by Nicole Zhao
As I walk down the streets in parts of Manhattan or Brooklyn, the coupling of white men and Asian women is prevalent. They span the age range: from hipster millennials decorated in tattoos to elderly couples in periwinkle shorts and argyle cardigans.
I size them up with both disdain and curiosity—even though I’ve been one of them.
What I’m disdainful about: that they are another walking stereotype, a trope.
What I’m curious about: Are they happy? Is she his second, third, or fourth Serious Asian Girlfriend? (I was the second.) Does she, like me, ponder the ramifications of dating a white guy, or is she one of those people who’d rather not think about those types of things, who believes that “love is love?” Does he understand even a fraction of what Asian women experience? Does he see her—I mean, really see her?
A couple summers ago, I made an observation: my dating app matches were racially diverse, but the people with whom I most engaged—faster response rates, more in-depth conversations—were white.
I’ve dated men of various races, but my longest relationships have been with white men. As a politically progressive person, I wondered why. If racial justice were so important to my values, how could I not seek the same in my dating partners? If I were advocating for greater representation and equity in the workplace, why wasn’t I doing the same for my dating practices?
In other words: Why did my personal choices not reflect my politics?
I decided to try something different: stop dating white men.
The only way to succeed was to change what I was seeing. I couldn’t apply a race filter on Bumble–but I could on Hinge. I ticked off every race except Caucasian.
I trained my thumbs.
On Hinge, all the profile cards suddenly showed me people of color. Where had this abundance of profiles been before?
I like to imagine I’m not alone in this conundrum—several high-profile Asian American feminist creatives have white partners: Cathy Park Hong, Anne Anlin Cheng, Kat Chow, Mary HK Choi, Jia Tolentino, the list goes on. Anne Anlin Cheng writes about the tension of interracial love frankly: “There are days when my husband is my most cherished interlocutor, and there are days when I feel keenly that he will forever remain a stranger to the immigrant in me. Both are true and are the conditions of our intimacy and our separateness.”
I embarked on an investigation.
Hypothesis: The issue was exposure. I grew up in a primarily Latino and Asian neighborhood and went to a high school with mostly Asian students. My childhood crushes were Colombian, Trinidadian, and Indian Americans. Even in college, when I was surrounded by white people, my crushes were non-white. The first guy I kissed was Japanese; the first guy I slept with was Taiwanese. How, then, did my relationships end up skewing so white if my physical environment exposed me to such few white men?
Hypothesis: The issue was attraction. When I did date non-white men, I found myself disappointed by sexist or racist comments some of them made. One Korean man I went on a date with lamented the Asian women who dated Black men (“When I see them, I’m like, ‘No! Don’t do that to my people!’”), making me cringe.
But research finds that, for people of color, we’re more likely to associate negative experiences with the entire group. For white people, we’re more likely to associate positive experiences with the entire group and treat negative experiences as outliers. Upon reflection, I’d been on several dates with white men who proudly said they were feminists yet pushed the boundaries of consent in bed, or who said Black Lives Matter but didn’t understand why I was upset after the Atlanta shooting. Had I been treating my poor experiences with Asian men as the norm while treating my poor experiences with white men as outliers?
Hypothesis: The issue was compatibility. At the time, my relationships with non-white men had never lasted more than three months. I ended them because I thought my partners seemed less mature than I’d wanted—grappling with parental pressure on career choices or job hopping.
But to this, my girlfriend aptly said, “What seems like emotional maturity in white people sometimes is really just confidence.”
I was stunned.
When you’re white, images of success mirror you and your parents’ pale skin, green eyes, and light hair. You are given the benefit of the doubt when you wear hoodies late at night, board an airplane, or sneeze on the subway. When you’re white, you likely move through the world with a fraction of the self-doubt that often debilitates non-white people, including myself.
Upon meeting my white partners’ parents, who were also upper middle class, I was astounded by how pleasant they seemed. There were no fights at the dinner table, no temper tantrums, no tense silences. A small part of me relished being invited into their large, suburban homes, complete with lawns, basements, and multiple dining rooms, which contrasted my parents’ yellowing two-bedroom apartment, its painted walls peeling.
My white partners were more likely than my non-white partners to have parents who praised each accomplishment, who comforted, rather than chastised, them when they were upset. They were more likely to feel the world was their oyster—because it was and still is. They and their parents may have experienced trauma, but never because of the color of their skin—not the racialized trauma that leads to a unique cognitive dissonance.
My ideal partner: proactive, confident, emotionally mature, clear on life goals. How deeply were my expectations embedded in whiteness?
Hypothesis: It was an issue of “yellow fever.” In college, I was hyper-aware of fetishization. I developed a thorough set of screening questions, refined through various scenarios:
1) Does he have a history of dating Asian women?
2) Does he have a noticeable pattern of Asian culture, hobbies, and interests?
2a) Has he ever been to Asia, and what was the nature of that trip (i.e., was it voyeuristic)?
3) Does he understand the racial politics that impact Asian American communities?
Still, I didn’t resist its benefits.
The first person to ask me out was a white guy with an obvious Asian fetish (he sent me a novel he wrote based on his favorite book, Catcher in the Rye, where the love interest is a Japanese woman.)
But I was giddy. The truth was, after growing up with metal in my mouth, a face pockmarked by acne, and wire-framed glasses, I was flattered by the attention of any man.
Being paid attention to felt rare, even if it was fraught. And in this society, whose attention is more prized than that of white men?
As I grew older and more politically conscious, the allure of their attention wore off. I wasn’t the chameleon I was in my early twenties, timidly shaping myself around what I thought others wanted to see. I was more confident. I learned to focus more on whether I liked my dates than whether they liked me.
In relationships, I grew irritated with my white partners’ blatant lack of awareness of race. I wished that they’d engage in more nuanced ways when I shared my thoughts on race and identity beyond the usual “Interesting” or “Nice.” What other response could I expect from men who’d never experienced any sort of marginalization? I thought about how my future child would inevitably be racialized—I didn’t want to constantly teach my partner about race.
That summer, I stopped swiping right on white men. Of course, I still experienced the same woes—ghosting, lack of chemistry, incompatibility, lack of interest, and emotional unavailability. After all, it was still dating in New York City, and fuckboys come in all races.
But I was delighted by the depth and nuance of conversations I had. There’s an immediate common understanding when conversing with someone who knows what it feels like to be racialized. We talked about standard date topics—hobbies, art, hometowns, work. But we also talked about topics like conservative politics in immigrant communities, Christian subcultures in ethnic communities, the geopolitics of China, Taiwan, and Hong Kong, growing up in diaspora—conversations I typically had with my non-white friends, but never with my white partners. When my date and I joked about #girlboss white feminism and the insufficiency of identity politics, it felt like we were in on an inside joke even though we had just met. I’d never talked so robustly about race, whiteness, and immigrant experiences with a potential romantic partner; those rich conversations had always existed in a different sphere of relationships for me.
I’d rationalized my relationships with white men by telling myself: One partner can’t be all things to a person. They accepted my quirks and flaws wholeheartedly. We laughed at each others’ jokes and made each other better, kinder people. They attended protests, donated, and read books about race. Wasn’t that enough? Love and good partnership feel like miracles; I was afraid that if I left, I wouldn’t be able to find a better partnership.
The week that a white man murdered six Asian women in Atlanta, I felt rage and grief course through me like never before, hot and flooding. Meanwhile, my boyfriend was relatively silent. He didn’t know how to support me, and I wasn’t sure if I was expecting too much to want that. When he did not recognize the depth of pain and grief the Atlanta murders unleashed in me, I felt keenly the limitations of a love that does not engage with race. I used to think “love conquers all,” but I realized that for me, love, without sustained advocacy and organizing toward equity, is insufficient.
I am more than my race. But had my racial and political identity become so important and core to who I am that I needed that in my partner?
I broke up with my white partner of two years because I wanted more political engagement. During our tearful breakup, he asked me, “Do you think you could ever be in a long-term relationship with a white guy?” I thought about it for a long time.
Finally, I said, “Yes. If they were very politically conscious and engaged, or had some experience with being marginalized. But I think that would be very rare.”
I’ve realized something else: some, not all, of my Asian girlfriends date white men; with them, I don’t feel that disdain and curiosity I feel when seeing such couples on the street. They are not tropes to me because I know them. They seem good to and for one another. It’s only from afar, when I think about the optics and loaded history that I squirm, that those couples blur into a monolithic dynamic. Yet isn’t that precisely the white gaze I wish to escape?
The white gaze tells us stories about who we are, blurs us with those who look like us, and refuses to see the humanity in people of color and their choices. To be a person of color in America is to constantly be aware of the white gaze—you are always under watch, so you must always be on the watch. I wonder: is it possible to interrogate ourselves and our choices while also freeing ourselves from the ways in which the white gaze lumps us together?
I imagine a telepathic conversation in the millisecond when my eyes meet those of an Asian woman holding a white man’s hand on the street. I see the same size-up. She’ll tell me, I’m trying. We’re working on it. Do you understand?
I do, I do.
Nicole Zhao is a writer from Queens and based in Brooklyn. Her writing has been published in Apogee Journal, and she has received support from VONA/Voices and the Sewanee Writers’ Conference.
If you would like to submit original art for the print issue and/or feature online for this essay, check out our art contest at bit.ly/asianvoicesart, running May 1st-July 1st, 2022.