I recently came across numbers from the Pew Research Center indicating that nearly 40% of Asian American women marry out of their race, in comparison to the national average of about 14.5% for both sexes.
These stats have the potential to spark a lot of conversations on the complex intersection of race and gender. As the product of an interracial marriage, I was particularly intrigued by the numbers on Asian American women, who marry out of their race at a higher rate than both Asian American men and women of other racial demographics. That there is a disparity at all indicates to me that there is in inequality in social pressures to marry out or marry in. Have shifts in American culture given Asian American women a freedom to marry out that other demographics lack? Is there something about being Asian American that they are trying to escape?
I think the sexual attention Asian women receive in the United States is one of the reasons they marry out more often than Asian men do. Asian men are more severely underrepresented in popular culture than Asian women, and given their absence, I find it little wonder that many young people react with surprise to the idea of an Asian man as a romantic symbol (this does not make racist comments less excusable, of course). Asian women are, at least, presented as sexual candidates.
Several people before me have broken down the fetishization and objectification of Asian women in music. It’s a trend I observe with some ambivalence. I don’t think Gwen Stefani’s take on Harajuku girls does justice to Harajuku culture or even fully humanizes Japanese women. Lena Sun beautifully expresses my mixed feelings on yellow fever in her piece for The Stripes.
But I don’t entirely agree with Margaret Cho, an Asian American comedian who wrote of the Harajuku girls, “An ugly picture is better than a blank space, and it means that one day, we will have another display at the Museum of Asian Invisibility, that groups of children will crowd around in disbelief, because once upon a time, we weren’t there.”
She acknowledges the media attention Asian women receive, but I think she ignores our power to use the attention positively. Songs like Childish Gambino’s “You See Me,” which calls out Asian women for being sexually viable, can be empowering, even if they by no means paint a thorough picture. The spotlight we receive as a result of fetishization can (and should) be used as a gateway for discussions about the realAsian America and how we want it to be defined. People like Suey Park who take stands with movements like #NotYourAsianSidekick do exactly that.
Additionally, as #NotYourAsianSidekick and this Buzzfeed article on racial microagressions point out, while race in the United States is no longer viewed as a simple dichotomy between black and white, Asian Americans are still commonly perceived as foreigners. When someone recently scrutinized me and asked where I was from, I assumed he wanted more than a hometown and explained that my mother was from Taiwan. He nodded and replied, “Ah, yeah, you look foreign.” If marrying out is a manifestation of the desire to belong or seem “more American,” I can relate.
Why do Asian American women marry out more frequently than women of other racial backgrounds? In keeping with the idea of belonging or blending in, one explanation is that Asian culture looks down on standouts: adopting an outspoken political or social voice is less respectable than finding success within an existing system. It makes sense, then, for Asian Americans to try to assimilate as closely as possible to white culture by all available means. Including through marriage.
For Asian Americans whose families have lived in the United States for multiple generations, this explanation seems less applicable. Why would Asian culture maintain a strong influence on a family that no longer lives in Asia? My guess is that early endeavors to blend in were—and are, in the cases of more recently immigrated families—enough to prevent the formation of a distinctly Asian American voice from the outset. Many of my Asian American friends call themselves “white-washed.” Perhaps Asian American women marry out more frequently because they tend not to feel the same distinctions from white culture that other minority women do.
In fact, for women and men of other racial backgrounds, cultural distinctions may not be a strong enough term. Many communities perpetuate stigmas against marrying out, as if it betrays loyalty to one’s race or culture (Kovey Coles addresses this idea in his great piece on interracial attraction for The Stripes). The mother of a close friend of mine sought political office but lost the support of other Latinos in her city when she decided to marry a black man. She was reproached for her “disloyalty to the Latino cause” and scorned by members of the black community for robbing them of a perfectly suitable bachelor.
So is marrying out an attempt to escape “Asian Americanness,” or is it an expression of a freedom that others do not have? I think it’s probably a combination of the two. I cannot do a topic so comprehensive full justice in an article of this length. My hope is that through further discussion, we can understand the causes of disparities in social trends like intermarriage. Understanding the forces behind our social reality is the first step to changing them, and I want to live in a country where I can choose a partner without regard to my—or his—race.