Monday, November 19, 2012

Social Anonymity

Disfiguring The Asian Face.

I read an interesting article on the BBC news website that discussed the private and social experiences of people who have suffered from the disfiguring condition of Bell's Palsy. The condition is a dysfunction of cranial nerves which leads to partial facial paralysis, leaving sufferers facially disfigured. Interest piqued, I embarked on a brief cyber-surf looking for more information on the phenomenon on disfigurement and how it affects the sufferers, socially, emotionally, and psychologically. During this research I became aware of a sense of deja vu from what I was reading, and came to realize that some of the testimonies of facially disfigured individuals could be seamlessly interchanged with that of Asian-Americans (myself included) and easily reveal much about our experiences and our uneasy presence in western societies.

Naturally, this was something of a shock because I, like most Asians, am not disfigured, yet, the experiences of some disfigured individuals reveals some very striking similarities between disfigurement bigotry and anti-Asian racism. Asian racial characteristics are routinely mocked and singled out for abuse throughout mainstream culture, and the pervasiveness of harassment of Asian children and mockery of their racial characteristics by their non-Asian peers is a testament to how ingrained hostile reactions to our racial characteristics are in American society. What this means is that even as children, non-Asians are conditioned to think of Asian racial characteristics as abnormal and behave as though mockery of them is natural. Sadly, many Asians themselves, become conditioned by this process to think of their own racial characteristics with shame and embarrassment. A key difference, however, is that whereas the mockery and distaste for facial characteristics of Asian people is considered socially acceptable, mocking the disfigured is ostensibly frowned upon even though it obviously exists.

One interesting point of note is the way that the condition of disfigurement somehow becomes a public consideration along with the individual who suffers from it. The Bell's sufferers in the BBC article report a kind of shift in the social rules in that normal behaviour is often suspended in social situations in which they find themselves. For example, many of their social interactions are often characterized by staring and inappropriate overly personal questioning, or outright rudeness and hostility. So the normal rules of social introduction and interaction shift so that there is a presumptive dynamic in which a disfigured person is "answerable" for their condition - that is, the normal rules of social interaction are "leapfrogged" permitting rude behaviour and awkward, uncomfortable, and overly-personal (for the person being grilled) questioning.

In this interesting YouTube video, an advocate for the disfigured (at 1:21) talks about a loss of "social anonymity" experienced by the disfigured. Their condition prompts presumptions about their character, leading to behaviour that causes them discomfort and distress and even leads to intimidation. It is almost impossible not to notice the familiarity of these experiences because they could be easily interchanged with those of Asian-Americans and paint an accurate portrait of how Asians are conceived of in America's culture and society and how these perceptions drive negative behaviour.

This notion of suspending accepted social norms is a common feature of the Asian-American experience. Possibly the most frequent and common manifestation of this phenomenon is being accosted by total strangers demanding to know where you are from (racist heckling is another example of social acceptance of suspending the social rules). Ostensibly an insignificant issue, until we notice the contextual anomaly of this social interaction. Accosting people that you don't know and who insist on asking personal questions is completely socially inappropriate - even by American standards. If you were to go up to a white American that you didn't know (or barely knew), they would be completely thrown by the question and would feel extreme discomfort - I know because I have done it (you should too). Why the discomfort? Because it is a very personal question and knowing the answer to it tells you absolutely nothing about the individual in front of you. Yet, I suspect that many non-Asians believe that knowing the geographical origin of the Asian person you happen to be harassing with this line of questioning does reveal insights into their character.

Of course, this is because the guidelines of behaviour followed by mainstream America are modeled by cultural depictions in which Asians are typically portrayed as de-individuated curiosities at best or debased objects at worst. What America's media racism models for non-Asians is a certainty about the characters of the Asian people being depicted such that the irrational idea arises that knowing geographical origin does indeed grant a profound insight into that person's character. Because Asian racial characteristics are depicted as anomalous and are routinely mocked and denigrated in American culutre, I would suggest that non-Asians are conditioned to respond or react to Asian faces and the human beings attached to them, in the same manner that people would react to disfigurement. The key difference being that disfigurement has an element of pathos attached to it granting some degree of dignity or compassion from society. Asian racial characteristics and the accompanying "knowledge" these physical characteristics reveal are almost entirely associated with negative character qualities and irredeemable differentness.

Thus, this notion of social anonymity is a social privilege that is almost guaranteed to non-Asians, but casually denied to Asian-Americans. The narrative of Asians is entirely authored by a mainstream culture that promotes, with authority, the idea Asians can be conceived of  in a generic way such that geographical origin, racial background, and physical characteristics, can inform enquirers about character more than the specific life experience of any given individual. What this means is that social anonymity guarantees non-Asians enough personal space to be able to tell their own story about who they are because there are no presumptions about them - more importantly, non-Asians generally don't have to deal with negative presumptions.

In summary, American culture has generated such a negative attitude towards Asian racial characteristics that it can be argued that such physical qualities elicit similar cultural and social responses experienced by people with facial disfigurements. The most compelling evidence for this comes from anti-Asian racism in America's schools - non-Asian kids learn by practicing bullying and harassment that Asian racial characteristics are abnormal and (aided by denigrating cultural depictions of Asians) that such qualities reflect negative character traits. As a result, many Asian kids grow up with negative feelings about their own racial characteristics and will often self-represent them negatively - that is measure of how successfully America has made the Asian face into an aberration.


  1. you realise no self respecting face-saving ( excuse the pun) asian is going to admit this , even if they agree with you, right?

  2. On the upside, White leaders fed on anti-Asian sentiments will have to deal with a powerful Asia in the future, and will get a smack down.

  3. It just shows how fuck-up things are for us.

    1. Things can be and are fucked up for us, but I also hope that by understanding this type of phenomenon we are better able to understand and speak out for ourselves and others in our community. I hope that people make the choice to not be held back by this type of thing but to accept it for what it is and succeed in spite of it.

  4. Wow, it's amazing how spot on you are. Keep the posts coming.

    Check out this poll created by an Asian female that asks whether it's normal to be disgusted when looking at Asian men.

    Unsurprisingly, 46% of respondents agree that it's normal to feel disgusted by Asian men.