This is my submission to the May 2013 Carnival of Aces. This month’s theme is “appearances,” and you can find the submission post here.
Apparently I look “racially ambiguous.” That isn’t entirely surprising, given that I can check every box on the census except “Asian/Pacific Islander.” When people are trying to be polite about it, they say I look “exotic”; when they don’t care, they say I look “weird.” People have guessed that I am Greek, Japanese, Jewish, Chinese, Filipino, Persian, Italian, Middle Eastern, Indian, and probably others that I’m forgetting. It’s very rare that anyone guesses I’m Latina.* My mother is a Latina WoC and my father is white, which makes me “Heinz 57,” I guess.
Whether or not I can pass for white on a particular day depends on what I’m wearing, how well-behaved my hair is, what part of town I’m in, and sheer luck. At school and in queer spaces, people tend to assume I’m white. At stores, half the time people leave me alone, and the other half they follow me around and make sure I don’t shoplift things. At the airport, I am pulled out of line and subjected to “random” pat-downs 100% of the time. When I get harassed on the street, what racial epithets get thrown at me depend on the day–sometimes I am a “terrorist,” sometimes I am “[insert insulting “Chinese” sorts of sounds here],” and very, very occasionally I am “[yelling in horribly pronounced Spanish, followed by some sort of derogatory statement about Mexicans].” One time, a Japanese man got into a fight with me because he thought I was Japanese and accused me of lying when I said I was from the States. Eventually I offered to show him my passport and he backed down. Basically, I have no idea how people are going to perceive me from day to day and situation to situation, which can be a bit nerve-wracking, to be honest.
I tend to dress fairly conservatively. I never wear shorts or skirts that reveal my knees, and a t-shirt is the most revealing top I’ll wear. I really like button downs and sweaters and bundling up in a bazillion layers. I used to wear bandanas and headscarves (keeping extremely frizzy hair neat is easier that way!), but I stopped in my late teens because people were calling me a terrorist and slamming doors in my face and all sorts of fun things like that. When I was little, everything I wore was either from the “boys'” section or gender-neutral, because all my clothes had to be handed down to my brother and (male) cousins. When I hit puberty and started getting harassed by strange men on public transit (and at school and on the street and…basically everywhere), I stuck to the gender-neutral style, because I discovered I’m much less likely to be harassed when I look flat-chested and am wearing an over-sized sweater. Also, I will never wear anything that hampers my movements enough that I can’t defend myself, mostly because of the aforementioned street harassment and a couple of really nasty incidents where I actually needed to throw someone off of me.
Because of the way I dress and the fact that I have excessively long hair, people tend to think I’m religious, or, if not religious, at least very conservative. I’m neither religious nor conservative, as they very quickly discover the moment I open my mouth. People who know I’m ace tend to think that I dress conservatively because I am extremely modest, but that’s not true. I have no problem with functional nudity (or “nudity for a purpose” rather than “nudity because whoo nudity”); I’m pretty comfortable splashing around naked in hot springs while a lot of my friends (who usually wear much more revealing attire than I do) are busy trying to hide behind rocks. Also, I did theatre for a long time, and as anyone who has ever done theatre knows, modesty and theatre are utterly incompatible.
For some reason, people cannot conceive of the way I dress, my sexuality, and my ethnicity going together. Fistfelt has written about this a little bit before, but being asexual and being Latina are often seen as polar opposites. Type “Latina” or “Latina women” into Google image search, and you’ll get a bunch of pictures of scantily clad women staring seductively into the camera. I am supposed to be spicy, sensual, and seductive; instead, I am a somewhat awkward academic who doesn’t like touching most people, wears too many scarves, and cannot pose sexily to save her life. I don’t fit any of the Latina stereotypes (even the non-sexy, maternal ones), and so people have sometimes accused me of “abandoning [my] culture” (not the least because I study Japan) and “self-whitewashing” in order to fit in.
As neat of an explanation as that would be, I don’t fit in. I’m not white enough to fit in with the white folks, and I’m too white to be a “real” PoC.** My asexuality doesn’t endear me to white folks; it’s just another thing that makes me “weird,” along with my skin tone and my eyebrows (which are apparently “like fat caterpillars squirming around on [my] face”).*** And my dressing conservatively and failing to be sensual and seductive doesn’t make people think I’m white–I just get shunted off into a different category of PoC who are perceived as “prudish” (East Asian or Middle Eastern most days). My asexuality doesn’t save me from racism–it just means I get to deal with people being racist and anti-ace, sometimes simultaneously. Despite the thrilling arguments about asexuality being a “white sexuality,” white supremacy doesn’t want me to be asexual any more than the patriarchy does. Those creepy white guys on the train who call me “chica” and waggle their eyebrows at me don’t want me to be asexual–they want me to be the hot and sexually available “Latin lady” of their dreams.
I guess the moral of the story is that it’s hard to win when you’re fighting both racism and heterosexism, and we (the ace community) really need to address the intersections of race and asexuality if we ever want to move beyond being perceived as a predominantly white movement.
*I’m actually not all that surprised that people don’t think I’m Latina, ’cause apparently people have been thinking my mother was Chinese since she was a little kid. On the other hand, when I was in my early teens, random people would stop me in the grocery store to tell me how much I looked like Frida Kahlo, so I DUNNO.
**One time I was complaining to a (white) friend about how I had been harassed at airport security for the bazillionth time, and she said, “Well, I think of you as a white person!” Thank you. That really helps. The next time they pull me out of the line at security, I will just inform them that you think of me as a white person, and I’m sure they will apologize and let me through without checking to see if I’m hiding weapons in my bra. (True story. This has happened two or three times.)
***Thanks, undergrad classmate. I’m sure our English class really appreciated that contribution to the class discussion.