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Race and Gender Based Stereotyping of Asian Women: Pointing at Western Society’s “Elephant in the Room”13 min read

21 May, 2010 0 comment

By Cheryl Caballero

Cheryl Caballero examines the connection between Western patriarchy and the sexual stereotyping of Asian women.

Photo by Frederic Poirot

A few weeks ago, a friend called me upset about something that had happened to her at work. At an office party, male co-workers were casually chatting about who was attractive at the office. One said, “Well, we all know that ‘Blake’ is into Asians!” “So,” answered another, “you like them young and hairless!” They all laughed. Blake always asked about the “Asian girls” that were being interviewed, suggesting these girls be hired over others (wink wink). This was all just hilarious to the guys. Being the only Asian woman at the table, my friend left the party feeling degraded. I was furious at hearing this story but not surprised.

The portrayal of Asian women in mass culture embodies a number of stereotypes – some degrading, but all very predictable. The Asian woman of television and movies is petite and usually young, or at least looks it. She is the docile, ultra-feminine ideal some men seek, and that most women have rejected. Perhaps this is why Asian women are often portrayed as “the younger woman” who middle-aged Caucasian men leave their Caucasian feminist wives for. Images of Asian women also exude a hyper-sexualized innocence. Think of Kim from the musical Miss Saigon, who begins the story as a young virgin prostitute. Thinking about these images of Asian women, and about my friends’ and family’s experiences, as well as my own, I thought about how prevalent stereotyping of Asian women is. It is so much so, that I’ve seen a few characteristics emerge: this discrimination is often, though not exclusively, delivered at the hands of Caucasian men; it is often sexually denigrating in nature; and it is perhaps one of the few forms of racial discrimination that has largely escaped open criticism by Western society.

If you ask any Asian woman, she could share stories of dealing with the Asian female stereotype proving its pervasiveness. Nevertheless, I have always struggled to describe the nature of this stereotype or to successfully justify my discomfort with a friend’s off-handed comment or the portrayal of an Asian woman in a movie. Was there any research to support my own experience and that of other Asian women? In my search, I found an article by Sunny Woan, a J.D. of Public Interest and Social Justice Law at Santa Clara University. In describing the process through which Asian women have become hyper-sexualized in Western society, Woan takes us back to America’s colonization of Asia during World War II. A little known fact about US foreign policy is that access to “comfort women” was considered a “necessity” of American soldiers. In the Asia Pacific during WWII, prostitution proliferated in a colonial context – that is, in the context of the political, economic and military domination of non-white developing nations by white developed nations. Uneven power relations mixed with perverted stereotypes of Asian women as “hyper-sexual” and easily dominated were brought back to America after the war ended. Woan referred to this phenomenon as “white sexual imperialism.”

The idea that a man’s preference for dating Asian women is harmless, even flattering, is a gross misconception, and one that makes it enormously difficult for unwanted sexual attention toward Asian women to be taken seriously.

Let’s go back to “Blake” at my friend’s office party. Blake is apparently “into Asians,” a comment considered harmless by most people. In fact, some may go so far as to call it a compliment. So what do I find so offensive about it? If a man were to state that he preferred to date brunettes over blondes, I would not have been offended. Perhaps he simply finds women with dark hair more attractive – it’s the same as Blake finding Asian women more attractive, right? What is the difference? The difference is that Blake’s preference exists within a historical legacy of sexual-racial inequality between Asian women and Caucasian men. A preference for brunettes over blondes, by contrast, bears no inherent prejudice, certainly no deep-seated racial ones. Does this mean I find all relationships between Asian women and Caucasian men suspect? Not at all. Let me be clear that happening to meet and date an Asian woman is very different from preferring to date Asian women or only dating Asian women. It is the preference that is questionable. This preference, based on systemic sexual-racial discrimination, has brought about the fetishization of Asian women and made us highly vulnerable to violence at the hands of Caucasian men.

The idea that a man’s preference for dating Asian women is harmless, even flattering, is a gross misconception, and one that makes it enormously difficult for unwanted sexual attention toward Asian women to be taken seriously. Woan cites a number of recent legal cases dealing with extreme sexual violence perpetrated against Asian women by Caucasian men: in all these cases, the perpetrators either admitted to a sexual preference for Asian women, or this fixation was readily apparent to their co-workers and friends. Seeing discrimination against Asian women through the lens of gender and racial inequality is essential to understanding the phenomenon.

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