How Racialized Desire Affects Dating for Asian-Americans

Illustration by Kat Tsai
Illustration by Kat Tsai

By Kiana Fernandez

"Asian girls: they're pretty, they're smart, and they can't dance. No, really! Name an Asian girl who can dance - you can't! I like that though. My ex would want to dance all of the time, I hated it..."

In the middle of watching "The Social Network" directed by David Fincher, our conversation seemed to get stuck here. It was our first date.

He was commenting on a scene where Andrew Garfield's character, Eduardo, looks over at a group of Asian girls at a fraternity and claims he can't blame himself for being attracted to Asian women: They are hot, smart and can dance. Boldly, my partner had a different opinion on the dancing part.

This scene in "The Social Network" was uncomfortable for me back then as it is now. It made me uncomfortable watching the movie because my partner could strongly relate to that scene. A few weeks after we broke up, it continued to make me feel uncomfortable when I ran into him going out with multiple different Asian girls.

"Asian girls: they're pretty, they're smart, and they can't dance. No, really! Name an Asian girl who can dance - you can't! I like that though. My ex would want to dance all of the time, I hated it..."

After this relationship, I felt more insecure than when I had entered into it. Not insecurity from any personal regret of losing him, but from a newly developed, self-alienating feeling within my identity of being an Asian-American woman. My experience in dating holds universal context for any Asian-American who gets intimately involved with a person outside of their race: being subjected to Asian exoticization. Ken-Hou Lin, a research sociologist at the University of Texas at Austin, explained how a race becomes fetishized.

"I agree that racialized stereotypes have the potential of shaping racialized desires," Lin said. "It starts with ignorance or a lack of interaction with these racial groups. It is easier for the majority to fetishize the minority because they do not have the same amount of access or information about these minority groups. When someone who doesn't have knowledge of these racial groups are given a fantasy, they will believe in that fantasy. That understanding is often incorrect, inaccurate, or overgeneralized."

Illustration by Kat Tsai
Illustration by Kat Tsai

In my previous relationship, I felt like I had to keep up my partner's image of an Asian- American woman. While I was figuring out my own identity my whole life, he offered me a description. I disregarded my feelings of discomfort and labeled any resistance I had as an overreaction.

Many other Asian-Americans are stuck in this limbo of resistance and compromise.

"It was exciting to meet people who were interested in Asian culture and women," biomedical engineering sophomore Miranda de la Rea said. "I felt a need to fit into their fetish, especially as I was still developing my ethnic identity, and I kind of embraced it. Now, I'm glad to have matured and grown into almost every part of my identity, although the fact that people consider the pieces of myself that I've spent so long learning to accept to be marketable, replicable characteristics is disrespectful at best and dehumanizing at worst."

Along with exoticization, racism still plays a huge factor in the dating market for Asian-Americans, said James Che, hydrogeology and humanities senior.

"As a queer identified Asian-American, I think it's important to highlight the immense amount of racism among gay men - particularly gay white men," Che said. "It might be surprising to folks outside of the gay community, but it is incredibly racist, sexist, often transphobic, and classist. I run across two kinds of no-go's: those that don't like Asians and those that obsess over us."

Illustration by Cat Baldwin
Illustration by Cat Baldwin

Racial tension is common among Asian-Americans who start dating. Though my previous relationship has ended with that partner, I still face challenges of racial alienation in the context of my everyday life. The most difficult thing I had to accept was that I had the right to feel this way.

"You definitely should be angry about it," Lin said. "You definitely should be bothered. You definitely should tell them that this is not acceptable. When you are in that situation you should judge whether it is just pure ignorance or if it's something more hostile than that. You can only know by expressing yourself, pushing back, and providing more information. Nobody likes to be taken away the right to describe themselves or their identity."

Now that I had time to reflect on my past relationship, I have a greater understanding of the consequences of dating as an Asian-American woman. I am still not comfortable with the idea of these consequences, but I acknowledge that they exist and recognize how they can affect me.

"When these things happen, we shouldn't think of them as a minor offense," Lin said. "It's something bigger. We are who we are, and when people constantly impose ideas of who we are, it is not something that should be compromised."

In the future, I aim to be more vocal of who I am over the generalization of who I am supposed to be. I aim not to be complacent with the exoticization of my race.

All photos are copyright free

Kiana Fernandez is a sophomore advertising student at the University of Texas at Austin.