Zoe knows that for Mal, the problem with Core planets is simply, cleanly, that they are run by Alliance, that they are lies that look so very pure and beautiful on the surface. She sympathizes, but only to a point. Mal chooses to wear his browncoat, to mark himself, not to pass. Not that she thinks he should, not that doing so wouldn't take something from him. But on worlds where two colors combine the predominant lie--take your pick of white or yellow--she doesn't have to wear a coat. Her skin works just fine to give truth to the lie.
The irony is that the Alliance was supposed to end things like racism. Zoe hasn't got a hell of a lot of schooling, but enough to know that was a damn fool idea even before they started running off "undesirables" from places they had an itch to call their own.
Racism, she's pretty sure, doesn't go away, it just changes its face. When they're on Core planets, its face looks an awful lot like the neat and ordered categories that everyone seems to exist in, economic, social, physical, mental, Zoe doesn't even know. She just knows that whenever she's there, people look at her, constantly, curiously, pretending not to look if they're caught. That's the worst. If they would just acknolwedge that they were looking, acknowledge that she's different in a certain way, and they're not used to that, and truly look, that would be one thing. But they don't, they pretend her difference doesn't exist when forced to face up to it.
She thinks that for all the ways she stands out, they have found a way to make her disappear.
Even if the rest of the universe has no desire to admit it, the Core planets define everything else, if only in its desire to be anything but the Core. (Or, in the case of Allied planets, poor imitations.)
The poor imitations, in Zoe's opinion, are the worst, because they don't have the control that the Core planets have in actuality, so there are pockets within those planets where the populace that cannot fit under Alliance rule settles. Which, of course, is always, always where they have business. And there, people's recognition of her difference takes on a wholly different face, mostly desire, the kind she ran away from at fifteen when she ran away from her feifei de piyan of a planet, and she was neither quite as large nor trained in how to shut other people down.
Most people aren't fool enough to act on it, but she can feel it on her skin, in their gazes, the desire to have something unusual. She'd rather be the unwanted, mildly frightening interloper that she is on true Core planets, truth be told.
Mal asks her about it once. He says, "It bother you, the picket fences looking at you like that?"
Zoe shrugs. Later, she looks up picket fences and sees pictures of their whitewashing in Serenity's database. It settles something in her, that at least Mal notices.
She tells him, "I'd rather not be looked at."
He snickers, "'Cept by our pilot."
Zoe is a woman of control. She does not knee her captain in the balls. She does, of course, flirt Wash up into doing the kind of space flying that always, always makes Mal sick.
Zoe doesn't like Jayne, but he's useful, and he takes exception to anyone so much as glancing their way. She should say, "Mal, he's a danger." She should say, "He's insane, he's gonna get us killed."
He pistol whips some ben tian sheng de yi dui rou for offering her fifteen credits and a really good time. Despite the fact that Zoe senses Jayne's just jealous--she's had to say no with her fists more than once--she doesn't say a gorram thing to Mal.