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Asian women breaking free of the stereotype straitjacket

Tseen Khoo |  20 March 2017


Last week, an interview by the BBC with a scholarly expert on Korea was interrupted by the scholar's young family. By now, the viral video of the interrupted interview has spawned many memes, spoofs (like this one by a New Zealand duo), and even tribute artwork.

Prof Robert E Kelly keeps his cool during an interview about South Korean politics when his two children interrupt him, live on air, on BBC World News. As well as much hilarity (I laughed, a lot), the video and its family generated plenty of discussion. There was a large thread of conversation about working from home. Many of my colleagues expressed empathy regarding the vagaries of grooming the domestic sphere for media interviews. Such preparation necessitates no family presence for the 'expert' face.

What fascinated me most — and by 'fascinated' I mean appalled and infuriated — was the assumption in certain commentaries that the woman in the video was the nanny. Or, even when that was resoundingly countered, that there would be trouble for her when the interview was over.

Because she is Asian, and her husband is white. And we all know what that means, right? Whether she's the nanny or the wife, it didn't seem to matter — she was positioned by many as an automatically oppressed person.

Asian American Studies scholar Timothy Yu's Facebook post about the video spawned a great set of comments that focused on this issue of stereotyping Asian women and presumptions about their relationships. On Yu's post, author Paisley Rekdal observed, 'It's such a stereotype of Asian women ... they must be nannies, or if they are in relationships with white men, it is because somehow they are being held hostage to them.'

As an Australian watching this UK interview, then following the volatile discussions in the United States and on Facebook and Twitter, I realised anew how enduring, widely propagated, and easily transferable these stereotypes about Asian women are. I know they are applied to me in my everyday life, and also professionally as an academic.

Anyone who thinks they can escape these macro- and micro-aggressions needs to look more closely at the dynamics of racism and bigotry. Those who perpetuate these dynamics don't care if you have a PhD, are born here, or become Australian of the Year. Basic rule of racism: don't see the person, see the race.

For Asian women in Australia, this can mean a very particular kind of creepy fetishisation and erasure of the self. There are too many times, for example, when One Nation's political candidates (always the older white men) declare their lack of racism by shielding themselves with the 'Asian wife' defence (note: this is not a defence). The voices of these 'Asian wives' are rarely — if ever — heard.


"These sexist, racist instances can be discouraging and even threatening, especially when they're face-to-face. The creative activist communities around me, however, provide inspiration and incentive to work for change."


Masako Fukui writes of 'Madame Butterfly's Revenge' in the Griffith Review, and flips the context by pitying those who hold such stunted views about race and gender. She asks, 'Will they ever find their way out of the Orientalist maze?' Jessica Walton, writing for The Conversation, suggests 'we all need to challenge ourselves everyday when stereotypes and prejudices creep into our mind. Rather than ignoring them, we need to think and respond critically, creatively and reflexively' (Not your Asian stereotype).

These sexist, racist instances can be discouraging and even threatening, especially when they're face-to-face. The creative activist communities around me, however, provide inspiration and incentive to work for change. In spite of feeling like we — as Asian women — are often pushed into straitjackets of identity, they persist with both immediate and longer-term initiatives, often with considered insight, sharp humour and a heartening groundswell of support.

A couple of great recent examples include 2017's Stella Provocations 'No one way to be Asian in Australia' and pencilled.in (newly launched literary magazine, with a 'Pen licence' stream directed at Asian Australian creative teens).

Maybe we can't rid ourselves of stereotypes, but we can certainly ensure they're recognised for what they are.


Tseen KhooTseen Khoo is a lecturer at La Trobe University and founder/convenor of the Asian Australian Studies Research Network (AASRN), a network for academics, community researchers, and cultural workers who are interested in the area of Asian Australian Studies. She tweets as @tseenster.



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Submitted comments

Tseen, with the 'micro aggression' link you provide. You just hit the bull's-eye. No pun intended. Thank you.

AO 21 March 2017

When we (the human race) speak about 'race' that's what we should be talking about: the human race. As Noel Pearson wisely said: "The day we come to regard ourselves as people with a distinct heritage, with distinct cultures and languages but not of a distinct race will be a day of psychological liberation. And it will also be liberating for those in the wider community who treat us as members of a distinct race, with all of the freight that accompanies this." No way that I could have said it as well as that, but I do have something in common with Noel. We're both members of a single race.

Pam 21 March 2017

"We're both members of a single race" is a fallacy, Pam. We are both members of a particular species, Homo sapiens, i.e. human beings is the scientific truth. Noel Pearson should have used the word "nation" not "race" in his first sentence. Recognition of sovereignty, i.e. nationhood, is after all one of his visions.

john frawley 22 March 2017

Should I feel ashamed of myself because I initially thought the woman who appeared in the bottom of the screen was a nanny? What's wrong with being a nanny? Not that I gave it that much thought or even realised it was being discussed in social media at that stage - but for some reason it appeared there was a big age difference between the two. Is there shame in being a nanny these days?

AURELIUS 22 March 2017

Good morning, John Frawley. I always enjoy reading your comments, thank you. I'm sure you are aware of Charles Wesley's wonderful hymn "And Can It Be" and of Adam's helpless race mentioned therein. A fine use of the word 'race'.

Pam 23 March 2017

The same people who jumped to the conclusion that the brown woman was a nanny would have jumped to the conclusion that a black woman was his spouse. That is because the child of a white and a black couple looks non-white. Before he became famous, would anyone seeing Barack Obama in the street have assumed that his mother was white? Building an edifice of outrage upon an accident of circumstance is poor social science. When the evidence fails to show that a majority are sustainably racist, ie. racist yesterday, today and tomorrow, rename the unsustainable condemnation as a micro-aggression so you can sustain a claim that a people are racist even though they are not racist every day. Incidentally, what might a black viewer have thought? What might a Filipino viewer have thought given her country’s economic diaspora?

Roy Chen Yeer 23 March 2017

I think you are taking this a little too seriously, Tseen. I assumed, when I saw the video last week, that the anxious lady was the wife since the children are clearly Eurasian. And what of it if she is the nanny? That is a perfectly respectable role for anyone to be performing. I think you are demonstrating a prejudice yourself, and one that is unfortunately prevalent in modern society: the belief that working as a homemaker and/or carer is somehow lesser work.

Brenda 27 March 2017

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