It’s easy to identify why it’s sad when people of color change their appearance to look more white. When Asians undergo plastic surgery to make their eyes bigger and their features more European. When people of color subject themselves to harmful chemicals to whiten their skin or straighten their hair. These things are sad because society has told people of color that whiteness is more beautiful than whatever they are, and they’ve so deeply internalized these messages that they change themselves to conform to these standards of beauty. It’s an ugly but understandable consequence of oppression.
But when a white person changes their appearance to look more like a person of color… I have a much harder time identifying why that makes me uncomfortable.
Xiahn, the 25-year-old Brazilian man pictured above, has generated some buzz lately for undergoing more than 10 plastic surgeries to look Korean. He was obsessed with Korean culture, he studied abroad there for a year, and there he decided that he wanted to have the surgeries.
All of this is disturbing to me, but I’ve had a hard time articulating exactly why.
On one level, it makes me sad when anyone goes to such drastic measures to change how they look* — as if their appearance is all there is to them, as if they weren’t good enough the way they were before. I get that everyone has the right to do whatever they want with their bodies, but there’s still something sad to me about choosing to permanently alter yours; it feels like a form of self-rejection.
But when you make changes to look like someone of a different race, things get much more complicated. When a person of color does it to look more white, it’s sad for all the reasons I mentioned earlier, but it’s understandable, given the messages they’re getting from all angles about what it means to be beautiful. However, when the changes happen in the other direction — when a majority person makes changes to look more minority — it feels even weirder to me.
It feels almost like a fetish, or at least a gross cultural appropriation, like they’re taking their limited understanding about what it means to be a person of that race and stealing it for themselves. It’s like Katy Perry’s performance at last year’s AMAs, multiplied by a million.
It feels like a weird example of white privilege, that they can pick and choose what they want of marginalized people groups for themselves — without having to take on the less glamorous parts as well.
It feels like they’re walking around in permanent yellowface, even if their actions stem from a desire to be more like Asians than to mock them. “He’s basically wearing a permanent costume of another race,” pointed out a friend of mine. And if that kind of thing makes me uncomfortable on Halloween, then all the more reason to be uncomfortable when it’s forever.
It feels like yet another example of how Asians are portrayed and perceived as the exotic other.
On top of all of that, I’m annoyed that when a white person changes their appearance to look more Asian, Asians somehow still get crapped on in the process (“See? Their eyes really ARE smaller!” “Ew! Why would anyone want to look like that?”) This dude is the one who made these extreme changes, and he should be the sole person experiencing the consequences thereof — but Asians still get caught in the crossfire.
I’m also curious how people would respond if he had gotten surgery to look black or Latino. People are often quick to dismiss racism against Asians and Asian Americans that they would denounce if it were aimed at other minority groups (see, again, Katy Perry’s performance at the AMAs). There are plenty of people on the internet who see nothing wrong with what Xiahn did, but I’d be curious to see if they’d have the same reaction if he had transformed himself to look like someone of a different minority group.
Anyways. I readily acknowledge that this guy has the right to do anything he wants with his body, as does anyone who gets plastic surgery, and that race may operate differently in Brazil than it does in the US. Nevertheless, I’m bothered by this whole situation, though I’m struggling to articulate why. If anyone has any better, clearer explanations, I’d love to hear them. Any and all words to articulate my experience are welcome.
* Sex reassignment surgery excluded, as gender identity is far more complicated than appearance.