The fraught topic of the white male/Asian female (or “WMAF”) interracial pairing has been bubbling up to the mainstream surface recently, especially as prominent Asian women are bringing it up in public. First there was Ali Wong’s breakout Netflix special Baby Cobra in which she coined the term “Yoko Ono Factory” to describe white hipster neighborhoods abounding with WMAF couples. And just a couple days ago, Natalie Tran (of the popular YouTube series “Community Channel”) released a 40-minute documentary, commissioned by YouTube itself, called White Male Asian Female, which digs much deeper into the topic (link to the video available at the bottom of this article).
The impetus for Natalie’s video was the amount of abuse hurled at her for being a publicly prominent Asian woman who speaks out on Asian topics, and who has a white male partner. And as she dug more into the disturbing trend of online harassment against the women in WMAF relationships, she began to zero in on Reddit as the hive of a lot of the ideas and rhetoric that oppose WMAF as legitimate representatives, or even members, of the Asian community. Natalie does have an uncannily open mind for new viewpoints — one of her great strengths as a YouTube producer and star — and she even reached out to several people on Reddit, including myself, to get a male perspective on the topic. It is one of the biggest issues that exists internally within the Asian diaspora, namely the great divide in the lived experiences of Asian men versus Asian women in the white dominated parts of the world.
Natalie’s video is fair and balanced in terms of giving voices to a diverse set of viewpoints by Asian men on this topic, including JT Tran (the Asian dating coach), Phil Wang of Wong Fu Productions (who made a pair of viral videos about WMAF), and the anonymous Redditor “EurasianTiger.” The inclusion of EurasianTiger is particularly impressive, given the controversial reputation he has online; he is a hapa male who has long highlighted the existence of extremely toxic WMAF households where Asian-passing sons are victimized by their own family dynamics (his own father was a neo-Nazi).
The discussion around WMAF will always center around why this particular coupling exists in such numbers, but not the other way around. This asymmetry is brought up by each of her male interviewees, as well as most of the women — matchmaker Katie Chen, and Dr. Jane Park of Sydney University. In each case, the assumption is that WMAF is normal and a healthy indication of the acceptance of Asian women by white society, whereas Asian men are unfairly sidelined by social bias. Dr. Park makes reference to a history of colonialism and the emasculation of male subjects, Katie talks about the de-humanization of Asian male faces, and JT Tran talks about the internalized racism that Asian men face from their own female relatives. In short, the aberration in their view is not that Asian women are marrying out at such a high percentage (currently about 36% in the US), but rather that Asian men are not (currently about 21% in the US).
But this may not be the case. Pew Institute’s recent study on intermarriage in the United States noted that Asian outmarriage rates are higher than all other major ethnic groups. It further breaks down outmarriage rates by both race and gender, and it shows that Asian men outmarry at a rate roughly comparable, but slightly less than, Hispanic and black men, and about twice as high as white men. But of all the race-gender groups, it is Asian women who are statistical outliers in rates of outmarriage* (36%, higher by far than any other race-gender group). And of that, it is marriage to white men that is by far the most common pairing; in fact it is the second most common interracial pairing in the US.
*Author’s note: Black women are also statistical outliers, but in the other direction. The relationship between unexpectedly high rates of out-marriage among Asian women and the similarly low rate among black women is perhaps a more significant topic of discussion than the rates as between Asian men and women.
While these statistics alone don’t determine what is ‘normal’ and what is ‘aberrant’ at a social level, it does leave the question open as to why Natalie’s documentary, which sets out to explore anger by Asian men around WMAF, rests upon an unspoken yet clearly established assumption that the anger is caused by the lack of success by Asian men to “achieve” white partners relative to Asian women. This results in a work which assumes a positive normality to WMAF couples, while bemoaning an amorphous, faceless background racism and history which prevents Asian men from “attaining” marriage with white women at a rate which would — again resting upon this specious assumption — quell Asian male anger at the issue.
Compare this to Ali Wong, who expresses a kind of social intuition that it is Asian women who are trying too hard to achieve whiteness, while Asian men are just being their normal Asian selves. If anything, the numbers back this perspective, and the discussion about Asian interracial relationships cannot be complete without also framing it around Asian women’s aspirational attitudes towards whiteness.
The difference is too quickly attributed to a gendered racism that sexually prizes Asian women, but emasculates and desexualizes Asian men. If this is the case, then Natalie leaves the obvious question that this raises unexplored: if white male sexual favoritism towards Asian women is a form of racism, then isn’t WMAF itself a product of racism?
Asian male anger over WMAF is most often explained as a result of our anger over historical injustices:
Natalie Tran: When someone says something like “you’re a white worshiping woman” or something like that, who do you think those people are who say that kind of thing, or where do you think that’s coming from?
Dr. Jane Park: On some level there is maybe a historical/cultural reason for Asian men to feel proprietarial [sic] of Asian women, and it’s totally sexist… I think some of it has to do with the fact that if you’re a part of a minority or diasporic community in a predominantly white society, maybe you feel like “oh my god the white guys are stealing my women, the way they stole my country or my culture.” You can sort of see the logic there.
This interpretation of Asian male anger over WMAF-as-historical-symbol locates a real “wound” that explains the anger, but places the wound in the distant past for which the opportunity for redress has long expired. The clear inference is that Asian men are not angry at reality, but are haunted by ghosts. A real world ‘emanation’ of this racist past supposedly still acts upon Asian men, much more so than on Asian women, and that then would explain how the past can act upon the present in such tangible ways as interracial relationship disparities.
For Asian American men, the nagging sensation that the prevalence of WMAF is a problem, rather than a sign of progress, cuts severely across the grain of the mainstream narrative, which was that American society was inexorably improving on issues of race. With the election of Obama, the arrival of a post-racial American century seemed indisputably real, and the idea that interracial relationships could be a problem rather than a sign of hope was utterly quashed, given that our President was himself a product of interracial love. In a social environment which attaches an unfailingly positive vibe on contemporary interracial relationships, even Asian men who think deeply about this issue are prone to rely on the historic explanation of our ambivalence. But by placing the problem in the past, we gaslight our own emotions to be a product of what is, essentially, a fear of ghosts:
Phil Wang: There is a difference, you do see a lot more Asian women with white males — that combination — than the other way around. That’s obviously true and I think I was never angry at that, I was just like “why?”
And I think over the last ten years, seeing and being exposed to more history in terms of what the Asian American community or Asian men have had to deal with in terms of like legislation or just like historically in America, all those things start to make sense.
Like, oh there’s a roots [sic] that’s behind this it’s not just [crosses arms] we don’t get white girls and we’re just upset…. So I understand why people are angry, but I also understand that it doesn’t have to be this way.
But perhaps it does have to be this way. With the election of Trump, the narrative of racial progress was not only put on pause, but it was revealed to be an almost total sham in the first place. If anything, the suspicion that white society was not just glowing from the heat of past racism, but actively producing racial injustice while hiding behind a veneer of post-racial political correctness, was completely validated by his ascension.
And not only do white racists still exist everywhere, but they exist in white liberal circles as well. Take, for example, Zinzi Clemmons’s account of the phenomenon of ‘hipster racism,’ i.e. the racism that one finds throughout all those Yoko Ono Factories. Even the post-racial promise of Obama as a figure has been questioned by Sheila Miyoshi Jager’s account of her relationship with him, which revealed an awareness by Obama of the political importance of the race of his chosen partner.
There is a kind of outmoded post-racial optimism infused throughout Natalie’s documentary, which essentially encourages Asian men to overcome our hang-ups and catch up to the post-racial future that WMAF couples already enjoy. Her credits roll (and all thanks to Natalie for including me in them) over a series of some seriously cute WMAF couples talking about the humanity of their love. One man talks about his social anxiety, and how seeing his wife immediately gives him a kind of buoy that he can rest his troubles on. It’s beautiful. Natalie offers to “help” us Asian men get to this post-racial promised land, as she fades out with upbeat outtro music and a montage of her learning about all that real Asian male pain at being left out in the cold.
But to her great credit, Natalie’s open-minded approach to the topic does allow the revelation of stories that call this optimism into question. For example, her white-passing hapa friend Sar Satria describes going to a music festival with her full-Asian boyfriend, and being harassed by a white man for being with a “faggot” and not a “real man,” on the presumption that Sar was a white woman. Sar describes being among white social circles, and being reassured that she is beautiful “despite” having Asian genes, what she calls “indirect racism.” And she admits to a fear that her quarter-Asian son will be exposed to the same indirect racism she receives, and perhaps worse, will fully integrate himself into and embody a whiteness that she holds deep reservations about.
As an Asian man, I fixated a lot on Sar’s description of her Asian ex-boyfriend being attacked in that way by a white guy. I think experiences like that are what make me shy away from relationships with white women, because I don’t think white society really has a place for me in terms of finding a home on my own terms. No, I don’t see Miss Saigon in every WMAF couple I come across. But while the symbolism of the past are indeed like fading ghosts, our present is still producing demons. I’m left to wonder: if in fact Asian women are, as Dr. Jane Park puts it, more “prized” by white people, and therefore allowed to date and marry into their society, why is that everyone is wondering when it will be the Asian man’s turn to join them? Why aren’t people instead wondering whether Asian women should just, uh…
Author’s Postscript: my intention with this article is to heed Natalie’s call for more discussion on the topic. As for Natalie Tran herself — I think the Asian community owes her a MASSIVE debt of gratitude for turning lemons into friggin’ gold-plated platinum. For a person to suffer abuse in the way that she has, and then to turn that into a thoughtful, deep, and insightful video which calls for more and not less conversation… that is truly exceptional. Everyone including Asian guys online could take a lesson from her and every other woman, including our own Plan A chief editor Eliza Romero, who suffer us fools and refuses to ragequit. And here’s that link to the video I promised: