At Penn, many of us have had that one friend who has either explicitly or implicitly expressed a romantic preference for Asians. At best, fetishization is an uncomfortable topic, and at worst, it’s an insidious case of racial stereotyping that has gone unchecked for years.
There are many painful accounts of Penn students who have been subjected to this. But the accounts do not stop there. Whether it be from fellow Penn students to Uber drivers to random cat-callers, many people find it more socially palatable to use explicitly racial terms towards Asians – as if they were forms of “complimenting” or “flirting.”
This phenomenon has historical footing in colonization, imperialism, and United States war involvement, which have led to spikes in interracial marriages. There are very limited portrayals of Asian-Americans in the media. And yet the most popular stories somehow all include the trope of the docile Asian female lead, i.e. "Madame Butterfly," "Miss Saigon," "To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before," and more.
The issue certainly isn’t interracial dating itself. The issue is that gender and racial norms play out in the social environments at Penn, yet they remain taboo topics. This is not a push for homogenous dating preferences, but rather a push to evaluate the importance of racial dialogues and accountability on those who do push stereotypical narratives.
People of color often have to be careful about how they perpetuate or contradict stereotypes while navigating relationships or friendships. White people must tread a fine line of appreciating diverse people in their lives, instead of tokenizing or brandishing their “exotic” friends as proof of being cultured.
A common pushback around this subject is that Asian women contribute to placing white men on a pedestal. This is often applied to many people of color who are shamed for being white-seeking. The question as to whether or not Asians are in fact at fault for having stronger preferences for white people is indeed a possibility.
But this question also ignores how entrenched racism and colorism have been ingrained into our society. This act of victim-blaming shifts the narrative onto women, as if they are the ones responsible for internalized self-hate and racism toward their own race. There is a valid question as to why some minorities actively seek to date white people, but this comes with the caveat of becoming more harmful.
Even the terminology and connotation around interracial relationships are derogatory. Whispers of “yellow fever” and “jungle fever” have the underlying, historic connotation that loving a person of color is barbaric. The thing about love is that even if it’s nobody’s business, there are real consequences and judgements passed onto people of color.
Minorities suffer from deeply appalling and traumatic experiences because of the perceptions around unavoidable racial appearances. This ultimately ties back to critical race theories that argue that in the United States, minorities are forced to think about their race and adhere to a lifestyle that has been deemed “suitable” for themselves by someone belonging to a higher social status.
For people who have questioned their identities or surrounded their self-worth on the acceptance of others: Demand what you deserve. It’s not groundbreaking work if they have only read one article or tried “ethnic” foods as their way of proving that they are cultured. Do better. Expect better. You’re human, not a caricature of their sexual desires.
Unlearn and unpack your preferences before you enforce them on others. Being cognizant of how race and identity impact someone you care about is an important skill to have. We don’t have to take everything at face value, but we do have to understand the underlying implications. The most powerful relationships are the ones that involve people who aren’t afraid to talk about difficult topics.
TON NGUYEN is a college junior from Atlanta, Ga. studying Politics, Philosophy, and Economics. Her email address is firstname.lastname@example.org