As a South Asian woman with a long and pluralistic dating history, I am amazed these days to see two couples comprised of Asian women and Black men every week. The sugary romance between the excessively noble characters played by Parminder Nagra and Shafiq Atkins on ER follows the much hotter one between Ming Na Wen and Mekhi Phifer that ended two seasons ago. Grey’s Anatomy features Sandra Oh in an up-and -down relationship with Isaiah Washington.
What accounts for such interest? It’s as though these couples have been pouring out of medical schools and producers decided to capture the trend.
The representations tread the line between cultural authenticity, sometimes considered stereotype, and colorblindness. The women exhibit some level of conflict with their cultures and are slightly neurotic: Ming Na dreaded telling her immigrant parents that she was having a baby out of wedlock; Nagra quit her job in a bout of rebellion against family expectation to work as a convenience store clerk. The men are dangerous but tender. Phifer grew up without a father and has a temper; Gallant went off to serve in Iraq. I did laugh at the effort to bridge cultures, though, when Nagra’s character got married wearing a white sari. White is the Hindu color of mourning.
The hype about interracial television couples is that Americans have moved so far past race they don’t even notice. “Honestly, we really don’t even talk about it or consider that it’s an interracial couple,”said ER’s Executive Producer David Zabel in an interview with Diversity Inc. He claims that a quick look at MTV proves that younger people don’t draw those lines.
Web-surfing indicates that younger people do indeed draw those lines, at least for purposes of fulfilling their attractions. On Tribe NY, I found a group for Asian women who love Black men, and on Blasian.com I found Black men who love Asian women. The website African and Asian American Unity has tools for getting to know the other culture that include instructions on how to keep a bonsai, cook Chinese greens and participate in Kwanzaa. It also has a highly insightful advice column, “Ask Mike,” in which a bald, slim, goateed Black man will answer your romantic questions at great length for free. The vast majority of questions were from people under 25 wanting to know how they could find, keep or correct their Black or Asian partner.
An Analysis of Desire
While the number of such actual couples remains small (an unknown but undoubtedly tiny portion of the 2 percent of U.S. residents in interracial marriages), there does appear to be a dramatic growth among daters in particular places.
Particular neighborhoods in Brooklyn and Los Angeles seem to have become havens for Black men seeking Asian women and vice versa. While sitting on her stoop in Ft. Greene, Brooklyn, a Japanese friend was approached by an Asian woman walking with her baby stroller. The woman asked whether my friend had any kids. She was searching for potential members of a group for kids with a Black father and Asian mother.
What accounts for the sudden attraction? Darrell Hamamoto, professor of Asian American studies at the University of California–Davis, believes it is rooted in prevailing stereotypes stemming from Black men’s military experiences in Asia. Hamamoto gained some notoriety as the producer of a pornographic film featuring Asian sex, his effort to complicate and abandon the stereotypes of oversexed Asian women and impotent Asian men. He asserts that the U.S. military draws large numbers of Black men looking for a ladder to the middle class, whose status changes when they go abroad. These men see Asian women as subjects of the American—and, by implication, their own—empire.
“This trend is rooted with American colonialism and occupation. Material and historical forces shape these relationships,”said Hamamoto. “You have three, four, five generations of African-American men who have served oversees in Asia, whose experience with Asian women has been pretty intense in a foreign land where they are treated not as subordinate people but as superior Americans.”
Marlon Ross, professor of English and African American Studies at the University of Virginia, raised a methodological question about this theory. “I’m not sure that African-American men have been involved in sexual relationships with Asian women in that context any more than white men; it’s just that when African-American men are doing it, it gets noticed more,”said Ross. That doesn’t mean, however, that stereotypes don’t come into play. “Our desires are fashioned by consumption, by the media and by commerce in very deep-seated ways that we may not even recognize. That fashioning of what is desirable, certainly a large part of it is racially defined,” he added.
It seems likely that the increase in this kind of dating owes more to demographics than anything else, and such couples continue to face challenges. None of the couples I heard from or about while reporting this story had any military background whatsoever, and all had faced or expected strong resistance from the Asian partner’s family. Performer Kate Rigg wrote a song for one of her Asian dancers:
My boyfriend’s Black and there’s gonna be trouble
My parents want to live in a Negro-free bubble
Two things have been changing since my family immigrated in 1972. The identity of Asian immigrants has shifted from mostly middle-class professionals to working-class economic refugees, and these people have moved into urban centers and suburbs simultaneously with upwardly mobile Black families. The couples I spoke to met after finding themselves in the same place at the same time.
Aarti, a 26-year-old activist of Indian descent, found her first Black boyfriend at 15 when she left her fully multiracial public school for a scholarship to a prep school where the students were polarized between Black and white. “I really felt that I had no choice. My body type in high school was much more voluptuous than it is now, and that just really took the white guys out,”she said. Aarti does not discuss her dating life with her parents. She recalls that one time when she brought home a Black boyfriend “as a friend,” her father felt the need to craft a long explanation for his presence to an extended family member. She further noted that among her South Asian peers she received far more stigmatizing attention for “only dating Black” than did those who only dated white.
Mark is a 42-year-old Black chiropractor living with his 44-year-old Filipina wife of 16 years in Vallejo, California. Mark was born and raised in Vallejo, where Filipinos started arriving when he was about 11, and his wife’s family immigrated then. The couple draws the same number of stares from Blacks and Asians as they did in the 1980s, and also faced family conflict in spite of having grown up together. “My family was more open initially than hers, even though we had all known each other. The only way I can put it is, African Americans in America are at the bottom.” Mark dated all kinds of women, but said he “always had a thing for Asian women. It’s just a personal preference.”
Hamamoto’s theory would suggest that such a preference was grounded in a sexual stereotype of submissive Asian women. I am familiar with our so-called seductress image. My Asian girlfriends and I spent our college years snottily rejecting the few white men who came around as “rice lovers.” While I did experience an American man mentioning the Kama Sutra within five minutes of meeting me recently in New York, my adolescent self- image was much closer to nerd than slut. To see all these Asian women who might also have been high-school nerds paired up with the most sexualized actors in American culture has been, I will admit it, a thrill. However, in real life, Asian women and Black men don’t get to be both equally sexy and smart. “It’s easier for a Black man to get his foot in the door when he’s with me, “said Aarti, “especially if we’re working.”
At least in the popular culture, there has been a long-standing attraction between Blacks and Asians. Rigg cites the generations-old Black obsession with martial arts movies, as well as the Asian adoption of hip-hop culture. And Asians look up to Blacks as the standard-bearers for civil rights activism. “It would be a big turn-on for an Asian girl or guy to be with people who have been more successful in asserting their rights,” said Rigg. “This is a case of like likes like. A Black person is less likely to be as racist as a white person when it comes to dating an Asian girl. And a Black person might not feel as oppressed as they would by a white person in their family structure.”
Still, if television reflects more fantasy than reality, whose fantasy is this? The real breakthrough would be to pair a Black woman and an Asian man. There has been no Black woman doctor on ER since Michael Michele left in the early years. Grey’s Anatomy’s character list includes only a married, middle-aged Black woman. There have been no Asian men in either cast. Black women and Asian men seem to be aware that they haven’t made it to the top of America’s desirability scale, and that they need each other. Their questions to “Ask Mike”outnumber the others, two to one. A television hospital coupling would surely help them.