“[Asians] are not a monolithic group. There’s nothing in our DNA that binds all Asian-Americans together. No group identifiable by race, gender, sexual orientation, or religion is unanimous in terms of how they approach justice, even if they share the same values. We’re far more diverse than stereotypes allows.” from Slanted: How An Asian American Troublemaker Took on the Supreme Court by Simon Tam
Portraying Asians in Children’s Books: A No-Win Situation
Let’s be clear that we are in a no-win situation here. If depictions of Asian children in books in the United States show a slanted eye, it brings back memories of centuries of painful racism.
On the other hand, if the eyes are double-lidded, rounded, and horizontal, the depictions of these children don’t actually look Asian. And worse, if this depiction reads as Asian, it promotes a beauty standard that fuels an alarming trend in plastic surgery.
At the end of the day, I think everyone agrees with what Asian and Asian American children should be able to see themselves in books, and that this is not a single story, single image, or a specific eye shape. So, how did we get into this conundrum in the first place?
“People in Asia never think that references to slanted eyes could be insulting. Why would they? Experiences with racism is vastly different when you’re the majority population and in power.” from Slanted: How An Asian American Troublemaker Took on the Supreme Court by Simon Tam
Everyone Poops by Taro Gomi. He is Japanese. It is the best-selling book for the publisher, Kane/Miller. It is sold all over the world in multiple languages including English, Thai, and Spanish.
What Do Asian Eyes Look Like?
“There is more biological diversity within racial groups than between racial groups.” from Slanted: How An Asian American Troublemaker Took on the Supreme Court by Simon Tam, referencing research papers Perceptions of Race and Debating Reality and Relevance.
Asian eyes get their characteristics from the eyelid. Asian versus Caucasian eyes are a matter of millimeters.
“The Asian eye is defined by its eyelid. The eyes may be of any shape including round, narrow, almond, triangular, slant, prominent, or deep-set. The eyes can be a single eyelid, low/incomplete eyelid crease, and double eyelid.12 On average, the Asian adult palpebral fissure is 27.2 ± 1.2 mm wide and 8.5 ± 0.9 mm in height. The lateral canthus is positioned around 10 degrees higher than the medial canthus. In frontal view, Asians tend to have a taller, more-circular shaped orbit, whereas Caucasians tend to have a square-shaped orbit. In lateral view, Caucasians possess a more prominent superior rim and deeper lateral rim.” 10 13 14 The Evolution of Looks and Expectations of Asian Eyelid and Eye Appearance
To see the range of actual Asian eyes, I compiled this video of actors, singers, and models that collectively show how Asians are portrayed in the media. I specifically included Asians and Asian Americans that kids would be familiar with. This is what kids see, in terms of Asian representation, reflected back at them in the media and it’s a wide range of beautiful diversity.
What happens if Asian and Asian American children are presented with a “single story” of what an ideal Asian eye should look like? What if they don’t see their exact eye shape reflected in books or the media? To understand this, let’s look at the rise of “corrective” eyelid surgery that is happening more and more frequently at a young age.
Many teenagers in China opt for the eyelid operation due to peer pressure and a lack of self-esteem… At an early age, these children are given the message that they have to work on their appearance to get recognized. Why double eyelid surgery is on the rise in Asia: rising incomes and acceptance, and star power of Fan Bingbing, Angelababy
The Rise of “Corrective” Double Eyelid Surgery
“Corrective” double eyelid surgery originated from South Korea, as part of the effects of the Korean war. Caucasian standards of beauty emerged as a result of the influence of American troops.
In the 1960s, Dr David Millard, a pioneer of plastic surgery, published a series of articles in academic journals on how patients living in post-war South Korea were opting for surgery because they “wished to look more like the American troops, or aspired to the foreign sense of aesthetics”. Fast forward to South Korea today, and “corrective” double eyelid surgery has been normalized simply as a way of becoming more attractive. from Why is the double eyelid surgery so popular in Aisa?
In 2017, an estimated 1.3 million people worldwide underwent double eyelid surgery, according to a report by the International Society of Aesthetic Plastic Surgery. The procedure is particularly popular in Asia, where it is the most commonly requested surgery. In Japan, for example, 187,000 eyelid procedures were done in 2017 – well over the amount of every other surgical procedure combined (roughly 107,000). from Why is the double eyelid surgery so popular in Aisa?
What is interesting to me is that while Asians worldwide are seeking eyelid surgery in search of a double eyelid, South Koreans seek the most changes in terms of eye shape to emulate a Caucasian eye.
“Since Mikamo developed the double blepharoplasty technique at the end of the 19th century, there has been significant developments in the idealized periorbital appearance of the Asian patient. Currently there are four potential vectors of change possible (upper, lower, medial, and lateral). South Korea is the only country that most often utilizes the change in all four vectors.” from The Evolution of Looks and Expectations of Asian Eyelid and Eye Appearance
Asian Super Models: A Diverse Range of Beauty Standards
And yet, if you look at the top Asian models as a beauty standard, you will notice a wide range of eyelids. Not all of these top Asian models have double eyelids.
As a Mother of Two Asian American Girls
As a mother of two girls, I want to be careful in subliminally promoting a Caucasian beauty standard. My middle daughter has always noticed the variance in Asian eyes, and we had many a conversation because I, unlike her, have a double eyelid. She insisted for years that I secretly got eyelid surgery until she unearthed photos from my childhood that proved that my eyes have always been the same.
Because my children are half Korean American, one-quarter Chinese American, and one-quarter Japanese American (an unusual combination to be sure!), they have a wide range of eyes. My middle daughter can analyze each eyelid in specifics that mimic that of a plastic surgeon, LOL!
What’s most interesting to me is 1) the range of Asian eyes within my own family and 2) how my kids’ eyes changed shape from babyhood to adulthood. I’ll use my husband and middle daughter as an example.
My Korean American husband actually has both a double-lidded and mono-lidded eye. His two eyes are very different. And even more startling than his eye shape is the color of his eyes. He has golden-brown eyes the color of amber. His eye color changes. When he is in the sun all day playing golf, his eyes take on a hazel hue. He would never get “corrective” eye surgery to make his one eye more similar to the double-lidded one. But why would he? He’s very good looking!
My middle daughter’s eyes changed over time. Here she is as a baby:
Here she is as a toddler:
Here she is as a preschooler. She’s on the left:
Here she is as a high school student:
Not only did my daughter’s eye shape change but her eyelids morphed from single lidded to double lidded. Her eye color also lightened from a dark brown to a medium brown. Her eyelids vary from day-to-day. They might be more single lidded in the morning if she has some puffiness or distinctly double lidded on other days. The point is: her eye shape has shifted over time and also day-to-day.
When it comes to racism, she hasn’t experienced racism by way of being called “slant-eyed” or “slanted: or “Jap” or “Chink” or whatever the slur is against Koreans. Racism, where we live, is more subtle and along the lines of “You guys get into all the good schools.”
But that’s not to say that she doesn’t understand the reappropriation of racist terms or the power that it brings. This is something that Ruth Bader Ginsberg understood in the landmark case of Matel vs. Tam.
“Does it not count at all that everyone knows the Slants is using this term not at all to disparage, but simply to describe? It takes the sting out of the word.” Ruth Bader Ginsberg
Reappropriation is not limited to words or trademarks but also to images. The depiction of racism crosses all mediums. And reappropriation also became a legal battle that was decided in the Supreme Court.
How The Slants Won Their Trademark Battle in a Supreme Court Ruling
The Court stated that “Slants” is a derogatory term for persons of Asian descent. The members of Mr. Tam’s band are Asian American. Mr. Tam and his band, however, believe that by taking the term as the name of their band, they will help to “reclaim” the term and “drain its denigrating force.” from Mofo
So what of the Asian eye? It has also gotten political. On June 19, 2017, Simon Tam, in a Supreme Court ruling, won the right for his all Asian American pop-dance band, the right to trademark their name, The Slants. It was a long hard road.
I was one of the people who wrote a letter on his behalf that I did not feel the name, The Slants, was hurt the Asian American community including its youngest constituents. I wasn’t the only person who felt that way. As part of their lawsuit, Simon Tam commissioned two independent surveys that said the term, “Slant,” was an outdated Asian stereotype with 92 & 98% of participants agreeing.
The Trademark Office couldn’t find a single Asian Amerian willing to publicly go on the record against them. Not a single Asian American group opposed their name. from Slanted: How An Asian American Troublemaker Took on the Supreme Court by Simon Tam
The band said it wanted to reclaim the term that is often seen as a slur.
“We grew up and the notion of having slanted eyes was always considered a negative thing,” Tam said in January. “Kids would pull their eyes back in a slant-eyed gesture to make fun of us. … I wanted to change it to something that was powerful, something that was considered beautiful or a point of pride instead.” from NPR
In 2019, Washington University in St. Louis published an extensive study on reclaiming identities based on The Slants’ name and found that “Reappropriation does seem to work in the sense of defusing insults, rendering them less disparaging and harmful”. from Wikipedia
Their cause was endorsed in friend-of-the-court briefs from 20 other groups, ranging from the American Civil Liberties Union to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. One brief was filed by San Francisco Dykes on Bikes, a group of motorcycle-riding lesbians whose name won federal registration but whose logo did not. According to the brief filed by Dykes on Bikes, the Trademark Office has stood by its rejection “despite the fact that not one lesbian has ever raised any objection to registration of ‘Dykes on Bikes.’” from Michael Sonip
There were many Asian American groups that supported The Slants lawsuit as it made its way through the court system. As it reached the Supreme Court, however, it became clear that this ruling had complications. It was no longer about an Asian American band reappropriating a racist term but opened the door for racist sports teams such as the Washington Redskins to keep their name. In this case, it was not Native Americans who sought to reclaim their identity.
Still, a few years after the Supreme Court decision, “the Trademark Office didn’t receive a floodgate of applications to register hate speech as some feared.; instead, they saw a wave of applications from people using terms in a reappropriated, self-empowering manner. Under the previous law, they would have been denied for being “too Asian,” “too Black,” or too gay.” from Slanted: How An Asian American Troublemaker Took on the Supreme Court by Simon Tam
The Slants case legally says that you can not be racist against yourself.
Reappropriation versus Assimilation
When it comes to Asian American representation and the racism that has risen against us, there are generally two reactions: reappropriation versus assimilation. Eyes (e.g. slanted) and skin color (e.g. yellow) are predominant themes.
For African Americans, physical traits used as insults include skin color (e.g. darkie) and hair (e.g. nappy).
It’s interesting to me that African Americans have taken back what was used against them in a reappropriation of racism. Dark skin is now viewed as beautiful both on the runway and in picture books. Natural African American hair is again a tool of politics as seen in school and sports but also lauded as a beauty standard.
Reappropriation or Assimilation: two reactions to racism. It’s not an either/or. There is no one right way. It’s an individual decision for each person to decide how they want to face and react to the racism imposed upon them.
Who Gets to Call This?
Asians and Asian Americans are not a homogenous whole. Therefore, no one person can ever speak for this group. Just as there is more than one beauty standard, there is no one answer to how Asians should be portrayed. Rightfully so, there will be a myriad of opinions on how Asians should be rendered and portrayed in children’s books. It’s a complicated issue with a long history. There will be no easy or correct answer.
I can only speak here for myself. In moving forward, I think it’s important to check within to find my own blind spots. As a third-generation Japanese American, I have been raised with the idea of not making waves, and in assimulating. That was a strategy that most Japanese Americans took when they re-entered society after leaving WWII internment camps. As a second-generation Chinese American, I was encouraged to strive for high achievement by navigating a very narrowly defined road towards financial success. I am married to a first-generation Korean American who confronted racism that was easy to find at the most exclusive private country clubs in his pursuit of high-level golf.
My rules of thumb:
- If the Asian/Asian American character is supposed to be awake, the eye should have an eyeball. I would caution that you also have to take context and intention into account as well.
- The Asian/Asian American character should look Asian if there was a police line up of characters and everyone had to identify their ethnicity. For example, if the character looks vaguely Caucasian or Latinx or Italian, an Asian/Asian American child will not see themselves reflected back. That is not to say, however, that Asian American or mixed-race Asian/Asian American children can look Caucasian.
- Asian/Asian American eyes should reflect that the Asian eye is defined by its eyelid. The eyes may be of any shape including round, narrow, almond, triangular, slant, prominent, or deep-set. The eyes can be a single eyelid, low/incomplete eyelid crease, and double eyelid. This is just a laundry list that denotes the characteristics of an Asian eye from The Evolution of Looks and Expectations of Asian Eyelid and Eye Appearance.
- I don’t even know what this means but this defines the specifics of an Asian eye: on average, the Asian adult palpebral fissure is 27.2 ± 1.2 mm wide and 8.5 ± 0.9 mm in height. A Caucasian eye has different specifics. Be careful about specifying eye characteristics that are Asian to portray an Asian by using this aspect ratio as a general guide.
In conclusion, I think that there is no easy answer that can be found on a speaker panel or a presentation. Each of us must do the work when we evaluate Asian/Asian American children in children’s books before applying a label.
Perhaps when it comes to anti-Asian racism, that this is not our biggest battle to fight. Violence against Asian Americans has risen in the past four years, with fingers pointed in a blame game for our current COVID-19 pandemic. There is and will continue to be tension as the United States passes the baton eventually to China in defining which country is the ultimate economic superpower. This title will also confer the privilege of defining the rules of engagement, from where the jobs are to what constitutes beauty.
In conclusion, when it comes to the depiction of Asian eyes in children’s books, is a slanted eye racist? Are there actual Asian and Asian American children with that exact eye shape? If that is the case, the eye can not be racist. Asian eyes — that depict actual Asian eyes — can not be racist. It’s like saying that an Asian or Asian American child with that exact eye has “bad” eyes that need to be corrected by surgery. That’s not a good message.
I would also think about who is calling out “racist” Asian eyes and why? I would ask them to look inside themselves to see if there is a specific reason why a particular eye shape has caused personal pain. Perhaps it is overt racism. Perhaps it is more subtle “advice” from parents or other influential adults. Racism is scarring. But so is plastic surgery.
As for me, I am an advocate for reappropriation and promoting a beauty standard that does not necessitate plastic surgery. Thus far, neither have gravitated towards “corrective” double-eyelid surgery. As a mom, I consider it a win.
p.s. I made a video of book covers from my personal library of children’s and young adult books to show the range of how Asians/Asian Americans are portrayed:
p.p.s. Simon Tam was kind enough to read this post and respond with his thoughts:
“I think your point here really resonated with me:
“I would also think about who is calling out “racist” Asian eyes and why? I would ask them to look inside themselves to see if there is a specific reason why a particular eye shape has caused personal pain. Perhaps it is overt racism. Perhaps it is more subtle “advice” from parents or other influential adults. Racism is scarring. But so is plastic surgery.”
I think people forget that trying to conform to generic eye shapes, skin tones, or kinds of hair is, in and of itself, a way of assimilating past our respective identities. There is nothing inherently racist about an eye shape or skin tone, it is only perceived that way because of the power we have given to overt stereotypes. But our communities should have that right to define ourselves. Kids should be able to see themselves in artwork – if we flattened or make rounder/larger eye shapes, they inadvertently will perceive that as “normal,” hence why in so many Asian cultures it is popular to bleach skin or get plastic surgery to conform to what we see.
If we were to take race from this and use other major forms of identity, we can start seeing where the rationale begins to fall apart. Imagine trying to depict many different types and being upset because an illustration shows a body that seems too skinny or too fat (or even too short). Or depicting physical ability by having a wheelchair and someone claiming that it is a stereotype. Or, if depicting major cultures/religions using their respective symbols – a cross, a turban, etc. Or showing gender in perceptible and traditional depictions of gender. None of these things are offensive in and of themselves because they can represent others in a way that can be reflective – “racist” imagery requires intention and impact, without nuance.
When you look at traditional artwork and folk art from China, Japan, Korea, Vietnam, etc. – they all depict slanted eyes (much more so than the kinds shared in our pop culture/illustration today). Were they being racist towards themselves? Of course not. If anything, choosing to whitewash ourselves by removing identifiable ethnic features is a form of cultural erasure – a form of racism.”
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p.p.p.s. Related posts:
- Asian American
- Korean American
- Japanese American
- Chinese American
- South Asian American
BEST #OWNVOICES CHILDREN’S BOOKS: My Favorite Diversity Books for Kids Ages 1-12 is a book that I created to highlight books written by authors who share the same marginalized identity as the characters in their books.