Peforming Ethnicity

“…I spent a day agonizing over whether to wear glasses or not to a meeting I was attending for a gay organization where I was making a substantial accessibility proposal. I have pretty poor vision, but since my day job is in academia, I never wear glasses – because then I get weird whispering and comments about how smart Asians are, with the nasty implication that I only got my job and only get my grades due to my racial background. But in this circumstance, knowing my audience of gay, middle-aged white men – I was acutely aware of my appearance could easily be pigeonholed into that of a young Asian “twink” – and how easily that could potentially defeat my proposal.

“So I wore the glasses. It went well. Only one of the men made a pass at me by saying out loud to the board during the meeting, right in my face, how much he liked his Asian men to be aggressive. But otherwise my proposal was accepted.

“But this event made me realize how much tailoring my outfit and tailoring my appearance to even the smallest tweaks and ornaments has become just one of those every-day things that I do. I never really consciously picked up this skillset – I probably learned it from watching my parents, seamlessly blend from situation to situation by shedding clothes and picking up ornaments and signifiers like a chameleon changes colors to match its environment. Certain things signify humility. Certain things impart an aura of confidence. Of modernness, of tradition; of being western, of being eastern. Who is your audience? What rapport do you want to build? What messages are you sending?

“Sometimes I catch myself changing outfits multiple times a day as I move from place to place, environment to environment and audience to audience. I’ve never really considered this to be a fixation on fashion or anything – it’s just one of those things that you, as a person of color, have to do to survive in a culture that tends to be a little hostile to your existence. More so if you don’t blend properly.

“I don’t really mind the rules. In fact, I rather enjoy this skillset, if I may admit guiltily: I like being able to suddenly fit in anywhere I go with a sudden unbuttoning of the collar, loosening of a tie, switch of a belt. I know it’s not really fair, but it doesn’t matter because inequality and inequity is pretty much the polluted air that I breathe anyway – it’s always there as a nagging reminder of how much of an outsider I am, but in some respects, you learn not to notice the adaptations you’ve made to compensate after a while.

“Sometimes I try to explain this to my white friends, and they always tell me: fuck the rules! Why do you care what people think of you? You should just do whatever you want!

“I don’t know; maybe I should be angrier about it. But they don’t seem to get it. The $4.99 that I pay for a button-up shirt at the thrift store buys me more than just the shirt. It buys me job security; it buys me insurance from violence on the streets; it buys me some relief from the vicious gossip that goes around about me if I don’t show up with an appropriate appearance – one that straddles the line between following the rules and breaking them, a good minority, neither threatening nor a stereotype.”

A few extra dollars a month, a few hours spent shopping, a few extra loads of laundry. Even if it’s unfair, it’s not a big deal. Is this really the hill I want to die on?”

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