On Red Lips, Lady Danger and Holy Rebellion


By Alia Joy Hagenbach | Twitter: @AliaJoyH



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.


“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.


“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.


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.


“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.


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 https://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.