How Systemic Racism Affects Dating and Sexuality

The Asian-American male's dilemma in the dating world.

Posted Jun 22, 2020

Sam Louie
Source: Sam Louie

In the United States, dating for ethnic minorities is rife with stereotypes and caricatures. Messages about masculinity and virility are often deeply embedded in the media.

Consider the following: the Italian stallion, the Latin lover, or the Black stud. All of these carry a hypersexual or overly sexualized perception of men from various cultures. But the Asian male is relegated to the sphere of asexuality. Part of this is due to decades of biased portrayals of Asian men as docile, meek, or nerdy buffoons in Hollywood entertainment. This was a key theme I saw for Asian men in films growing up in the 1980s.

For example, in the 1984 movie Revenge of the Nerds, the character of Takashi is a Japanese nerd with a thick accent. He isn't even aware of what a nerd is, let alone that he was viewed as such in the movie. 

What's just as hurtful is that the actor who played Takashi is a Japanese-American born in the United States but was cast to play the role of an immigrant who couldn't speak English well, let alone understand the cultural and sexual nuances of dating women in the U.S. 

Sam Louie
Source: Sam Louie

In the same year, the popular coming-of-age comedy Sixteen Candles showcased the character Long-Duk-Dong, who was portrayed as an Asian foreign-exchange student who was nerdy, horny, and emasculated. In addition, the sound of a gong reverberated whenever his character entered a scene. 

Alison MacAdam, a former NPR senior editor had this to say in a 1984 interview about the legacy of the character: "The mark Long Duk Dong left was more of a stain: To some viewers, he represents one of the most offensive Asian stereotypes Hollywood ever gave America."

Dong's love interest in the movie is a woman much larger than him known as "Lumberjack," which further resulted in mocking the masculinity of Asian men. "The gender roles are switched," Kent Ono and Vincent Pham write in their book, Asian Americans and the Media. "While this representation aims to provide comic relief, it both feminizes Asian American men and simultaneously constructs alternative gender and sexuality as aberrant."

The co-founders of the Asian American popular culture magazine Giant Robot, Martin Wong and Eric Nakamura, said that before Sixteen Candles, students of Asian descent in the U.S. were often nicknamed "Bruce Lee." After Sixteen Candles, they were nicknamed "Donger" after Long Duk Dong. Wong said, "If you're being called Long Duk Dong, you're comic relief amongst a sea of people unlike you." Nakamura said, "You're being portrayed as a guy who just came off a boat and who's out of control. It's like every bad stereotype possible, loaded into one character."

Once again, this character was played by a Japanese-American actor who was raised in the U.S. and did not have an accent. But the actor, Gedde Watanabe, won the role by auditioning as an Asian immigrant who knew no English. in a 2014 interview to commemorate the 30th anniversary of the movie, Watanabe explains, "To set myself apart, I asked a friend of mine who had a thick Korean accent if I could hang out with him and learn. I then went to the audition in character using my friend’s accent. Which wasn’t a very smart idea because I was basically lying and would have to tell them at some point that I only spoke English and was from Ogden, Utah."

But even in 2000, when Chinese martial arts actor Jet Li played the male lead in the 2000 film Romeo Must Die, the end scene initially had him kissing his co-star (played by the late African-American singer Aaliyah). But the scene didn't test well with focus groups, who stated they were uncomfortable seeing an Asian man kissing a woman. The scene was changed to Aaliyah giving Li a hug. As the movie's director, Gene Cayhon, explained in an interview, "Mainstream America, for the most part, gets uncomfortable with seeing an Asian man portrayed in a sexual light."

Needless to say, while there are now more Asian-American male actors playing more mainstream roles, the images of Asian men as sexually castrated looms large in perceptions in the dating world. 

For women, especially non-Asian women, the bias and negativity of Asian men as sexually inept or romantically undesirable is palpable, as a 2014 Ok Cupid study revealed Asian men were the least desirable in online dating preferences. Since then, other studies have revealed even more startling statistics. In a December 2018 journal article, more than 90 percent of non-Asian women said they would not date an Asian man. And 40 percent of Asian women said they would not date an Asian man. 

As a psychotherapist who specializes in cultural issues, I can attest to the complaints among Asian men who feel they are being ostracized simply because of their ethnic background. Women, even Asian-American women, have been indoctrinated into viewing Asian men as lacking romance and sexually inert and thus unattractive. And this isn't just relegated to America—it's an international issue.

A February 2020 article on this topic shared how one Filipino-Canadian man quit online dating for this very reason. "I don’t like online anymore. It doesn’t do you justice …. Most women who I ask to date would be Caucasian and I would get a lot of ‘no responses.’ And if they did, I always asked why. And if they were open to tell me, they say they were not attracted to Asian men. So in a sense, metaphorically, I didn’t get a chance to bat. Because they look at my ethnicity and they say no. In life, I’ll meet Caucasian women. Even if they look at me and I’m not white but because of the way I speak and act, I’m more North American, they think differently later. Not that they would initially say no, but after they knew me, they would reconsider.”

While many people can and do find love online, Asian-American men face significant challenges that men of other ethnic backgrounds do not. It's not to say it's impossible, but the cultural hurdle is much higher—as are the wounds of rejection.