Relationships are initiated on the premise that the people involved are attracted to each other. This premise holds for all types of amorous relationships: heterosexual, homosexual, monogamous or polygynous. However love arguably transcends attraction. But it is attraction, the prerequisite of love, so to speak, that I am interested in here - the initial feeling at the very beginning of romantic, or at least sexual, relation.
If the majority of us were honest, to both ourselves and others, a great deal of our desire to be liked is linked to the desire (and/or pressure) to be in a relationship. Attractiveness is then a quality sought after; the state of being not only physically beautiful, but intelligent, funny, charming and well, in terms of a society that values consumption and material worth, possibly wealthy too. If a combination of these general traits are what you need to be considered attractive, and if being attractive is the prerequisite to love, then there’s a dangerous assumption that without these traits one is not worthy of love.
For the time being, let’s collate this down to beauty, i.e. physical attractiveness. The idea of beauty as a phenomenon worthy of feminist debate is by no means new. Naomi Wolf most notably delved into a kind of sexism that accompanied visual media, visual misogyny and the way images are used against women in her book, The Beauty Myth (1990). An important observation of Wolf’s: “the beauty myth is always actually prescribing behaviour and not appearance”, argues that the preoccupation with objective beauty, namely women’s eagerness to embody this objectivity, is in reality a preoccupation with the obedience of women. Wolf’s The Beauty Myth is still a relevant dialogue that sheds light on the external influences on women’s internal desires and fixation of appearing attractive as part of a wider misogynist society. And this was more than a decade before social media.
As important and groundbreaking as Wolf’s, The Beauty Myth was and is, it is somewhat limited in the scope it applies when it comes to myths about beauty and race. For the purposes and word allowance of this essay, I shall be referring primarily to the heterosexual circumstance of the fetishisation of East Asian women paired with the seeming eligibility of white Western men, by namely referring to a somewhat revealing conversation between myself, a mixed race white/Asian British woman and my friend, a Chinese woman, in a New York coffee shop.
In an increasingly gentrified Bushwick, Brooklyn - an area known for it's Hispanic, Jewish and black communities, not always having lived so harmoniously side by side - I sat with my friend, Natalie* from Macau, a region in China not too far from Hong Kong. It was the end of October, but it was an unusually bright and crisp day. The sun shone through the wall of glass at the entrance of the shop and a clear view of those getting on with their day, outside on Wilson Ave, was visible from my where I sat.
In view were a number of grocery businesses: a laundromat, barbers and hairdressers. Groups of people hung around these businesses, inside and outside, in an admirable exercise of community. Noticeably, almost everyone outside the coffee shop was a person of colour and, in contrast, everyone inside was white; sat independently, hunched over a laptop, nursing a flat white. The coffee shop was relatively quiet (and boring), but conventionally cool and would absolutely wrack up likes on Instagram. Tried and tested. Outside Latin-pop music crackled loudly out of worn speakers, children danced and hopped between the legs of adults avoiding the tag of whoever was "it", and old men sat playing checkers on fold-out garden furniture.
We ordered lunch, and as the waiter left the table, Natalie took a look around and vocalised what had run through my head, "this is where white people hang out around here." I laughed, a recognition at both of us as women of Asian descent and both as foreign women in America. Where segregation signs may be a thing of the past but the mentality that hung them in the first place still thrives.
We were both a couple of months into solo travel trips to America. English was Natalie’s second language so we were going over some of the more colloquial terms and phrases, and the differences in American English and well, English; but importantly also, as I am from Liverpool, the Scouse dialect and from there, a general discussion of Britain, America and China.
As the conversation progressed, Natalie asked me to clarify what dating means. She complained she did not understand what dating was or how dating worked in America, or England, or the West and the word itself seemed to be thrown about, in and out of contexts, with no correlation. I told her it is complex. Some people consider “dating” to be a relationship. Some people consider “dating” to be casual. Some people consider “dating” a personal activity where they seek out the company of different people, until they agree on who to be monogamous with. Some people are having sex but not dating. Some people are dating but not having sex. I ended up concluding that it is usually considered an activity that people who are attracted to each other do together, to get to know each other. Other than that, every other person seems as equally as confused about navigating the realm of romance as the next.
It was a conversation between two women, from two rather different backgrounds, that transcended cultural barriers. We were talking about sex, love and language. It seems you can be intelligent and independent but still, there is something oddly and uniquely enjoyable, simultaneously therapeutic and entertaining, in the bonding that happens between women when talking about our love lives.
Then Natalie said the most interesting thing of all: "isn't it weird how everyone wants to be the white man?" I was taken back, not because I didn’t understand or agree, but because of the exact opposite, I understood and agreed too well. Even in the realm of dating, romance and love, white people are monopolising. Consider the general traits stated earlier as attractiveness: beauty, intelligence, humour, charm and wealth. Also consider that the oppressive notion of objective beauty Wolf is referring to in The Beauty Myth is in fact a particular type of whiteness: a white, thin, submissive woman. Wolf argues that this notion of beauty is relayed to us through the use of images and narratives. Extend this argument to include not only women, but men, plus the other traits mentioned, and what you get is a positive stereotype of beautiful, intelligent, funny, charming and wealthy white people. In essence, you get the eligible white man.
Natalie qualified her statement, "everyone either wants to be in a relationship with a white man or be a white man." I nodded, prompting her to go on. By everyone, I knew she meant a lot of Asian people. She continued, "I feel like a lot of white men are willing to date Asian women, but white women are not willing to date Asian men." What Natalie summarised is the situation in which Asian women become a fetish, paired with the seeming eligibility of white men.
Touched upon in The Beauty Myth is the wider discussion of feminism and sex. Wolf argues that submission of women has been continually eroticised, through mediums as direct as porn or as subtle as commercial advertising. If there is a case where the eroticisation of submission most certainly applies, it is in the fetishisation of East Asian women. What is distinct about the eroticism of Asian women as passive is that it is not unleashed via mainstream imagery, media or narrative on the scale that it is with white, thin women. The fetishisation of Asian women is done in a sort of underground way - a way that silences Asian women from even responding. It is a phenomenon that does not get the mainstream attention to be adequately challenged. In fact, the mainstream narrative of Asian women is one born out of the mainstream narrative of white, thin beauty. To put it bluntly, Asian women are deemed by these standards as ugly. The fetishisation of Asian women, colloquially known as “yellow fever”, is what can be considered a sort of white men’s guilty pleasure. A truly embarrassing and cruel juxtaposition felt and experienced by Asian women. To break it down, the “guilt” - or the shame - is the manifestation of racism. The “pleasure” is the same as what is happening to all women, re. the beauty myth.
The reason, it seems, white women are not interested in Asian men, in the way it appears white men are interested in Asian women, has to do with three factors. Firstly, women, of all races, are more or less socialised to be submissive, this makes men, of all races, “the first mover”. This logic applies in the case of white women and Asian men. Therefore, women are always going to appear more reserved and less “willing to date”, to use Natalie’s terminology. Women traditionally are supposed to navigate a world where their worth relies on the quality of their husband, but before marriage (i.e. when in the limbo-state of potential bride), women are to show zero interest in men, as not to appear promiscuous or unsuitable. This archaic (bullshit) ideology still moulds its way into current thinking. Secondly, racist stereotypes are at play. White women are not interested in Asian men because Asian men do not have the positive stereotype of Prince Charming attached to them. Instead, Asian people are mocked. Sure, they are clever and wealthy, but they are nerdy, boring and “all look the same.” White women don't have time for that. Consider what I mentioned earlier: without being deemed attractive, there’s an assumption one is not worthy of love. Just to reiterate, racist stereotypes.
Thirdly, and crucially to the dynamic Natalie summarised, are essentially the first two assumptions combined: women are submissive and Asians are to be mocked. What you get is a cruel fetishisation of Asian women, a circumstance where men objectify and dehumanise Asian women in thinking of them only for sexual satisfaction. A fetish that satisfies a particularly horrible trait of misogyny: simultaneously controlling and humiliating women. Women who are deemed worthy of humiliation because they are Asian.
The reason this fetishisation is specific to East Asian women by white men, and not white women by East Asian men is because the traditional power structure of patriarchy tells us to strive for heterosexual relationships in which the man is superior. Importantly for this dynamic to succeed, both men and women want the man to be superior. It does not work with a white woman and an East Asian man because even though she experiences sexism, he experiences racism and the “normal” power dynamic is off.
My mother was from a Malaysian village and married a white Western man, my father. They are now divorced. I grew up knowing of the preconceptions and ideals my mum had projected on what life with a white Western man would entail. At the time when Natalie and I were having this conversation, I would have been in New York for two months and I remembered my Malaysian mother’s words, said to me before leaving Liverpool, flooding into my memory: "maybe you'll find an American man." Because a-white-man-from-a-foreign-Western-land-may-potentially-save-you is a narrative that my mum had bought into and never quite thrown away.
The point of this essay is not to discredit interracial love. It is not to discredit all the beautiful relationships happening between Asian people and white people. It is not to discredit my parents’ relationship - my own existence. My intention is to highlight some of the more cruel aspects of misogyny that meet at the intersection between sexism and racism and thus, violently infiltrate our lives. Somewhere, there is a white woman so in love with an Asian man, and him with her. Somewhere a same-sex, different-race couple are providing love and support to each other in a world that is not ready to fathom their amount of love. And somewhere, an Asian woman and white man are dating: sharing books, meeting for coffee and making mixtapes. Both thinking of each other as fully human; if not, the best of human the world can offer.
Unfortunately, the fetishisation of East Asian women is a real phenomenon too. Racism and sexism are forces so harsh and so resilient they do not stop at social and economic inequality, they even go as far to move in and damage the territory of, what we arguably hold most dear: love.
*Name changed to protect identity