When White Goes Wrong…

In April of this year Texas Republican state representative, Betty Brown, said that voters of Chinese descent should change their names so that they are easier to pronounce.

Rather than everyone here having to learn Chinese – I understand it’s a rather difficult language – do you think that it would behoove you and your citizens to adopt a name that we could deal with more readily here?

This remark was aimed at the Organization of Chinese Americans representative, Ramey Ko who was highlighting issues in voting and identification for Asians because of because they may have a legal transliterated name and then a standard English name that is used on their driver’s license.  As I read it, I thought Chinese Americans are American citizens, right? Please correct me if I’m wrong but I think what she meant to say was, “I think it would behoove you and those who look and have names like you to change to be more like us, real Americans.”

While Representative Brown claims her comments weren’t racially motivated, groups from across the country called for her to apologize and resign. Brown certainly can’t deny she knows little about American history. There have been three major waves of Chinese immigration to the U.S. with the first beginning in the 19th century, many of their descendants living as American citizens today. Also, last I looked, many Chinese and Chinese Americans speak Mandarin or Cantonese and not Chinese. According to her logic, I must have been speaking American all these years – not English.

Just like most rational people who read about this, I was outraged at the statement and did some Google sleuthing to learn more. What I found was the entire thing on YouTube.

When I clicked on the advertisement it read:

As fully trained plastic surgeons, we specialize in Asian double eyelid surgery, nose surgery, and jaw reduction. Our goal is to enhance your appearance, while preserving your cultural identity. We never try to westernize the Asian face and body through cosmetic surgery. Instead, we aim to help our Asian cosmetic surgery patients attain harmony and balance.

How does surgery that turns a single eyelid into a double eyelid, a broad nose thinner, and a wide jaw more narrow, preserve cultural identity?

Often when I talk about body image, people get really excited because they have struggled intimately with the issue as it pertains to their weight. Just as often, however, many smile at me obligingly, as if to say, “That’s nice for you, Sweetie, but there are such bigger problems in the world to fight for.” And while our site, adiosbarbie.com, has the slogan, “Adios Barbie: The body image site for every body,” many folks don’t understand how body image in a media and consumer driven society is not just about size. It’s about class, race and ultimately-power, privilege, and oppression.

Brown’s ignorant statement calling for Asians to change their names is just the latest symptom of an age-old problem. The problem being that many of those in power-who happen to be white and wealthy-assume that the rest of the country, world or anyone different than them, should adjust their language, culture, religion, and appearance to fit in and make it easier for those who happen to be white and wealthy. Now if people of color as a whole just thumbed their noses at such lame ethnocentric demands, all would be right in the world. But the fact remains that there is still an internal struggle within and amongst communities-and countries-of color where the whiter and lighter you look and speak, the better you are.


This couldn’t be truer than in Asia, where double eyelid surgery (technically known as blepharoplasty) is now the most requested cosmetic surgery. For those who can’t afford the surgery, there is a whole industry of tape products that you stick onto your lids to force them to bend in half or widen, making them appear bigger, western or dare I say, not-Asian.

The real message being sent is that bigger eyes are better than traditional Asian eyes, which are considered smaller. Smaller than what? The answer to this question sheds light on how certain white beauty standards are thought to be universally better than all others.

This internalized oppression is now so widespread, that apparently surgery to widen the eyes of children, even newborns, is common in Taiwan, Japan, and Korea. The Hastings Center published a report looking at the ethics of parents electing to do plastic surgery on their children. They cite one case of a Caucasian man adopting an Asian baby who he viewed had eyelids that were “problematic because it made her eyes small and sleepy and caused them to shut completely when she smiled.” Needless to say, he arranged for the little baby to have surgery to reshape her eyes.

Over the past eight years, cosmetic surgery patients have dramatically increased among people of color in the U.S. While most whites are receiving plastic surgery to look younger and thinner, people of color are tending towards plastic surgery to look more Caucasian.  Sixty-three percent of African American and 45% of Latino plastic surgery patients are most likely to get nose jobs (to make them more narrow, perhaps?). And, not surprisingly, 39% of Asian Americans are most likely getting the eyelid surgery.

While Representative Brown’s comment is partly about language, it is mostly about cultural dominance. As I dug deeper into the layers of the debate, I read comment after comment on the web about how the outrage over the request for her to apologize and resign was overblown. Several people left comments like, “You know it really isn’t that big of a dea” or “Many Asians change their names already.” Or my personal favorite:

“Lighten Up!”

Related content:

Of Shame and Pride: Confronting my Culture and Identity

Hollywood Chinese

Korean Star Speaks of Her “Asian Bottom”

3 thoughts on “When White Goes Wrong…

  1. In my country (Mexico) this is the same.Most women dye their hair to become blonde.This is specially true amongst high socioeconimic classes.They pretend to look caucasian instead of latinas.

    Good articule

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