Tuesday, September 17, 2013

who is 'the girl next door'?

Nina Davuluri, Miss America 2014
It's been two years, but there's something that still bothers me: one night in 2011, before a midnight showing of this horrible movie I was dragged into seeing, the conversation somehow turned to ethnicity and how much I had in common with another girl in our group of moviegoers--a  girl of Vietnamese descent.

"Well, you're both pretty whitewashed," the guy I arrived with, who knew us both, said.

I sat up a little straighter and prepared to bite back, refusing to accept this label from someone who, while I was close to at the time, seemed wholly unaware how offensive that statement was. But before I could say anything, the other girl laughed and said, "Yeah, I totally am!"

What even makes a person "whitewashed"? Is it the food he or she chooses? The music, the films, the clothes that he or she prefers? Or the language he or she speaks most often at home?

Does it make that person more American? What does that--"being American"--even mean anyways? And what does that mean for me, the daughter of an immigrant family who was born and raised in California?

"I have always viewed Miss America as the girl next door, and the girl next door is evolving as the diversity in America evolves." That was Miss New York Nina Davuluri's answer to a question she received on Sunday night at the annual Miss America pageant about Julie Chen's plastic surgery to make her look less Asian. Davuluri, whose pageant platform was "celebrating diversity through cultural competency," walked away with the crown at the end of the night--becoming the first Indian-American woman to be named Miss America, and the second Asian American in pageant history to win.

First, a disclaimer: the majority of my knowledge surrounding pageants comes from Miss Congeniality. "It's not a beauty pageant, it's a scholarship competition!" And, to be fair, Miss America is in large part a scholarship competition: in fact, it's the single largest scholarship competition in this country, according to this discussion on Sunday's Melissa Harris-Perry before the competition aired. (I highly recommend watching that video segment and the segment that followed it, as it dives into the deeper discussion of the relevancy of the Miss America pageant--a topic that is very interesting and complex, but one I won't be focusing on here in this post.)

Second: if you thought Davuluri's achievement wouldn't go without racist remarks from the internet peanut gallery, you were right. "Miss New York is an Indian.. With all do respect this is America," one person tweeted. Others called her an Arab and a terrorist, and said her win was offensive so close to the anniversary of the 9/11 attacks.

Posts that featured these negative remarks were shared thousands of times within hours of the pageant's conclusion. And while the sharing of these negative remarks was criticized itself, I think it's important that we recognize the racism that still runs through our society in this day and age, and understand that it goes beyond those who use a social network and choose to express their discriminatory thoughts in such a casual manner. Alyssa Rosenberg over at ThinkProgress put it best: "What’s interesting about the reaction to Davuluri’s crowning isn’t that teenagers say stupid things, but that people are uncomfortable with a woman of color being held up as an ideal of All-American beauty and femininity."

In this 2005 short documentary "A Girl Like Me," filmmaker Kiri Davis explores what is considered to be beautiful in America through the eyes of young African-American teenagers and children. One teen explains, "When I was younger, I used to have a lot of dolls but most of them were just white dolls with long straight hair that I would comb and I would wish I was just like that Barbie doll." Near the end of the documentary, Davis recreates the Kenneth Clark experiment from the 1940s and asks African-American children to choose between a white doll and a black doll to play with. Of the 21 children who took part in Davis' experiment, 15 chose the white doll as being the "nicer" one. 
In recognizing and acknowledging that this sort of thinking still exists in 21st century America, it can open the conversation to include more voices in the cry for change. To those who continue to argue that we live in a post-racial society, it's important for them to take a careful look at this diverse portrait of America they see and use as their proof that racism doesn't exist anymore, and understand that there is still an unease about this "changing definition" of "being American" that exists beneath it all.

That is why Davuluri's success is meaningful: this daughter of Hindu immigrants--who was born and raised in America, who does not look like a Barbie doll, and who is proud to share her culture with a national audience--showed that "being American," while also being of Indian descent, has nothing to do with the color of a person's skin. "Being American" isn't about assimilation, or how many stereotypes about your race you defy. How you look has nothing to do with whether or not you share the same American values so many accused Davuluri of not respecting.

Perhaps Davuluri's win will be panned by those who don't see the Miss America pageant as worth much (and, again, I'd implore you to watch this MHP segment to hear both compelling sides of the debate), but I don't think that we should downplay the competition's effect--as well as the effect of television and music and fashion, etc.--on young women who see the images of Miss America on magazine covers, talk shows, and more, but have never seen themselves as Americans.

Thursday, September 12, 2013

'because of your Asian eyes.'

You can watch the full video by clicking the image, or this link. I would've
embedded the video, but it autoplayed on the page, and I hate that...
On Wednesday, TV personality Julie Chen revealed she underwent plastic surgery nearly 20 years ago after being told she could never make it in journalism because of her "Asian eyes."

"I asked my news director over the holidays, 'If anchors want to take vacations, could I fill in?' And he said, 'You will never be on this anchor desk, because you're Chinese,'" Chen said about her time at a local Ohio station. "He said, 'Let's face it, Julie, how relatable are you to our community? How big of an Asian community do we have in Dayton? On top of that, because of your heritage, because of your Asian eyes, sometimes I've noticed that when you're on camera, when you're interviewing someone, you look disinterested and bored because your eyes are so heavy, they are so small.'"

Chen attempted to find another job shortly after that with the help of a new agent--but the agent she approached agreed with her news director. "He said, 'I cannot represent you unless you get plastic surgery to make your eyes look bigger.'"

The issue divided Chen's family, she said, but she went forward with the surgery. "After I had done it, the ball did roll for me," she admitted. After her surgery and after leaving Ohio, Chen landed CBS anchor gigs and an eventual job hosting Big Brother, and also ended up marrying the head of the network.

I will admit that when I first saw the headline Thursday morning, I didn't think much of it (other than to shake my fist at the racist news director and agent who advised Chen.). Yes, it was terrible, but was it that surprising this was a thing that actually happened? Of course not. The concept of this kind of surgery is not new, particularly to those in the Asian community. I remember playing with makeup when I was younger with my non-Asian friends, and wondering why I couldn't use eyeshadow the way our Seventeen and Teen People magazines suggested. I felt frustrated backstage in makeup rooms before musicals and shows because the women applying makeup would have lengthy conversations in front of me about what to do about my eyes (not to mention that alopecia had taken my eyebrows early on as well).

But I was surprised at the reactions I browsed through on Twitter and in the comments sections on various articles. There was a genuine shock that a Chinese woman would have surgery to make herself look less Chinese. Some people were angry that she gave in to the pressure and changed who she was in order to further her career, but I don't think that's necessarily fair: Chen's choice was a personal decision she made about her own body. Women (and men) of all color make decisions about their own bodies every day that are theirs to make. Perhaps if Chen's decision was a result of the growing pressure on personalities to look a certain way, then we can have a different conversation about the standards of beauty set in Hollywood and the media.

But Chen's decision was a result of racism, a statement she took for truth, and it resulted in her conscious choice to try to distance herself from a visible marker of her heritage. And it worked: she was rewarded for it. And that's unfortunate, because it doesn't celebrate the diversity that makes up America; it punishes those who look different.

"Did I give in to 'the man'?" Chen wondered aloud to her co-hosts. I think the frank answer to that is: yes, at the time you did. But she felt it was necessary to be successful in her chosen profession, and she turned out to be right about that. At the time in the mid-90s, there were very few Asian journalists on network TV. (Hell, in 2013, there are still few.) Chen may have "given in" to the pressure to change her appearance in order to gain any sort of recognition from her peers that she could be a major player in the media, but I absolutely disagree with any suggestion that she was wrong to do it. And she's speaking out about it now, which is so necessary because it's opening up a conversation that I don't think many Americans knew was being had.

When Chen started talking about how she would watch back the tapes of her interviews and focus on her eyes, I began to instantly relate: I did that with photographs often, and would notice snapshots where I would look bored or disinterested, though it had nothing to do with my mood. My smiles looked fake because my eyes weren't expressive, and I used to obsess over it. In fact, I still do obsess.

So I changed myself too, after struggling to find a photo to put on a campaign poster for a 7th grade school election--not with plastic surgery, but I forced myself to engage in active listening, even in my day-to-day casual conversations with friends or with family. Whether I was genuinely interested or not, I learned to nod with the rhythm of the other person's speech, and when to interject with words or sounds that indicated I was indeed listening and interested. I made myself make eye contact, and found the right moments to repeat back key words or phrases. (You can imagine how much this, plus the countless number of interviews I watched Barbara Walters conduct on 20/20 before bed each Friday night, helped as I developed my journalism skills later in life.)

My mother's oldest sister used to use the "Scotch tape" method to create that double eyelid illusion, and while I never did it (okay--I tried it once, and nearly blinded myself), I met more than a dozen people in an Asian American Psychology class in college who admitted they've used it before too. It was a painful solidarity to feel, but it validated the anger I knew I rightly felt when, as an 18 year old, a stranger balked at the idea I could ever be a journalist--because I "don't look like the people you see on NBC or something."

One girl who sat next to me in the psych class admitted she'd gone the Scotch tape route, but "only for big events, like prom and class photos."

"Wasn't it uncomfortable?" I asked her. She just shrugged, as if to repeat that old adage: beauty is pain.

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

i want to be a part of it--new york, new york.

The view from a rooftop bar--another reason to love NY.
Today was one of those days I hated New York City. I was 10 seconds late for every train I needed to catch; I wore the wrong outfit for the gross, muggy weather; some guy threw his dying cigarette onto my foot on the sidewalk; I felt useless at work; every subway car seemed to smell like urine--and the air conditioning was broken in those cars too.

I kept thinking about what everyone told me my whole life on the west coast: "New York City is the greatest city in the country." The greatest in the world, some would argue. There are certainly reminders of that every block you step in Manhattan. I still remember the January afternoon I got off the bus from DC, with my two suitcases and no place to live--but when I stepped off that bus, I saw a poster in Port Authority that told me to leave my troubles at the door, because I was in New York, baby.

Since moving here, it's felt like a non-stop rollercoaster of ups and downs. Did living in the 'greatest city' mean struggling to stand on the sidewalk somedays? New York City, with its fast pace and loud noises--it never stops.

But as I rode the subway home today, I looked around at the group of commuters packed into the 1 train with me--they looked annoyed and tired, and many sighed that familiar sigh that really says, "I just want to be home." It made me realize something about that struggle I, and others, complain about: it bonds the people of this city together--the unpredictable subways, the inconsistent weather, the trash, the pressure, the stress of it all. We hate it; yet, it's what makes New York unique. It's really all those qualities that we can point to and say, "Our city is great"--the key word being our--"because of these things we never seem to get used to." And it's great because we still live here, no matter how many subway trains we miss and how many still-lit cigarettes get thrown at our feet. We choose to live here, because you never know what it'll throw at you next.

On this eve of the 12th anniversary of 9/11, I can't help but think about how strong that bond must've been in 2001 in this city when the towers came down. Two years ago, I wrote in D.C. about my memories of that morning and how it felt to be so far from something that felt so personal. Last year, I saw the lights for the first time that marked where the towers once stood.

I didn't understand for the longest time what made New York great, but I think I get it now: greatness has nothing to do with perfection. There are problems in this city that've yet to be confronted and issues that need to be fixed, but I truly believe that there are people working to keep this city moving forward.

You can't be a survivor until you've battled something, and won. What makes New York City great is that it keeps battling. It keeps standing tall. Even at times of suffering, when it takes a punch and can't stay up, it finds a way to come together and lift the fallen. It's not perfect, but it's certainly great.