How We Talk About 'Asian Eyes'

On Sunday, Nina Davuluri, the first Indian-American Miss America, was asked a question about Julie Chen, who was told she looked "too Asian" to be on television some 20 years ago. A nice moment, sure. But an Asian woman in a competition that involves being judged on what she looks like in swimsuit isn't exactly progress in the way we talk about Asian-American beauty.

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It was a meta-moment: Nina Davuluri, who would go on to be the first Indian-American Miss America was asked a question about Julie Chen, a woman who was told she looked "too Asian" to be on a television screen delivering the news some 20 years ago. "I’ve always viewed Miss America as the girl next door. And Miss America is always evolving," Davuluri said during Sunday night's pageant, an answer that helped her win the title of Miss America. I wasn't entirely convinced that a woman discussing plastic surgery in a competition where she is scored on what she looks like in a swimsuit was an actual turning point in the way Asian people and our looks are discussed.

Minutes later, stories about social media's most awful racists started popping up — calling the Davuluri a terrorist, mixing up her ethnicity, among other things — in short, these awful people believed that this stunning woman wasn't a good representation of American beauty because she wasn't white. Racists who think Davuluri doesn't represent them because she is Indian-American or whatever race, religion, or creed they mistakenly thought Davuluri was, are idiots. The Internet has mostly called out these racists for their myopic views of what it means to be American.

But in that rampage, and with Davuluri's point in mind, we're still left with this inevitable and unavoidable question: Are Americans OK now that non-white kids are, in fact, the boys and girls next door? And more to the point of Julie Chen: Can we finally kill that irksome idea that someone is "too Asian" to be seen on television?

We cannot turn back time and put the Julie Chen's original face back on television screens to see if that's true. What we can do is look at how people treated that story. And we still have a way to go. One of the stories that covered Chen's admission of her surgery was the feminist site Jezebel.

"Wednesday on The Talk, Julie Chen proved that she's not so different from the numerous women in South Korea famous for trying to 'Americanize' their faces when she revealed that, early on in her career, she got plastic surgery to make her look less Asian," Katie Dries wrote. That parallel is a little disappointing. Chen is Chinese-American journalist who wanted to be on television. She isn't a South Korean woman. That's like using a random white American actress to point out a trend that's going on in some random Western European country like, say, the Netherlands. It's also the treatment of South Korean women that's a little off — white American women get botox, breast implants, facelifts, and collagen in their lips but aren't portrayed as attempting to mimic women of a different country or women of a different race. (Though Dries puts "Americanize" in scare quotes, the article she links to does not use that term.)

But there's also the idea, perhaps more disturbing, that American or "Americanize" is used as a synonym Caucasian or white. That's the way many news outlets have been talking about Chen's surgery on her eyelids. "[P]atients who talk about getting an extra crease in their eyes risk criticism that they are trying to look more white," reported Southern California Public Radio. SF Gate added, "she surgically rearranged her face to look more white." Those reports would have you believe that this magic extra crease in someone's eye is exclusively a Caucasian trait that Asian people must obtain surgery to have.

What that presumption perpetuates is this idea that Asian people don't like the way they look. What it ignores is that, yes, there are Asian people who are born with the extra crease. I have them (they go away during hay fever season). My sister has them. And Julie Chen's parents have them. So why call those creases American or white and why call eyes without them Asian? This in no way is excusing Chen's actions choice to change her face. But Chen on Monday said her mother and father have the double eyelids, and clarified that one of the reasons people have the surgery is to appear more alert:

Number two: half of us Asians are born with the double-eyelid. My mother was born with it. My father has one lid that was creased, one lid that didn't get its crease until he hit his late teens. I have one sister born with the creases, one sister born without it, so it wasn't denying my heritage.

Now, there are probably some Asians who get that eyelid surgery to consciously look more Caucasian. And there's no doubt that the fashion and beauty industries have a very real and subconscious affect on people. But lumping in everyone in South Korea into that self-hating category is a bit incorrect, when you consider that it isn't an exclusively Caucasian feature. People may just be getting this surgery because they've been told, by an industry dominated by white people, that it looks better — that doesn't necessarily mean they want to look "whiter."

I'd also argue that the trends in those industries are also determined by class and wealth. Tans used to be considered bad because it was an indicator that you are poor (i.e. working in a field all day under the sun). That's until rich people began getting tans on vacation at the beach and on boats. And now, everyone wants tans. Throughout history, class and wealth have determined what's beautiful. And today there is a lot of money being made in Asia, which is slowly changing the fashion and beauty industries.

You'll notice that Asian models like Liu Wen, Fei Fei Sun, and Sui He are dominating magazines, walking in fashion week and signing lucrative deals with many brands. "At the moment, Asian models are getting a fair degree of representation, in part because the industry recognizes the growing economic clout of the Asian market," fashion critic Robin Ghivan wrote during her Reddit AMA. Asian models are not included in the much-talked about "balance diversity" campaign in part of because there's now a growing incentive to showcasing Asian faces.

"Though we are now used to Indian-American kids dominating spelling bees, apparently it's going to take time before we can accept a young boy in a mariachi outfit singing the national anthem or a dark-skinned Asian-American winning a crown that more often is perched atop blond hair," writes Anna John for NPR. People will have to get used to the idea that American is not a skin color, ethnicity or religion. And part of that is recognizing that these Americans, like Davuluri, believe that too.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.