The politics of (in)visibility

This piece was written for an asexual people of color zine.  I was originally planning on waiting ’til the zine was published to post this piece, but this topic has become relevant to some conversations I’ve been having recently, so I figured that I might as well post it now.

This is a piece that grew partially out of thoughts I had after being interviewed for the piece on asexual Latinas, partially out of some experiences with activist work in the past few years, and partially out of the weirdness that is standing in an intersection that not many people openly inhabit.  It is also, I guess, an explanation for anyone who has wondered why I don’t blog about the intersection of race/ethnicity and asexuality more often.

Here’s the thing: When people talk about their ethnic background, I feel like they tend to talk about shared experiences, community, some kind of sense of belonging.  When I talk about my ethnicity, it tends to be a story of isolation and shame.  Shame because I was bilingual until mid-elementary school when my family moved out of our predominantly Latin@ neighborhood and into an almost entirely white neighborhood and cut off contact with the Latin@ side of my family.  Shame because I am a terrible Latina for not being able to speak my own native language with any modicum of proficiency.  Isolation because I haven’t felt like I belonged to a community since I was 7 or 8.  Isolation because, aside from my brother, the only other Latin@ kid I knew growing up had been adopted by a white family.  Isolation because I’m one of very few Latin@s in my department and the only Latin@ in my offline ace community.  Shame because I spent a good chunk of my teens having older (mostly white) women coach me on how to look “less ethnic” (straighten my hair, pluck my eyebrows, don’t wear that skirt, stay out of the sun), and, for the most part, I caved,  because the “whiter” I looked, the less likely I was to be harassed or followed around the store or propositioned on the bus or treated like I had only been admitted to [academic program] because they needed diversity.  Shame because I “don’t look Latina,” and shame because I feel like I should, and shame because I don’t know what looking Latina even means.

I often feel that I can’t speak to “the asexual Latina experience,” because I don’t feel that I can speak to “the Latina experience.”  Part of that is because of my disconnect from Latin@ communities and my extended family, part of that is my disconnect from my nuclear family (who I’ve been distancing myself from since I turned 18), and part of that is because I am significantly more likely to be read as white (or mixed East Asian/white) in academia (because Latin@s aren’t smart enough to be academics and what would a nice Latina girl be doing studying Japan anyway?).*  I’ve had (really crappy) peers tell me that I should just identify as white because it’s not like they can tell I’m Latina or mixed race, and do I really want people to think of me that way?  None of these are particularly unusual things for mixed race folks to hear, and so I often feel that I can speak better to the “mixed race experience” than the “Latina experience,” even if I can claim both equally.  I’m connected to mixed race communities, though, and have other mixed race friends and peers I can speak to, so I don’t feel quite as much isolation from that identity.

I was on a panel for Asexual Awareness Week last year, and afterwards someone commented on how disappointed they were that everyone on the panel was white.  On one hand, I know I am significantly more likely to be read as white in ace and queer spaces for many of the same reasons that I’m read as white in academia–people assume that only white people are ace/queer, and so they see what they expect to see.  But, on the other hand, when I am added to panels in order to “diversify” the (otherwise white) panel, that puts pressure on me to be the APoC spokesperson.  Part of that pressure is feeling like I have to “look Latina” in order to be a good spokesperson–after all, if someone sees only white people, I’m not doing a very good job being the diversity card, am I?  Another part of that pressure is feeling as though I need to be able to make a concise statement about “the APoC experience” or about the intersection of asexuality and race, which is pretty much impossible.  APoC are a diverse bunch, because the world isn’t divided up into “white people” and “people of color,” each of whom can claim a single, monolithic racial experience, and so my being the only non-white panelist puts me in a supremely uncomfortable position.  How can I be the only one on the panel answering questions about the intersection of asexuality and race when I feel that my experience is so singular and isolated that I can barely speak for myself, let alone anyone else?  How can I be a spokesperson for so many people with so many different experiences than mine, and yet none of the white aces on the panel are expected to speak to the “white ace experience”?

Not that this is an issue I have offline only; I have had people read my blog and assume I’m white (because everyone knows all aces are white).**  My favorite really crappy assumption was the person who decided to complain about how there are no ace survivors of color talking about their experiences.  None.  Zero.  I can’t think of a single one.  Do I have to preface every sentence with “as a mixed race Latina” in order for people to remember where I’m coming from?  Because I can tell you that when I do, people are significantly less likely to read what I have to say.  I often feel that there’s no point in talking about this particular set of experiences, because they’re so hard for me to talk about (emotionally and linguistically) and it’s not like anyone cares anyway.  Or, well, they care when they want to add diversity.  The projects, calls for moderator applications, calls for submissions, etc. I’ve seen that say, “We’d love to have a non-white person, in order to talk about race stuff!” make me uneasy, because I don’t want to be picked just to add “diversity” to whatever project, blog, or zine is being put together.  I don’t want to be picked as the token non-white member of the team because people think that I can represent some sort of monolithic APoC experience.  If people want me on their team, I want them to want me for my ideas, for my writing, for the way I can bang words together and form semi-coherent sentences, not just for the color of my skin or the shape of my eyes.  I want them to want me as a full package, to be aware that my ideas and experiences cannot be divorced from the context of my race and ethnicity.  But, like when I’m the only non-white person on a panel, I often worry that I am being picked for something I’m not, to represent some experience I can’t speak to.

I exist at the intersection of queer, asexual, and Latina, and each identity keeps the others invisible.  I’ve spoken before about being visibly queer and invisibly asexual, but what does it mean to “look queer” when the only visual queerness I know is based around body and hair-types I don’t and can’t have?  What does it mean to be a gender nonconforming Latina when so many visual signifiers of “Latina-ness” are tied up in femininity?  (What does it mean that when I see queer Latin@s I feel pressured to cut my hair short and dress more like them?)  How can I “look asexual” when being recognized as Latina often means being seen as hypersexual, as sexy, as seductive?  Is it possible for me to be recognized as all things at once?  (Do I even want to be recognized, or will recognition lead to further tokenizing and fetishizing?)  What does it mean that I spend a good chunk of my time as a non-white foreigner in a country where “person of color” doesn’t make sense as a designation?  (Do I feel weird about claiming to be a person of color because of that experience, because of the comparative paleness of my skin, because I’m mixed, because so many people have tried to convince me that I’m not or, at least, that I could be white if I just tried harder?)

This is why I don’t normally talk about the race/asexuality intersection.  I don’t even know how or where to start, or if anyone other than me cares.  I don’t feel that I have the language to talk about it, but then again, it’s not as though I have a great deal of practice.  I can have a conversation with a random group of aces about consent or romantic orientation or gender or compulsory sexuality, but when I’m surrounded by white aces, talking about race is hard.  It’s hard to have a conversation with people who feel that they don’t have anything to say, and it’s even harder to have a conversation when every time you speak on a topic you feel as though you’re being viewed as the representative of a huge group of people (none of whom agreed to you representing them and many of whom wouldn’t want you representing them anyway).  So, in some ways, it seems easier to stay quiet and invisible.

*I once told someone I was Latina and they became clearly discomfited and started asking about my family, and when I told them my dad was white, they looked relieved and said, “Oh, so you must get your smarts from him then, huh?”

**I’m pretty sure this has happened to pretty much every APoC blogger at this point.

About queenieofaces

QueenieOfAces is a graduate student in the U.S. studying Japanese religion. She is a queer asexual. She also blogs over at Concept Awesome and runs Resources for Ace Survivors. She is never quite sure what to write in these introduction things, but this one time she accidentally got a short story on asexuality published in an erotica magazine.
This entry was posted in asexual politics, Intersectionality. Bookmark the permalink.

24 Responses to The politics of (in)visibility

  1. epochryphal says:

    Thank you for writing and sharing this, Queenie.

  2. Sciatrix says:

    Thank you for posting this. The reminder to, when trying to encourage diversity of perspectives, not make your panelist or recruit feel like a token is a really, really useful one.

  3. Yes, thanks for writing this.

    In writing about the intersection of asexuality and Islam, I’m very conscious that my experiences as a white convert may not be typical of most Muslims. That’s why I tend to focus my writing on how I relate to texts, traditions, and orthodoxy and I try to flag when speaking about an experience that others may not share (“As a convert, I…”, “As a white convert who…”). It can be a bit odd sometimes to be one of the few people writing on the topic and to be so atypical.

    I’ve thought a lot about what barriers there might be for asexual Muslims of other backgrounds to identify as ace or to join ace communities. It still seems like the best thing to do is to put my voice out there in the hopes that it reaches others and that they share enough with me to realize that if I’m here, they can be too.

  4. luvtheheaven says:

    Allow me to echo epochryphal’s thoughts as well. I really appreciated reading this post as well.

  5. Elizabeth says:

    What an excellent post!

    It’s interesting to me, as a person from a predominantly Latin@ area with the majority of the (in-person at least) friends I’ve made throughout my life being non-white, how I somehow still haven’t actually met any ace Latin@s in person… or at least none that were out to me as such. Partly that’s because there really aren’t any ace meet-up groups around here (I just searched for asexual on meetup.com, and what I got was a poly group, a nudist group, and a roller derby group–all of which were at a significant driving distance from me). That’s combined with the LG(B…t maybe?) spaces in this area being pretty alienating to aces, so we’re not likely to stay involved–if we try at all.

    But even so, it still only makes sense for that to have happened when you consider all of the whitewashing of ace discourse, the tokenizing, the fetishizing, and everything else you mentioned in this post. And I think it’s very important to talk about that–including being read as white, and feeling like you can’t represent “diversity” because of that (but that said, I totally get that there are good reasons to avoid talking about it, too!). So I hope that this post doesn’t become one that is largely ignored–it’s certainly something that I will point others to in the future whenever I see problems like this comes up.

    • Sciatrix says:

      We actually have three Latinas at ours, which is not particularly surprising given where we’re located. Now that I think of it, actually one of them I think would be super interested in reading this post–I’ll have to drop her a link when I see her next.

      So hey. They do exist!

      • Elizabeth says:

        Oh yes, I’m sure they exist–including here! It’s just a bit odd that I haven’t met any in my area, given the demographics. But maybe in the next few years the state of the community will improve to the point where people of color feel they can connect with asexuality more (openly?).

        • Sciatrix says:

          Yeah, maybe? In my case, I’m running a specifically ace meetup, so there aren’t as many barriers to participation for aces. But I know that at least one of the people I’m thinking of also hangs out at the local campus queer group and another is the one who told us about the upcoming convention for queer nerds with utter delight, so I don’t think that would be the only issue. IDK.

      • queenieofaces says:

        If I ever wind up in your neck of the woods, I am going to crash one of your meetups SO HARD.

  6. Siggy says:

    You said that you don’t feel you speak to the Latin@ experience because you feel isolated. I feel like I can’t speak to the Asian American experience precisely because I don’t feel isolated.

    One time I met another Asian ace, and after initially mistaking me for White they started gushing about how, for once, there was another Asian. I said, “Oh, huh, I guess?” I dunno, I’m in a California University, it’s like 40% Asian. I guess it’s kind of weird that the aces around here aren’t also 40% Asian? Recently I learned that there hasn’t been a TV show focused on an Asian family in like 20 years, and somehow I never thought about it. I learned this because there’s a new show now (Fresh Off the Boat). It’s a comedy, but the pilot made me cry because I never dealt with the amount of racism faced by that family, and I just don’t have the skin for it.

    When I’ve talked about Asian-American aces, I had to do research instead of just knowing based on my own experience. That was when I learned about the desexualization of Asian men for the very first time.

    I know all this stuff affects me but damn if I can figure out how.

    • luvtheheaven says:

      Thank you for sharing this, too, Sciatrix!

    • queenieofaces says:

      That makes a lot of sense. I feel like I’m coming from the opposite direction, but we’re still winding up in roughly the same place. I was really hesitant to begin talking about the Latina/ace intersection at first because I didn’t feel like I had the vocabulary to talk about it. It seemed like there was this secret language that everyone but me knew to talk about race that I’d maybe somehow failed to learn because I was mixed? So I read a lot until I reached the point that I felt like I vaguely understood the language that was being used, and felt more or less comfortable using it myself. (But I also realized that part of the reason why a lot of the race discussion felt like it was in a foreign language was because people kept using “PoC” to mean black, so when they said “PoC” and I went, “What? Really? Am I really bad at being a PoC? What is going on?” it’s because it wasn’t language that was supposed to be targeting my experience in the first place. Oh well.) But, yeah, I understand having to read others experiences in order to feel like you can talk about your own ethnicity. Although, I’m pretty sure that’s had a different impact on us; I’ve definitely felt like I can’t talk about any experience that hasn’t been confirmed as a “Real Latina Experience” elsewhere.

      • Sciatrix says:

        I have a good friend who is Indian and once told me he was uncomfortable with PoC because people don’t ever talk about his experiences or other South Asian experiences when they use the word; he felt they mostly used it to mean “black” and sometimes “Latin@.” So I can see where you’re coming from re: thinking a lot of the discussion may or may not feel applicable to you.

        Which is not to say it’s a bad term–I do use it when I’m being general–but I think people might need to be a little more careful about how they use it, in the same way that it would be great if people who really mean “gay” would say that instead of “LGBTQ.”

        • Most Muslims are considered PoCs, but occasionally I see the term used in a way that clearly means “Black” but doesn’t make sense when used in discussing a community that is largely PoC (e.g., “The marginalization of PoCs in our mosques”). As well, like Sciatrix says, it often doesn’t describe South Asian experiences very well, and about 1/3 of American Muslims are South Asian. So I see a LOT of debates about this terminology in Muslim spaces.

          My feeling is that in most cases it’s best to specify the groups that are meant.

        • Aster says:

          I have a question: Is there a term for non-white people who live in countries where non-white people is the majority? Or is POC still used for non-white people all over the world? I ask this because I am Taiwanese (ethnic han-Chinese), but I’ve always felt weird with calling myself a POC ace. One reason is that I live in a society where most people has the same skin color as I do. To me, my skin color is the norm. In fact, if you look at a box of crayon in Taiwan, my skin color is simply labeled as “the color of skin.” So it’s weird thinking of myself as a “person of color.”

          Another reason is that the discussions concerning the POC identity on Tumblr seems to be mostly about the struggles of non-white people in countries where white people is the majority. Therefore, I am afraid that if I call myself a POC while talking about my experiences, I would be taking away their space and misrepresenting their experiences. For the same reason, when I see posts calling for POC aces to discuss their experiences or to become mods or such, I tend to hesitate and stay back, because it feels like I would be taking up space that doesn’t belong to me.

          I don’t know. Sometimes I think POC is one term, and one term is too small to encompass the diversity in the experiences of non-white people. Is there more terms and more nuanced ones that I can use?

          • queenieofaces says:

            You’re right–PoC was specifically coined for the American context, so it winds up breaking down if you get much beyond that. I have a Korean friend who has a lot of the same concerns you do about the word “PoC”–I can tell you that her solution is to describe herself in specifics (“I am Korean,” “I am East Asian,” “I am an immigrant,” etc.) rather than overarching terms (PoC, etc.). I have a similar issues–although I fit into the PoC category in the US, I spend a chunk of my time in Japan where white people aren’t the dominant group, so even though I’m still a racial minority, the idea of PoC (in juxtaposition to a white political or social majority) just doesn’t make sense. In Japan, I tend to say that I’m mixed race or that my mother’s family is Latin@, etc.

            I don’t think there are any easy answers, and I’m not sure how to create a new umbrella term that doesn’t wind up homogenizing experiences across international boundaries (in the same way that PoC can homogenize experiences within them). I tend to prefer specificity over generalization, though; I’ve been reading a lot of early transnational feminism recently and nodding along.

            As for taking up space that doesn’t belong to you–it depends on what the space is for. There are initiatives, like the international voices series (https://asexualagenda.wordpress.com/tag/international-voices/), where you’d definitely be welcome, but there are others that are clearly not meant for you. It can be really hard to tell which is which, especially when people insist on using “PoC” as an umbrella category for all non-white people. I think there SHOULD be space to talk about your concerns and experiences, though; you shouldn’t automatically be precluded from discussion because you’re not in a majority-white country. But, yeah, I can understand the difficulty in figuring out where you’re welcome and where you’d be in the way.

            (Also, if you haven’t already read it, you might appreciate tristifere’s pieces on Americentrism in ace community discourse: http://tristifere.tumblr.com/post/85748389719/americentrism-and-cultural-imperialism-in-the-ace and https://asexualagenda.wordpress.com/2014/08/06/the-discrepancies-between-our-communitys-self-perception-and-our-international-make-up/)

      • Siggy says:

        Yeah, there are major differences between people who immigrated here a few decades ago as part of brain drain, and people who were forcibly moved here centuries ago as part of slave trade. I’m baffled when people think racism must be similar outside the US, when racism in the US isn’t even similar to itself.

    • Sennkestra says:

      @Siggy huh, that’s interesting to me that you/they hadn’t met that many asian aces, because I’d estimate that when it comes to aces I’ve met on-campus, probably 60-80% have been asian….although that’s likely because I met most of them through the campus queer and asian group. The general meetup group, though, does have a lot fewer. (note for other readers: I attended the same university as Siggy)

      I definitely have noticed, though, that with one or two notable exceptions many of the asian aces I’ve met on campus tend to not be super loud and out about it, and there’s a couple I’ve run into only once that I’ve never seen again at any ace or queer events. I have no idea if that’s a cultural thing or an something about the meetups or if it’s just random chance that they aren’t the meetup attending type, though.

  7. Sennkestra says:

    “I often feel that I can speak better to the “mixed race experience” than the “Latina experience,” even if I can claim both equally. I’m connected to mixed race communities, though, and have other mixed race friends and peers I can speak to, so I don’t feel quite as much isolation from that identity.”

    This. As another mixed race (white and asian) person, I usually feel like I have a better understanding of other mixed race people than I do with any of the non-mixed communities tied to each “part” of my identity. I feel like some people assume that being mixed race gives you the experiences of all of your racial “parts”, but in reality it often means that you don’t really have a strong connection to any of them.

    As someone who is mixed-race and part asian, I often get well-meaning people assuring me that I “count” as asian ace representation, but I don’t really think I do. I have almost nothing in common with most non-mixed asian americans, and even less in common with those who are also first or second generation immigrants, since we’re four generations in on the asian side of my family and that in and of itself makes for a lot of cultural differences. I don’t feel much of a personal identity connection to them either.

    On the other hand, I *do* feel a strong connection to the whole mixed-race hapa experience, and I will speak for that, but I feel like most people aren’t interested in dealing with any kind of complication like that when they just want another token APOC representative, and I think that’s one of the reasons I don’t talk about race stuff much – it’s another level of complication that is often too stressful to deal with, especially in places like a lot of online communities where there’s a strictly policed white vs. POC binary that isn’t very accomodating to mixed race people and other people with complicated identities. (and even more so in situations where I’m already having to explain everything about asexuality too)

    • queenieofaces says:

      “I feel like some people assume that being mixed race gives you the experiences of all of your racial “parts”, but in reality it often means that you don’t really have a strong connection to any of them.”

      *NODS VIGOROUSLY*

      I find it funny that I know probably roughly as many mixed race aces as non-mixed APoC, but for some reason I don’t know of anyone (other than me, I guess, sometimes, tangentially) writing about the experience of being mixed, even though that is, as you said, a different experience than just “some of this racial experience plus some of that racial experience.” I wish more people were talking about their experiences, but also, given the way that discourse of race and asexuality is consumed (especially on tumblr, where this post is, surprising no one, pretty much being ignored), I’m not sure that many people would listen.

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