Everyone around me is a total stranger
Everyone avoids me like a cyclone ranger
That’s why I’m turning Japanese
I think I’m turning Japanese
I really think so
— The Vapors, “Turning Japanese”
Audrea Lim’s op-ed “The Alt-Right’s Asian Fetish,” recently published in The New York Times, marks an end to a conspicuous silence by Asian Americans over the well-publicized and paradoxical phenomenon of white nationalist men in America displaying a fetish for Asian women. Lim points to some prominent examples of white nationalists who have or have had Asian female partners, including Andrew Anglin, Richard Spencer, and Mike Cernovich, but she suggests that it extends deep into white nationalist culture itself. The phenomenon poses some awkward questions. Is it that white men consider Asian women “white enough” to be included in their sketches of a white ethnic utopia? Are Asian women being opportunistic and simply filling in the gaps left by more cosmopolitan-minded white women? For Asian Americans, such questions require some very uncomfortable introspection. But the sheer mystery of how this interracial phenomenon could occur within a subculture defined by its mono-racial ideals begs for an explanation.
Lim offers a conventional answer, premised upon a well-understood historical racism directed at Asians, and Asian women in particular. She boils it down to it being the intersectional result of two well-known racial stereotypes of Asians. The first is the model minority myth, which is projected onto Asians broadly, and the second is the myth of submissive hypersexuality, which is projected onto Asian women specifically.
Lim believes that the model minority myth deludes white men into seeing a retrograde feminine virtue in Asian women, which at the same time cajoles Asian women into living up to that stereotype as though it were flattery. Lim then asserts that the hypersexual Asian female myth adds a certain surplus quantity of this feminine virtue that is absent in the modern feminist white female, who is the sworn enemy of the white nationalist and alt-right movement.
But this explanation leaves some glaring gaps unaccounted for. If it is a false racial myth that fuels this phenomenon, then why would Asian women agree to fulfill it? If it is a uniquely American form of racism — which Lim convincingly asserts is a deliberate product of American geopolitics — then what accounts for her inclusion of Adolf Hitler’s admiration of Japanese and Chinese civilization? If it is a gendered, intersectional racism directed at Asian women in particular, then how can we account for the broader phenomenon of white supremacists embracing Asian culture at large, not just women?
After all, in Dylan Roof’s manifesto, the single exception to his virulent hatred of all non-white people was towards Asian people generally, as he did not qualify that it applied only to cute, available Asian girls who didn’t mess around with the SJW crowd. One could posit that the model minority myth can also operate alone, without the submissive Asian female myth, to create this generalized exception for Asians. But then why do white supremacists as a matter of doctrine never give such exception to that other model minority, the Jews?
Richard Spencer’s interest in Asian women was reciprocated. John Harkinson’s profile of Spencer in Mother Jones included a brief exchange with one of Spencer’s unnamed Asian ex-girlfriends, who claimed that it was she who ended the relationship after four months, and for reasons other than his racist political views. She told Harkinson that although she was initially turned off by his racial views, she eventually softened to his ideas. Assuming that Spencer was this forthright about his racist beliefs with all the women he dated, she was not the only Asian woman to overlook them; Spencer admits to having had other Asian girlfriends in his past.
Lim leaves open the door that these women may have been “playing up the stereotype” in order to pursue “something to be gained,” and that while women ought have the agency to either conform or resist intersectional stereotypes as they see fit, they cannot escape that such stereotypes invariably function to exploit them as they exploit all non-white people. In other words, they fell for the race flattery trap.
But this doesn’t correspond with the specific case of Spencer’s ex-girlfriend, who knew full well that Spencer harbored white supremacist leanings, who consciously came to accept them, and who chose to leave him on her own volition when the bonds of personal chemistry came undone for reasons other than moral outrage. None of this suggests that she was an unwitting victim of a disguised system of white oppression.
Nor does this correspond with the infamous behavior of Tila Tequila, who figures prominently in Lim’s piece. Tila Tequila’s flagrant use of Nazi symbolism goes well beyond a “twisted” attempt to “just be one of the white-supremacist bros,” as Lim puts it. Having suffered severe public backlash for her antics, including the deletion of her Twitter account (a crucial commodity for a reality television star), she doubled down on her conviction that having “seen the inside of the world, it’s all run by one group of people.”
It doesn’t take a huge leap to perceive that Tila Tequila’s virulent anti-semitism is an authentic product of her own political mind. Her statement hints that it was caused by her sexual exploitation by the fringes of the entertainment industry, and was not simply a misguided belief that there was “something to be gained” in all of this. Lim herself appears to see a certain limit to historical racism being a proper explanation for something as confounding as Tila Tequila’s infamous sieg heil, and she punctuates her sentences here with question marks instead of periods. Perhaps only question marks are appropriate when confronted with this image:
This all goes against Lim’s fundamental characterization of Asian women as unwitting victims of a system they cannot understand. In this view, the only relevant agency that produces the phenomenon of Asian women in a whites-only world is that of the white man. Moreover, it is inferred that the purpose of that agency is to capture Asian feminity as an ersatz retro white femininity, the authentic version which has long since expired from exposure to modernity. But aside from Andrew Anglin’s video of his “jailbait” girlfriend, no other example she provides suggests that Asian women are doing anything but exercising their own agency. It’s hard to see in Mike Cernovich’s wedding photos an attempt to trick some unwitting bar girl into bed with him because a white woman would have been too much trouble (Shauna Cernovich is an Ivy League-educated Silicon Valley lawyer worth millions):
While it’s easy to dismiss the alt-right (and its various cousins such as Dark Enlightenment or NRx) as the online circlejerking of basement racists, it’s harder to understand why men like Richard Spencer will engage in 4-hour-plus livestreamed debates with European classical liberals who do nothing but verbally and intellectually bully him in front of a live audience of 12,000 people (the largest livestream in the world while it aired). Then there is the replay audience of hundreds of thousands, if not millions, along with a flood of follow-up content analyzing every detail as if it were a Magnus Carlsen chess final.
In other words, this shit has gotten a lot more serious than basement circlejerking. At some point during Spencer’s marathon nightmare debate (which is sporadically entertaining) he is asked a final burning question by the Romanian political YouTuber Vee:
Vee: I remember last year you talked about how football takes away from white identity. My question is, what do you think about white people who like anime and video games? Does this take away from white identity?
Spencer: Not necessarily. Apparently the most fervent white nationalists are all into anime. Actually we need more anime. Or maybe we need less, or we would actually create a fanatically Nazi society. It’s just an elective affinity. White people might enjoy eating Thai food, who cares. Identity is a very rich concept. There are aspects of our identity that are false and hollow.
The question was essentially a reformulation of a single question that had been repeatedly asked of Spencer over the many hours, but to which he failed to ever give a satisfactory answer (as none exists). That question was in essence: What exactly constitutes a racially pure white identity? This particular question about anime and video games was an attempt to force Spencer to give a consistent principle of racial purity that would allow whiteness to incorporate Asian influence, yet still remain pure.
In scrutinizing Spencer’s answer, it is clear that he understands that the question boils down to why football must go (it’s too “criminal” i.e. black), but Asian influence is okay to stay; after all, nobody said anything about Thai food. By offering up white America’s love of cheap Asian cuisine as an example of a meaningless “affinity,” Spencer unintentionally signaled that he knows the question is about the paradox of white nationalists embracing Asian culture in particular.
This paradox is both broader and more difficult to explain than the question of why so many Asian women show up to his conferences. Even Spencer expresses a bit of mystification about the white nationalist embrace of Japanese anime. Lim also addresses this fascination, but reduces it to “blond-haired, blue-eyed heroes and hypersexualized heroines.” It is an incomplete answer to an incomplete question.
Despite the alt-right’s valiant attempts to construct an intellectual scaffolding to pathetically pose as the logos and ethos of white supremacy, at the heart of the movement is really just a human yearning for a sense of ethnic belonging and identity. The alt-right is the pathos of an alienated white minority, and little else. While the legitimate systems of modern power still reinforce white supremacy as a social outcome, these systems are forced to admit that such outcomes are moral disasters within the ethical systems that justify their existence (for example, democratic rule and social equality). Modern power must either mitigate these outcomes while protecting its own basic legitimacy, or otherwise employ elaborate denials that such outcomes are either real or unfair.
If the alt-right’s mission is taken literally, then they are fundamentally opposed to mainstream neoliberalism, and thus opposed to the very concept of a non-white immigrant population being welcomed into American society for having admirable Asian values, despite invalid Asian genes.
Yet, as Lim points out, the alt-right still embraces Asian women, despite this opposition. This is the problem with Lin’s explanation at its most elemental, which is that historical American racism cannot account for the similarity between the neoliberal and alt-right attitudes towards Asians. As Lim writes:
The stereotypes that feed the Asian-woman fetish are not exclusive to the far right. They exist across the political spectrum and infect every aspect of life
That simply cannot be a satisfying answer. Virtually all points along the American political spectrum except for its white nationalist extremity are forced to accept the ethical conclusion that Asian American women are full and equal members of society. Any rejection of this conclusion occurs at a personal and unethical level, for example as racist double standards, and thus must either be corrected or simply suppressed out of awareness. But the alt-right not only rejects this assumption of equality of Asian American women, it holds that rejection up as its organizing principle.
In other words, Lim’s theory that the model minority myth is at play in a severe form has no meaning when the concept of a minority itself — particularly a model minority which concedes no justifiable cause for repression — is antithetical to the alt-right’s conception of the world. Thus Lim’s explanation simply ends up back at the question: how can a white nationalist movement embrace a model minority myth about the Asian women among its ranks, if such a movement is opposed to the existence of minorities in the first place?
Nor does the myth of submissive hypersexuality provide any meaningful explanation, as there is no indication that the relationships Lim refers to were all of a sexually exploitative nature (for example, Cernovich’s very public marriage to a financially independent woman). In the case of Tila Tequila, Lim doesn’t even say that her involvement with the alt-right is tied to a white male partner, rather than her own individual volition to participate. The relevance of the myth of submissive hypersexuality is merely assumed rather than substantiated.
What seems to be happening instead is that the alt-right and neoliberalism are both attempting to harvest from the same Asian corpus their own respective missing parts. For the alt-right it is the logos and ethos to complement its pathos (in other words, both an empirical and ethical justification for their desire to act upon the subjective feeling of a white ethnic identity), while for neoliberalism it is the pathos which its pre-determined logos and ethos cannot provide (that is, a spiritual cure to the unavoidable alienation of living within neoliberal capitalism).
Thus, for neoliberals trying to suppress ethnic identity to avoid the social fracturing that threatens their authority, Asian immigrants are held up as real world proof that the American Dream still works, and that the neoliberal values of self-sufficient individualism and remorseless competition are demonstrably compatible with a family-centered life imbued with meaning and contentment.
At the same time, alt-right leaders like Spencer and Jared Taylor invariably point to Japan as a real world example of an ethnostate that actually works as a wealthy and ethically sound society. In their conception of Japan, it is at once a nation state and an ethnic group, with no meaningful differentiation. The core of Japan that they want to harvest is, as Spencer put it, the “rich conception” of Japanese identity that they believe imbues Japanese life with the kind of ethnic meaning and social connection that is denied to modern Americans, and especially modern white Americans who are prohibited under neoliberalism from expressing any ethnic solidarity (for fear of sparking the same in its restive minority populations).
Not only is Japan an ethnostate, but there is little desire among the Japanese to change this state of affairs through immigration and multiculturalism, despite an aging economy that demands it. Perhaps it is this isolationist equilibrium which explains the remarkable irony of white nationalists jockeying the impenetrable foreignness of Japan, while leaving the genetically-pure but culturally open Scandinavia to the Bernie progressives.
This strange embrace by white nationalists of Japan over Scandinavia, of anime over Nordic crime thrillers, and of course Asian wives and girlfriends over white partners, points towards a collective imagination that it is Asia, and Japan in particular, with its deep traditions preserved by a social and political conservatism, which should serve as the template for an ideal American state.
It all adds up to much, much more than just hentai and JAV.
But what does any of this tell us about why Asian women keep showing up at Richard Spencer’s white nationalist conferences? Why is the alt-right embrace of Asian women reciprocated?
Under Lim’s theory, it is because these Asian women have “something to gain” in performing an idealized Asian femininity to match the racist stereotype expectations of sexually curious white men who, in courting such performance, betray their loyalty to the white race.
But taken in context to their broad embrace of Asian society, going well beyond a furtive interest in having forbidden sex with exotic Asian women, there actually is no such betrayal. Being with Asian women is no more of a betrayal of their ethnic politics than watching anime, eating Thai food, or learning the Japanese language. That this needs an explanation misses the point, for white nationalism is an irrational feeling and not a coherent politics, Spencer’s intellectual snake oil notwithstanding.
Thus, there is no basis to assume that the Asian women of the alt-right are performing a false Asian femininity, when their real Asian femininity would be more highly prized, just as white anime fans prefer subtitles over dubbing, and authentic Japanese cuisine over Asian fusion.
As an Asian American man, I cannot presume to know what it is exactly that drives Asian American women to want to be among white nationalists. But as the paradox of accepting Asian women into white nationalist circles reveals itself to be no paradox at all, then there’s no reason to think that what drives them is any different or less authentic than what drives white men towards the alt-right.
I can say that in the heart of Asian American men, there is a real and authentic emotional longing for an ethnic community identity that fills in the spiritual gaps of modern mainstream life. The bedeviling emotional appeal of reactionary racial politics for Asian American men is something Oxford Kondō wrote about in his Plan A Magazine article “What if Asian American Men Fall to the Alt-Right?”
Whatever the answer to Lim’s question is, it most likely lays within the personal identity of individual Asian American men and women, rather than some predictable and systemic effect of historical racism fueling what amounts to a curious aberration. If this is the case, then the answer is not simply “out there” somewhere in the external world of historical racism and its pernicious effects upon us as victims. Instead, the answer would lie within the conception we have of ourselves, our relationship with whiteness, and the possibility that white nationalism actually provides some of us with something we deeply desire.
Tila Tequila’s anti-semitism led to her permanent exclusion from the mainstream of entertainment, a loss she refused to try and regain through a public apology. It is a punitive and short-sighted assumption to believe that the “real” Tila Tequila is nothing but a confused and perhaps self-hating Asian woman peer-pressured into performing racial antics in hopes of “something to gain.” There is nothing a person would expect to gain in American entertainment by publicly endorsing Nazism, and thus Lim’s assumptions of her naivete amounts to questioning her intelligence and sanity, a position supported only by popular public opinion. What is far more concerning — yet also far more likely— is to consider that the real Tila Tequila is a canny woman with full agency, who knew precisely what she was doing and why, and did it despite knowing that there was everything to lose.