Pop culture often portrays Asian Americans as successful because of strict parenting or just plain hard work. But a new book debunks the “model minority” myth, revealing the way government policies have actually skewed those perceptions. I recently interviewed Jennifer Lee, professor of sociology at the University of California, Irvine, and co-author of The Asian American Achievement Paradox about her research.
“Fresh Off the Boat” (2015– ) is a US television sitcom that features an Asian American main cast, the first since “All American Girl” (1994) starring Margaret Cho. It is pretty much “The Wonder Years” with Asian faces. Critics have largely praised the show.
It is inspired by a book, “Fresh Off the Boat: A Memoir” (2013) by Eddie Huang, a Taiwanese American lawyer and restauranteur.
Premise: Eddie Huang’s family moves from Washington, DC’s Chinatown to suburban Orlando, Florida in the mid 1990s to run a steakhouse. The family struggles with assimilation in their new environment while Eddie finds solace in hip hop.
**Disclaimer: In this article I focus on the fetishization of Asian females. I acknowledge that there are prevalent fetishes of other races and they are just as problematic. I acknowledge that I cannot speak for or from the POV of the LGBT community, male Asians, or any other race, though I recognize the problems associated with all these groups. I write this from an Asian-American female-identifying perspective.
As I was researching the socioeconomic progress Asian-American women have been making over the past decade, I found it immensely ironic that I came across this above advertisement that offers me an enticing “DATE NOW” button that may as well read “GET YOURS TODAY.”
There are blogs dedicated to “hot Asian women.” There are porn categories dedicated to Asian women. “Yellow fever”, an actual sickness that kills 30,000 people globally per year, is a term noted by urbandictionary.com as a “Sexual obsession felt by a non-Asian (usually white, usually male) towards Asians of the opposite gender.” It was a major reason why Wong Fu Productions propelled into fame among U.S. college students with their 2006 cringeworthy first major short film Yellow Fever. In an attempt to satirize the complexities of interracial relationships, it actually perpetuates the prevailing idea that Asian women are passive, one-dimensional objects of desire to be conquered.
This concept, Asian fetishization, is deeply ingrained in our cultural subconscious as a result of white colonial history and the nature of Asian women’s depiction in popular media.
What is it exactly?
Any type of racially-based fetish is the exotification of groups of people based on their race. It is the generalization of individuals based on a stereotypical image.
What’s a fetish, again? Aren’t those sexual?
A standalone fetish does not harm anyone, as it should always involve mutual consent from all those involved. For this reason fetishes come with the idea that people have the ability to move in and out of the fetish space. Fetishes are self-chosen lifestyles, self-determined actions, or involve the sexualization of a body part.
The term “Asian fetish” itself is indicative of very racist undertones, reducing a vast group of people into sexual objects. However, for lack of a better term and for the accessibility of this discussion I will refer to it as needed.
What about preferences? What if someone just happens to be attracted to a certain race?
This is a very popular argument in defense of Asian fetishization.
The important difference between a fetish and a preference (or attraction, or a type) is that a preference does not project a personality onto an individual. Preferences make no assumptions about a person. A person can absolutely have a preference for people with red hair or people who wear glasses. A person may have a thing for artists or athletes. A person can be attracted to others who are outspoken or intellectual. These are all isolated traits that are, by themselves, not sentient. Groups of people with ancestry tracing back to an entire continent are.
Racial fetishes use stereotypes to assume characteristics that are applied to an entire racial group. A guy could have a fetish for docile Asian girls with the presumption that all Asian girls are docile. People can control whether or not to wear their hair a certain way or work out if they believe that will make them more attractive. However, people cannot amp up or scale down how much of their race they represent based on problematic stereotypes.
Why are racial fetishes, especially Asian fetishes, such a widespread thing?
It may trace back to the prevalence of the rape and sexual exploitation in the context of war when American soldiers went abroad and formally occupied the Pacific Rim in the mid-1900s. In Mis Jenkins’ article for Persephone Magazine entitled “Asian Women, American GIs, and Modern Rape Culture”, the author writes, “Much of the concept of Asian women as sexually submissive comes from the victimized condition in which American soldiers found these women when they arrived in combat zones throughout the Pacific.” Women latched onto these men for protection in the wake of their country’s impoverished and war-torn state as well as onto the empty promises GIs made of a prosperous life in the U.S.
“I don’t think I am being racist when I say I am more attracted to Asian women over other women. Wouldn’t it be racist to not find Asian women attractive at all? I feel like this is a double standard. I don’t want to feel like I am being racist whenever I am attracted to someone who happens to be Asian”
Statements like these fail to acknowledge the inherent racism in projecting a hierarchy in attraction of races in the first place. They also fail to recognize the agency of the individual Asian woman because they are not ever always going to be the same.
This sort of defense tends to come from non-Asian males, but is also used by Asian women who aren’t willing to analyze the objectification of their sisters. Vivienne Chen of the Huffington Post who writes in her piece “So, He Likes You Because You’re Asian”:
“The messy body-image politics of our native cultures, combined with the even messier sexual politics of interracial dating, are constantly conspiring against us Asian American females. The sooner we admit this and treat this with some good humor, the sooner we can stop flipping tables every time out new date has a few too many Asian girls on his Facebook friends list.”
Chen essentially excuses how Asian fetishization is so deeply ingrained in our culture and asks Asian Americans to acquiesce to the oppression inherent in the objectification. It’s not uncommon for moderates to step into the discussion and ask that Asian American women stop “overreacting” to all the attention this issue gets in pop culture or media. This is a way of further silencing our voices in reclaiming autonomy and identity, and it is destructive.
We can be attracted to people for various reasons, but racist stereotypes and exotification should not be one of them. As Reappropriate.co’s writer states in her response to Chen’s article “So She Wants to Defend Asian Fetishism”:
“The simple act of objectifying a person based on their race is, in and of itself, racist.”
We shouldn’t accept dehumanization just because it’s in the realm of romantic or sexual relationships. When it’s harmful, it’s harmful. Fetishization that denies people their individual histories and considers race a palpable feature cannot be equated to simply finding someone attractive.
Reappropriate addresses the narrow-mindedness that comes with racial fetishization, “Limiting oneself to dating only a certain physical type—racial or otherwise—is as superficial as it is racist, and is almost a guarantee to miss out on the potential love of your life.” Some people when called out on their racial fetishes feel personally offended for not being allowed to “appreciate” other cultures when they express their preferences. The thing is, seeking out pre-conceived ideas about an entire race of people, rather than seeking out individuals, is not appreciation. Reducing people to damaging stereotypes and generalization is not appreciation. Appreciation is taking a person for who they are, and it is engaging in respectful dialogue about culture the way a guest would.
“I’m not sure if I have a racial fetish. How can I tell?”
Do you think you like a certain race because of things you assume about it?
Assumptions that lead you to what you consider desirable traits would be considered fetishization.
Do you say you like certain features associated with a certain race?
Sorry, your generalizations constitute fetishization because race encompasses so many variations. Asia itself happens to be the most populous continent. When you stick a catch-all label for your preference “I HAVE A THING FOR ASIAN GIRLS” you have to realize that you might be thinking of East Asians like the Japanese, Korean, or Chinese but you are still referring to a term that Indians, Mongolians, Indonesians, Filipinos, and more identify with. There are way too many countries that constitute Asia to be able to make broad generalizations about physical features. This mentality is ignorant to the diversity of Asian people.
You must also think critically about where you get the ideas of general Asian features from. Television? Movies? Sidebar ads about Single Hot Asian Chicks In Your Area? Celebrities? Think about where your ideas of race come from. Also, think about how race is a social construct, and no tangible meaning. This means it therefore can’t be projected onto individuals.
Do you consciously exclude certain races from your dating pool? Or do you single out one race of people you prefer to date?
This is not even fetishization at this point. That’s an example of textbook racism at work.
The problems and consequences of racial fetishization
Exotifying a person of color reaffirms white as the norm. It is additionally damaging to the already skewed power dynamic prevalent in race relations. People of color are reduced to objects of desire. Fetishization compromises a person’s identity and personal history for one’s twisted fantasies.
Equating an Asian girl you meet with a Kpop star or an anime character reduces her to a caricature perpetuated by popular media. It is seeing Asian women as mere representatives of a racial whole. It means that any Asian girl will be just as good as the next, reducing her to one of millions of dolls with features constructed by your imagination. It robs her of her autonomy outside of a genetically decided makeup. A fetish based on race is racist because it is treating a person differently based on the color of their skin and as treating her as less human than you. Racial fetishes perpetuate disempowerment of all women of color’s agency over the control of their perception.
What can we do about racial fetishization?
If you have a feeling you have an internalized racial fetish, examine the reasons behind the preferences and decide for yourself if it has a stereotypical basis. Do you legitimately happen to live in a community that happens to be heavily populated with Asian people and don’t have many options when it comes to dating? Or are you inexplicably more interested in Asian girls because you inherently equate them with the giggly, sensual caricatures you see on the internet? Think about the media you consume and if there may be any connection between that and your own ideas about what is attractive in people.
Acknowledge how messy relationships are and how much more complicated they are when considering the inevitable mixing of race, history, and culture. Please don’t excuse your actions by claiming to be “colorblind.” All of this can be an inadvertently political thing! Acknowledge, then that every time you think it’s normal to have a preference or normalize when your friends do, you become part of the problem that keeps these women objectified.
Attraction is a weird thing, and falling in love is arguably a weirder thing. Be aware of any biases you may have and actively work on rewiring yourself in order to understand the bigger consequences of your actions and thoughts. Think about the fact that generalizations of race is not going to be a good indicator of what a person is going to look like, behave like, or think like. Be attentive to your language as words have power. It’s very simple and much more descriptive to say, “I think darker skin is beautiful and I’m really attracted to brown eyes” than specifying an entire racial group.
We all want to be considered individuals. An important way of doing this is refusing to buy into the stereotypes presented by the media and love people for who they are rather than for the color of their skin.
“I was exposed to this idea that I cannot stand in solidarity with communities of color, because “Asians inherently embodied whiteness.” This made me dislike my Asian-American identity, because I was not white, but not a person of color. Now I am able to realize how all this is all structural and institutionalized racism, a method used to dismember the Asian-American identity.
Community Village‘s insight:
By “dismember” I suspect Snguon means “co-opt“, but I get his point, and he is on point. In a poetic sense the word “dismember” works when thought of as dissolving membership away from other people of color – in which case he’s right. That is what main stream Euro-American dominated mass media tends to do.
Videos, photographs, and audio clips from the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Program. Learn more about the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Program through photo slideshows of events, educational videos, and more.
Community Village‘s insight:
This video talks about the Chinese exclusion act.
The Smithsonian does not yet have a dedicated museum for Asian Americans.
With its plethora of cultural meanings, both positive and negative, Hafu is a term used to describe a Japanese of mixed heritage. Detailing the nuances of this hybridity, directors Megumi NISHIKURA and Lara Perez TAKAGI, both Hafu themselves, tell a compelling story of the voices and visibility of the Hafu identity with five stories of Hafu Japanese as they connect to their other roots in Australia, Korea, Venezuela, Mexico and Ghana to give us an absorbing look at ways of being Japanese.
Erika Nishizato and Ken Tanabe, filmmakers involved in the production of HAFU, will be in attendance for Q&A.
Community Village‘s insight:
Event happens at Asian American International Film Festival New York City (07/24-08/03)