The Casual Racism I Deal with as an Asian Woman in an Interracial Relationship
When you're an Asian woman dating someone who possesses every privilege in the book, you can't help but internalise two sets of differences: how you and your partner are treated by others, and how you and your partner understand those experiences.
'Elementary' costars Lucy Liu and Jonny Lee Miller. Photo via Flickr user Alatele fr.
About a year ago, I spent a weekend at my boyfriend's cottage with his family. They say nothing brings out the worst in people quite like a competitive game of beer pong, and one Friday afternoon, I happened to be in the right place at the wrong time.
As I watched a group of drunk 20-somethings rearrange a set of cups into a pyramid, one of them turned to me and said, "Hey Vicky, this is your game, it's like ping pong."
And there it was. A timely "joke" that categorically placed me, an Asian woman, under a racially driven stereotype that is often recycled again and again in cringe-worthy films such as Balls of Fury. But what was more subtle was the reminder that I was the "token Asian," the one unlike the others, in a group of white people.
My decision to not react at the time was not only based on the fact that no one else did; I didn't want to risk being seen as "overly sensitive" in front of my boyfriend and his family, all of whom were uncomfortably trying to change the subject.
Looking back, there is still a part of me that feels my lack of reaction actually perpetuated a stereotype about Asian women that I've tried to separate myself from—that we're submissive, passive, and eager to please.
Either way, I couldn't win.
My current relationship began four years ago, but until that moment in the cottage, I'd never been more aware of the fact that it is also an interracial relationship.
Growing up in Toronto, one of the most culturally diverse cities in the world, I rarely experienced outright racism from other people. But being in an interracial relationship has made me increasingly aware of the subtle (and often unintentional) comments thrown at me by people who end up forcing me back into neat and racially labeled boxes.
It's hard to believe, since interracial couples are a fast growing demographic and spotting them in a major city is about as common as finding a string of cabs at a downtown intersection.
Between 1991 and 2011, the number of interracial couples in Canada increased from 2.6 percent of all couples to 4.5 percent, according to the most recent data released by Statistics Canada. Meanwhile, the Pew Research Center found that in the United States, interracial marriage rates have nearly tripled since 1980, from representing 6.7 percent of all marriages to 15.1 percent in 2010.
My curiosity about what these trends actually mean led me to reach out to Katerina Deliovsky, a sociologist who has studied interracial couples for years.
"We know very little about the actual challenges and joys that interracial coupling brings," she says. In fact, Deliovsky points out that the celebrated increase of interracial couples hides their complex experiences of discrimination, including how they deal with racism.
As for Asians, they tend to be perceived under the "model minority" category; the popular assumption is that because Asians are prone to achieving high levels of academic and economic success, their assimilation into mainstream society makes them less likely to experience racial discrimination than other minorities.
Deliovsky says that because of this, Asians often experience more implicit forms of racism hidden under the public veil of tolerance.
I've experienced my fair share of casually racist slights. At a Christmas party last year, a young woman came up to me and demanded I tell her exactly what race I am. Every time I'm asked this question (and I'm asked this a lot), saying I'm simply "Chinese" often generates a response along the lines of, "But you don't seem Asian." In this case, her disappointment in my answer was rooted in an observation that my "eyes and lips are really big." Meanwhile, she simply turned to my boyfriend and asked him what he did for a living.
The interesting thing about casual racism is that it's hard to call out. These days, it's so taboo to call someone racist that most people get defensive when confronted over it and accuse the person complaining of hypersensitivity or lacking in humor.
And when you're an Asian woman dating someone who possesses every privilege in the book (white, heterosexual, middle-class, male, and conventionally attractive), you can't help but internalize two things: differences in how you and your partner are treated by people outside of the relationship, and differences in how you and your partner understand those experiences.
Unfortunately, to this day, there is very little critical qualitative research that explores in depth the contemporary challenges of interracial coupling, says Deliovsky. Without such research, we're left with the unverified assumption that interracial couples are engines of social change.
My interviews with Asian women residing in some of the world's most diverse cities suggest that the negative stereotypes about Asian women feed also into those of the white men they date. For that, we can thank the media and all the creeps out there who have helped develop the term "Asian fetish."
Kiki LaViers, a 31-year-old journalist in New York City, says the "Asian fetish" is unfortunately very real. (LaViers prefers not to disclose her real name due to the intimate nature of her experiences.)
"I once dated an Irish-born man for one year before finding out he would search 'Asian' with every type of porn name on Pornhub.com," she recalls. "It was sad and humiliating to find out that perhaps he didn't see me for who I was, and it instilled a sense of trepidation in me to look out for so-called warning signs."
For LaViers, even classic Asian cinema directors such as Zhang Yi Mou and Wong Kar Wai don't do much to subvert the idea that Asian women are "submissive, spicy, sultry—with tiny little vaginas ripe of fucking... [instead] they promote it and romanticize it."
The stereotypes of Asian women and white men can be quite nuanced depending on the age bracket of the man and woman, and where the Asian woman is from, says Claire Fourel, a 30-year-old lawyer in London.
Fourel, whose heritage is a mix of Japanese and French, says loose stereotypes for young couples include the assumption that "the guy is a hipster who wants an Asian girl as arm candy—for some reason it seemed trendy in the last decade in North America—or is a closeted gay."
Fourel says one thing she and her white partner of six years are always told is that they would have the most "interesting"-looking children. "My partner would not notice the comments about children—he would take it as a compliment of him being attractive rather than there being an inference about race!"
For Lila Yu, a 26-year-old in Toronto, her experiences with casual racism have resulted in some heated conversations with her white, blue-eyed partner of three years. (Yu prefers not to disclose her real name because her political views are much more progressive than those of her colleagues; she describes herself as a paper pusher in the financial services industry.)
One of her most vivid memories was during a dinner with her partner's family. "My partner's aunt was responding to criticism from other family members that her nails looked unappealing. She said something along the lines of, 'I'll have to go get my nails done by a Vietnamese girl,' and then proceeded to affect some broken English."
She says the worst part was that no one said anything after that.
"I realize just how subtle yet damaging microaggressions can be, and how frustrating it is to talk about racial relations with people who seem oblivious to what a problem it really is, and how it affects you in a cumulative way."
One thing Yu pointed out is the tendency for some people to fall into the trap of feeling "guilty" over white privilege. "Taking privilege personally obscures the fact that it's a systemic problem."
Ultimately, learning how to act and react to casual racism is a reality, says Nari Osugi, a 31-year-old marketing director in San Francisco. "You learn which battles to fight and which to ignore."
From my own experiences, I can say that being in an interracial relationship means you aren't just opening yourself up to the person you're dating, but for other people to judge you in a completely different way than if you weren't a couple.
There have been times when peers suggested I'm with my boyfriend because I'm ashamed of my own culture, and times when drunken idiots reduced our relationship to a white man's fetish for "tight Asian pussy"—how creative.
There have been moments when I've given into insensitive comments, and troubled my mind with ways in which I could prove the legitimacy of my relationship, away from the idea that it is a political statement or a product of fetish.
Ultimately, I can't change the things that happen outside of our relationship. But I can change the way my partner and I respond to them.
One trait I have always admired about my boyfriend is his ability to not give a shit about what people think of him. Over the years, we've certainly disagreed over whether I should take certain racially insensitive comments and questions seriously.
But he has only really been offended when I (out of defensiveness) questioned his intentions in our relationship. Because that would mean that I myself believed what we have is anything less than a genuine relationship between two individuals, and more like a walking sideshow.
We may never be able to fully understand each other's experiences, but we talk about it. And I think this has allowed us as a couple, and me as an individual, to navigate racial dynamics a whole lot better than before; ironically, by having a laugh at the insensitive things people say about race—ranging from the unintentional to the ridiculous—and not giving those comments legitimacy.
I'd like to add that the morning after the "ping pong" comment was thrown at me, my boyfriend apologized on behalf of the individual.
I accepted that.