Race and Gender Based Stereotyping of Asian Women: Pointing at Western Society’s “Elephant in the Room”12 min read

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As an undergraduate at the University of Toronto, I came across a classified ad in the campus newspaper. In it, a Caucasian man was seeking Asian women in their twenties who were interested in having a relationship. A number was supplied for interested women to leave a message. Upon reading the ad, I immediately felt uncomfortable. Then, this discomfort gave way to anger. I assumed this man was not part of the university community (otherwise, he would not need to post ads in a campus newspaper to meet students). This advertisement seemed to be another example of Caucasian men expressing a sexual preference for dating Asian women. As we know by now, I do not consider such a preference “harmless,” and the multiple cases of rape and murder of Asian women that Woan discusses would seem to support my view. If the man who took out the ad was not part of the university community, then he was essentially allowed access to the student body, and to act in a predatory manner towards Asian female students.

One might say that I am espousing stereotypes of older, Caucasian men in assuming anything untoward in this man’s preference for “young Asian women.” Again, as experience has taught me, and as Woan’s argument bears out, there is a historical basis for my suspicions and a systemic inequality at play that grounds them. This ad was quite simply offensive. Worst of all, it made Asian women vulnerable to this man’s predation. I wrote a letter to the campus newspaper expressing my views, asking for an apology to the Asian community at University of Toronto, and asking that they remove the ad immediately. The editor of the paper did in fact publish my letter, but an important element was left out. I had raised questions concerning women’s issues on campus the editor noted, but he completely dismissed the accompanying and integral issue of race.

People of all races experience prejudice. But since there is an element of sexual degradation inherent in the stereotyping of Asian women, we are not only insulted but forced to feel that who we are as people is something perverted.

How integral is it that discrimination against Asian women be understood in light of gender and racial inequalities? In a case of harassment at Princeton University, the Asian American community criticized the university for failing to note that the suspect’s victims were all Asian women. A spokesperson for an Asian American women’s group called for improved “cultural competence” in such cases. She meant that staff at Princeton should have been aware that the “Asian fetish syndrome” was at play. Assuming that fetishization of Asian women is harmless puts us in danger. Furthermore, dismissing instances in which it occurs is at best irresponsible and at worst hypocritical, coming from the culture that created it. Western society has shown its awareness and acceptance of Asian female stereotypes through representations of us in mass media. As Asian women, we know we’re being stereotyped. And we know that you know we’re being stereotyped. When we are made more vulnerable to violence as a result, I think it is not too much to ask for a little understanding.

I’ve noted that the perception of Asian women as submissive has made us highly vulnerable. This mixed with the legitimate commodification of our sexuality – better known as the mail-order bride phenomenon – has encouraged blatant sexism-racism against some women I know. In a grocery store in Ireland where an Asian friend was shopping, an older man passed by, looked at her, then asked her Caucasian friend, “Where can I buy one?” They thought he was talking about the groceries she was holding. He was not. Another Asian friend was traveling with her Caucasian boyfriend in England, where a shopkeeper motioned to her in the store and smilingly asked her partner “How old is she? She looks young. Eighteen?”

Sexually degrading stereotypes of Asian women are used readily in television and film. In an episode of The Office (“A Benihana Christmas”), Steve Carell’s character brings to the office Christmas party two young Asian waitresses. He has picked them up from “the Asian Hooters,” admitting later he cannot tell them apart. This is a classic example of the “Asians all look alike” joke, but it is Asian women that are being stereotyped, therefore, the characters are hyper-sexualized (i.e. from the “Asian Hooters”) and shown hanging off the arms of older Caucasian men. Never are these women more than two-dimensional characters, and never are the racial stereotypes addressed. This episode was criticized heavily online, with many regular viewers noting that, far from being ironic, it simply made them feel uncomfortable or offended.

People of all races experience prejudice. But since there is an element of sexual degradation inherent in the stereotyping of Asian women, we are not only insulted but forced to feel that who we are as people is something perverted. This is much more than an insult – this is the very definition of debasement. When Caucasian men state a “preference” for Asian women we understand what that preference entails and it leaves us feeling degraded and humiliated. This type of prejudice erodes Asian women’s self-esteem, and is divisive both among women as a whole, and among Asian women as a group.

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