College campuses today are torn. One one side, there are those who believe campus should be a place for free speech, open communication, and the freedom to say and discuss truly anything. Those proponents of free speech often advocate against “cancelling” brands or taking steps to appease the “woke mob,” such as when brands like Aunt Jemima or Uncle Ben’s changed their racist imagery and messaging.
On the other side, there are those who would prefer people avoid being overtly racist on campus, even as standards of political correctness evolve, and that colleges should be a safe space for people of all races, genders, and nationalities. That safety is sometimes treated as a given, but recent events show that it is anything but.
Anti-Asian racism on college campuses has risen to an impermissible level as COVID-19, nicknamed the “China Virus” by President Trump, acted as a catalyst for some of the extreme hatred to rise to the surface. Experts and advocates like Dr. Russel M. Jeung, chair of the Asian American studies department at San Francisco State University, are quick to point out these are not new feelings.
“The United States has shown throughout its history, racism or discrimination or disparate treatment of folks who are Asian or Asian American occurs quite often,” he reminded Sara Weissman for an article published earlier this spring in Diverse Education.
With this context in mind, something as simple as whether it’s OK for retailers to call certain styles of glasses frames “Asian fit” may seem like an inconsequential question. But it serves as an important filter when thinking about what is and isn’t OK to use as a framing device. Is calling glasses “Asian fit” racist against Asians? Or is it simply a useful way to differentiate glasses that serve a type of face that has truly distinctive features?
Like many questions about free speech, there’s no right answer. Some people will rightfully point out that using racial labels is unnecessarily divisive, like Benny Chen’s rant against labeling goggles like that. “The label ‘Asian fit’ denotes an ‘otherness’ to Asian and Asian American skiers in an industry that already chronically lacks diversity,” he wrote in Outside Magazine.
Beyond the point that it’s potentially a racist term, there’s the fact that it might not be useful, after all. There are 5.4 billion Asians in the world today, which means even “Asian fit” glasses aren’t going to fit all Asians.
But there might be a real disadvantage to not using racially or gendered terms to highlight product differences. By not identifying alternatives, that causes the global standard (White, male, cisgender and straight) to be treated as the neutral default when it really isn’t.
Today, many “neutral” things are designed specifically with men as the neutral object. This includes things as harmless as computer mice, which are often too big for smaller hands to use comfortably, to as dangerous as crash tests, designed for only male height, build, and weight until 2003, and led to a 47% increase of car injuries for women.
It’s undeniable there are people whose faces are shaped differently to what is accepted as the default standard today, which is White and European. Researchers, using high-resolution 3D facial images and over 30,000 discrete markers, were able to correctly categorize 81% of individuals as either Asian or European. Facial differences exist between the majority of White and Asian people.
If you’re Asian and trying to find glasses that are actually going to serve the purpose of fitting your face and correcting your vision, is it not better to be able to find something that is closer to your requirements than the Caucasian fits? Is it not worse to assume that everyone has a White European as the default and built to their specifications only?
Asians are naturally aware that Europeans have a different bone structure to them. It makes sense that brands have marketed to them from that angle. “Eyewear manufacturers have responded with a solution, which they most often call ‘Asian fit,’” explains Barry Silver for the EZcontacts blog. “Other names have also surfaced to describe the solution: alternative fit, low bridge fit, and omni fit.”
The alternatives to the “Asian fit glasses” to date are disingenuous. Calling it “low-bridge fit,” like Warby Parker does, markets to that same “different” audience but using a PC term that accomplishes the exact same thing.
Calling it an “alternative fit” begs the question: alternative to what? Whiteness? (That’s exactly the kind of sentiment that prompted “Oriental” to go out of fashion, because it means “Eastern,” implying that Europe is the starting point for directions to all other destinations.)
No matter what the label, as long as you have enough retail savvy, you can see that these products are all marketed as glasses for the “Asian” face shape. Retailers can call them by any different term they choose, but the underlying messaging for them is identical: there’s normal, and then there’s the other type.
It’s possible that there’s a better name out there for Asian fit glasses. It’s possible that using racial characteristic language is divisive for no purpose. But the debate highlights the very real need of understanding diversity in people, not pretending to be color-blind and treating everyone’s needs as identical. There is a need for products that suit faces of all kinds. In this case, using non-racial terms doesn’t make the glasses more racist, it merely obfuscates what the product actually does, what problem it solves, and for whom.
For college campuses wondering what terms to ban and what brands to cancel to ensure that it’s a safe space for everyone, it makes sense to consider the reasoning behind these arguments. Does calling glasses “alternative fit” make that a less racist term? Better to do the harder work of dismantling the structures in place that make anyone who isn’t White alternative to begin with.