This guest post is actually a two-part post by two writers, cl and fromthetropics. cl writes of herself, "I'm an Asian American female graduate student who spends a lot of time thinking about math, race, gender, and human relationships." fromthetropics writes of herself, "I am mixed cultured, and always feel in-between -- both here and there, but neither fully here nor there."
I was traveling through Europe with my boyfriend over the Christmas holidays. At the Prague castle, a ticket agent spoke English with my white boyfriend, and then turned and tried his Japanese with me. When I didn't respond, he asked my boyfriend standing right next to me, "What does the lady speak?" His English wasn't great, his accent heavy, and my boyfriend didn't hear him at first over the buzz, so he tried again, "Japanese?" This time, I spoke up, "No, Chinese." He then tries a few lines of his limited Chinese with me. I just wanted to get past him as quickly as possible, so I obliged sparingly, as it had become clear to me that he was going to hold on to our ticket until I had given him some indication of my ethnicity. Pretending to not hear him hadn't worked.
My boyfriend mused afterward that he thought the guy was nice and sweet. I shook my head and said I didn't think so. When he asked why, I didn't have an answer for him. I didn't know how to begin to explain or phrase even to myself what felt so uncomfortable and racist in that interaction, without sounding hollow or oversensitive. Really, this sort of conversation about race is always difficult to begin.
He's white, and while he's as aware as I might hope for someone to be about racial issues, ultimately, he doesn't see race everywhere like I do. He saw that interaction with the ticket agent as a friendly interaction, an innocent curiosity. I saw it framed in nothing but a racial context. My skin color prompted him to try and use Japanese with me, despite having just used English with my boyfriend. When I chose not to engage, I saw his turning to my boyfriend to ask what I said as him stereotyping me as a quiet, demure Asian woman who spoke broken English at best. I finally spoke up because I hated playing into that stereotype. Responding didn't prove to be a better scenario for me either, but I so often feel trapped by these scenarios, where common courtesy with curious strangers makes me feel like I can't point out how offended I was by that interaction. I'm just too sensitive, they'd say.
And these are the scenarios that my white boyfriend doesn't have to live with.
The question that I've been struggling with recently is how much of my attraction to him is motivated by race. I don't know if I find him more attractive because he's white and dating him makes me seem less ethnic. I'm more white by association. I notice this even in the town that I live in. When I’m there with my sister or my mother, I get asked questions about where I'm from and what my ethnicity is way more often than when I’m out around town with my white friends or my white boyfriend.
Do I find him more attractive than the average Asian American male because he's white, and I have the underlying belief that white is beautiful? How much of my attraction to him has to do with the fact that being with him represents a climb in social status, or that maybe I'm attractive enough to be with a white guy? That I'm attractive enough to "overcome" my Asian-ness? How much of it affects his attraction to me? Is he with me because I'm Asian, but I run counter to his subconscious assumptions about Asian women? Maybe it’s because I'm not what he would've expected an Asian woman to be like, that I'm more interesting and intriguing and unique to him. Would I have been less interesting to him if I had been white?
I want to know how an Asian American female, to whom topics of race and gender are personally important, begins a conversation about these things with her able-bodied, heterosexual, attractive, white boyfriend. How do I begin to explain to him what oppression is like and why these topics are more than just a "passion" for me, that they are more to me than just a fervored interest? How do I explain to someone who's never felt oppression in his life the anger, frustration, and helplessness I feel? How do I explain why this isn't just something that we could agree to disagree on, have differing opinions on?
Race and gender issues are personal to me because they affect my life directly. Should an expression of such anger and frustration be kept to myself or among other people of color, who can empathize and wouldn't take it as accusatory and angry? Or because he's my boyfriend, my partner, are the emotions I experience allowed to be expressed? Though he can't empathize, should he be willing to listen and recognize that he can't empathize? Or is he another white male with whom I have to be careful about how I approach the topic of race or sexism?
Do we just avoid the topic of race altogether?
He gets it in theory. He gets it on paper. But at the end of the day, he doesn't live it. He can say that he doesn't see race when it comes to us dating, that it doesn't cross his mind that we're an interracial couple, but I see race everywhere. I wonder what other people expect when he mentions his girlfriend and an Asian girl shows up. I wonder what they think. I wonder how I come off to other people of color, and I wonder all the time if I'm not more attracted to him because of his status as a white male in this society. Race isn't something that I get to just shelve and pull down every once in a while and think about. I live it and deal with it constantly.
How do other interracial couples navigate these delicate issues of race?
The post on how some white guys fetishize Asian women (and I am sure Asian men too, e.g. in homosexual relationships) was cool and all, but that phenomenon is too obvious and easy to spot. What I really want to get at are the subtle racial nuances that affect interracial relationships, particularly when the guy is white -- so nuanced that he doesn’t even notice it.
I am an ‘Asian’ woman, but mixed cultured. I do not have the choice of not being in a cross-cultural relationship. I want to keep the cultural difference in my choice of partner to a minimum, since I have to deal with it in all other aspects of my life. I am in no way infatuated by the idea of being with someone from a completely different (and thereby seemingly exotic) background. I click best with guys who are either a Westernized Asian* or Asianized Westerner** because they are closest to me in terms of culture. I have been both casually and seriously attracted to guys of all backgrounds, Western(ized) or otherwise. But the guys I've actually dated have been Eurasian or white.
I often question my preference, though. When I am with non-Westernized Asians who are uncomfortable dealing with white people, I wonder if that will become an issue for me. Will I have to retreat into an exclusively Asian world to make things easy for us, or be the one out there dealing with the white world for the both of us? Is my preference a preference for white privilege?
The white guy I dated was already quite aware of racism by the time I had met him. So I thought the whole racial side of things was all sorted out. Little did I realize that it runs a bit deeper and in more nuanced ways.
I hated hearing about the time he lived in Asia. I could sense that he was not fully aware of how white privilege worked in nuanced ways through him and his mates. I could picture the kind of people who would have wanted to befriend him, the kind who see white as ‘desirable,’ and how his white mates would have behaved. The instant celebrity status would have gotten to some of their heads. (Some of their stories corroborated my hunches.)
How do I know all this? I have lived in China, where they either treated me as a Westerner or Japanese. The kind who made the most effort to spend time with me saw these foreign characteristics about me as ‘desirable’. A bunch of us foreigners got invited to a birthday party, and once there realized that we, not the birthday girl, were the main attraction. They treated us well, but I felt uncomfortable that we were invited specifically for our privilege.
But my then partner didn’t seem aware or bothered by this type of nuanced privilege. This mattered to me. It mattered because we might be present in the same space, but we would experience our interaction with others differently -- him with privilege and me without.
It also means that I felt the need to question why I was attracted to him, while he didn’t. Am I attracted to him because he is white? Do I see white as desirable? I’ve been attracted to plenty of Asian guys before, but why have I never dated one? Is it coincidence? I asked these questions while I was with him, and even after. That was in Australia.
While visiting Indonesia recently, those questions became -- So. In. My. Face. White man + Indonesian woman couples abound. With far too many, the power imbalance in which race appeared to play a role was obvious, whether due to the financial implications (white = financially better off than most Indonesians) or because ‘white’ is simply seen as desirable. The latter bothers me because it is so much more nuanced and hidden. A couple of times I approached a white single guy to talk about work with no other intentions whatsoever, and I could sense them pull back, suspicious that I may have other motives, given that so many women before me did. It is hard not to think about race in this context -- when you see it at work all around you.
It is hard for me to not question my attraction when the guy is white. Even when I believe that it is not because he is white, I ask: But does he know this? Does he know that him being white does not matter to me? Or does he think I am just another Asian chick who is starry eyed over white guys? Does he think it is that easy to get me attracted to him?
Why did my former partner say that race doesn’t matter when all three of his girlfriends have been Asian? His brother’s girlfriend is Asian. His (white) best friend also has an Asian girlfriend. Is this pure coincidence? Does it really not matter?
Do white guys not feel the need to question their attraction to Asian women because, as someone in a position of more privilege, they do not have to worry that they are doing it for some apparent gain in status?
If they do not question whether a girl likes them because they are white, how will they know who loves them for who they are, and who loves them for whatever status can be gained from being with a white guy? Or do white men not question such things because they enjoy that extra attention and ego boost they get from being white in Asia?
If they do not know that white privilege runs really deep, how will they know that I like them for who they are, and that I don’t give a shit that they’re white? Will they know that I scrutinize my motives precisely to make sure I don’t shortchange them -- that I do so because I respect and care about them as a man, minus the race qualifier?
* I use this term to differentiate them from those who are also culturally Asian (e.g. born and raised in Asia), though I will sometimes just use ‘Asian’ when it is not necessary to differentiate.
** By ‘Westerner,’ I do not mean specifically Caucasian, though I do tend to meet more Caucasian Westerners than, say, Black Westerners where I live. By ‘Asianized Westerner,’ I mean, for example, Westerners who are interested in Asia, speak an Asian language, and don’t ‘feel white’ regardless of what color they are.