On Red Lips, Lady Danger and Holy Rebellion

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By Alia Joy Hagenbach | Twitter: @AliaJoyH

M_AliaJoy

I.

Mac makes my favorite red lipstick. I twist it from the bullet and it rises up in brazen scarlet and smears across my lips. Lady Danger on my lips is holy rebellion. I smack them together and lean into the mirror. I see all of me. I am a biracial Asian American woman, and I am beautiful, I am worthy of being seen.  The bravado to believe it is something I fight for every day.

These lips were created to speak truth.

II.

“You might like to do your project on Connie Chung,” she offered smiling down at me, her hand placed gently on my shoulder. “Yes, I think that’d be a perfect fit for you, Alia.” And that night I sat at our kitchen table swinging my legs that had yet to grow enough to touch the ground. I labeled my paper, Alia Boston, grade 3, and then wrote in perfect letters across the top “Someone I Admire” with a sharpened number two pencil and then I asked my mom who Connie Chung was.

And it was only when I stood in front of the class to give my presentation to a sea of white faces and blonde hair with every blue eye on me that I realized everyone else got to pick Michael Jordan or Ronald Reagan or Molly Ringwald. I was assigned someone.

III.

“Oh, honey, you are much too yellow-complected for red, plus red draws attention to your teeth. I always tell my customers to work with what they’ve got. For you orientals I always say stick with your eyes, they’re so … exotic.” She purses her lips at me, her fuscia lipstick bleeding into the tiny wrinkles along her mouth. She tells me what parts are worthy of being seen and which parts aren’t.

I leave the makeup counter with mascara. I spend my twenties wearing colorless chapstick and lip balm because my teeth don’t line up white and brilliant.

I don’t line up white and brilliant. I learn to smile with my mouth pressed shut.

IV.

I’m the girl who listened to New Kids on the Block and loved Jonathan just like all the other girls in her class. I am the girl who wrote her report on Connie Chung and believed red lipstick was off limits for her. I am the girl who followed makeup tutorials in Seventeen magazine and tried to make all the blended shadow fit my tiny crease of eyelid. There was only one brand of beauty. She had a jaw like cut marble, smooth and long as a pedestal and when she smiled the pearls danced in her mouth, white teeth lined up and brilliant in a face of milky porcelain or dusty beige. She had four shades of blue eyeshadow on her lids and space for more. She was tall and willowy with just enough curves and she floated when she walked. Her teased hair could be brown or blonde or red or black but her skin couldn’t. 

She was white and brilliant.

V.

“No, it’s Alia, actually,” I say pointing to my lanyard with my name printed on it. We make small talk and they keep referencing things I know nothing about. I try to figure out why people I’ve just met keep calling me Dawn. This is the third time.

I see her on the last day of the blogging conference, she’s easy to spot because she sticks out too. She’s at least 3 inches taller than me with a short efficient brown bob to my long black hair. I’ve got a good 80 lbs on her but there it is on her lanyard, Dawn. She’s Asian American too.

VI.

When I was a girl, I had never seen an Asian American model. There were no shows featuring prominent Asian American actors. There were hardly any books about Asian American characters. Our leaders were white, our television shows were white, our neighborhood was white.

To be white was to belong, to be beautiful, to be someone who could smile with their whole mouth and open it and be heard.

I knew the Oscar nominations were predominantly white, twitter tossed around #Oscarssowhite for months. I watched Chris Rock trot out three Asian kids and make a tired joke at their expense. People laughed.

I simultaneously wanted to rage and collapse onto the floor and weep. I was glad I sent my daughter to bed during the gowns. An Asian woman hasn’t won an Oscar in 58 years. More white women have played Asians than actual Asians. People of color are absent or woefully underrepresented in almost every sphere of North American life. The Oscars just happened to have a hashtag.

I’ve felt it my whole life. It’s the playground where they would pull their eyes into a grotesque slant and chant, “ching chong China girl” at me. It’s the makeup counter telling me what is not beautiful about me. It’s a thousand other times when I’d slink away unseen or uninvited. When a stereotype would suffice for the whole of me. But this time I’m not silent. I am not a girl anymore.

This time I’ve got fire on my lips, blazing red. This holy rebellion says, I will be seen. I’m learning to harness my voice even when it strangles in my throat because these things need saying. 

This time I say we need more stories written by women who are not just white and brilliant.

Women of color are fully human, not just a sidekick, a caricature, or a stereotype. The world chooses not to see me when I’m omitted from the lineup, from the role, from the stage, from the country, the page or the screen.

I’m erased when you don’t recognize my brand of beautiful, whatever that may be, when all the standard samples from Sephora are creamy nude, but nude only means white.

I am silenced when you say, “It’s just a movie awards show, it’s no big deal. Why do you even care?” When the Oscar’s whiteness has much less to do with a golden statue than it does the idol of white supremacy.

You say, “How will we have unity if you keep bringing up race?” I say, “Unity to you looks like uniformity to me and we cannot grow when we make art that believes a single story, or race, or skin type has more merit than another. We cannot create when we cannot even see clear. That kind of art is reductive not expansive, it drives us further away from our humanity instead of closer to it.”

Because we shouldn’t have to decide between being known or being loved. As children of the God who sees, we get both. We all get to be seen if for no other reason than God looks on with eyes of adoration and has never been about the single dominant story.

God is not about the status quo or business as usual. God is the one who disrupts, who intervenes, who delivers. God is for the oppressed, for the marginalized, for the refugee, for the captives, for the sick, for the other.

God is for the ones the world’s gaze skims over, the ones who never belong or get invited.

God is about holy imagination and believing for better things. We must be people who choose to see if we want to be like Jesus.

So I’m begging you to pay attention so we’re not all called Dawn. Women of color need to be on main stages with mics to drop when they faithfully show up and say the hard and necessary things.

Omission is oppression of the cruelest kind. You erase me when you omit me but I have a right to be here and to be seen and to be known because God sent Jesus, not only the nomination but the invitation to belong.

We need to be in your homes and on your screens. We need to have stories in your bookstores and voices behind your microphones so my daughter will have a greater choice for her “Someone I Admire” project and so will yours. Because only then will we begin to see the beauty intended in the body’s reflection, the imago dei made brilliant and colorful. Only then will we recognize the truth of who we are, seen and loved, belonging to each other.

So I speak in holy rebellion, against the blindness we’re all prone to, in lips baptized by Lady Danger.

______________

About Alia Joy:

AliaJoyI’m the daughter of both a book lover and a storyteller and in that I was destined to be a writer. I collect words at http://aliajoy.com, dance to the good songs, and believe even the most broken stories have a redeemer. I live in Central Oregon with my husband, my tiny Asian mother, my three kids, a bunny, and a bunch of chickens. Sushi is my love language and I balance my cynical idealism with humor and awkward pauses.

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  • Alia thank you for writing these hard things. Hard for you to write, I know. Hard for me to read because I am being made aware of my own lack of holy imagination and love. You are beautiful. And I am so thankful that I can read your words.

    • Alia_Joy

      I’m going to be kind to myself today and take myself to lunch with a friend this afternoon. I’ll probably wear red lipstick because it makes me a bit braver when I’m finding my voice. Thanks for holding space with me here and for always hearing and seeing me.

  • Kristen Allen

    Thank you for this. Thank you for shouting out that the world is a richer, more beautiful place than just the whitewashed version we have all institutionalized. May our children happily see the world in technicolor and know, really know, that it is how it should be.

    • Alia_Joy

      I loved this month’s I See You theme because there are just too many ways we don’t. Let it be a more beautifully colorful world where we’re not omitting or erasing people for any reason. Amen.

  • Your powerful words here sent me searching for your blog . . . and my tube of red lipstick.

    • Alia_Joy

      YES! I love that. Crank out that tube of lipstick and come on over and say hi. I’d love to have you visit my space.

  • Sarah Joslyn

    Yes yes yes! Alia, this is incredible. Thank you for lending your voice to SheLoves. We need you.

    • Alia_Joy

      Thank you and Idelette so much for the invitation. I’m honored to be seen here and to see all of the women who show up with holy imaginations longing for better things.

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  • I love you. I might just have to buy some red lipstick!

    • Alia_Joy

      I’m thinking this is a definite yes. Always yes to red lipstick. How is that a question. 😉

  • Kristy

    I had chills through this whole piece and am now going to share it all over the place because, yes, “women of color need to be on main stages”, and your words need to be heard.

    • Alia_Joy

      Thanks for sharing! Yes, we need the holy imagination to believe for better things and then we need actions to make our words more than wishes.

  • Wow, Alia. I know you struggle with believing you should be seen, but this post is a great example of how speaking into our fear makes little Molotov cocktails of beauty. I see you. I’m so inspired by this post and by women of color who put on red lipstick no matter what the hell people say suits their skin.

    • Alia_Joy

      Thank you. I’m thinking if I practice bravery enough and I write the things even when I feel a little (a lot) terrified and nauseous, I’ll get better at it and maybe even pitch something someday. 😉 I’m learning to sift and delete the messages that tell me I should sit down and be quiet. For now, I’m thankful for the invitation to be here.

  • Roos Woller

    I love your voice and thank you for speaking up. We are all missing something if all ethnicities, cultures and women are not celebrated and represented. Thank you

    • Alia_Joy

      Thank you. Yes, we all miss out when there are unseen among us or in us.

  • Spellbound … and changed by your words, your song, your life, Alia.

    But, sadly, I’m still wearing rose pink lip gloss. And that’s on a good day …

    • Alia_Joy

      We all start somewhere. There’s nothing wrong with bare lips or lip gloss or fire engine red. But you get to choose. You do. No one can tell you what parts of you are worthy of being seen and noticed. God made you good, you are good.

  • Today I read this post to my husband. He kept shaking his head…and then he said, “If it weren’t for the work you are doing to learn about this, I would not know.” So yes, we need your voice. We need to hear how it is. Thank you for being brave.

    • Alia_Joy

      Thank you for being willing to listen and admit you wouldn’t have known but now you have a little glimpse and you’re seeking to see more. Thank you for sharing this with your husband and for caring to be a person who sees. There are so many unseen among us. We’ve all got to do the work of looking a little harder.

  • YOU!! I <3 your fire and passion and words!! Kerp rocking those red lips, Alia!! I'm dumbfounded that anyone could meet you and mistake uou for anyone else. You are a true original!

    • Alia_Joy

      It was ludicrous but it happens more often than you’d guess. I’m often mistaken for whichever other Asian American woman is present. And it happens to my Asian American friends all the time.

  • Saskia Wishart

    This: You say, “How will we have unity if you keep bringing up race?” I say, “Unity to you looks like uniformity to me and we cannot grow when we make art that believes a single story, or race, or skin type has more merit than another. We cannot create when we cannot even see clear. That kind of art is reductive not expansive, it drives us further away from our humanity instead of closer to it.” Wow Alia, thank you for sharing your voice and pieces of your story here today.

    • Alia_Joy

      Yes, we need some holy rebellion and if it takes red lips to get it done, so be it.

  • Nicole A. Joshua

    Brilliant post Alia. And that red lipstick looks amazing on you!

    • Alia_Joy

      Thank you.

  • you open my eyes to see more of the struggle and tension, and for that dear dear friend, I’m grateful to you.

    • Alia_Joy

      You’re a gift to me. Thank you.

  • Yes to everything you say and I echo Saskia’s comment – that line rang so true for me, thank you for opening this conversation. And your red lips = STUNNING!

    • Alia_Joy

      Thanks! I’m telling you, there’s something about claiming red for me that makes me feel braver than I really am. I’m becoming.

  • This is beautiful and amazing and challenging and good.

    • Alia_Joy

      Thank you.

  • Alexandria

    My heart sighed a little when I read that you too are biracial, and you too had been made less visible. By sharing your story you give hope that I too can grow up and be seen. I will wear inspiration and eyeliner today. Thank you!

    • Alia_Joy

      What a beautiful hope to have. What a sad reminder that we still have so much work to do in this area. It’s both, yes? I’m glad you’re showing up knowing you deserve to be seen today.

  • Friend, you are so, so brave. And wise. And fierce. You have my ears and my open heart — always. I love you.

    • Alia_Joy

      I love you. thanks for showing up for me again and again and for the memories which remind me there are people willing to make space for beautiful art. I love how you choose to see.

  • Missy

    I am so sorry Alia. The older I get (and I am at least twice your age), I react more and more to stories like yours. The brazen idea that we white skinned people have projected and portrayed as being superior is absolutely so shameful and I might add for me, a bit sinful. How dare we think we won’t be judged for this. Keep speaking out; keep speaking the TRUTH of your story, KEEP pressing just o change. And above all, keep seeking Jesus, it is He and His Holy Spirit who will ultimately bring about the change and reconciliation we crave.
    Thank you for your words.

    • Alia_Joy

      Yes, it takes a sisterhood to say we see each other. WE choose to see each other. It takes all of us. Together, unified but not uniform. Thank you for being here with me.

  • ThandiweW

    Alia…..these words, “You say, “How will we have unity if you keep bringing up race?” I say, “Unity to you looks like uniformity to me and we cannot grow when we make art that believes a single story, or race, or skin type has more merit than another. We cannot create when we cannot even see clear. That kind of art is reductive not expansive, it drives us further away from our humanity instead of closer to it.”
    All I got is “Damn! Amen. Hallelujah!” I love you and your words.
    Silence is for sissies, sweet girl.

    • Alia_Joy

      This comment made me smile so hard. I love it. Thank you.

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