Flashback: I’m in fourth grade the first time someone uses my race to hurt me. He capitalizes every opportunity he can to pull the corners of his eyes into taunting slits or to stammer accented syllables in a boorish mockery of Mandarin Chinese. All the boys titter at his sparkling wit and roll their eyes at my outrage because, as they tell me, “it’s just a joke." I’m a kid. I don’t understand. The adults in my life tell me I look like my mother, and because my mother is beautiful, I must be as well. She passed on her gorgeous (and yes, natural) doe-eyes to me. I love my eyes. But now, I look at them and I pause, unsure of myself. Are my eyes ugly? Is that why he keeps doing it? If I’m the only one who is seeing racism when no one else does, is it actually racism? Maybe it’s just an edgy joke? He continues pulling his eyes until even the other boys in my class become uncomfortable with his relentless hostility towards me and tell him to leave me alone. After that, he stops and that’s the end of that.
It’s been years since it happened, but sometimes I think about the boy who pulled his eyes at me and if he remembers what he did to me. If he knows how he informed the way I would approach my experiences of racism from then on—always wondering if it’s just a joke that I’m taking too seriously.
I heard about the Fox Eye Challenge in April. Demonstrated by Asian TikToker Daniel Ly (known as @ogabg), the Fox Eye makeup technique uses cat-eyed eyeshadow, under-eye concealer blended up towards the temple, and a reshaped brow to give the illusion of an upward slanted eye. Participants of the challenge posed for TikTok and Instagram, hands (unsubtly) pulling up at their temples to get their eyes to look especially snatched. And if you really love it, you can take things one step further and go te surgical route—the procedure goes by the name of the “Fox Eyes Lift” or “Designer Eye" and uses dissolvable stitches to create “almond shaped” slanted eyes with a lifted brow.
For most people, TikTok trends have been a breath of fresh air during quarantine. This one knocked the wind out of me. Scrolling through the endless #foxeyechallenge posts on Instagram a few months ago, I was a fourth grader again, and there was a boy pulling the corners of his eyes at me, singing “ching chong." I went cold with stunned horror. How were slanted eyes sexy, original, and “designer” on white celebrities like Bella Hadid and Kendall Jenner, while at the same time, Gigi Hadid and Emma Chamberlain were squinting and slanting their eyes in a derogatory pantomime of Asian-Americans? Slanted eyes had somehow become a viral beauty trend, when before, on Asian-Americans, they were something to be mocked. For some reason, people didn’t see the irony.
My anger soon morphed into uncertainty as I scrolled through the comments. There were no outraged callouts or biting clapbacks. Instead, I saw flame emojis and comments of #gooffsis. And just like when I was in fourth grade, I was suddenly unsure. Was this racist? It felt racist. It looked pretty racist. But no one else was calling it racist. Was this just another edgy joke I was too sensitive to get? If they weren’t trying to look Asian, did that mean this wasn’t racist? Is it only racism when the racism is intentional? Was I allowed to have an opinion? Was I losing my mind?
There was a voice in my head, echoing the derisive responses to the few comments claiming the look was racist. It’s just makeup, don’t take it so seriously. You’re too sensitive over everything. Almond-shaped eyes have been a universally held beauty standard. Are you really going to freak out over makeup?
But when I stopped to confront the voice in my head, things didn’t line up. Slanted eyes weren't considered a beauty standard when they were mine or other Asian-Americans; if I recall correctly, the words used for us were “chinky”, or “slitty,” or “ching chong eyes." Also, if almond shaped eyes were a universally held beauty standard, why had they been used to humiliate and demean Asian-Americans for years, stereotyping and reducing us to a caricature? This popular makeup trend emulated the look of Asian features that have been used to other and oppress Asian-Americans for years: how was this not racist?
Part of me hoped that I would find some viral op-ed or trending Twitter thread about how problematic the Fox Eyes trend was; I was sorely disappointed. Once again, I questioned my own outrage. Perhaps I was overreacting.
I was, in fact, not overreacting. I had just internalized being racially bullied as a child and the response of my peers to my emotional distress. They had socially supported his bullying when they laughed at his jokes (until his jokes made them feel uncomfortable) and when they diminished my distressed response. Whenever I felt like I was experiencing racism, I would suddenly feel like a little girl again, hearing that I needed to “take a joke." I think I have the right to call it what it was:racial gaslighting. I had internalized being racially gaslit into invalidating my own emotions and experience.
There’s something about the term “gaslighting” that makes it sound so accusatory. I think it’s because the definition implies malicious intent. I don’t think my classmates did it with malicious intent or to manipulate me into questioning my sanity; they were just kids who probably had heard or seen that behavior and thoughtlessly copied it. But their unintentional gaslighting allowed them to avoid taking accountability for hurting me. And unbeknownst to them (or to myself), I had unconsciously internalized that entire experience. From then on, I always asked myself if what I was seeing was racism, or if I was overreacting, or if I had even experienced racism with a capital R. Compared to Black and Brown people, what racist oppression was I really suffering? What right did I have to claim to be a victim, when the stereotypes of Asian-Americans were all “good”? When most of the time, we were viewed as law-abiding, successful, hard-working, and intelligent?
Having “good” stereotypes attributed to your race is confusing. In reality, all stereotypes perpetuate limiting, racist ideas of who people are—even the “good” ones. When sociologist William Peterson first called Japanese-Americans a "model minority" in 1966 for overcoming racial discrimination through hard work and traditional families (any ideas on what minority were his comparative control group? I’ll tell you: Black Americans), he glossed over decades of anti-Asian legislation passed by the American government and their World War II internment. When the Immigration and Naturalization Act of 1965 gave preference to educated Asians like doctors and engineers, the American government set a precedent of what a “good” Asian-American looked like: hard-working, highly skilled, and educated. The real story of Asian-Americans and the racism they faced were distorted into a success story of “beating” racism. But in truth, racism against Asian-Americans, like with all other minorities, morphed and adapted to fit the climate of the culture. While Asian-Americans were allowed to contribute and succeed in practical fields, like medicine or technology, they were quietly excluded from mainstream media, from showing their faces to telling their stories.
I was in sixth grade when I realized that mainstream beauty spaces didn’t care about Asian girls like me. I was dying to wear eyeliner, just like all the other girls at school were starting to do. It didn’t help that my parents banned it, which only made me even more determined to wear it. I slipped a pocketful of quarters from my piggy bank and purchased a navy blue eyeliner from Target. My excitement turned to confusion when I applied it to my upper lash line. The liner was hidden behind my monolid.
Like any good Asian-American, I scoured internet articles and magazines to study monolid techniques. The tips I found frustrated me. Dust a subtle wash of color all over the eyelid. Use double-eyelid tape. This wasn’t the advice my friends were getting. They weren’t being told to tape their eye skin into the right shape or to apply makeup so unobtrusive it was unnoticeable. They were told to embrace their eyes and to use bold colors to express themselves. The message was unspoken, but it was clear: Asian-Americans did not belong in beauty spaces.
Resentment festered in me all the way into high school. I started hating my eyes. I hated how boys had bullied me because of them when I was a kid. I hated how they kept me from participating in beauty experimentation, like my friends could. I hated them because they had no place in mainstream media. I hated how they made me feel like I truly did not belong. I hated how ugly they made me feel.
Naturally, it escalated. I learned to hate how sensitive I was. I hated how loud I was. I hated myself for loving things like literature and art. But mostly, I hated having to feel like I was fighting for the acceptance to be myself. Why couldn’t I just have been born more aligned with the Asian-American stereotypes of being quiet and STEM focused? It would be so much easier for me to just conform to the stereotypes everyone expected of me, than to try to carve out my unique identity.
I was lucky to be in high school for the rise of Asian-American beauty YouTubers. I consumed their tutorials with rapt hunger. They gave me full beats, smoky eyes, and dramatic lashes. It felt magical, to watch eyes like mine transform into something so ferociously stunning you just couldn’t look away. Even though I was the viewer, I felt seen in a way I never felt before.
Through those YouTubers, I re-learned how to love and accept my monolids as something beautiful about myself to love, even if mainstream beauty spaces didn’t love me back. But it took years of very conscious and hard work to interrupt the self-loathing voice that lived in my head rent-free. It has taken even longer for me to realize how much I truly love my eyes. When I look at myself in the mirror now, I see the eyes I’ve inherited from my immigrant mother, the eyes that made me a target for racism—and I wouldn’t change a thing about them.
And that’s the problem that I have with the Fox Eyes Trend. The popularization and mainstreaming of the look on non-Asians glosses over the self-acceptance (physical and emotional) I’ve spent years addressing. I feel the same dismissal and uncertainty I felt as a child when people continue to participate with the trend without pausing to think. I know most people are doing it without bad intentions. But I don’t think a lack of bad intentions excuses causing racial pain. It doesn’t excuse using historically racist makeup techniques and racially traumatic facial distortion to mimic Asian features as a trendy and exotic aesthetic.
I know I can’t stop people from doing the Fox Eyes look or getting the “Designer Eye Lift." But before they pose for a picture or schedule a consultation, I want them to think about this: I still remember the first boy who ever used my race to hurt me. I remember all the people who have ever used my race to hurt me. So to everyone calling Fox Eyes "just a beauty trend" in the year 2020, I ask you—is that the person that you want to be?