Not that long ago Asians were thought of as almost demonic, with World War Two propaganda portraying them as almost subhuman. We locked them up in forced camps right here in the United States, and even though we were at war with the Japanese, we tended to paint all Asians with the same brush. During the ‘40s and ‘50s, the mere concept of a white man and an Asian woman was that of forbidden love, and that was seen in popular movies of the time like South Pacific. Since the end of the Vietnam war, white men have increasingly said “to hell with it” and went into relationships with Asian women, but we have met with mixed results when it comes to acceptance.
That racism doesn’t always come from overtly prejudiced groups like the Klan, neo-Nazis bent on racial purity, or uptight Bible-thumpers. Most of the time we get the evil eye from people who are otherwise accepting and liberal refuse to accept the fact that I may just be in love with an Asian woman. Instead, they characterize it as “yellow fever” and accuse people like me of having some sort of fetish, think that we’re looking for an easy way out, that we’ve taken mail-order brides, or that it’s just “because we couldn’t get a white woman.” Or worse, they assume the Asian woman is a victim and is being taken advantage of. Yes, I love an Asian woman. Get over it. It doesn’t mean I have a fetish.
White women in the ultra-liberal California city of San Francisco who pride themselves on tolerance gave my wife and I the evil eye because we are a mixed-race couple. Although they may not say it out loud, their looks say, “… but … but … you should be with a white woman! Those Asian ladies are taking all the men!” Or, “You’re such a bad man for taking advantage of that poor little Asian woman!” They assume a level of inequality in our relationship that doesn’t exist, and despite their outward appearance of tolerance and liberality, they fail to acknowledge that there is a possibility that we are equal partners. They assume that the Asian woman is incapable of making her own decisions and is in need of their smug, self-serving protection, and that’s the worst kind of racism there is.
There is an inherent assumption that if a white man is with an Asian woman, it automatically means that he is taking advantage of her and she is unable of making intelligent decisions on her own. Or contrarily, it means that she is taking advantage of him for a green card.
I’ve gotten the raised eyebrow from men who have never left the Rust Belt when I tell them I used to live in Bangkok, a city they believe to be one big whorehouse filled with Thai women who were born to serve. When people see a white man walking arm in arm with a Thai woman, there is all too often an incredibly offensive assumption that they met in a go-go bar and that she was a prostitute. Yes, like every big city in the world, Bangkok does have a red light district, but for the most part Thai culture is conservative and very spiritual. And believe me, there’s nothing subservient about my Thai wife!
We’ve been on the receiving end of intellectual snobbery, by highly educated people who think that graduates of American universities have cornered the market on knowledge, and treat my wife – who has a Masters degree in environmental studies and is a very successful journalist and writer – like a poor uneducated immigrant who needs to be taught even the simplest of concepts.
We’ve seen anti-immigrant ignorance and resentment, and people who have somehow come to believe that all Asian immigrants get a check from the government when they cross the border to use to open a small business. I have encountered people who see all the little corner grocery stores, neighborhood restaurants, nail salons and donut shops owned by Cambodians, Laotians and Thai, and just can’t believe that they did it based on their own hard work and family values, but instead attributed their success to some secret government program that doles out startup money to immigrants which gives them an unfair advantage against Americans.
There is also ignorance on the part of otherwise liberal folk who see themselves as Great White Saviors. One of my old friends insists that every woman who works in an Asian restaurant is actually a victim of human trafficking, and that children are pressed into service against their will. And while yes, there is human trafficking and it is a serious problem, stereotypes and ignorance of Asian cultures get in the way of actually addressing it properly.
Somewhere in the anti-human trafficking movement there is a document of things that are supposed to be key indicators of human trafficking, and unfortunately some of those indicators are false and borne out of ignorance of the culture. One thing my well-meaning friend insisted on was that, all those Asian women who work in restaurants and who have American names on their nametags do so because their identities have been taken from them so that they can be trafficked. In fact, having an American name – especially if you are Asian and work with the public – is quite common, and done so simply because Americans usually can’t pronounce their native names. That’s why Thai women who work in restaurants, whose names have eight syllables and are completely unpronounceable to Americans, usually call themselves something like “Jane.” It’s just easier. It’s the same reason my grandfather, Wladyslaw, started calling himself “Walt” after he came to America from Poland.
In the lily-white fundamentalist church where I was brought up, there were no Asians. As a courtesy to my parents, my wife and I did attend a couple of times, and there was an uncomfortable unspoken tension about the racial mixing, and an overwhelming sense that they needed to immediately show her the “right” path and put aside everything about her own culture and upbringing and embrace their particular brand of Christianity.
There was a sense that I had sinned by leaving a “good Christian woman” and taking up with a heathen. They didn’t know what to think. She has dark skin. She speaks with an accent. She comes from a Buddhist country and celebrates a religion they don’t understand and don’t want to. She asks questions that in our church, we didn’t dare ask. “If you believe in an afterlife, why not believe in a before-life?” A reasonable question, especially from a Buddhist who believes in reincarnation.
A big misconception often raised in discussions on racism is that racism against Asians doesn’t exist in the United States, and that they are a privileged minority. But while it may take on a subtler form, that racism does exist, and is especially dangerous since it often comes from those who would otherwise think of themselves as tolerant and accepting.
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