethnically ambiguous. She’s slim, Black and gives off a cool-girl vibe in spades; she throws around terms like “melanin-stained,” “imperialist dominance” and “assimilation.”
But at the time, Downs was a sophomore and not very conscious of fetishization. She says that after only a few months of dating a white Serbian guy, he changed his dating profile bio to “taken but really into Black girls.” He’d openly talk about it with Downs, too, and say things like, “I just find a lot of Black women really attractive. That’s what I’m into, that’s my type.”
At the time, Downs didn’t think much of it. She preferred it, even; she wanted to believe his interest in Black women was genuinely appreciative and even empowering.
“Romantically, [Black women] are at the bottom of that ladder, where people don’t really take the time to get to know the Black girl because they have all these preconceived notions beforehand,” says Downs. “I didn’t think of it like fetishization ‘til later.”
The relationship only lasted a couple of months. Downs felt that he had expectations for how she should be – some “spice” that she couldn’t deliver. Her suspicions were confirmed when he moved on to another Black girlfriend soon after. “I felt really disillusioned after that relationship about when people attest to finding a group of people attractive,” Downs says. “By my junior year, I was like, ‘Meh, fuck the white man.’”
At that point, Downs was also embedding herself deeper into her African American studies classes and the activist community by posting on social media and attending protests. She began to feel strange about subjecting her body to the same white male gaze that had subjected Black bodies to violence for much of history.
“I was just really bitter about it – just preconceived notions about white guys and what they’re into in the first place,” Downs says. “Like if they are into me, what does that mean? Is that just ‘jungle fever’? Are they ever going to say ‘jungle fever’ to me?”
Salamanca, who has been dating his white boyfriend for over a year now, says that he has thought a lot about that, too – about what dating a white man means as a person of color, and especially as an Asian man. Salamanca identifies himself as the “less masculine” one in the relationship, so he questions how easily he and his boyfriend fall into the stereotype of the feminine Asian-masculine white couple, especially since it’s one of the most common interracial pairings, according to an article on dating racial preferences in the Review of Economic Studies.
But they talk about it – how race and norms of masculinity play into their relationship. Recently, the two watched a documentary for Salamanca’s Asian American Sexualities course about Asian representations in media and had a discussion about what they saw and how that might play out in their relationship.
“I think that’s where the productivity lies,” says Salamanca, “Not in just like, ‘I’m never gonna date another white person,’ but in having these kind of critical discussions that really analyze where your positions are coming from and what privileges you bring into a relationship.”
For Irina Huang, her cautiousness about dating her white boyfriend, Stephan, stemmed from personal experiences with her racial identity. “I’ve grown up my entire life thinking that as an Asian American person, I’m inferior to white people,” she says. “So I felt like in a relationship, I could feel two levels of inferiority – as the woman in a male-female relationship, and also as the Asian American in an Asian American-white relationship.”
But the two began as friends, with weekly meals together in the dining hall, so Stephan was deeply familiar with her past. When he told her he liked her, she says he prefaced it perfectly.
“I want you to know that me liking you is not me as a white man fetishizing you as an Asian woman,” she remembered him saying. “I see your race so that if we ever were to date, I hope that race is something that we talk about openly. I know you’re on a journey to learn to love your Asian American identity, and I hope that I can be a part of supporting you in that journey.”
She’s happy – truly happy, judging by the way she looks directly at me, unwavering, when she talks about him as a constant in her life. A small smile hovers around her mouth as she remembers his visit with her family, how he spent time and care and effort to get to know them better, how he just listened. “He just recognizes that there’s so much he doesn’t know,” she says, “so he’s always really willing to ask questions about how he can be more supportive in specific situations, or whether he’s doing his part in rectifying racial relations in his day-to-day life.”
Huang takes care to highlight the interracial nature of her relationship. “I see it. It’s really important to me, to see it,” says Huang. “He is white and I am Asian and I don’t want to not talk about that. I don’t want to conflate this with just like a guy and a girl in a relationship.”
Sometimes, though, the feeling of inferiority to white people resurges. When Huang visited her boyfriend’s home in Ohio, she said there was one moment that was “scarring” for her. The two were coming down the stairs, and they met his younger brother and his then-girlfriend at the bottom of the stairs.
“My first thought when I saw [Stephan’s brother’s girlfriend] was like, ‘Oh my goodness, she’s so beautiful! He could be with someone like her,’” says Huang. The girlfriend was blonde and the paragon of Barbie-girl perfection.
“That moment made me really sad because I haven’t broken down this feeling inferior to white people thing!” she says, visibly frustrated. “That was just my gut reaction when I saw her.”
But at college, Huang says she’s grown just from meeting more people of color and trying to understand their own struggles with identity. She joined Asian American InterVarsity, a Christian fellowship group on campus, and she met Asian Americans who had always felt equal to white people, and even others who harbored a false sense of superiority because of the ingrained “model minority myth.” She enrolled in her first African American Studies course during Winter Quarter of her freshman year and heard personal experiences from Latinx and Black peers about how racism seeped into their everyday lives.
“I spent so much of my life trying to ignore my Asian American identity, or deny it, be ashamed about it, and I think finally I’m at the point where I can say, ‘This is how God made me, and this is a really beautiful part of me,’” she says. “It’s something about myself that I can’t change. There’s something really empowering and something really beautiful about learning to love this part of me.”
In her hair transition, Mackins also learned to love all the parts of herself. She responded to the subtle rejection of people who can’t handle unfettered expressions of Blackness with grace and inward reflection.
“Understanding that those groups of people never looked beyond my appearance and becoming okay with that was a bit of a journey,” she says. “You have to realize that yes, people are going to look at you differently now; yes, the first thing they recognize about you will probably be your hair.”
But she embraces that. Instead of ceding to the unwritten code of white beauty norms, she adopted a change in her attitude.“There are literally days I will take off my hairnet and go out. I won’t even do anything to my hair, and it’ll just exist,” says Mackins. “The rest of the world just has to deal with it. I’m more comfortable with myself, more willing to be daring, not only in my appearance but also in what I want to do and what I push myself to do.”
POC fight back. We are not passive. We do not accept white beauty norms as the rule. We re-learn how to look at our bodies. We re-learn how to look at others.
At Northwestern, I’ve relearned to love being both Asian and American – like I did as a kid, when I was too young to know anything else. My body is not small eyes, monolids, black hair, yellow skin. People see me that way, and I am aware. I’ve been called “Oriental,” like a rug, by a well-intentioned Evanston lady who wanted to compliment me and my “diverse” friends. I’ve been told I was “articulate” for an Asian person, the perpetual foreigner – despite being born and raised and educated in New Jersey. I know my facial features tip them off – “Not White!” their brains register – but the difference is this:
I love the way I look. Or at least, I’m learning to, everyday.
I surround myself with a group of people that is more racially, geographically and ethnically diverse than a Northwestern brochure.
We’ve spent nights mourning our years of self-hatred because of the ways we didn’t fit.
Every day, we remind each other we are beautiful, that our individual struggles with race and identity are worth sharing, worth talking about, worth celebrating.
My friend Louisa, who is Black and beautifully hair-transitioned, will Snapchat me a good Afro day – “I am so goddamn beautiful!!!!!!!!!!” – but with even more exclamation points.
My friend Cecily, who is Mexican and Italian and not half of anything, will get coffee with me for three hours to talk about the tensions and struggles of her multiracial, multiethnic, huge American family. My roommate Sabrina, who is a Black, non-native Japanese speaker, will spend a Friday night with me re-listening to K-pop throwbacks.
And every so often, we will all get together, and race will come up, and we’ll laugh, cry and learn from one another. We’ll look at each other and recognize the light behind our eyes. We’ll say to each other, “You are beautiful.”
My eyes are black-not-brown, and my hair black-not-brunette and my nose bridge not quite pointy enough to keep these designed-for-white-people glasses from falling off my face. That is good. That is beautiful.
“Beauty” is culturally constructed, defined by the way people use it. I’m using it for me.