“Open the Kimono”: 11 Assumptions Behind a Misogynist and Racist Business Phrase
“Open the kimono” is an expression still used in business meetings and communications when a company or team must share its internal workings or projects with a potential partner or buyer. I’m certainly not the first to point this out, but these three words are dripping with misogyny and racism.
And for an Asian American woman like me, it’s easy to see a direct line from this detestable business jargon to the murder of eight people, including six Asian and Asian American women, at their place of work by a White man who claims that race wasn’t a motive. These murders, it is worth noting, come a year into the pandemic, which has brought a significant rise in racially targeted violence against Asian Americans during the pandemic.
If you can’t see the connection, let’s spell out all the assumptions behind this loaded phrase.
1. In most American minds, the person wearing and opening the kimono is a woman, probably a sex worker.
2. She is submissive, compliant, and passive. She doesn’t have any agency or feelings to speak of, except perhaps the desire to please.
3. She is there to provide pleasure, entertainment, or some other gratification.
4. Her value is rooted in the attractiveness of what’s under her kimono.
5. She is a commodity, ready to be bought and sold, and is interchangeable with others like her.
6. She is exotic, foreign, mysterious, silent, and vulnerable—and also nameless and faceless.
Notice that these assumptions are all about the person who must open her kimono—we are used to gazing upon her and objectifying her body. But let’s now look in the other direction and consider the speaker: What can we assume about the person who says these three words?
7. He’s probably a man, and he thinks he has the right to demand to see what’s under the kimono.
8. He’s in charge, making the decisions about whose kimonos to open and when.
9. He is the judge of value.
10. His needs, desires, and feelings are the only ones that matter; his will must be followed, without negotiation or protest.
11. It is expected and normal for him to be in this role, displaying dominance, agency, and sexual aggression.
When we really examine the many assumptions behind these words, I don’t think it’s hard to see how a society that still condones its usage could generate an act of violence like what we saw in Atlanta.
Of course, I don’t know if the killer ever heard or used this phrase, but I do know that the ideas behind it are embedded intersectionally throughout our culture. We see it in the fact that 68% of reported anti-Asian hate incidents in the last year were directed at women. We see it in the stereotypes about Asian women that still color their experiences at work and contribute to 51% of Asian women being “highly on guard” against bias or discrimination at work in the United States.
I’ve experienced it myself when I was groped on the subway during my morning commute. More frequently, I experience it every time I’m asked, “What are you?” and “Where are you really from?” My answers—“American” and “America”—are never quite good enough for the one who is asking.
We cannot separate race from gender when examining the causes of violence and hate against women of Asian descent. Class and immigration status are also entangled, and for the women whose lives were taken, it’s likely that all of these factors contributed to the devaluation of their lives and ultimately their murders.
Like everyone else, Asian women need to feel safe at work to do their best work. Avoiding phrases like “open the kimono” is a small thing you can do to help them feel more included. A much bigger thing is to challenge the assumptions behind that phrase, actively engaging in antiracist practices by expanding your own knowledge and skill in creating a more equitable world and joining with cross-racial coalitions to lift up people from marginalized groups. Ultimately, supporting Asian women at work requires replacing the old misogynistic and racist mindset with one that recognizes that we are just as human and deserving of respect as everyone else.
Vice President, Science Writer and Advisor
Joy Ohm collaborates with colleagues in the Research department to conceptualize, write, and manage Catalyst’s cutting-edge knowledge products. She works with Catalyst experts and thought leaders to tell engaging stories with our data and create reports and tools that Catalyst Supporters can use as a roadmap for change. She is…