'AMBW' is a growing internet-dating subculture with Facebook groups, meet-ups, and websites. Photo courtesy of Asian Men and Black Women Connections (NYC)
I first learned about the "Asian Men Black Women" (AMBW) community about seven months ago, when I was on a date with a black girl. She seemed to really like the fact that I was Asian. She grew up watching K-pop, and said she would always think, Asian guys were so cute. The "cute" had the tone one would use when describing a baby. "I always wanted to have one," she said, looking into my eyes.
Later that night, she invited me to the Asian Men Black Women Persuasion Facebook group. I joined and saw thousands of Asian men and black women engaging in a rich cultural exchange. They were posting photos of themselves, discussing social justice, sharing viral videos. Some of them advertised real life meet-ups and dating events.
I live in New York City, so I figured I could find at least one AMBW meet-up group. And I did: Asian Men and Black Women Connections NYC. The activities they had seemed genuinely fun: vineyard tours, game nights, beach outings, and so on. I messaged Ron, the group administrator, and suggested a meet-up I wanted to attend: "South African Food @ Madiba Restaurant." He approved, and addressed any apprehension about my presence in the event description: "A writer, Zach Schwartz, may be in attendance. He promises that the article will be positive; he is Asian himself, and a recent member to this group."
In the way that Asian men have been distorted to reflect femininity, so too have black women become masculinized.
As a biracial Asian-American growing up in Ohio, I felt that because of my Asian features, there was something inherently unattractive about me. One of my most vivid childhood memories was sitting in my dad's car after he took me to ice cream because I was upset about being called a "chink" the week before, crying as I told him that "no girl would ever like me because I'm Asian."
I'm no longer insecure about my Taiwanese heritage—it's one of my biggest blessings—but I did have reason to be insecure about my looks. Recent statistics have shown that East Asian men (in this article, I'll use "Asian" as shorthand for East Asian men, who are Taiwanese, Japanese, Korean, Chinese, and so on) are viewed as the least desirable male partners in American society. In a 2007 speed-dating study by Columbia University, women said yes to an Asian man 50 percent less often, demonstrating a "significant preference against Asian males." A 2008 Princeton dating study found that 93.4 percent of white women with a racial preference said they would never date an Asian or half-Asian.
The unattractiveness of Asian-American men can be linked to their perceived lack of masculinity. Masculinity in American culture is an idea often predicated on aggressiveness and promiscuity. In Asian culture, however, masculinity is generally tied to mental strength, being a provider, and accepting familial responsibility. Furthermore, Asian boys are taught deference to authority at home. "'The loudest duck gets shot' is a Chinese proverb," observed critic Wesley Yang in his 2011 essay on the popular misconception of Asian-American success. He offered its Western correlative: "The squeaky wheel gets the grease," where complaint often yields reward.
The perceived passivity in Asian men can be interpreted through American eyes as femininity, and the consequences of this manifest in everything from Asian men's near-exclusive representation as "bottoms" in gay porn, to the bamboo ceiling, a term for Asians' lack of leadership representation in the workforce. Although Asians are five percent of the population, they only make up 0.3 percent of C-level executives. In society, the idea of an Asian being an alpha male can be a foreign one.
Perhaps the most insulting reminder of Western attitudes towards Asians is one of size. Western culture views penis size as a symbol of masculinity. Even though it's been debunked numerous times, there remains a perception that Asians are less well-endowed. Combine that with society's distaste for shorter-than-average height, and many Asian men are made to feel that they are lesser.
The emasculation of Asian men has its own subplot in the racist history of this country. When Asian men first immigrated here, they weren't allowed to bring their wives. The Chinese Exclusion Act banned family immigration and remains the only piece of legislation in US history that specifically excluded a nationality. Once ashore, many Asian men were relegated to jobs that were regarded as women's work, such as cooking and cleaning, which are echoed in the abundance of Asian-owned Laundromats today. The only Asian in East of Eden, John Steinbeck's epic novel about the rise of California, is the sexless nerd servant, Lee.
The modern Asian-American experience, one could argue, is not so different from Lee's. East Asian men are viewed as smart, but, as Timothy P. Fong noted in his 1998 book The Contemporary Asian American Experience: Beyond the Model Minority, "Despite a few notable exceptions, Asian men have most often been depicted as strangely asexual characters." As an adolescent, I would be called "cute" by girls, but it was in a strange non-romantic context, which led me to despair and confusion. I watched as all my friends got their first kisses and lost their virginity, while I stayed "cute," but not "attractive."
I had to wait for the social-consciousness explosion of the last several years to explain why that was. Eddie Huang, the chef, writer, and VICE host, writes in his memoir of the time he realized he had been robbed of his masculinity: "Yo, you notice Asian people never get any pussy in movies?" his cousin asks. "Jet Li rescued Aliyah, no pussy! Chow Yun-Fat saves Mira Sorvino, no pussy. Chris Tucker gets mu-shu, but Jackie Chan? No pussy!" "Damn, son, you right!" replies Huang. "Even Long Duk Dong has to ride that stationary bicycle instead of fucking!"
The most visible contemporary exception might be "Glenn," a Korean-American character in the The Walking Dead, who dates a white woman. Huang addressed this on Joe Rogen's podcast: "There had to be a zombie apocalypse for an Asian dude to get some pussy. That dude had to be the last motherfucker [alive]."
As a result of this, there exists a contingent of Asian-American males who feel de-masculinized and rejected by women. Online communities like "ABC's of Attraction" have been created to offer pick-up advice to Asian dudes. On the boards for some such communities, discussing their "involuntary celibacy," some Asian men rage at their situation. Eliot Rodger, the Santa Barbara shooter, openly stated in his manifesto that part of his violence came from being "perceived by women as less because I was half-Asian."
It's ironic, because Asian women have the opposite problem. In an article for Slate subtitled "Eddie Huang and the rise of the 'big dick Asian,'" Anne Ishii wrote, "Rarely does the Asian-American guy go home with the girl—and the injustice is doubled when his female counterparts are pathologically fetishized."
When online dating site Are You Interested analyzed its over 2.4 million interactions in 2013, they found that Asian women are more likely to get a message than any other race. This is because while Asian men suffer from the perception of Asian-ness as feminine, Asian women are festishized for it. "Even if it's just that subconscious level," Ishii argued, "there's this idea of the geisha or concubine, or a submissive wife."
Many Asian women don't prefer to date Asian men. When asked if they "preferred to date someone from their own racial background" on OkCupid, 78 percent of Asian women said no. Although it's true that Asian men have their best chances with Asian women on the site, it's still lower than the figures for white men. Who, then, is the Asian man's true racial counterpart?
"[Black women] are always portrayed as loud and ghetto," said Rhea Alexander, who runs the site AMBW for Life. "And then, on the other hand, the stereotype for Asian men is that they're weak and don't have opinions."
In the Princeton dating study, researchers discovered that black women were the least desired by white men, excluded by over 90 percent of those with a racial preference. Black women also see a high rate of outmarriage among black men. According to the Pew Research Center, about 24 percent of all black male newlyweds in 2010 married outside their race, compared with nine percent of black female newlyweds.
OKCupid founder Christian Rudder summarized the data on his dating site and found that black women reply the most to messages, yet get by far the fewest replies—only a third of their messages went answered. He wrote, "Essentially every race—including other blacks—[gives black women] the cold shoulder."
In the way that Asian men have been distorted to reflect femininity, so too have black women become masculinized. The idea of the "strong" black woman is one that is either feared or mocked, or, in the case of tennis champion Serena Williams, both. Throughout her career, Williams, arguably the greatest female tennis player of all time, has served as a lightning rod for racist gender notions. During the 2014 US Open final, the New Yorker reported on the reaction to Williams on Twitter: "Some people wrote admiringly about her obvious strength and fitness, but there were also observations about the size of her butt, her thighs, and suggestions that her toned arms made her look more like a male boxer or linebacker than like a women 's tennis player."
It's critiques such as these that "perpetuate racist notions that black women are hypermasculine and unattractive," poet Claudia Rankine wrote in the New York Times. "Imagine being asked to comment at a news conference before a tournament because the president of the Russian Tennis Federation, Shamil Tarpischev, has described you and your sister as 'brothers' who are 'scary' to look at. Imagine."
"American racist tropes tend to be constructed in ways that render black women one-dimensional," writer and and cofounder of HoodFeminism.com Mikki Kendall told The Daily Beast in July. "So when Serena refuses to be the kindly self-effacing Mammy, the over-sexed Jezebel, or the harridan Sapphire, media organizations don't know how to handle her." Angela Stanley, a researcher at the Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity at Ohio State University, agreed: "Despite the visibility of people like Michelle Obama, Oprah Winfrey, and Condoleezza Rice, black women as a group are still largely negatively stereotyped in movies, television, music, and other forms of popular culture."
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If American society were a high school, the white kids would be the so-called popular kids, viewed as attractive by everyone, yet generally preferring to stay within their exclusive group (according to OkCupid, almost half of whites prefer to date within their own race). From a young age, they have been given validation from society. Simply put, being white fits "the dominant paradigm of what's desirable and normal... you go to a movie and there's a beautiful woman and the [guy] who wins her looks like you. That's big. That makes you feel central," a white interviewee recently told VICE. However, as time goes on and our society evolves from its current views on race, people realize that those who were once "popular" can be basic and not that special after all.
As it stands today, many black women and Asian men have been left in the casual-dating corner. Which might explain why some have banded together to create the AMBW community, which includes websites, Meetup groups, and online forums.
I spoke to Rhea Alexander, a black woman who runs one such website, AMBW for Life. I asked her to explain what, in her opinion, draws Asian men and black women together. "[The Asian man] is a domestic dad, that gentle soul," she said. "He is unmoved, he is unbothered... He understands his own struggle as an Asian man, and his pressure to conform to white standards. That is what I believe is the invisible magnet between Asian men and black women."
And so, on a hot Sunday afternoon, I headed to the Fort Greene area of Brooklyn to discover this "invisible magnet." I found the restaurant and walked inside. At the table were four individuals, two black women and two Asian men: Kemi, Kimmie, Will, and Ron. I sat down and ordered a Bloody Mary.
Coming from a diverse background, and having dated girls of all different backgrounds—black, Native American, Hispanic, Muslim, Jewish, and Indian—I was entirely comfortable in this setting. As we parsed the menu, I talked to Kemi, the girl sitting next to me. Kemi was 23—one of the group's youngest members—and had just graduated college. This was her second AMBW Meetup. We started to talk about her experience as a black woman in the dating scene. "[Black women] are always portrayed as loud and ghetto," she said. "And then, on the other hand, the stereotype for Asian men is that they're weak and don't have opinions."
"And are seen as having small sexual members," Ron added quietly.
"Which is totally not true!" Kemi said loudly. I remembered how, a couple months ago, I went on a first date with a girl who told me what her friend said upon finding out I was mixed Asian-Jewish: "That's like mixing average with small." I ended up sleeping with her multiple times before breaking it off, but it was annoying to deal with that assumption.
"Anyways, I've come to realize that many people do not find Asian men attractive," Kemi said. I asked her then: Why was she specifically into Asian men?
She thought for a second. "It came from watching Asian film," she replied. "It started with Japan and then moved to South Korea. And just being into those cultures. But now, what I really like is their value on family and family values. Because black culture is also very focused on family as well."
Kemi was quick to point out that she was attracted to all races, unlike the fetishization that can plague the AMBW community. "I've joined other AMBW groups," she said. "And there's these black women in them who just want the whole K-pop look. "Ron talked about Asian men who would post their pictures in AMBW groups and get hundreds of admirers. "Sometimes they can't even speak English," he said incredulously. "But the more foreign they look, the more admirers they have."
Kemi continued: "On the other hand, in these communities—not necessarily this group, but the broader community—there's Asian men who have a fetish for black women. They want girls who look like the video vixens. They want the stereotypes; the big butt, the long weave. And not all black girls look like that."
Fetishization is definitely problematic, but I also found it reassuring to know that there was a space where Asian and black features are desired. "[This is] a much more welcoming environment for Asian men," Ron said. "A lot of Asian men are sometimes afraid to approach women because they're so used to getting rejected. "The girl-to-guy ratio at these events is usually disproportionate (16:6), so the Asian guys get a lot of attention. "There are definitely some crazy 'cougars' in this group," Kemi told me. "When they get a look at you and how young you are, they are going to jump all over you."
The threads of our conversation intertwined to form a visual representation of the community, of which I was able to distinguish several strains, one of which was a virile hookup culture.
"[In this community] I have seen a lot of hookups, people who just want a one-night stand," Kemi said. I told them that a much older, out-of-state black woman from the Meetup group had messaged me, asking if I was single. Everyone laughed. "You'll get that," Kimmie said from across the table. "There's a lot of people who just want someone to hook up with when they travel."
However, there seemed to be a more mature, dating-oriented side to the community, particularly within this Meetup group, perhaps as a result of its older demographic. Ron talked about the relationships it has birthed. One couple from the group had even gotten married.
Before lunch concluded and we went our separate ways, I had a private conversation with Ron. "What you're doing is good work," I told him. "Bringing people together. This is a beautiful thing." He nodded.
Later, I looked online for other Meetup groups of a similar nature. Perhaps there would be black man-white woman, or Asian man-white female enthusiasts. But in a list of all interracial meet-ups in NYC, the only one that occurs with any regularity is Asian men and black women.
To me, that's not a coincidence. It's beautiful that, through the internet, these two highly marginalized groups can find the love and appreciation they may have never found otherwise. Kemi told me stories of Asian "players" at the meetups, who get chased up the stairs by girls, and black women besieged by Asian internet admirers. It's like they can do high school all over again, except this time they're the popular ones.
AMBW communities are still in their infancy, and with that come growing pains. The cultural strife and racist notions between the two groups in America—cue the opening scene of Menace II Society—will sometimes surface. In one of the Facebook groups I was in, an Asian man posted a video of black teenagers waving guns in Chicago, saying, "Why would anyone want to be a part of this culture?" with the crying-laughing emoji. Swarms of Asian men and black women came in to destroy him, but the fuse had been blown. When tectonic plates meet, earthquakes always happen.
Rhea Alexander told me about her previous relationship with a Korean man. "Mind you," she said, "my ex-boyfriend's mother did not like the fact I was black, so I dealt with everything you could think of." At the meet-up, Kemi described how her and her boyfriend were once followed by a group of black men, who questioned and mocked her boyfriend's race.
But "swirling"—or interracial coupling—can bring cultures together. They can demystify cultural differences by forcing two sides to understand each other. In that way, they can help repair the world.
"As time goes on," Rhea told me, "you're going to see more people discovering the beauty of AMBW relationships, and you are going to see all these gorgeous 'Blasian' children." In fact, I hope my own babies are Blasian—the inheritance of these two rich, underappreciated cultures would be one of the greatest gifts I could give them.
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