On Monday, the last day of April 2018, Issa Rae was trending on Twitter because of what she wrote about black women and Asian men in her book three years ago. As far as I know, the following happened. Sometime late on Saturday night, Plan A’s Five Alive tweeted a passage from The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl in which she wrote about interracial dating disparities hurting black women and Asian men in similar ways. She came to a tongue-in-cheek conclusion that black women and Asian men should therefore get together.
For anyone familiar with racism in the social arena, the issues raised in Rae’s commentary are nothing new or even radical. Thanks to the intermingling of technology and dating, there is irrefutable evidence that in modern American society, races and genders do not mix in harmoniously colorblind fashion. With black women and Asian men always being the ones left out, the common musing has been, ‘Well, why don’t they just hook up with each other?’
The passage quoted in Five Alive’s tweet eventually got picked up by Black Twitter and when I woke up on Monday morning, “Issa Rae” was trending.
Why now? Why not three years ago?
If my personal life is of any relevance, then yes, I’ve dated black women before, both in America and in Asia. Once, I met a black woman in Seoul and we went on a couple of dates. I remember going to a old-fashioned sujebi (Korean hand-torn noodle soup) restaurant together and wondering how all the ajummas running the place would treat us. Actually, they didn’t blink an eye, at least from my perspective.
The question is why did this passage suddenly spark a fiery debate now? The book itself is, in digital years, quite old as it was published in 2015. I’d even seen that passage before, but it was lightly discussed without causing much of a fuss.
I can only offer a non-black person’s perspective, but here’s what I think happened. You have to understand the context in which this passage exploded. I’m not going to boast that I’m all plugged into Black Twitter, but I do know these things have happened recently:
- Stephon Clark and his Asian partner are found to have demeaned black women, especially dark-skinned black women, as ugly and unattractive, as well as being all about #AllLivesMatter
- A recent episode of Atlanta (“Champagne Papi”) features a white woman righteously delivering a speech defending her BMWF relationship against an angry black woman
- Kanye West, who could be seen as yet another successful black man who’s married to a white woman, kisses Trump’s large ass again
- Kelis reveals that Nas abused her
- Bill Cosby is found guilty of his crimes
- A black woman tweets a viral tweet that falsely attributes a quote, about straight black men being detrimental to racial justice, to Angela Davis
During this time, I saw a lot of tweets by black women, decrying how straight black men were the “weakest links” in the fight for social justice and how they knew many black men who exhibited internalized racism in their dating preferences. I saw memes about how black men were taking L after L these days. And of course, there was pushback from black men as well, saying that black women were trying to control them or that black women were being bitter because they themselves wanted approval from white men. So I think this Issa Rae passage provided some ammunition for black men to defend themselves.
We’re now seeing some very raw issues come to the surface because the social landscape has changed so much in just the past year or two. It’s mainly because the Trump election destroyed the old social contracts that minorities had with white assimilationist liberalism. Those pacts have now been scrapped because if those polite liberals couldn’t stave off a vicious buffoon like Trump, then what credibility do they have? Thus, internal fights within minority communities that were suppressed for the sake of appearances are now surfacing.
This fight about Issa Rae is all-too-familiar to the fights I’ve seen in the Asian American community, though of course, the “winning” and “losing” genders are swapped for us. It’s Asian women who date and marry out to white partners more than Asian men and it’s more often that Asian women put down Asian men by repeating racist stereotypes (see the BBC show Chinese Burn as a public example). And it’s Asian men who get accused of trying to control Asian women and being resentful about their social status.
So watching the same fight in the black community is fascinating, because in terms of relative social positioning, black women are more like Asian men. But because black women are women, they also use similar language and tactics as Asian women in framing the whole interracial dating disparity issue as feminism and women’s progress.
I have to say I empathize a lot with black women. I’ll never forget the fact that during the darker days of this whole argument within Asian America— when we didn’t have the data, studies, or even freedom to openly talk about the obvious gendered racism infecting our supposedly diverse 21st American social scene —black women were usually the outsiders who backed up Asian men online when the denialists and apologists gaslit us and talked down to us. I know just how infuriating it can be to have the opposite gender of your community sell you out for white acceptance. That anger never goes away, no matter how much personal romantic success you have. Because racism is racism. Because even if you try to individually overcome your race, you’re still judged by your group image because when people say “My boyfriend is Asian” or “My girlfriend is black,” they know that the audience will assume stereotypes first. Because even if you win and get the girl/guy of your dreams, you still know that your brothers or sisters are getting fucked over.
Just look at how many black women wanted to throw Stephon Clark into a figurative ditch of a grave because of what he said about black women. Yes, those women’s reactions were harsh and in a coldly objective way, it shouldn’t have mattered what kind of man Stephon Clark was if your main goal was to fight police violence against black people. But people aren’t social justice robots. Just think of how incredibly tormenting it is to be sexually denigrated by members of your own race that it could cause people to say “meh” to state-sanctioned racist murders of your own people. Think about that before dismissing these issues as unimportant because they’re “just about dating.”
Yet at the same time, I also feel for black men who get upset when they see white assimilationist liberalism inciting the same kind of gender wars in their community as I’ve seen among Asian Americans. Liberal think tanks like the Brookings Institute clickbait by insinuating that black women would be better off not marrying black men. When I watch an episode of 2 Dope Queens and the opening bit features Jessica Williams and Phoebe Robinson talking about their white boos and drooling over Jon Hamm, I have to wonder how I’d feel if I saw two Asian female comedians do that on HBO. It makes me reaffirm my Ali Wong standom because she talks so much about her Asian husband. You look around Hollywood and suddenly see so many WMBF pairings popping up, often glowingly portrayed as progressive when it’s really about white dudes leeching off of the racial credibility of minority women to keep themselves on top. I’m an Asian guy; I know all about that.
As for Issa Rae’s passage, how do I feel about it? Honestly, I’m happy she said that because we all know the underlying truth of it all. We’ve long been in denialism about it because we wanted to save face and not admit to our own complicity or passivity in the face of racist social pressures. If you’re an Asian guy, saying what Issa Rae said can often get you screamed at or banned in Asian American spaces because LOVE IS LOVE and so what if my rigid preferences just so happen to favor the most dominant and privileged group because it’s totally a coinky-dink so nothing to see here so stop trying to police my body you ugly boring short virgin toxic #hypermasculazn.
When watching Insecure, I couldn’t help but notice that the one Asian male character (Justin) is portrayed rather nicely. I wrote about it here in “Does Lena Dunham Have Yellow Fever?” So I do think that Issa Rae has some very interesting thoughts on Asian men and how other POC factor into this fucked up racist social scene we’re currently living in. But there are some questions to be raised. Why’s an “educated black woman” an intellectual match for merely an “Asian man”? I’m sort of flattered by the suggestion that all Asian men are smart, but I must admit there are a lot of stupid versions of us out there. And what does that imply about normal black women? Also, if there’s a widening education gap between black women and men, do interracial relationships constitute jumping from a sinking vessel? And are black men justified in not wanting to be seen as that sinking ship? Or are black women right to feel that black men have left them behind anyway and it’s so sad, too bad by now?
I’d rather hear more, not less, from her. We need more open, if still clumsy, discussions about what happens when we try to build an open society on a rotting foundation of many prejudices. We have to accept that feelings will get hurt and self-images may turn out to be less shiny that we’d hoped. But that should be seen as an acceptable price for genuine progress.