I’m one of the many almost-20 East-ish Asian women who go to UC Berkeley and have been in relationships or flings with white men. Lots of white men, in fact. It’s an interesting pattern that has only recently started making me feel insecure: What if everyone who has ever been attracted to me wasn’t actually attracted to me? What if Dylan or Ryan or Matt only saw me as the shy and physically small Asian woman who I outwardly appear to be and not the outspoken, funny, headstrong individual who I truly am?
But I ultimately know that it’s too reductive to act like I, as an Asian American woman, am not complicit in my own dating and sexual preferences. My parents raised me to prefer Vietnamese men, but it was hard to act on this preference when my upper-middle-class suburban environment was predominantly white. This meant the Vietnamese pickings, if any, were slim. Outside of the homogeneity of my environment, catching feelings for white guys became something of a habit.
When I openly voiced my attraction to white dudes, it was partly a survival tactic. As an oppressed woman and racial minority, I wanted the power and privilege that came along with the acquisition of racial, gender and class privileges that I otherwise wouldn’t have access to. I also didn’t like the sexual and romantic precariousness that came with being marginalized and therefore feeling undesirable in comparison to my white peers.
So, I decided to play the game that was given to me: If white men wanted Asian hypersexuality and submissiveness from me, then I would give it to them, but only in return for the symbolic power and privilege that I desired. Although the raging feminist inside of me hated myself for buying into this trope, it was easy, comfortable and sometimes even fun to identify as the “exotic” feminine counterpart to successful white masculinity rather than finding fulfillment on my own terms.
For many years, I tried to justify my complicity by cherry-picking a couple of classically European features. Then, I would tell people that I simply preferred tall guys with light brown hair or green eyes. I hadn’t truly recognized the weight of my seemingly innocent preferences before I came to UC Berkeley, where the diversity supersedes that of my hometown by a tiny margin. Here, it was impossible to attribute the laughable whiteness of my romantic history to a lack of suitable bachelors of color.
It was in Berkeley that I realized I don’t actually just prefer tall guys with light brown hair or green eyes — that was just me finding a roundabout way to say that I was primarily attracted to white men and thus absolve myself of any guilt or accusations of self-hate. This weird attraction to white men was rooted in my hyperawareness of whiteness as a standard of beauty and higher social status. As I look back at my own fraught romantic history, I subconsciously believed that I would only ever survive in this world if I found and married a white man. When I realized this, I was disgusted with myself.
Why did I need a white man’s help to feel accepted in the spaces that I was a part of? When the relative diversity of UC Berkeley forced me to remove the cloak over my head, I had to face the fact that I was using the public facade of my relationships with white men to shield myself from the suspicion that I might have been raised as a second-generation Vietnamese American. I could not possibly excuse myself any longer for perpetuating racial and gender hierarchies, even if it meant risking the safety and legitimacy of my identity as someone who belongs in the United States and at UC Berkeley.
My parents probably weren’t expecting me to break cultural norms when they told me at the tender age of nine that I should marry a Vietnamese man. But they were right in suggesting, albeit inadvertently, that I do not need to engage with normative whiteness to be a full and happy person with a rich romantic and sexual life.
I do not need to repress my true ethnic origins nor do I need to play the role of a hypersexualized, feminine Asian woman in order to know that I have the right to be a part of different social spaces. The imperative that I and many other Asian American women who are like me face is the willingness to recognize that we are not just someone’s wife or girlfriend — we are interesting, intelligent, complex human beings who can see through racial and gender differences and insist, against all odds, that we belong here.
Laura Nguyen writes the Tuesday column on sex. Contact her at [email protected].