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Honesty about That Which Disturbs Us -- Discussion of the Relationships between White Men and Asian Women Needs More Truthfulness

Stacey E. Blau

A few years ago, I read a story in The New Yorker about Peter Norton, the man who created Norton Utilities. A typical New Yorker piece, the story on Norton ran about 10 pages and was quite detailed. Norton is a very interesting man; I discovered, among other things, that he was a Buddhist monk for about a year of his life.

One of the first few paragraphs stated that Norton, who is white, is married to a black woman. But more than that, the story said, a number of years before Norton met his wife, he had discovered something about himself - that he was especially attracted to black women.

In the story, Norton likened his discovery of this attraction to a gay person's discovery of his homosexuality; the discovery was in essence an admission of a natural reality that he could either run with or deny. He ran with it.

Harmless enough, I thought. Norton certainly didn't express any disturbing conceptions he had of black women. He didn't appear in any way to be a womanizer. And while the article didn't delve too deeply into his relationship with his wife, there seemed no evidence that his relationship with his wife was anything other than normal. He happened to be especially attracted to black women, his wife was black, and those two facts were no doubt causally related, but so what?

Race and sex are touchy subjects separately and even more explosive when put together. This is true as much today as it was 30 years ago or 100 years ago. About 30 years ago, a hot topic was the large number of interracial relationships between whites and blacks - more specifically, relationships between white men and black women. Today, it's relationships between whites and Asians - more specifically between white men and Asian women.

And who doesn't know it? Examples of white male and Asian female relationships abound at MIT in tremendous numbers. It is rather curious that the phenomenon is pretty much one-way - between white men and Asian women and not the Asian men and white women. To be sure, there are plenty of exceptions, but the overwhelming one-sidedness is borne out in marriage statistics. Several statistics I have seen put the ratio between white male/Asian female marriages and Asian male/white female marriages in the United States at about 3:1. For foreign-born Asian-Americans, the ratio is closer to 5:1.

At MIT, most of us have seen the full range of such relationships. Many, of course, have nothing to do with Asian fetishism. A subset, however, do. Many men freely admit to having a special attraction to Asian women. Such men of the Peter Norton sort are not really disturbing. As with Norton, it probably would be easy to decry what may in some sense underly these relationships. But the important part is really how these men conduct themselves. Do they demean the women they date because of their race?

If the answer is no, and if it is in fact the case that these men treat their girlfriends well, then there doesn't seem to be much wrong with their attraction. Maybe the attraction is the result of latent stereotypes they hold about Asian women; maybe it isn't. The point is that the men treat their girlfriends well; why should they or anyone else view their attraction as any more unnatural or unacceptable than, say, homosexuality?

The men for whom Asian women are little more than exotic, mysterious sex objects constitute the lifeblood of the Asian fetishist stereotype, and they are the ones most everyone finds disgusting and unacceptable for the way they discuss and treat the women they are obsessed with. A notable subset of men in white male/Asian female relationships fall into this category. We could correctly term most of those relationships abusive, much in the same way that we would call abusive any relationship in which a man treats his girlfriend or wife badly.

But that is simply not the case in most relationships. As much as many people, including me, have derided the bad instances, we also have to come to terms with the opposite cases. Whatever the origins of a man's specific attraction to Asian women, if the bad stereotypes we might associate with such an attraction have very little in reality to do with the relationship he has with his girlfriend, then there really isn't much to deride. But few who are interested in discussing the white male/Asian female relationship phenomenon seem to care about this.

This is only part of the problem people have with honesty in the discussion of this issue. Equally important in white male/Asian female relationships are the Asian women who constitute half of the relationships. But discussion of white male/Asian female relationships almost always revolves around the men, as though the women had no involvement in the relationships. Obviously, that is not the case. While there may be other factors at work, these women do have have a choice, and it is their choice to be in these relationships.

This notion that women have no agency in these matters extends so far that many Asian women in relationships with white men constantly find themselves perceived as part of a stereotypical relationship that could obviously have nothing more to it than the man's attraction to the woman because of her race. As a result, many women feel they have to go out their way to set their boyfriends apart from the Asian fetishist stereotype.

We can probably learn as much from the discussion of Asian fetishism as we can from Asian fetishism itself. The stereotypes that people apply to white male/Asian female relationships are themselves an interesting insight into the perceptions that people in general have about the relationships. What the discussion needs is some honesty about the realities of natural and acceptable feelings that do no one any harm and some talk of the roles that women themselves choose to have.