Karaoke night used to be my jam. Back in the day, my best friend and I used go to the only bar in my small hometown in the San Francisco Bay Area and watch the regulars slur along to “Smells Like Teen Spirit” and “The First Cut Is the Deepest.” One night, after hours of watching an older man named Victor sway and scream into a microphone, we went next door to a late night diner to decompress over grilled cheese. We had just started eating our food when two guys in cowboy hats came over to talk to us. They had a Southern twang, but insisted they were Californians. Thirty seconds into the conversation and I was already over it.
The quieter one started chatting with me and asked where I was originally from. I said Iraq—my parents were born in Baghdad and left in the 70s when things with the Ba’ath Party got really shitty. With his drawl, he said he was an Iraq War veteran and that he saw “so much shit” over there. “I’m sure you did,” I said to him. I wasn’t sure if this was an effort to bond with me, but whatever. Even though I made it clear that I wasn’t interested, he kept going. “You know, when I was in Iraq, the women weren’t attractive at all. That’s why I’m so surprised by you. You’re pretty.”
It was a combination of his blatant ignorance and his crater face under the fluorescent lighting, but I realized I’d had enough. As a woman, I was irritated for being hit on at a diner. As a woman of color, I was infuriated that someone would even go as far as to tell me that I was pretty compared to the rest of my race. And most of all, I was horrified that even though I am an American, I was being referred to as an other by this socially inept soldier, to my face.
Every single girl knows what it’s like to be creeped on. If you’re a woman walking around by yourself, chances are someone will honk their horn at you, speak to you whether or not you’re looking at them, or—if you’re not even worthy of words—they’ll make some sort of cattle herding noise. It’s one of those things we as women have come to expect, whether we like it or not. But there’s a special breed of getting creeped on that absolutely needs to be addressed, and I call it flirty racism.
Flirty racism has been around since the dawn of time, when asshole cavemen tried to offend their potential mates all the way into the bedroom. It goes down when a jerk has the nerve to play the race card in an effort to compliment you, but instead ends up sounding like the new leader of the Third Reich.
Women are sexualized according to their race all the time. With the help of the media and pop culture, women are placed into different color coded compartments; sweet and submissive, wild and sexual, sheltered and passive, all based on their ethnicity. It’s the reason why Latina actresses like Sofia Vergara are told to dye their naturally light hair darker and make their accents thicker to conform to stereotypes. It’s the reason why women of color like Bollywood star Priyanka Chopra release songs about themselves called “Exotic,” because it might be their only ticket into the mainstream. The biggest problem with racial sexualization is that it’s just regular old racism, but more insidious because it's clandestine. And it can go from flirty to hostile pretty quickly.
Just two months ago, people jumped at the chance to call Nina Davuluri “Miss Al-Qaeda” after she won the 2013 Miss America pageant—and guys, she wasn’t even Arab. She was Indian. If some women are allowing themselves to be compartmentalized based on their race, then is it a surprise that Nina, an American, was insulted just because she didn’t look white enough? Surprise or not, it’s not OK.
And I know exactly who these people are. It’s the drunk Wall Street guy I overheard in a bar yelling about how he loves Asians because they do whatever he wants. It’s the inexperienced frat boy saying that he’s not into black girls because they’re too ratchet. It’s the guy who called me a terrorist at a party and then tried grinding on me three seconds later. It’s someone who is so misinformed to the point where everyone they meet is a caricature of something they saw on TV, or heard about from a friend of a friend who once traveled to Morocco or Tanzania or Southeast Asia. It’s because of these people that ethnic sexualization and racism blend together to form an unrecognizable ugly new color.
If you try to holler at me, recognize that I'm not Paula Abdul or MIA or any other person who kind of looks Arabian. My name is Rula Al-Nasrawi and I’m from a family of first-generation Iraqis who spent years running away from terrorism so that their children could live comfortably. If all you have to say about a culture that existed and thrived and crashed and is now on life support is that it’s “exotic” and that “things must be so bad over there,” you’re an idiot.
There is so much more to me than the way I look. But you will never know from just looking at me and trying to figure out what your opening line is going to be. And that is something that every single woman in this world, regardless of race or class, can back me up on.
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