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Bonds That Untie: Deconstructing "friendly" forms of racism

As Asian America careens down the millennial path, our future is pregnant with possibility. But to what end? What presumptions do we hold on others based solely on their Asian-ness? Tracy Quan exposes a subtle, inadvertent form of racism - the kind perpetrated against one's own....

Despite my appearance and name, I don't think of myself as Asian American. My Chinese and Indian ancestors left a lot of baggage behind when they emigrated to the Caribbean more than a hundred years ago. Consequently, my parents aren't really Asian, they're West Indian.

As the author of's popular fiction series - "Nancy Chan: Diary of a Manhattan Call Girl" - I've discovered that my character's Chinese surname pushes many people's buttons. "Nancy Chan" is a prostitute who struggles with secrecy, social position, spendaholic passions, and possessive feelings toward her johns and lovers. She enjoys her work but sometimes dreams about quitting for Mr. Right.

When Nancy made her online debut, I was overwhelmed by my readers' personal reactions. "Someone is finally describing my lifestyle," an Asian American call girl told me. But I've also received hostile email from the self-appointed guardians of Asian American identity - guys who attack me for "depicting an Asian woman as a whore," for perpetuating what they see as a demeaning stereotype and betraying all Asian Americans.

One emailer complained that, thanks to people like me, his sister couldn't walk down the street without attracting wolf whistles from non-Asian men. He was disturbed that his sister might be mistaken for a prostitute. (I was disturbed by the thought that, if his sister were a prostitute, she would probably be afraid to tell her own brother.) These angry Asian guys regard Asian women not as free agents or individuals but as the cultural property of "the Asian American community."

Racism is supposed to be a cruelty inflicted upon "the other" - whites against blacks, gentiles against Jews, Israelis against Palestinians. But one of the most obnoxious forms of racism is the attempt to judge or restrict another person's behavior simply because that person is a member of your race or ethnic group. If, like me, you grew up with no clear definition of what you are - ethnically speaking - this kind of racism is hardest to swallow.

And what is to be done about "friendly racism" - often expressed as solidarity or intimacy? One Chinese American friend likes to insist that I'm Chinese - even though I'm ethnically mixed. Her message seems to be that I'm fortunate to be "mostly Chinese" and even more fortunate to be perceived as Chinese.

At the other extreme are pan-Asian idealists. A Korean American friend once told me she felt safer confiding in me because "there's a special bond between Asians." I wanted to know if this bond would include all Filipinos and Indonesians, but the bond between "Asians" turned out to be a bond between people of Japanese, Korean, and Chinese descent - the people who look like her. But surely, we should judge a prospective confidante by the content of her character - not the shape of her eyes.

I pointed out all the things we don't have in common. I can't claim to share my friend's heritage. Her parents were born in Korea, while mine were born in a small British colony and spoke English with their elders. Nor can I commiserate when she complains about how strict "Asian parents" are--a common generalization among my Asian American friends. My parents were flaky liberals at worst and conscientious progressives at best. Many Asian Americans say their ethnocentric parents have never adjusted to the melting pot but my parents were born in one. When she said, "It must have been hard, growing up mixed," I was taken aback. I spent my childhood around relatives who didn't look like me--or like each other--and we never viewed this as a handicap.

A friendship based on ethnic bonds is a relationship that can be taken for granted. My argument against our Asian bond was an argument in favor of a more realistic friendship - one that isn't taken for granted.

copyright Tracy Quan, May 2000 Back to