Over the summer while I was in DC, I was in a relationship with a White woman. While we spent time together, we experienced a series of unsettling interactions with White men. We were repeatedly sneered at, muttered at, and most frighteningly, once glared at by a White man who made a point to turn out of his seat, stare at us the entire ride, and shake his head at us as we exited, his eyes fixed through the glass even as the train sped away. These encounters shaped the time we spent together, and these violent, non-verbal threats left me jarred.
Even in high school, I found myself subjected to a desire to simultaneously protect White womanhood and subdue my Asian American masculinity and sexuality. At one point I started seeing a White woman in my high school, and a group of White men would sometimes make quips at me, asking, “Does she like your small penis?” I didn’t recognize it at the time, but these sexualized, racist jokes stemmed from their desire to dominate White womanhood and their perception that I had transgressed some unspoken racial line. In that moment, and many others throughout my teen years, I existed only to yield to their superior sexual virility as a symbol of their manliness, through the undermining of my own. This experience exhibits how men of color experience gender through a power dynamic enacted by White men, as White men seek to reify their dominance by subordinating Asian American masculinity.
In high school, White women would often tell me, “For an Asian guy, you’re pretty attractive”, or, “You’re cute, but I’m not into Asian guys.” These occurrences deeply degraded my sense of self-worth, and have created in me a racial pain that still exists to this day. Comments like these reinforce White beauty standards as the superior default, and have hurt me to the point that I sometimes even wished to be White.
This series of events from high school and the summer are a manifestation of Yellow Peril—the fear that the peoples of East Asia are a danger to the Western world. The idea of the Yellow Peril combines racist terror of “alien” cultures, sexual anxieties, and the belief that the West will be overpowered and enveloped by the irresistible, dark, occult forces of the East.
The sexual anxieties embedded in the Yellow Peril ideology are largely composed of the fear that lascivious Asian men are going to prey on White women. This stereotype has a history—it originates from a series of anti-Chinese immigration acts in the late 19th century that began by excluding Chinese women, and then Chinese folk altogether from immigrating to the US1. The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, the culminating act that barred all Chinese immigration, also included provisions that prevented Asians from marrying Whites2. This series of events reversed the construction of Asian American masculinity from hypersexual to “asexual” and “homosexual”, as Asian American communities at large became bachelor communities that had to adapt to a new way of living based on solely same-sex relationships3. This stereotype played out in my experiences this summer in our nation’s capital, as White men, threatened by my relationship with a White woman, demonstrated their sexual anxieties through overt expressions of anger.
The memories of my experience in DC terrify me. I often wonder, had I not been in crowded places during the daytime, might these men have attacked me? Would their anger have driven them to violently separate me from this interracial relationship that they so detested? This fear is controlling, playing a role in determining whom I engage with and how I interact publicly, my physical safety becoming a constant factor because of this disturbingly realistic threat of violence.
I pose my story to reveal that cisgender heterosexual men of color are victim to a heteropatriarchy rooted in White supremacy. Not to say we do not enjoy immense cisgender male privilege, but that the patriarchy does not fully extend to us. Both our genders and our sexualities are defined by Whiteness and the constructed ideal of White manhood. In fact, Asian American men are not fully man at all because we will never fully embody the standard of White masculinity or heterosexuality because of our race. These stereotypes function not only to control and exclude Asian American men, but also to dominate and regulate White women in response to sexual anxieties.
Many Asian American men, including myself, overcompensate for this lost sense of masculinity through hypermasculine behaviors. This behavior acts as a way to reclaim and regain what we feel has been taken from us. For me, these hypermasculine behaviors have and continue to manifest themselves in extreme self-reliance, an avoiding of the appearance of weakness, toxic aggression and a desire for emotional control over self and others, especially women. This toxic masculinity can translate to co-opting power over women as well, and in doing so, we exploitatively adopt the same desires of White heteropatriarchy to control women. As a result, our response to our oppression can result in a wrongful desire to take the place of the oppressor, which does not lead to any sort of freedom.
In response to our effeminzation, we must be careful not to demonize femininity, especially when in so doing we bring harm to those of other genders. I urge cis straight men of color to not redefine their masculinity by seeking belonging in a dominant system of heteronormativity and hypermasculinity. This system subordinates queer and feminine folk, in treating heterosexuality and hypermasculinity as the superior norm. Instead, the act of ignoring these labels that are deemed undesirable allows Asian American men to disregard the White male gaze altogether, to remove its power and control over Asian American masculinity. I also urge people to rethink their conventional understandings of male privilege, as Whiteness affords all White folk the ability to reinforce racially gendered power over men of color.
I am still working on figuring out what it means for me to attempt to exist outside and also within these boxes without taking refuge in harmful hypermasculinity. At the same time, I also recognize that as a cisgender heterosexual male, this story reinforces an assumed heteronormativity in relationships. Furthermore, I would like to acknowledge that my thinking on this topic has been informed and expanded by the writing and labor of queer Asian American scholars, as well as the help of peer voices.
I share my story not to self-aggrandize, but to elaborate on a hopefully more liberatory way to combat our marginalization— one that does not come at the cost of other disenfranchised identities.
As one who is occasionally desired while still emasculated and effeminized, I hope the undesirable becomes desirable, that silenced voices become heard, and that we can allow for a more equal world, including in intimate relationships. Instead of pitting ourselves against other marginalized folk and coopting a desire to hold power over others, let’s forge an alliance with other marginalized identities. Let’s spread love and safety for those of us who are constantly told we don’t deserve it.