Let’s get the basics out of the way: I’m an Asian woman, I’m in a relationship with a white man, and I read Sean Hebert’s recent essay, “I’m a white guy who dates Asian girls—but I don’t have 'yellow fever.'” ​Yes, the one that sparked controversy all over the Internet.

In fact, I’m a close friend of Sean’s. I knew him from his time as a standup comedian in Hong Kong, where we both lived for a while, and where we were both exposed to the first “type” of yellow fever he mentions in his article: the strain that leads to sex trafficking, misogynistic pornography, and 2015 Met Gala themes.

When Sean told me he was penning a polemic against the term “yellow fever” and its rampant misuse, I encouraged him. Over the next few weeks, I would occasionally check in, and ask how it was going. With wry, self-deprecating humor (a trademark trait of his that was unfortunately misread as arrogance in the piece), Sean said he anticipated offending some people, but hoped readers would at least consider his points about loaded accusations of orientalism and fetishization.

If you’re reading this, you’ve probably also read Sean’s essay, and may have even indulged in the lambasting that followed online. He was mocked and ridiculed to the point where detractors were no longer criticizing the article, but rather his education, his career, and even his face—which is, of course, white. Immediately after the piece was published, NTRSCTN hosted an illuminating live chat with Asian-American comedian Jenny Yang, who discussed the term “yellow fever” from her perspective; however, the segment was nearly buried under an avalanche of angry responses to Sean’s essay.

The resulting backlash from readers is more of a response to Sean’s privilege than his arguments. When it comes to delicate topics like yellow fever, there are constant negotiations of power between the speaker and listener; in Sean's case, he's a white man speaking to an audience that includes Asian women, so even before he made his points, my initial instinct when reading the piece was to ask, as others did: Do we really need to give editorial space to another white guy explaining an issue that affects minorities?

Do we really need to give editorial space to another white guy explaining an issue that affects minorities?

As a female writer of color, I’m painfully aware that there aren’t enough column inches to go around for people who look like me. In neglecting to add the voices of his girlfriend or previous partners, Sean put himself on a dangerous path of white men who examine and speculate about minorities—but don’t consult them. This ''mansplaining" was meant to defend his girlfriend, but many interpreted it as a myopic assertion of his white male privilege (in fact, Sean told me that his original suggested headline was the self-aware “Yellow fever, mansplained”). From his position of power, and given the silence of the women he wrote about, people of color—and even some white men—were inevitably going to dismiss his points.

Instead of stoking outrage, however, readers should’ve taken the opportunity to jumpstart a nuanced conversation about race. That said, this outrage exists precisely because yellow fever is a real epidemic. I’ve wondered if my own sexual assault stemmed from the overt sexualization of pubescent Asian girls—so a white man being unfairly accused of yellow fever is the least of my concerns.

Most of Sean’s article is problematic, but that doesn’t mean we should take away his right to express himself. He does raise some valid points (especially in the essay’s first half), so readers shouldn’t dismiss him outright. For example, Sean’s correct to say that while “yellow fever” is directed at white men, the insult is much more insidiously racist towards their Asian partners. “One, they wouldn’t have doubted my feelings for those women had they been white, and two, they’re implying that these women date men who only value them for their skin color. The term, then, becomes a way to shame white men and Asian women for entering relationships with each other,” Sean writes.

I agree that when used incorrectly, “yellow fever” is a cheap shot. It's also a fruitless insult because the accuser is essentially trying to combat systemic racism by blindly attacking someone who isn’t willingly participating in harmful objectification.

However, Sean also says “yellow fever” unfairly categorizes his Asian partners based on their race rather than their other personality traits, like a voracious appetite for buffalo wings or a penchant for horror films. But I don't feel that way at all. I'm not affected by the term because anyone who accuses my partner of yellow fever is commenting on a situation they know very little about, and therefore can't actually disrespect my relationship with him. I won’t even entertain the insult because “yellow fever” no longer holds the same power it did before getting assimilated into banter culture.

Indeed, there’s a spectrum between harmless objectification and violent, racist objectification. 

As unsettling as it might be to read this, most of us have objectified someone else in our adult lives. At some point in a relationship, usually at the very beginning when couples first meet, objectification happens. A girl might swipe right on Tinder because she values a guy’s blue eyes. A guy might hit on a girl at a bar because he likes her shaved head, which to him signifies dominant, ballsy behavior (although there’s no way of immediately knowing whether that’s true or not). Our first instinct when approaching a new person is to objectify or judge based on physical appearance and demeanor. This, to me, is harmless objectification—a superficial act of little social or political consequence that sometimes opens the gate to greater understanding of another person.

The act of yellow fever, however, veers more towards the destructive side of objectification, while the term sits troublingly somewhere in the middle because of its constant use in irrelevant contexts. There are other vaguely derogatory terms that lie along this spectrum of objectification: "jungle fever,” for when a non-black person is sexually attracted to black people; "rice queen,” which is what you call a gay non-Asian man who mainly dates other gay men of East Asian descent; “sticky rice,” which is the term for Asian men who only date other Asian men; “burnt rice,” which refers to Asian men who only date black men. The list goes on.

While I agree with Sean’s suggestion to “dump the term” to an extent, we must first combat the real yellow fever. Yes, harmful objectification doesn’t deserve such an innocuous name anymore—we’re making a joke out of a term that has oppressed and continues to oppress Asian women. And conversations surrounding objectification can and should involve more than just finger-pointing, no matter who starts the discussion.

But, at the end of the day, Sean’s essay sits wrong with me because I understand that the insult of misdiagnosing someone with yellow fever is just a symptom of the actual disease. And for that, I really have no cure.

Editor's note: Watch the video, below, for comedian Jenny Yang's take on Sean Hebert's article and "yellow fever."

NTRSCTN talk Yellow Fever with Jenny Yang!

Posted by Complex Pop Culture on Tuesday, 29 March 2016