Becoming A Man
Emasculation of Asian men in American/Western culture is a subject of some - naturally - considerable interest for Asian-American commentators, activists, and writers. Although it is likely that racism and chauvinism form a significant foundation for this phenomenon, no discussion on the subject would be complete without its proper context of general ideas of masculinity and emasculation that exist in society as whole, and which affects the worldview and self-perception of all men, regardless of race.
As I alluded to in a very early post - here - the racial component of cultural depictions of masculinity has evolved over the decades. Present-day stereotypes hold that of the "three main races", Asian men are the least masculine of all the races - less athletic ability, lesser sexual potency, physically weaker, and lacking in other vaguely defined "masculine" attributes. Thus, widely held stereotypes, propagated and reinforced by demeaning media depictions, hold Asian masculinity with contempt. Many Asian-American men complain of a sense of emasculation (understandable under the circumstances), as well as a sense of disconnectedness from America's cultural masculinity. Yet, these ideas of race and masculinity have evolved over the decades - prior to the 1970's Asian men were stereotyped as lustful sex-beasts who used an almost demonic sexual power to seduce white women (the anti-miscegenation nightmare) and so possessed some considerable degree of potency.
It was during the 1970's that this began to change and it isn't unreasonable to surmise that our modern-day cultural emasculation in mainstream culture is a reaction to women and minority empowerment movements of the 1960's. Hence, Asian emasculation - perceived or otherwise - can be seen to be merely one aspect of this cultural sense of emasculation, complicated, perhaps, by race issues and xenophobia, and could even be said to exist as part of mainstream America's (in this case, specifically white America) need to redefine its own masculinity. Because race has always been present in white America's definitions of itself, it is expected that white America's attempts to redefine itself would also follow the dictates of a racial hierarchy.
Cultural emasculation of Asian men seems to exist as a kind of reaction to white masculine confusion resulting from civil rights, black (male) empowerment, women's empowerment. Because black hyper-sexuality emerged alongside black empowerment, emasculating stereotypes of Asian men became a way to regain a sense of relative masculinity, and in more recent years mainstream American culture has appropriated black male sexuality and attributed its qualities to white men (as outlined here). So, even though Asian men have borne the brunt of the backlash against emasculation in late 20th century America, it would behoove us to remember that this is little more than a white male media dominated attempt at damage control of their own emasculation. This is important mainly for the perspective it can offer Asian men - media attacks on our masculinity are part of a context of a general sense of emasculation in the West due to women's and minority empowerment.
In this post I will outline some ideas on how a sense of masculinity can be nurtured through cultivating a culture of personal masculinity. I believe that masculinity is an innate set of behaviours, beliefs, attitudes, forms of expression, that (because they are innate) should emerge largely as a by-product of the biological process of maturing. Additionally, this natural process should find expression, reinforcement, and support, through culture.The latter point is especially pertinent since, as Americans of Asian descent, we live in a culture that does the exact opposite of fostering our natural maturity into masculinity. More accurately, we live in a culture that seeks to retard our masculinity and separate us from our innate masculine qualities, both through demoralizing sexual stereotypes, and a general culture of dehumanization.
Yet, (strange as it sounds) I don't believe that we should even try to compete with the media to present positive alternatives to the demeaning stereotypes about our masculinity young Asian boys are exposed to on a regular basis. The simple reason for this is that our masculinity is innate and the qualities of masculinity can be nurtured without the need to see it happening on the television screen, even though, paradoxically, the media plays a significant role in creating the problem in the first place. So, although there are some who strive to change Asian male self-perceptions through countering negative media stereotypes with more balanced ones - although a noble and worthy pursuit - by itself will not create the kind of shift in the demoralized Asian-American male mentality. Much more is required, because I don't believe that it is even desirable for young Asian boys to learn about masculinity (or there own humanity because emasculation is another form of dehumanization) via the television or film. The Asian-American masculine identity has to exist separate and impervious to a hostile culture.
Why? Because masculinity is an innate biological quality that can only emerge through a process of growth achieved through experience, accomplishment, self-knowledge, education, and courage. Thus, the first step in this process is to disavow Asian men of a (apparently widely held) belief that they need to see positive stereotypes in order to regain a sense of masculinity. We will know that a true shift has taken place when mainstream America sees a movie that demeans Asian men and they are confused because it doesn't resemble any Asian men that they know. This is the power of the individual to affect a shift on a culture-wide level - thousands of individual Asian men changing social attitudes by their personal impact on their immediate environment.
So, how does one find one's masculinity? Again, I think it is a process with no specific goal (except the end result that Asian men define their own cultural identity), and no direct or definite path. Assigning definitive qualities that outline masculinity is thus a pointless exercise - there are as many "masculinities" as there are men. Sure, because masculinity is largely biological, there will be some qualities men will have in common, but what is important is the process by which we realize these qualities and as parents, brothers, uncles, or friends (but especially as fathers), what we can do to help young Asian boys to find their masculine nature is to provide the tools that will enable them to follow this process and learn the things that they need to learn about themselves that will foster a strong sense of their own masculine humanity. This process has three main components; physical, emotional, and intellectual and this process is what I might encourage any sons of mine to undergo.
First of all, boys need to develop strong minds and intellectual prowess, and hence willpower. Secondly, boys need to be able have a full emotional life without allowing themselves to be ruled by their emotions. Thirdly, boys need to feel a sense of physical strength because this gives them a sense of control over their immediate environment or space. Finally, accomplishment and the sense of achievement that goes with it are important measures of progress.
Pursue physical strength and activity. Boys need to be constantly physically active - that way they become accustomed to their own physicality and learn to be comfortable with physical competition. Boys learn the potential of their physical prowess and simultaneously learn the connection between strength of mind and physicality. I believe that many Asian men are out of touch with their physicality for various reasons. Culture and upbringing may play a role in this, but the main reason may lie in the fact that Asian boys growing up in the US are discouraged due to exposure to the single-themed message from our host culture that Asian bodies are weak. That is why getting in touch with physicality is vital for Asian boys. Three possible ways that this can be accomplished;
Asian boys need to learn martial arts. Aside from the obvious advantage of conferring confidence in the practitioner, martial arts are a great way to learn discipline (physical and mental) and the all-important quality of self-esteem. It is an uncomfortable fact of human life that being able to successfully physically defend yourself (or even simply trying) is one of the most empowering feelings one can have. It is why humans are so addicted to violence, and it may partially explain why violent crime is common in high-poverty areas - with few other means for self-esteem to develope, violence becomes the easiest and most readily available method. Being able to fight people off of you (which as an Asian man you will probably have to do) reinforces the sense of control of personal space that is yours and yours alone. Lastly, and almost counter-intuitively, if you know that you have the means to physically defend yourself, then you are better able to stand up for yourself without a violent outcome because your mindset will give you a physical presence that deters physical aggression.
Develope a strong and muscular physique. It gives you a great self-image, increases your sense of physicality, and promotes confidence. You don't have to be the strongest guy in the gym - you just have to be strong enough.
Goal based physical activity is a great way to become familiar with the feeling of accomplishment and sports participation is one of the ways to do this. It doesn't matter if you are 5 feet nothing, there is still a sport for you where you can expend physical energy in constructive ways. I played rugby and soccer in school, and I learned how my physique could be used advantageously in competition with guys who were taller - very often I came out on top and was always selected for the teams.
Structured physical activity promotes a key mind-body connection, the most important lesson of which is that through physical endurance, mental and physical discipline, an individual can learn self-confidence, determination, and an acquaintance with the competitive spirit that teaches the value of not giving in, letting failures become learning opportunities, and a sense that limitations and obstacles can be overcome or by-passed. It also teaches lessons that enable an individual to lose without losing the sense of self. One of the most positive effects of physicality, is that has such a profound effect on our emotional health. If you feel physically strong, and are comfortable with your body's capacities, then you can only become emotionally stronger. On a deeper level, implicit in competitive physical activity is the necessity of pushing through pain to achieve a goal. Because life is characterized by pain (physical, mental, or emotional) learning how or when to endure it and move past it is possibly one of the most valuable life lessons one can learn.
By nature, this aspect of the human experience is intangible and not easily defined, yet, when people are centered in their spirit or emotions, the results can be as tangible as steel. Because spirituality is most often profoundly intertwined with religious belief (atheism, however, doesn't necessarily dispel the need for transcendent spirituality) it is beyond the scope of this post to expound on specific practices. Common to many (most or even all, perhaps) spiritual practices is the sense of purpose that these practices impart. The idea that an individual has a place in the universe, is valuable to existence, and has a role to play in the unfolding story of humanity, are all spiritual/philosophical propositions and beliefs that are largely attained through transcendental thinking.
For the Asian men of the Americas,this sense of transcendent purpose is a key quality in overcoming inner damage caused by racism. Because American culture actively excludes Asian men from participation in its cultural myths and stories that give America its sense of identity and purpose, developing this inner sense of purpose and value is hugely important. Developing an "inner core" of self-value that cannot be touched by hostile conditioning is the most potent quality any individual can attain.
As important as development of the spirit, is the development of the emotions. It is almost impossible not to notice how much the Asian minority of America is strangled by its own emotionalism. A simple glance at how we respond to racial prejudice from the mainstream is a great illustration of this. Fundamentally, we are always offended by media slights and insensitivities - our emotions are often wounded by America's cultural racism. The problem is that our emotions are our business - if we're upset by something, the only solution is to get over it, that is, check your emotions. The problem with this, is that America's culture of anti-Asian racism has significantly more serious effects on our lives than simply hurting our feelings. So our emotional responses to this kind prejudice cannot be adequately expressing the significance of anti-Asian racism, and this emotionalism can thus be seen to be harmful to our advocacy.
Beyond this, much of our Asian-American culture and Asian commentators displays this same sense of emotionalism. Whether it be a poorly adjusted Asian woman currying mainstream sympathy by emotively demonizing their upbringing and the Asians responsible for it, or a wannabe boheme feeling under-appreciated by the proles, or speaking about hurt feelings, Asian-Americans seem prone to self-advocate via the emotions. As I've already mentioned emotions are not the ideal vehicle upon which to carry forward personal or group advocacy because ultimately your emotions are your own personal business. As men, what is important is that we learn how to not be slaves to emotions and hence emotional thinking. This doesn't mean controlling our emotions (like Spock), it simply means not allowing ourselves to be controlled by our emotions. Adults - that is, those with maturity - have learned that too much emoting is not conducive to living a meaningful life. For a heavily stereotyped ethnic minority the results of emotionalism - particularly in response to racism - are likely to be quite damaging.
I will only offer one specific piece of advice on how to manage our emotions, and that is to learn how to cultivate a positive emotional frame of mind. Here in Internetland (and in the real world), I see too many Asian guys admitting defeat before they have even tried. I don't like to hear Asian men whining about how they are at a disadvantage because of stereotypes - for example, the Asian guy who thinks he can't get a date (and won't try) because he "knows" that white/black/Latina women "won't date Asians", and "all the Asian women want white dudes". Please stop. It may sound like a cliche, but the biggest barrier is often the one in your mind. That doesn't mean that there aren't challenges specifically derived from anti-Asian racism, but becoming negative is an implicit acknowledgement of defeat, and a clear indication that we have allowed our emotions to have too much control over our mindset.
I think that developing a positive attitude, starts with a choice, and can subsequently be cultivated. A positive mindset leads to self-belief, a determined attitude and, most significantly, a sense of defiance in the face of mainstream hostility. Too many Asian guys seem to talk themselves into being "losers" by focusing on negatives even when they have so much going for them. Yes, your parents were strict but all of that parental control can also teach you how much you can accomplish with discipline and application - it is up to you to apply that ability to other aspects of your life - start by choosing to be positive. Learning discipline is one of the most important lessons (and in my opinion, one of the most important goals) in life and it is something that is implicitly taught through many Asian cultural and spiritual practices.
Ultimately, cultivating a positive attitude and learning to not be controlled by our emotions, allows for the emotional/psychological state of courage to come to the fore because people are often more afraid of feeling negative feelings than they are of any particular frightening situation.
This is another set of qualities that are difficult to define and assess. Intellectual empowerment can be thought of as one of the keys that unlocks the doors of prejudice. Anti-Asian racism is supported and propagated by an uncompromising cultural "blitz" of negative reinforcement that includes dehumanizing stereotypes, limited descriptive language (and imagery) that is demeaning in nature, all of which serves to normalize racist behaviour towards Asians in society. Most significantly, for Asians growing up in the US, such a campaign of racial hostility also serves as a means of turning the mind of any young Asian person against itself. Thus, America's cultural hostility teaches some Asians to align their thinking about themselves and their communities with the negative attitudes of the mainstream, creating the phenomenon commonly vaguely referred to as internalized racism.
The challenge, of course, is outlining a path by which we can say that people are "intellectually empowered" and I think the best way to illustrate it is to identify some of the qualities and characteristics that I believe characterize intellectual empowerment.
In my observations of intellectually empowered people, the first thing I notice is that they have a skeptical outlook. To me this means that they don't react to information without first considering the subject from various points of view. For Asian men, cultivating skepticism is vital - most of what is written or said about Asian men is untrue hostility or negatively exaggerated, so being skeptical about what we see and hear mainstream America saying about us is key as it prevents internalizing negative attitudes about ourselves.
The second thing I notice about intellectually empowered people is that they are independent thinkers. The nature of America's hostility to Asian men means that we have no choice but to be independent thinkers because our skepticism requires that we hold attitudes and opinions that are oppositional to the mainstream - if we are not, or do not, then we have internalized racism. Skepticism should lead to independent thinking, which, in concrete terms for Asian men, means that we stand in opposition to most of what our culture (i.e. American culture) says about us and, perhaps more importantly, what it says about itself in relation to us. Thus, Asian men are by definition a potential counter-cultural force - our empowerment stands in direct opposition to the beliefs of mainstream America, which requires that we be timid and marginalized.
This segues neatly into the next characteristic of the intellectually empowered; holding unpopular opinions. For an Asian man to feel confident about himself, and to display qualities of leadership, and strength, he must, by definition, hold opinions about himself that are unpopular in the culture of America. Thus, being unafraid to hold, voice, and live by, unpopular opinions is an unavoidable manifestation of intellectual empowerment for Asian men. Furthermore, independent thinking and its love-child, unpopular, against the current, opinions (when done intelligently, and which, almost by, definition Asians must hold if they seek empowerment and racial integrity) are an implicit assertion of individuality - the very thing that mainstream America denies us.
A fundamental requirement for intellectual empowerment is an understanding of your own personal and group histories. All culture is fundamentally an expression of the historical experience - both of groups and the individual. Thus, historical experience is the basis of identity via the vehicle of the culture it informs. This is why societies and cultures - particularly authoritarian ones - do everything to control the historical record; history helps to forge a national identity and social cohesion. Significantly for Asians, the way that news and world events are spun in the media (including cultural portrayals) can be seen as an offshoot of this strategy - reporting on world events and our actions within them are spun to reinforce the national narrative that a society wants to believe about itself, allowing present-day events to fit seamlessly into the manufactured historical narrative.
I could write several posts on this subject, but for the purposes of this post it suffices to say that exclusion of Asian-Americans is intrinsic to the American national identity narrative, which is a historical narrative that is fundamentally biased against Asia. Thus, for those Asian-Americans seeking intellectual empowerment, overcoming the conditioning of this narrative is an essential step.
Finally, one of the most important aspects of intellectual empowerment is to be able to state your case powerfully and eloquently, and for that the weapon of choice is language, and its deadly ammunition, vocabulary. The biggest fear of oppressors and bullies is an eloquently expressed novel idea - this why concepts about Asian men are limited in American culture to a few demeaning images that are recycled throughout the culture and which are expressed with limited language and concepts. One of the antidotes is eloquence.
Pursuing the types of disciplines and practices that I have outlined in the previous paragraphs carries with it an implicit notion of accomplishment and achievement. In pursuit of physical empowerment setting goals and knowing when you achieved them is relatively straight-forward. But when it comes to intellectual and emotional empowerment it is sometimes difficult to realize that you have actually made a shift closer to the place that you want to be.
For me, realization of intellectual and emotional empowerment can be seen if you develop the sense that you can impact your environment even if you are the only person in the world who holds a belief or opinion. What this looks like varies. It could manifest as simply as believing in yourself enough to approach the hottest girl in the room with enough confidence to hold her attention all evening. Or, it could manifest as having the intellectual and emotional self-belief to challenge institutions alone because you discover wrong-doing, even though it could ruin your career. The point is, that emotional empowerment requires that you overcome negative thoughts and feelings that could prevent you from becoming the man you want to be. Intellectual empowerment requires that you approach any idea independently from consensus points of view and find a way of viewing it that we could call being closer to the truth.
And that could be a kind of template for intellectual and emotional accomplishment - having the emotional strength to challenge embedded ideas and offer an alternative way to conceive of them.
It should be noted that what I have tried to describe here is not "how to be a man", but "tools to help one learn to be a man". The gist of my piece is that masculinity is learned but - paradoxically - not entirely taught. This means that masculinity emerges through the exercise of the three components of physicality, intellect, and emotion, and thus, it is learned through practice and ultimately self-awareness, which can also be thought of as "personal culture". Masculinity comes as the result of knowing your strengths and pushing the boundaries of your limits in all these areas, and being comfortable with it. This should impart a sense of confidence and self-belief in the strength of our own minds, bodies, and emotions. So in a way, what is happening is that the process of learning about our strengths in all of these areas is itself nurturing masculinity.
On a final note, I make this disclaimer; I am not and do not claim to be a "man-psyche" expert! What I present is a layman's concept of how we might defeat damaging deep-rooted racism and stereotyping through individual endeavour. Neither do I believe that this process need only be possible for our youth - it is never too late. And by no means are the ideas in this essay complete, or even comprehensive, so if readers have ideas to contribute, then feel free to do so.