Nikki: Hey, Noah. Thank you for being willing to chat about this subject with me, despite its general unpleasantness. This note was the first thing I saw in my inbox the other day: “One day, your son will look at you totally differently. You left your culture at the door when you married a white guy. I am pretty liberal, but the sheer number of Korean girls going after white guys is embarrassing. Your son will notice that too one day.”
[Ed. Note, 5.20.16 — My anonymous correspondent also sent me a cartoon, which I thought he himself had drawn given that it was so consistent with the tone and content of his note, but I have since been informed the cartoon is actually the work of someone else. Since I have not been given a means by which to cite it, I’ve removed it from this post. –NSC]
[Here let us pause to grudgingly acknowledge that emailing a silly note and a cartoon to a stranger is really some dedicated, next-level trolling.]
Only after I’d tamped down my anger and absorbed some coffee did the truth sink in: that note seems most insulting not to me, or even to Asian women generally, but to multiracial people. Like my daughters (as you know, I do not currently have a son). Like you. What are we supposed to conclude? That it would be better if multiracial Asians didn’t even exist, because they are destined to hate themselves?
Noah: That cartoon is SO fucking foul. This whole topic is something that’s been bugging me for a long time, so I’d love the chance to speak from the perspective of someone who is both multiracial and an East Asian-presenting guy.
Nikki: Before we dive in, I do want to say that I’m definitely not trying to speak to or about an entire group here — just the handful of bored, unfortunate jerks choosing to harass me and other Asian women who have non-Asian partners. It’s common enough that I would like to talk a little about it. Because even if it doesn’t happen every day, it’s become a trend in my writing life.
As long as I’ve been writing online, I’ve had trolls. Recently I participated in the #whitewashedOUT hashtag, as many of us did, and this was the [incredibly mild!] tweet of mine that got the most traction:
My biracial Asian American kids have never seen a single kids’ movie or show starring girls who look like them. #whitewashedOUT
— Nicole Chung (@nicole_soojung) May 3, 2016
The most common derailing response to this was “WHAT ABOUT MULAN???” [Everyone needs to just stop with Mulan. I enjoyed it, but it was made like 20 years ago, it’s not without its issues, and my kids are neither Chinese nor monoracial.]
Then there were the actual white supremacists — the vast majority of them passionate Trump supporters, according to their Twitter profiles — calling me slurs, referring to my kids in hateful language, saying “that’s what you get for race-mixing,” etc. Lovely, charming, just what you’d expect.
And then there were the replies from fellow Asians. Several have also taken the time to email and explain to me exactly why I’m a race traitor and what they think of me.
I’ve come to expect these comments every time I talk or write about my family, and honestly, they bother me more than the ones from unapologetic white racists. On the casual racism piece for the Toast, we deleted several comments along the lines of “You married into it” (never mind that the racist remark at that dinner party was not made by one of my in-laws) and lectures about how terrible Asian women are for dating/marrying out. On my Kristi Yamaguchi essay, one of the first comments approved was about how “the very author of this piece, Kristi Yamaguchi and Michelle Kwan all have white husbands.” (As thrilling as it is to be included in any triumvirate that includes Kristi and Michelle, my marriage to a white-presenting person has no bearing on my ability to care or write about representation.)
Noah: It’s weird, because I had a tweet that went pretty far, and I only got some mild, half-hearted trolling. The gender thing on Twitter is SO real. I almost never have harassers that actually make it to my Twitter account, though I do know my writing on literature has made it onto some subreddits.
The Mulan thing is silly; like The Joy Luck Club movie, it doesn’t really hold up well over time. Nor does it address the concerns of modern-day Asian Americans, and especially not those of multiracial kids. Mulan is also not an Asian AMERICAN film, you know? It has so little actual relevance to Asian America.
I’m not surprised about the white supremacist response you’ve gotten. I’ve been called a mutt plenty of times by white people, and by Asian people, too. White supremacists have obviously been on the whole “fear of white genocide” thing forever and using interracial marriages as evidence that it’s happening.
The thing about Asian men harassing you really makes my stomach turn. I mean, I kind of understand on a superficial level — I felt ugly as an Asian-presenting man for most of my life. But I’ve never extrapolated that to some type of false ownership over Asian women.
I can’t deny that I do sometimes have reactions to seeing white men with Asian women. I worry that there’s some kind of fetishism at play, and sometimes I also reflexively internalize it as “why do they think Asian men are ugly?” — which is completely irrational. However, I can acknowledge that this comes from a) my own deep insecurities about everything physical about myself, and b) my anger about actual fetishism, none of which makes me think I have the right to police individual Asian women for their choices.
My reaction has nothing to do with Asian women generally or one Asian person in particular — it’s a rage at the systemic things in media and culture that have led me to believe my Asianness is unattractive and unwanted.
I also know that even if yellow fever is one part of the equation, it doesn’t always preclude actual love. In the case of my own parents, there was definitely fetishism on both sides, but I also truly believe they loved each other. That doesn’t excuse the fetishism at all, but it also doesn’t mean that love can’t be real. I think a lot of Asian men believe they’re battling yellow fever, but wind up focusing on their own issues around feeling entitled to women.
I do think some Asian men can be influenced by cultural misogyny, and that really does affect how they view Asian women dating and marrying out. But the flip side is that I can’t imagine an Asian man being totally turned off to the idea of dating outside his race. My father was an example of that — he definitely had a thing for white women, even as he made jokes about white dudes chasing Asian women.
I think a lot of these men, like so many men do, are really reacting to how society perceives their masculinity. The more I’ve talked to Asian men about interracial dating, the more I’ve noticed that for some, there seems to be an inferiority complex stemming from very real racism mixed with the kind of virulent misogyny too many men are prone to. Then you throw in the ideas some have about blood and “cultural purity” and it comes out as one steaming pile of shit.
Nikki: Every time I get a horrible comment or tweet or email from a fellow Asian American accusing me of being a slut, a white man’s property, or calling me or my kids names — I just think, man, THIS IS WHY WE CAN’T HAVE NICE THINGS.
I know the racist undermining of Asian American men and masculinity is a real thing. It should make us all angry. We should all call it out when we see it. (I also just DO NOT GET IT, frankly — I’ve found and find so many Asian men attractive.) But it’s horrible that these few men feel so entitled to any individual woman or group of women. And I don’t think the ones saying misogynistic things to me or saying gross things about my biracial kids really believe that is how we’re going to undermine racism.
I was talking about dating/marrying out recently with some Asian American friends who also have white partners — it can be tough to talk and write about this issue, because no one wants their relationship choices to be up for public debate, nor do they want to give more fodder to the people who might judge them. For me, if I’m honest, there’s also the very real sense that I did dodge a bullet, in a way. I like to think I’d have steered well clear of guys with Asian fetishes when I was younger, but when I think about my “colorblind” upbringing in a white adoptive family, I shudder to think of the kind of relationships I could have easily fallen into if not for very good luck. It’s not like there were any Asian people in my life to warn me about real fetishists. All I could do was, like, read between the lines of various novels and Broadway musicals.
And there are times when I do feel a twinge of discomfort over the fact that my relationship plays into that white guy/Asian girl trope at all, even though I know that’s not what it really is. Of course I don’t like thinking about my marriage, the central relationship of my life, as a stereotype — but at the same time, I’m not oblivious to how the world works. I think about what my relationship is, and sometimes I also think about how it may look. Will some people assume my husband has a fetish? Will they think I’m trying to attain whiteness and white children? [Nothing could be further from the truth; I actually wonder/worry a lot about my kids over-identifying with their non-Asian heritage, because it would be easier in so many ways. They’re already getting plenty of not-at-all-subtle societal messages about whose culture matters most.] Will they just dismiss me as a banana? As a transracial/transcultural adoptee, I already know I’m kind of a banana, though in my case I never rejected any aspect of my culture — it just flat-out wasn’t available to me until I was older and could go in search of it. So part of the reason my few but loud Asian American harassers really rankle — apart from the fact that they’re just spouting genuinely awful things, and bringing my children into it — is because of my own insecurity as a Korean, and the extra work I’ve had to do to figure out my identity as an adopted person.
Noah: The sad thing for me is that I know you call out racism against Asian men, Nikki, yet some don’t do you the same courtesy of backing you up. And I think it’s really terrible that you have to feel the need to publicly justify your interracial relationship to anyone, let alone to men who are projecting their own insecurities onto you.
The way some East Asian men perform masculinity is something that I’ve struggled with for most of my life. I grew up around a lot of Asian people — East, Southeast, South — and I can say that it was often a few East Asian guys who made me feel the most uncomfortable and pushed an intense kind of misogyny on the girls around us.
I don’t mean to stereotype a whole group; obviously that’s a really slippery slope. But I do want to think about this in terms of my own experiences, again, because misogyny seemed to be built into the worldview of some of my monoracial Asian friends. All the comments that you might worry about regarding your kids — being a “mutt,” or impure, etc. — most of that came to me from certain Asian people, not from racist white people. White people misread my racial presentation and primarily ascribed Asian stereotypes to me; Asian people, specifically Asian men, went for the jugular with comments about my multiracial heritage.
There’s always more going on than other people ever know that leads to how we choose our partners.
I get that it sucks to feel unattractive, and I get that some dudes fear they’re going to be alone. That’s a shitty feeling. But to turn around and condemn individual women for choices they make, choices that may actually stem from real and negative experiences with men of their own race, just reeks of bullshit of the highest order to me. There’s always more going on than other people ever know that leads to how we choose our partners.
I think I’ve told you this before, but as an example, I once had a conversation with an Asian friend about why she never dates Asian men. She said she didn’t want another set of Asian parents, and didn’t want to feel “trapped” in her own culture anymore. Again, I was reflexively upset at first, but the more we talked it through the more I understood where she was coming from — after all, my own parents made a similar decision in many ways. That she had felt so oppressed by the patriarchal nature of her own individual family was really distressing. I also realized that as someone with a white mom, I’d never totally get exactly what my friend was referencing.
I’m still not immune to having a reaction when I see a white person with an Asian partner, even though I am a direct product of a union like that. But I’ve put real thought into why I might have a reaction sometimes, and I know it has nothing to do with Asian women generally or one Asian person in particular — it’s more of a rage at the systemic things in media and culture that have led me to believe my Asianness is unattractive and unwanted.
I don’t think you ever need to justify why you’re attracted to who you’re attracted to.
Nikki: Nor do I think anyone should have to explain their romantic/relationship/other huge life choices to anybody else, yet here we are.
Someone tried talking to me recently about which groups “respect women” and which don’t, and I had to break it to them that I didn’t think there were any in which women were universally respected. It is sad and infuriating when you feel disrespected in your own family, by your own community, etc., and of course that’s going to create some baggage.
Personally, I can’t imagine saying “I don’t date anyone from group [x].” Ruling out a whole group of potential relationships or partners based on race or culture seems odd to me, because every relationship you decide to enter is based on a highly individualized assessment you make about a particular person you know.
(That sounds so romantic, doesn’t it?)
To be clear, I do know that just saying fetishism isn’t your thing doesn’t mean it’s not your thing. I feel very confident that my husband doesn’t hold any terrible views about me/Asian women/women at large, but I also recognize that our relationship might represent different things to different people who see us together. Is that a bad thing? Even if it is, what can I do about it? People can and should think critically about race and relationships, even if I don’t want some of them focusing on my relationship, and I can’t stop anyone from drawing conclusions about us that aren’t true.
Feeling certain that I’m not being fetishized by my partner doesn’t make his white male privilege or our disparate experiences as people of different races any less relevant. I have no interest in just sticking my head in the sand and pretending those things don’t exist. And I also have a responsibility, especially as a parent of Korean kids, to acknowledge and discuss them. We will definitely talk with our children about racism and stereotypes and how the fetishization of Asian women is sometimes portrayed and actively pushed by the media, and unlike me they will always have people in their lives who have experienced being Asian in this country and can frankly discuss these issues.
People can and should think critically about race and relationships, even if I don’t want some of them focusing on *my* relationship.
Do you think we can do anything to make this better?
Noah: I think one thing I wish I could go back and tell my friends when I was a teenager was that they should trust that people have the right to fall in love with whoever they want. There is, of course, lots of yellow fever out there, and I think most right-thinking people are disgusted by it. At the same time, that doesn’t give Asian men the right to police Asian women’s dating choices or attack them for it.
I think some of this has to do with the insularity of some communities. Many first-gen East Asian Americans tend to cluster by ethnicity for support and cultural identification — which is understandable. As more generations are born here and develop and change, a lot of the aversion to dating outside ethnicity and race naturally shifts. I mean, I married a Japanese person, which my Korean grandfather would never have accepted in a million years, but most Asian American people of my generation wouldn’t think it’s a big deal. I also have a lot of friends in interracial relationships, as you do, too — and depending on geography and generations and families and friend circles and other factors, it’s not really that big of deal to most of us. Ultimately, I really want people who feel the need to judge individuals within their own communities to ask themselves if their actions are actually helpful at all, or if they’re just further pushing people further away.
Nicole Chung is the Managing Editor of The Toast.