I studied abroad at the National University of Singapore for a semester my sophomore year. I couldn’t help but notice a peculiar trend: My white male friends were fascinated with the idea of hitting on Asian girls. This “yellow fever” wasn’t shared by my female friends though.
Why these different attitudes?
The skew is not just anecdotal. In the United States, there are 529,000 white male – Asian female married couples and just 219,000 Asian male – white female married couples, according to the 2010 U.S. census. Similarly, the number of black male – white female marriages is 2.3 times bigger than the number of white male – black female pairs. With African Americans and Asian Americans, the ratios are even further imbalanced, with roughly five times more Asian female – African male marriages than Asian male – African female marriages.
The phenomenon is not even confined to the U.S. In 2013, cognitive psychologist Michael Lewis at the University of Cardiff in Wales in the U.K. asked 20 females and 20 males to rate 600 Facebook pictures of British, sub-Saharan Africans, and East Asians. The participants consistently voted black men and Asian women as the most attractive representatives of each gender; Asian men and black women were seen as the least desirable partners.
“Darker skin is always associated with more masculine faces,” Lewis told me in a phone conversation. Difference in height can also partially explain the observed results, he said. Society imposes a “male-superior norm” that a man should be taller than his partner; and blacks are on average taller than whites, who are taller than Asians, he says.
I thought there must be more to the picture. I set off to answer the question, What informs our perception of beauty? Is there really something profound about face shape, height and body features that defines attraction? Or, is beauty merely a social construct amplified by popular culture?
After more than a dozen interviews, I found some fascinating answers that go back two centuries of history. This post is long overdue (two years after I returned from Singapore) but I want to share my findings with you.
THREE OVERARCHING STEREOTYPES
Three major stereotypes – that have come into being in history and have since been reinforced by popular culture – inform the perceptions of beauty in Western culture today, says Nitasha Sharma, an anthropology professor at Northwestern University who researches difference, inequality and racism in Asian-black relations.
The first stereotype is that black men are aggressive and hyper-masculine – “walking penises” – and Asian women are the perfect wives – docile, submissive, obedient, shy and waiting to be saved, Sharma says. Second, Asian men have been de-sexualized as small and weak brainiacs excelling at math but unable to get the girl, while black women have been seen as too aggressive, independent and outspoken to be proper wives. The third stereotype portrays whites in a position of power and “globally desired,” a key to gaining a higher social status.
Love is not colorblind, Sharma admits. However, to claim that height and shape or symmetries of the face make some races more desirable than others is a “complete baloney,” she says.
If you think of Asian men or black women as less attractive than other races, it is because of you, not because of them, Sharma says. Since the day you were born, different influences on your mind – the bedtime stories your Mom read, the cartoons you saw as kid, the school you went to and the wallpaper on your computer – have come together to create a cohesive image of the world.
HOW THE ENTERTAINMENT INDUSTRY PRIMES US
Popular culture – movies, TV, cartoons, books – aim to reflect reality and end up reinforcing it as well. “This is not a matter of brainwashing,” Sharma says. “It’s how people make sense of their position in society.” Stereotyping puts people in categories and helps us explain a complex world with oversimplification.
Look at those figures: On screen, black characters use profanity 89 percent of the time, versus white characters who use profanity 17 percent of the time. Blacks are depicted in physical violence 56 percent of the time, while whites play violent roles just 11 percent of the time, according to Robert Entman and Andrew Rojecki’s 2000 book “The Black Image in the White Mind.”
Blacks are further shown as either lazy or hypersexual, while Asian men, to the extent that they are portrayed at all, are either momma’s boys or effeminate computer dorks with no social skills, Entman says.
“If you can come up with an example [in movies] where an Asian man is shown in a sexual role with a white woman, I’d be shocked. Shocked!” Sharma says.
Asian men normally do not take the romantic lead. During its 15-year run, the NBC show “ER” did not star a single Asian in a leading male role. “Grey’s Anatomy” showed the romances of six white characters – exclusively with other white people – and between a black male, Dr. Preston Burke, and an Asian female, Dr. Cristina Yang. An iPhone 4 FaceTime commercial features three couples – all of them white men video calling either white or Asian female mates. There are countless more examples.
Some notable big-screen exceptions include Bruce Lee, Jackie Chan and Jet Li. Even so, if Asians are portrayed as heroes, they are mostly martial arts masters and not necessarily a magnet for women, says James Berardinelli, a film critic at Reelviews Movie Reviews.
The 2000 blockbuster “Romeo Must Die” features Jet Li’s character who falls for Trish O’Day, the daughter of a money-dealer. In the final scene of the original cut, Jet Li’s character kisses O’Day, played by the late hip-hop star Aaliyah. However, test screenings showed that viewers did not approve of the kiss; the final cut saw the kiss changed to a hug and a fourth-grade-style holding of hands. This interaction between an Asian male and black female may have been unappealing, or too daring, to viewers.
Long Duck Dong, a foreign exchange students, plays the role of a total dork who with sophomoric innuendo keeps proposing to suburban teenager Samantha, while she craves romantic attention from the high-school’s hunk Jake. This 1984 Universal Pictures film has 86 percent approval rating by critics on Rotten Tomatoes.
The 1984 American coming-of-age comedy film “Sixteen Candles,” which drew box office sales three times its budget and received mostly positive critical acclaim, portrays the quirky Asian Long Duk Dong who has a fascination with white girls who find him unattractive. He is horny yet emasculated by his obvious foreignness (he doesn’t know what quiche is and uses a knife and fork like chopsticks).
Only recently has Hollywood deviated a bit from the cliché with characters like Detective Lieutenant Chin Ho Kelly of “Hawaii Five-O.” Walter Hill’s 2013 action film “Bullet to the Head” stars Sylvester Stallone whose character’s daughter initiates a romantic relationship with Asian actor Sung Kang. The “Fast and Furious” franchise also breaks the stereotype in movies three to six, in which Taiwanese-born American director Justin Lin hired Sung Kang to play the role of the macho Han Seoul-Oh.
ORIGINS OF THE FEMINIZATION OF ASIANS
The stigma of Asians’ femininity began with the first wave of Chinese immigrants to America in the late 19th century, says Ji-Yeon Yuh, an Asian-American history professor at Northwestern University. Few of the immigrants were women. As Asian men went in great numbers to seek white wives, white American men saw the invasion as a peril and started branding the Asian bachelors as asexual and homosexual.
In 1850, the Chinese community of San Francisco consisted of 4018 men and only seven women. In 1855, women made up only 2 percent of the Chinese population in the U.S., and even in 1890 they increased to just 4.8 percent.
The political cartoons of that time in Harper’s Magazine ridiculed Chinese bachelors for taking on “gurly” work – cooking in restaurants and doing the laundry – when in fact those were the only jobs available.
The face of Dr. Fu Manchu, an Asian villain keen on committing murders with arcane methods. First introduced in book series, Fu Manchu, has since been depicted in film, TV and comic strips. Albeit wicked, his depiction is hardly masculine.
One of the most popular characters of the early 20th century – the Asian Fu Manchu, an archetype of evil criminal genius – appeared in film, television, music, radio and comic strips as powerful, yet “exotic and somewhat erotic,” feminine with long fingernails and a long flowing robe, Yuh says. “He is everything but masculine.”
Another problem is that East and West cultures think of manliness differently. In Confucian societies – China, Korea and Japan – the masculine man is intelligent, wise, respectful, understands the rules of society and takes care of his parents and extended family – he is a filial son, good husband and a good brother, Yuh says.
America’s epitome of masculinity is the cowboy riding a horse with a gun, a father protecting his family with a gun or a soldier doing his nation’s duty with a gun, Yuh says. American masculine men need not be charming, talkative or emotional, as long as they are tall, dark and handsome. That’s not necessarily true in Asia.
The closest translation of the word “masculine” to Korean would be namja-daeun, which literally means “characteristics of a man” and connotes someone who “has integrity and loyalty, keeps his promises; he does what he says he does, and achieves it,” Yuh says.
America encourages extrovert personality traits like speaking up and selling yourself out. “But in China people usually value the strength within oneself,” says Xun Wang, 26, a native of Nanjing city in Jiangsu province in China, who came to America to complete a PhD degree in civil engineering at Cornell University. I contacted him after reading some of his comments on Quora. American girls are attracted to confident machos, he says, while most Asians esteem knowledgeable and insightful men and don’t mind soft-spoken and timid boys.
ORIGINS OF THE MASCULINIZATION OF BLACKS
The masculinization of blacks bears strikingly similar origin to that of the feminization of Asians. In the days of slavery when white men started having black mistresses, white women saw black female slaves as threats to their families and branded them as masculine creatures who have “out of control sexuality.” Because African-American women did the same kind of hard physical labor as men, the reputation was easy to create, Northwestern Professor Yuh says. As a result, “in the marriage market, the value of black women is highly devalued.”
If you ask a man why he is not attracted to a black female, the chances are he will think of the same stereotypes like someone who likes black females will. But the first man will see the stereotype as something bad, while for the second man they will bear a positive connotation, says Jovan Campbell, an African-American from Chicago. I chatted with her on Skype.
“We are [stereotypically] loud, obnoxious and severely in debt,” Campbell says. Most men interpret a black woman’s independence as a be-in-your-face-type arrogance, deprived of femininity and “improper” for ladies, she says.
I was thunderstruck when online I came across a thriving community called Asian Men and Black Women Persuasion (AMBWP). The club is a venue for black females to meet Asian males. It has chapters in major American cities, a Meetup page and 2,000 members in a closed group on Facebook.
What remains an uncharted territory for most is the “secret gold piece of jewelry” for Rabia Abdul, 35, an African-American Sunni Muslim from Newton, Massachusetts. I found her on Asian Men and Black Women Persuasion. She grew up watching Bruce Lee’s martial art movies, had her first crush on him as a teenager and at the age of 25 “came out” to her friends (she uses “come out” to mean admitting that she is attracted to Asian men). Previously married for a Vietnamese man, she is now dating a Korean-American.
Mixing races at schools has most recently also helped remove the stigma on black females and Asian males. I also spoke with David Lee Chu Sarchet, 24, another member of Asian Men and Black Women Persuasion. Sarchet went to Colorado’s Harrison High School, which enrolls 69 percent minority students – 19 percent black, 43 percent Hispanic and 6 percent Asian. He sees black women just as attractive as whites – and even a bit more.
“I like their bottle figure,” he says. “I like how smooth their skin is.” He then went on to speak about the appeal of their body curves, lips, fuller figure and skin color. “No matter how old they get, they always look young.”
HOW WHITES FIT INTO THE PICTURE
The final perception that informs our perception of beauty is the desirability of white skin globally, Northwestern anthropologist Sharma says.
“I don’t think you can find a society where dark skin is praised over white skin,” she says. America as a global force politically, culturally and economically defines what’s desirable. The U.S. was founded and is still ruled predominantly by white men, she says.
Some women of color approach white men to get better social status. “If a Filipina marries a Western, her family sees dollars,” says Sheryl Berardinelli, the wife of film critic Berardinelli, who is ethnically Chinese and grew up in the Philippines. “It’s a very desirable match, and the family would pursue it even if the woman isn’t excited by the idea,” she says.
“The social order with white males on top in this country is alive and well. A white male can marry anybody he wants and he will never be subject to the same kind of social and societal disapproval a woman would,” says Cheryl Judice, a Northwestern University sociology professor and an author of the book “Marriages Between Black Women and White Men.”
John Lennon and Yoko Ono’s 1969 marriage was daring and it sent waves across the globe. One can only speculate how much Ono’s exotic spirit helped enthrall Lennon.
White man’s desire to marry a “mystic” creature from a land far away dates back to the age of colonization when along with war, sex and marriage flourished, Sharma says. It was common for British colonizers to have relationships – or even whole families – with Indian concubines.French, Portuguese, Spanish and Dutch did the same in Indochina, Africa and South America. Americans have also brought home war brides from World War II, the Korean War and Vietnam War, Sharma says. The trend became especially popular in the 1970s, during thefeminist movement in the U.S., when American women became“uncontrollable” and pamphlets that Asians were submissive and completely oriented to serve as wives captured American men’s imagination, Yuh says.
Ever since men have continued to fetishize Asian women. In fact, filmmaker Debbie Lum’s award-winning documentary “Seeking Asian Female,” which aired on PBS, follows for five years the aging twice-divorced American Steven who exotifies Asians as man-pleasing sex kittens. Steven digs into the deep web to find a young bride from China and ends up connecting with, flying to the U.S. and marrying the much younger Sandy from the rural village of Jianhua in Anhui Province in China.
IT’S A PROBLEM TO PUT PEOPLE IN CATEGORIES
“I grew up ashamed that being Asian I was ugly. I didn’t have my first girlfriend until I was 19 because of that,” Sarchet says.
Sarchet is half-white but identifies as Asian. He is an offspring of a white dad from the Air Force and a first-generation Taiwanese immigrant. Sarchet cooks burgers for Sonic Drive-In in Colorado, studies social services at Pikes Peak Community College and wants to get a graduate degree, get married and have children.
“But if I have daughters, I’m gonna only buy them black Barbie dolls or Asian Barbie dolls. I don’t want them growing up thinking that they are not beautiful just because they are not white,” he says.
Sarchet made the decision after seeing a YouTube video that shows how 15 out of 21 black children prefer a white doll when asked to choose between identical white and toys. When the interviewer asks why the other toy looks bad, kids overwhelmingly respond, “Because it’s black.”
The video was produced by a New York-based African-American filmmaker Kiri Davis whose 2005 documentary “A Girl Like Me,” aired on HBO, examines why black features do not conform to society’s standards of beauty. Davis’ experiment is a remake of the famous 1939 test of psychologist Kenneth Clark who helped persuade the American Supreme Court in Brown v. Board of Education that separate public schools for white and blacks were damaging to society. Clark showed that children in different parts of the country who went to segregated schools were more likely to pick the white doll as the nice one.
SHAKING THE NORM
Forty-five years after the U.S. Supreme Court found anti-miscegenation laws unconstitutional, just 8 percent of all current U.S. marriages are interracial and only 0.3 percent of all interracial marriages are between an Asian man and a black woman, according to the 2010 U.S. census. But as new generations do not buy old conventions, the normal is quickly changing.
Sarchet, who is Asian and likes black girls, remembers the strange looks waiters gave him five years ago when he went out on a date with a black woman to a Chinese restaurant in Canon City, Colorado.
“Kinda the look as if they saw an UFO on a corn field,” he says.
His friends laughed at him as well. Now, interracial dating is gaining popularity, especially on the east and west coasts, he says.
“I don’t care about anybody’s approval. People will get accustomed. All my friends are into interracial relationships now,” he says. “White women tend to be too cleanly and overly emotional,” Sarchet says. “They [white girls] don’t have the curves. Most of them are really skinny. I’m not really into anorexic girls.”
Pew Research Center’s 2010 report on racial attitudes found that nine out of ten Millennials – the demographic cohort aged 18-28 – would approve if a family member marries someone of a different racial or ethnic group. In contrast, just 55 percent of 50-to-64-year-olds and 38 percent of those 65 and older would support such union.
“I didn’t actually start dating Asian guys until Obama was president,” says Campbell from Chicago. Her great granddad, who fought in World War II in Germany, had issues with white people, and Campbell stuck to the unspoken family rule she could date a guy of another race only “over his dead body or if a black man becomes a president” (which would be a sign to her grandfather that the country was becoming less racist).
Today, Campbell cherishes seeing people’s “eyes bust out of their heads” when they spot her with an Asian. “I have an adventurous type of spirit and like the idea of being with something rare,” she says. “I’m attracted to the fact that it’s something not very easy to get. It’s rare, and if you work hard to keep it, then it’s really special.” As far as her preferences go: “I don’t have very many expectations other than he being taller than me so I can wear my high heels,” she says.
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*Article first appeared on http://cholakovv.com/en/blog/2450