If I had ten cents for every time I had seen or heard this statement I would probably be quite well off! We all have a sister, cousin, aunt or even our mothers(!) who would routinely state something along the lines of; “(he) is quite good looking……for an Asian!” or it’s several variations – “(he) has a nice nose…..for an Asian”, or “(he) is strong/fast/tough…….for an Asian” etc. You get the picture. In fact, it would probably be accurate to say that most, if not all, Asian-American men grow up hearing this so many times throughout their childhood and on into adulthood that they believe that it’s entirely unusual that anyone would consider Asian men to be attractive.
What is the standard by which these guys, who may be attractive despite being Asian, are measured? Of course, the answer is the Caucasian standard. The reality is that for many Asian women involved in raising Asian boys, the attractiveness of Asian men is dependant upon the degree to which their physical characteristics resemble those of white men. Few even recognize the underlying prejudice this statement entails. It’s not that these women are being wicked or deliberately racist, they have somehow deemed it acceptable to impart to their sons and brothers the idea that Asian characteristics aren’t as desirable as those of Caucasian men, and that when Asian men do measure up to the white standard, that this something extremely unusual and is something to be admired.
Although the examples given above are specific, this phenomenon seems to be part of a wider problem that exists amongst Asian-Americans. It seems to me that as a community we seem to permit ideas and attitudes which if we were to apply to those outside our race or community, we would consider extremely offensive and racist. One of the most prevalent yet casual expressions of this racism is of course, the attitude and its ubiquitous reinforcement that it’s unusual or unbelievable that Asian men can be attractive or desirable. These attitudes will typically suggest that Asian men are, almost by definition, less than. Asian-Americans would disown and lynch their own mothers if they were to say perhaps that Denzel Washington is good-looking for a black man. They wouldn’t tolerate it. Yet, we tolerate this attitude when speaking about our own brothers.
Much is written and discussed on the subject of the emasculation issues of Asian-American men. What seems to be the most common belief is that the media emasculates Asian men through derogatory stereotyping. Whilst I don’t deny that there is a media war being waged against Asian men, I question whether this is enough to cause the sense of emasculation and disempowerment one seems to see expressed by some Asian men. It seems obvious to me that if an Asian boy grows up in a household where it is believed and reinforced that Asian men are typically unattractive or that Asian men are unable to compete physically with his non-Asian peers, then that boy will develop a pretty profound sense of inadequacy about himself. The media simply provides the icing on the cake.
Certainly, it makes sense to challenge media stereotypes that are detrimental to the psychological well-being of Asian boys, but to pursue this course without challenging the negative reinforcement that many Asian boys receive from within their own families is like building a house on a weak foundation. Even if we were to persuade the media to change its representations of Asian men, the issue of confidence and emasculation would remain because a good deal of these problems stems from the negative messages Asian boys receive in their formative years.
This must be the first step to Asian male empowerment; to challenge and overcome commonly held beliefs within Asian families themselves that are fundamentally demeaning for Asian men, and contribute to the sense of emasculation that many of them experience.