My eyelids have folds.
To be specific, my eyelids feature epicanthal folds, which create the “almond” eye shape, characteristic of many Asian people. Including Julie Chen, host of the reality TV show Big Brother.
Julie recently shared her story about deciding to get a blepharoplasty (eyelid surgery to get rid of her folds) on the daytime talk show The Talk. According to Julie, it all started when she was a reporter/aspiring TV news anchor at WDTN-TV in Dayton, OH. Her then-boss explained her career prospects to her, saying:
“You will never be on this anchor desk, because you’re Chinese. 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 Asian eyes, I’ve noticed that when you’re on camera, you look disinterested and bored” (http://blog.sfgate.com/hottopics/2013/09/12/julie-chen-had-eye-surgery-to-make-her-look-less-asian/).
And so she got surgery. And, according to Julie, her career took off (after the year it took for her eyelids to heal).
To summarize: a racist comment about her un-promotability inspired Julie to undergo a delicate surgery and, after a year’s recovery, seems to have led to career success.
Perhaps like me, you’re having a visceral reaction to this story.
I mean, while there’s a lot that Julie shared that didn’t surprise me, it still feels like a punch in the gut (or maybe in the slanty eyes) whenever I hear a story like this. And trust me, there are lots of stories: “Westernizing” plastic surgery is all the rage in East Asia right now. Most popular redo’s at Asian plastic surgery centers? Eyelids, noses and “facial contours” (http://www.cnn.com/2011/WORLD/asiapcf/05/19/korea.beauty/index.html). (Just for the record, I had no idea my contours were so Asian.)
And it’s not just Julie’s story or even the collective stories that I find myself reacting to: I’m also having a visceral response to the story that’s unfolding about how others hear these stories: how they’re responding to the reality of Asians seeking happiness in whiter features. There’s a startling racism-denial going on.
Let’s start with the WDTN-TV station president and general manager’s statement to the press after Julie’s interview aired:
We are sorry to hear about what happened to CBS’ Julie Chen in 1995 when she was a reporter at WDTN-TV. The station was under different management and ownership during that time. At WDTN and WBDT, we don’t tolerate racism or discrimination of any kind (http://blog.sfgate.com/hottopics/2013/09/13/tv-station-apologizes-to-julie-chen-for-telling-her-to-fix-asian-eyes/).
No plot twist here. Pretty much your standard response to a public incident involving race. And yet.
I want to stop and take a moment to talk about what it means to “not tolerate racism or discrimination of any kind.” Because I think this whole story of hearing what Julie has to say is fraught with examples of exactly what it means and looks like to tolerate racism and discrimination of any kind.
It seems like tolerating racism and discrimination when you think an apology to the individual who was subjected to the racist/discriminatory action or speech suffices. Let me be clear: an apology is important. But when we respond only on an individual level, we actually help perpetuate systemic discrimination by ignoring the cultural and institutional causes, symptoms and effects. If WDTN-TV really doesn’t “tolerate racism or discrimination of any kind,” it would be upfront about the real biases that typically drive decisions about whom to put in front of the camera (it’s no coincidence that so many anchor people are white, physically able, hetero-normative-in-their-banter and slender with full heads of hair). WDTN-TV would actively cultivate more diversity at their news desk (because their audience isn’t just people who think Asians look bored), and the station would be proactively educating its staff and audiences about -isms, discrimination and bias to make sure that it wasn’t letting unconscious prejudice derail its mission to deliver the news (presumably in the most efficient and effective way possible).
It also seems like tolerating racism and discrimination when you regurgitate the same discriminatory ideas that you were fed, in order to justify your compliance with that discrimination. I’m talking to you, Julie. This isn’t just about what the network did. In your interview on The Talk (click on the link above), you say of your “new” eyes: “I look more alert.” So even as you challenge the racism that prompted you to get surgery, you agree that Asian eyes are inherently a flaw. And you assert the superiority of your “new” eyes as fact, not opinion. Julie, it is a fact that your eyes are bigger now. But the idea that your “old” eyes looked “bored and disinterested” is only an opinion. A racist opinion that you are perpetuating to an audience of people who may take you at your word as a one-woman authority on the subject. What I wish you would have said? Maybe something like this: “People like my old boss seem to think I look more alert. But then again, my nickname these days is ‘Chenbot (http://www.urbandictionary.com/define.php?term=Chenbot).’ So apparently, a lot of people think I’m pretty lifeless even now. And even if they’re not talking about my eyes, I wonder how much the criticism is still about my being Asian, and a woman. Because that kind of discrimination is still real in this industry.” To be clear, I don’t blame you for racism, Julie, and I’m sorry for what you experienced. I really am. I just flinch at how your story is playing out. And how racism continues to drive your narrative. Point in case…
It still seems like tolerating racism and discrimination when you hear Julie’s story, and (see The Talk video link above):
- your only comment is: “Fabulous!” (about her post-surgery look)
- you imply that Julie didn’t experience racism because she’s not black
- you laugh along with the implication that Chinese people (including those who are told they don’t have a future without eyelid surgery) don’t know from racism
- you ignore the context of racism and reduce the issue to “whatever makes you happy”
Actually, now that I think about it, these aren’t examples of tolerating racism (and sexism and classism–eyelid surgery ain’t cheap, I imagine!) These are example of perpetuating those -isms. As long as we focus on the trees and refuse to the see the forest, as long as we compete in the Oppression Olympics (“And the gold medal for long distance racism goes to…”), as long as we accord credibility or authenticity to speak about diversity based on identity (watch Julie’s deference to Sheryl Underwood in The Talk clip), and as long as we listen sympathetically to stories like Julie’s and content ourselves with shaking our heads before turning back to our TVs (or iPads) to watch more approved-for-broadcast faces and bodies, then we’re not just tolerating racism and discrimination. I’ll agree with WDTN-TV on that one. We’re colluding in it.