Think of an Asian American man. Now think of adjectives that would normally be used to describe him. There’s probably something in there about intelligence, maybe about his profession. Physical descriptions (if there are any – how often do we talk about Asian American men’s bodies?) might refer to his weight, hair, and if they’re extra crude, penis size. Is there anything in that description that hints at anything romantically or sexually desirable, or alternatively, that the man has any desires of his own? I’m guessing no.
The ‘emasculation’ and desexualization of Asian men is something that is named a lot in discussions of anti-Asian racism. It’s the inverse and the partner of the hyper-sexualization and fetishization that is often perpetrated against Asian women; Asian men, at least within a heterosexual frame, are in popular media and culture portrayed as weak, perverse, or else entirely devoid of sexual desire. It’s an incredibly pervasive narrative that shapes a lot of how Asian American men see themselves, or rather, how they don’t see themselves: the erasure of a ‘masculine’ or sexual identity for Asian men in broader culture I think makes it harder for them us) to see ourselves romantically or sexually, see ourselves as objects of desire. I would also imagine that a lot of early race consciousness in Asian American men comes out of individuals trying to work against these perceptions, trying desperately to be seen.
I say all of this to explain why I understand some of where Eddie Huang is coming from, and why I find it particularly frustrating that his response is so, so, wrong.
A few weeks ago, Eddie Huang, celebrity chef, writer, and prominent voice on Asian American issues (whose memoir was turned into the ABC sitcom ‘Fresh Off the Boat’), got into an argument on twitter with black feminist activists Black Girl Dangerous, KB, Trudy, and Feminista Jones. This followed his appearance on Real Time with Bill Maher, in which he made a remark about the way that Asian men are seen as undesirable and desexualized, comparing it to similar perceptions of Black women. The comment itself was largely just based on a high profile study of OKCupid data from a little while ago, and lacked attention to the nuances in how those perceptions are formed, and particularly how misogyny and anti-Blackness are intertwined in the way Black women are viewed. I can almost give him a pass for this (I’m sure I wouldn’t be able to perform that well on national TV either) if it weren’t for his response when he was called out on Twitter: rather than engaging Black Girl Dangerous and answering her concerns, he immediately became incredibly dismissive, appropriating African American Vernacular English (which he does regularly), and ends by making an attempt at a joking come on. It’s pretty disgusting to read, but more than that I think it’s indicative of a disturbing trend in the way that Asian men have tried to reclaim the ‘masculinity’ that has been denied them by White supremacy.
Eddie Huang doesn’t speak for all Asian men, but I do see elements of his particular, aggressive brand of masculinity in the actions and attitudes of some of the Asian men I know. It’s a masculinity that is rooted in values of physical strength and sexual conquests, a masculinity that deals in casual misogyny and heteronormativity. It’s a also an idea of masculinity that has very real, very dangerous consequences: Jenn Fang at Reappropriate wrote a great piece about how these conceptions of masculinity, and particular attempts to fight back against a perceived ‘emasculation’, played a critical role in the UCSB shooting last spring. In that piece, she coins the term ‘misogylinity’ to describe this toxic type of masculinity that is rooted in misogyny and sexual conquest, and which distinctly places White women in a position of higher status over women of colour.
It obviously isn’t just Asian American men who buy into and perpetuate these ideas: on the contrary, sexual conquest and dominance lie at the heart of masculinity in White-dominant, Western societies. It is institutions within these societies that prop up these ideas, with racism and sexism working together to create a system that values Whiteness and maleness above all else. What’s frustrating about when Asian American men do it, though, is that often it seems that there is a conscious attempt to engage with and play into this definition of masculinity as a way to combat the removal of a masculine identity that is perpetrated against them. In an attempt to reject the desexualization and ‘emasculation’ that they experience and to reclaim a masculine identity for themselves, some end up just taking on the most damaging elements of White, Western, heteronormative masculinity. Not only is this damaging in that this idea of masculinity is harmful, but it is also counterproductive: it is, after all, this very definition of masculinity and the White-Dominant structures on which it rests that excluded Asian men in the first place, and will continue to do so as long as it exists. When someone endorses this system by buying into its idea of what a man should be doesn’t do anything beyond make a that individual person feel a little better: on the whole, it just keeps the same system in place, consigning future generations of Asian American men to the same feelings of invisibility that men like Eddie Huang are ostensibly fighting against.
What, then, should be the response if we are to reclaim a masculine identity for Asian American men? For me, the answer to being shut out of White masculinity isn’t to go banging on the doors until we get in, or to build a version of it that we can call our own. Rather, as Asian American men we need to identify what worked and what didn’t about existing definitions of masculinity. We need to reject the misogynistic and homophobic foundations at the heart of dominant ideas of White, Western masculinity, and strive to create masculine identities that are inclusive of diverse expressions of masculinity, that acknowledge their own privilege in male-dominated structures, and that work to undo the harmful effects that traditional masculinity has, both on ourselves and people of other genders.