By Guest Contributor Elisha Lim
I am a reluctant fan of This American Life. The NPR storytellers can be such refreshing and endearing alternatives to mainstream radio. But you have to tolerate a strictly white, middle class point of view, a flaw that has been pointed out and ridiculed before. A case in point is a recent January episode–the first segment was in solidarity with “illegal” immigrant Latin@s of Alabama, but it was ironically followed by a white stand up comedian mocking the Spanish language.
The Valentine’s Day show, however, pushed me to new levels of downright rage. It’s a series of stories all about the mishaps of love, and in the last, 12-minute segment, writer Jeanne Darst describes her outrage when she discovers that her boyfriend is cheating on her.
She reserves a special anger for the fact that he’s cheating on her exclusively with Asian women. That makes her furious. Not, as we might hope, because she is disturbed and angry to discover that not only is her boyfriend unfaithful, he also has a grotesque racial fetish–but because it offends her own whiteness. She reads his journal in slow dramatic tones:
And then I read that he did not have an attraction to… white women. White women like me. I knew he dated some Asian women and his ex-wife was Asian, he had Asian assistants, but I didn’t think too much about it… Maybe it was my fault. I should have said, right at the start of the relationship I’m. Not. Asian. Before anyone got hurt. Me. Before I got hurt.
Before anyone got hurt? What about all the Asian women that date Darst’s boyfriend, without knowing that he’s more into their race than their selves? What about Asian women as a whole, who have to deal with yellow fever–with age-old stereotypes about their sexuality that reduce them to objects of someone else’s (white) desire? She somehow manages to depict herself as the main victim of Asian fetishization, and stews in self pity.
“I … the white girl who’s boyfriend didn’t like white girls”“I know I’m not Asian. I know I had reservations about Jake. Which is why I read the journal.”
How does a white woman claim to be the victim of yellow fever? I know, it’s so absurd it’s funny. But she manages it, by denying the impact of racism, and replacing it with a spiteful sense of competition. She doesn’t criticize her boyfriend’s race-conquest. She doesn’t flinch at his weekend tally of Asian indulgence. Instead, she basically protests that Asians took my boyfriend.
In selecting this story This American Life poses two subtexts: that white women are the natural objects of sexual attraction, and that people of color are a threat. It nurses a wound that whiteness was overlooked, and makes a fresh contribution to the Jezebel accusation of the racial temptress–”over-sexualized” Black women, “spicy” Latinas or “bellydancing” Middle Eastern woman.
For East Asian women or gay men, yellow fever isn’t a triumph, it’s a trauma. The fact that her boyfriend is a cheater is half as noxious as the fact that his casual sex is raced. But in this story, somehow, the white protagonist has managed to describe herself as oppressed by, well, Asian oppression.
Why would any writer of color want to be on a show with such tacky racial hierarchy? I was a loyal listener, and I’m having trouble even resigning myself to that role. This American Life, in its captivating, witty way, has broadcast its regular subtext: there is only one story, and it’s white.
Elisha Lim is an artist and graphic novelist who uses the pronoun “they,” and blatantly promotes the dignity and sex appeal of queer and trans people of colour. They furiously illustrate novels, wall calendars, books and magazines, including the Bitch Magazine acclaimed “Sissy Calendar” and 100 Butches, a tome of portraits and anecdotes about masculine queers. 100 Butches earns a lot of publicity from its introduction by New York Times bestselling author Alison Bechdel, while still accomplishing Elisha’s covert plan with a 90% quota of racialized models, and an unabashed opening dedication “to queers of colour.”