Illustration by Manne Green

There is a difference between giving someone a compliment and exoticizing them.

When people use “cute” at an inappropriate time, it can change a seemingly innocuous phrase into a backhanded slap. It’s an emotional hit that leaves a memory like a stain. For me, it was a middle school classmate who first left that mark. 

I was sitting in the back of my English class, when she turned around to ask me a question. After I responded, she rubbed my cheeks and pet my head.

“Your cheeks are so soft! It’s like porcelain! You’re like a doll,” she said.

I was embarrassed. Weird. Ashamed. Unequipped to deal with this act of exoticization, I replied, “Thanks.”

When you call me “doll,” you are not giving me a compliment. A doll is an object. You’re labeling me as an object. Rooted in a history of racism, this description boxes Asian Americans in an identity that is not wanted nor welcomed.

As early as the 19th century — with the Gold Rush and rise of the railroad industry — Asian Americans have gained a reputation of being doll-like. 

With images of geishas and stereotypes of Asians as a subservient people, we are seen as statues. We are seen as different, and we are given racialized epithets like “gook,” “chink” and   “Chinaman” to match those  sentiments. 

Popular culture preserves this history by painting Asian people as identical dolls. Films such as “Sixteen Candles” and “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” emasculate Asian men, hyper-exoticize Asian people and portray Asian peoples as somehow  different.

Cute in and of itself is not a racialized epithet. But it can be used like one, and it can feel like one, too.

My mom has worked as a piano accompanist for my public high school’s choir for the past six years. With a few simple phrases, I remember overhearing friends and classmates laugh her off.

“She’s so cute when she gets flustered.”

“Her accent is adorable!” 

My mom does not learn over 50 songs a year and wake up at 5 a.m. for students to call her “cute” and “adorable” when she messes  up.

It’s OK to give compliments. It’s OK to call someone cute or adorable. But it’s unacceptable  when the compliment’s recipient is exoticized and made to feel like a spectacle to scrutinize.

Even in college, I’ve listened to classmates sideline a professor’s lecture on literary theory because the professor was “too cute” to handle. They made these remarks in the way you might comment about a puppy, not an expert on Franz Kafka.

Rather than look at who we are, they bypass our identity and accomplishments.

It’s objectification akin to yellow fever. “There is something about the Asian girls,” said white-supremacist Richard Spencer. “They are cute. They are smart. They have a kind of thing going on.” I am not a dartboard to pin your fetishizashions at.

Comments like, “You’re like a doll,” are reminders that I am different in my own country — that I am other and will always be other. When you call me cute, you remind me that it’s not my accomplishments or individuality that are taken into account, my facial features — my cheeks, my straight hair and my skin.

Yes. I am cute. My mom is cute. Maybe that professor is cute. But we are not toys. We are not your objects.

I’m not asking for a halt or restriction on compliments. I am asking you to think. Switch the roles. Imagine different scenarios and practice empathy. Ask yourself what you mean when you call someone cute.