Trigger Warning: Anti-Asian Racism, Misogyny, Sexualized Racist Harassment
“Ching-chong on my ding-dong!” “Taku, taku, taku!” “Oh-ah! Me-ah so ho-ny!” These are words I heard every day as an Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) woman on my predominantly white college debate team. To my face and in front of many teammates, they publicly discussed whether my vagina was sideways or if it might taste like sushi. I was casually told that certain white men in the activity “liked Asian women.” I was asked to recreate, witness, or be compared to literally every sexualized Asian trope in pop culture that you can think of, from Wayne’s World to Family Guy to Team America.
Team members addressed me using fake Asian words and spoke to me in a fake Asian accent in broken English. I was given a fake Asian name, and team members referred to me by that name regularly. People held back my eyes into a slant as they asked me to speak in fake Asian words, while making me wear a traditional Asian farming hat I had brought back from Taiwan. Because these kinds of remarks and behaviors were normalized, my race was a frequent point of discussion even amongst my friends and teammates who were women, with some of them even referring to me by the fake Asian name.
These past two weeks, I have been sitting with my experience on my debate team, re-living with clarity many things that happened to me, crying through it now even though I did not cry at the time. Instead of confronting my pain directly, I have coped for years by shrugging off the experience as “not that big of a deal,” even as I severed all ties to the debate community, with the exception of a few people, mostly women and/or BIPOC. In writing this post, one of my friends advised me to think about what I want to accomplish with this. Upon reflection, I am not sure that I have any clear outcome in mind. Isn’t there inherent value in sharing your story of trauma? Isn’t it worth bringing our experiences to light, just so others know and feel less alone?
In the aftermath of the massage salon shootings in Atlanta, I have noticed a collective discussion online about what it means to be an AAPI girl or woman in America. For me personally, I started to connect the shootings to my own trauma after reading an article by Elysabeth Ratto in a Cup of Jo. In this article, Ratto discusses her day to day encounters with sexualized racism as a Korean-American woman, and consequently why the shootings were triggering for her. Nothing she described in her article was news to me, nor, I’m sure, to any AAPI woman. As a Taiwanese-American girl growing up in the Midwest, I’ve heard so many low-level racially and sexually charged words that they don’t even register as abnormal to me anymore. But the more I thought about what Ratto shared, the more I reflected on my own experiences. My deeply buried memories from college started to resurface, coming back with a force that staggered me.
It might be news to outsiders, but within the college debate community, it is no secret that the activity has a troubled history of misogyny. This is probably a result of the activity’s historical origins in elite private schools with mainly straight white cisgendered male students. My experience occurred in an era when my team was very successful, winning three National Debate Tournament championship titles in seven years. The cost of this success was allowing the most successful members of the team and some coaches to create a racist frat-boy-like team culture.
While not every member of the team participated in this culture, most did to some degree in order to fit in. It was tough to be a woman on the team where we were all assessed by our “bangability.” But the reason that the Atlanta shootings are personally triggering for me are reports that the shooter specifically sexualized Asian women. It reminded me of how the sexual harassment I faced was different than that of my white teammates — how merely existing as an Asian woman in America seems to be enough of a reason to make us objects of fantasy.
That I considered the people who treated me this way to be close friends makes me really sad. I told myself that they were not racist because they liked me and, because they were my friends, I didn’t want to be too sensitive to their brand of humor. There were even times when I laughed along or defended them to other AAPI friends who were shocked by my stories. The worst part is that I felt and continue to feel shame and guilt, questioning if I deserved this treatment for wanting to be part of the debate team or if I brought it upon myself for wanting to fit in.
My memories are colored by a sense of irony because I remember being told that the team leadership was focused on creating successful women debaters. I wish I could tell my 19-year-old self that what I was experiencing was not acceptable. I wish I could have found someone to talk to about it, who would have shielded me and been my advocate. I wish that someone on the team’s leadership would have been brave enough to insist on a zero tolerance policy towards harassment, prioritizing the creation of good humans above competitive success.
My guess is that without sharing my story publicly, my teammates would not even remember these events or consider them out of the ordinary. I have a suspicion that many of them will recall their role in this story as sympathetic bystanders, while I remember them as an active part of the culture that tormented me, laughing along and getting their own joke in once in awhile. Part of me wonders if bringing light to the issue after so long is “productive.” None of what I experienced was done in secret or out of view from our many coaches. Everyone knew. I guess they just didn’t think it could be traumatizing.
I recognize that my reality is very different from those of massage business employees and sex workers. I don’t want to take away from the nuances of their experience, including the ways they are subject to more tangible everyday violence. But when I first read Ratto’s article, my gut reaction was, “Do non-Asians not know about this?” I have tried subconsciously to find ways to not stand out too much throughout my life, working hard to be a friendly, harmless, and approachable person. If this is my experience doing an academic activity that many think about as a positive social experience, then what are the hidden experiences of other AAPI women — even the ones that are your close friends, and especially the ones that seem fine with your jokes?
I have been hesitant to share my experiences because I don’t believe that any of the people involved are truly morally “bad.” Whether they deserve it or not, a part of me still wants to protect them, especially because of the intensity of “cancel culture.” Rather than placing the blame solely on the individuals involved, I believe that my experiences are also a product of the way toxic masculinity relies in part on racist and sexist humor, materializing in the form of what college students find funny. You might be tempted to think that this was an isolated situation on a specific debate team, but the media that my college student teammates consumed was not fringe in any way. Considering the enduring popularity of the shows, movies, and websites with this brand of humor, I have a feeling that these types of jokes were not and are not uncommon; they are just delivered under someone’s breath or behind closed doors.
Many of my AAPI friends have expressed frustration that their white friends are not supporting them in a meaningful way. Many of my own white friends either don’t seem to know that there is a national issue of violence against AAPI, nor understand why the issue might affect me personally. Then again, how would they know, if I never talk about it? My goal is to show readers what “normal” looks like for an AAPI woman, especially one of my generation with white peers. I want to publicly reject the idea that this is acceptable. Most importantly, I am asking bystanders to step up when you witness it happening.
I am thankful for the strong allies that encouraged me to put my experiences down in writing and to my friends who have reached out to me, most of whom are BIPOC women. Thank you for realizing that I might need this support even before I realized it myself. Against the worst possible backdrop of the recent shootings, I am confronting and processing my trauma, even if this sexualized racist harassment is unlikely to disappear anytime soon. In a way, I feel less alone now that so many of us are coming forward to voice what we have lived through in silence. I feel it is time for me to move forward with fearlessness in hopes that a new society can emerge for my daughters and the next generation of AAPI and Asian immigrant women. But, it will only happen with solidarity from non-BIPOC people and parents actively choosing to teach their children that this is no joke.
To the debate community specifically — I hope you will move past any shock or disgust you feel from my story and move into action, rather than choosing to only silently condemn my experience from a distance. I hope you will consider how you may have supported this culture without knowing it, and what you can do to change it going forward. I used to think that debate was a progressive space, where all sorts of intellectual ideas that might be rejected in the real world could be discussed freely. I know now that progressive ideas are meaningless if the activity makes some of the participants feel worthless.
To those in debate that feel the way I felt — trust in your suspicion that this is not acceptable; talk to someone outside the activity; leave if you do not have someone safe to turn to. To those who are feeling guilt or unease — you may not be able to change your past actions, the product of a toxic culture or ignorance, but you are certainly accountable for your actions going forward. To debate coaches in particular — your students trust you to keep them safe, and it is your job to protect them at the cost of personal popularity or success. Consider reaching out and supporting marginalized participants from other schools and being someone safe they can confide in. Many of you profess to be allies. Restore our faith in you by acting like it.
Note: I am choosing not to specifically name my school to avoid unintended consequences to members that did not actively participate in the culture, nor the current members of the team, which I have no connection to.