Chanel Miller, Rowena Chiu And Defying Stereotypes As Asian Sexual Assault Survivors

Both women have pointed to their Asian identity and the insidiousness of the "model minority" stereotype in deciding to speak out about sexual assault.

In one of the most powerful parts of “She Said,” New York Times reporters Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey’s meticulous and riveting account of their reporting on decades of sexual misconduct allegations against movie mogul Harvey Weinstein, they describe how in January, they convened a gathering of some women who had spoken about sexual abuse.

Among the participants was someone who at that point had not yet publicly told her story: Rowena Chiu, a former Weinstein employee. Chiu, like many who have weighed whether to speak out against sexual misconduct in the workplace, was silenced by a nondisclosure agreement.

Mostly there as an observer and unsure if she wanted to go on the record, Chiu said she felt inspired by being in the room with the other women — from Hollywood stars Gwyneth Paltrow and Ashley Judd, to McDonald’s worker Kim Lawson and Christine Blasey Ford, who told senators last fall that now-Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh sexually assaulted her when they were in high school.

Chiu went on to cite another reason she was considering speaking out about Weinstein trying to rape her in 1998. (Weinstein has denied Chiu’s account, as well as all the other sexual assault allegations that have been made against him.)

“There are very few, I feel, Asian voices that come forward with this kind of story,” Chiu told the group, according to Kantor and Twohey’s book, published in September. “It’s not because this kind of thing does not happen to Asian people, but I think certainly within the U.S. we have a whole culture around a model minority that doesn’t make a fuss, that doesn’t speak up, that puts their head down and works really hard and doesn’t cause waves.”

Rowena Chiu (right) on NBC's "Today" show in September. (Photo by: Nathan Congleton/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images)
Rowena Chiu (right) on NBC's "Today" show in September. (Photo by: Nathan Congleton/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images)
NBC via Getty Images

More than three years after her rapist Brock Turner received a six-month sentence and served only three, Chanel Miller, known only as Emily Doe during Turner’s trial, revealed her name and identity in a memoir published last month, “Know My Name.”

Among the previously unknown details about her: She is half-Asian. And in her memoir, she reflects on the ways being an Asian woman made her “used to being unseen, to never being fully known.”

“It did not feel possible that I could be the protagonist,” Miller wrote.

While their stories certainly differ, it’s significant that both Chiu, born in the U.K. to immigrant parents from Hong Kong, and Miller, whose mother came to the U.S. after growing up during China’s Cultural Revolution, point to their Asian identity as a factor in their decisions to speak out and reclaim their stories. Their bravery helps defy the stereotypes against Asian women, and may reduce the stigma within Asian communities against speaking out about trauma.

Asian women have long been exoticized and fetishized as disposable sex objects. That, coupled with insidious stereotypes of Asian people as submissive, meek, mild-mannered and the “model minority,” can make it difficult for our stories to be taken seriously.

In a New York Times op-ed published over the weekend, Chiu, elaborating on the account in “She Said,” cited her race as a source of the “power imbalance” between her and Weinstein, an imbalance that almost always figures in sexual misconduct. She revealed that he “defined me in terms of sexual exoticism,” capitalizing on harmful stereotypes against Asian women.

“Harvey Weinstein told me he liked Chinese girls. He liked them because they were discreet, he said — because they knew how to keep a secret,” she wrote, later recalling that he told her, “just before he tried to rape me, that he’d never had a Chinese girl.”

Being an Asian woman made her “visible as a sex object, invisible as a person,” she said, citing the “model minority” stereotype, which often portrays Asian people as being accommodating and less likely to speak out.

“In my British-Chinese family, we were afraid of standing out. I was taught not to talk back — to aunties and uncles, to my parents, to my teachers, to perfect strangers. I learned the social benefits of being deferential, polite and well behaved,” Chiu wrote. “As with many Asian women, this meant that I was visible as a sex object, invisible as a person. Harvey may not have created this imbalance, but he and many others have capitalized on it, knowingly or unknowingly, to abuse women of color.”

Chanel Miller, author of "Know My Name," about reclaiming her identity after her rapist Brock Turner was sentenced to only six months in jail.
Chanel Miller, author of "Know My Name," about reclaiming her identity after her rapist Brock Turner was sentenced to only six months in jail.
Mariah Tiffany/Viking

Similarly, Miller has discussed feeling invisible as an Asian woman, and how Turner’s position of privilege as a white man contributed to his lenient sentence from a white male judge, Aaron Persky. Persky infamously lamented that a more stringent sentence for Turner, a star swimmer at Stanford University, “would have a severe impact on him.”

“I think, in general, we are more likely to be dismissed,” Miller said of Asian survivors of sexual assault, in an interview with Shondaland last month. “I think our experiences are easily overridden, that we have to fight insanely hard to be taken seriously or to be heard… just to be seen, at all.”

Because of her anonymity during the prosecution of Turner, many people assumed Miller was white, including court officials.

“I felt like my lineage had been erased. They had denied a vital part of my identity, my upbringing, and the entire context in which I live and exist in this world,” Miller told Shondaland. “They assumed I was white and they checked that box without a question in their mind that I could be someone else. That’s not [their] call to make.”

As novelist Lisa Ko wrote in a New York Times op-ed last month, the assumption that Miller was white is “a reminder of how often we internalize whiteness as a default in America.”

That can make it harder for people of color to envision themselves in public roles, including coming forward to reveal injustices that will then be adjudicated in a system dominated by white people and often stacked against people of color.

Interestingly, Miller speculated that, in the end, it was her defiance of the model minority stereotype that may have helped in the legal process — suggesting that if more Asian women make a fuss, speak out and cause waves, we might be able to work toward making our stories more visible, and chip away the insidious stereotypes that often render us invisible.

“I felt underestimated throughout the [court] process; maybe they saw me as differential or submissive,” Miller said. “But maybe, ultimately, that worked to my advantage because they thought they could get away with more, thinking that I was more soft-spoken rather than outspoken. But I know what I’m capable of and I was not going to let that happen.”

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