The origins of white sexual imperialism

In 2013 a music group consisting of three white guys released a song entitled “Asian Girlz”featuring the lyrics “I love your sticky rice; Butt fucking all night; Korean barbecue; Bitch I love you; I love your creamy yellow thighs; Ooh your slanted eyes.” The music video featured model Levy Tran stripping down throughout the song while line after line of degrading Asian stereotypes blasted.

Although there was an uproar that led to the official music video being taken down by the band itself, the lack of ensuing discussion surrounding Asian stereotypes is something to be alarmed. In the twenty-first century, racism is supposedly not tolerated, saying the word n****r is (and rightly so) lambasted, and history of America’s role in slavery and racial discrimination is widely studied. America has made leaps and bounds regarding racism towards Blacks in the last century, but its systematic racism and sexism towards Asians still has a long way to go. In 2005 Jane Hyun published a book entitled Breaking the Bamboo Ceiling: Career Strategies for Asians. Jane highlights individual, cultural, and organisational factors that hinder Asian American career progress inside organisations. In 2010 the Asian American population accounts for about 5.6% of the total population in the U.S. but only 0.3% of corporate office populations. Asian Americans have the highest number of associates at top New York law firms, yet the lowest conversion rate to partner. Silicon Valley, supposedly the beacon of the Asian American “model minority” trope, comprise a disproportionately small percentage of upper management and board positions. Statistics show that despite one-third of all software engineers in the Silicon Valley being people of Asian descent, they make up only 6% of board members and 10% of corporate officers of the Bay Area’s 25 largest companies. Let’s keep in mind that these are not immigrants; they are American citizens born and bred in the United States. In university settings, Asians are barred from many organizations. When Greek life at Alabama was accused of racism against blacks for denying two black girls, all hell broke out. No one mentions that Asians are almost entirely excluded from fraternities, sororities, and other social organizations.

But this post is not about the systemic racism against Asian Americans that is invisible to much of the public. This post is about white sexual imperialism; specifically the white sexual imperialism that created the modern sexual stereotypes directed towards women that is still widespread among college campuses and the workplace. Everyone is familiar with these stereotypes: Asian women are submissive; that they love white people; that white sexpats go to Asia just to have easy sex with women who throw themselves at them. Everyone is aware of mail-order bride websites that is rife throughout Southeast Asia.

But when did this phenomenon begin? While the general broad notion of “white worship” has its roots in the nineteenth century, white sexual imperialism is a rather recent phenomenon. Nevertheless, the modern stereotype of the submissive, docile Asian women who throw themselves at burly white men has its history in war, colonialism, and American imperialism at the turn of the twentieth century.

Sunny Woan’s article “White Sexual Imperialism: A Theory of Asian Feminist Jurisprudence” contains a detailed examination of the origins of white sexual imperialism. Woan argues that the degrading stereotype of Asian women began in America’s colonisation of Philippines in the late 1890s and was exported to the rest of South East Asia, and later East Asia, after the political and military turmoils as the twentieth century progressed. American military presence in the Philippines (and later Korea, Japan, and Vietnam) created a market for poor uneducated local prostitutes and brothel owners, similar to the British in Hong Kong and India. Unfortunately for these women, the soldiers treated them as disposable toys. In true imperialist militaristic fashion, the soldiers’ manly bravado on the battlefield translated into their treatment of these sex workers: many of these sex workers reported being treated as if they were “a toy or a pig by the American [soldiers] and being required to do ‘three holes’ – oral, vaginal and anal sex” (p. 285) and were referred to by the soldiers themselves as “little brown fucking machines powered by rice” (p. 283). Moreover, Woan reveals that “[The local] women are usually the creatures of a male power-fantasy. They express unlimited sensuality, they are more or less stupid, and above all they are willing” (p. 282). Woan goes on to show that these imperialistic tendencies were sanctioned by a perversion of morality:

From 1894 until his presidency in 1901, Theodore Roosevelt wrote and lectured widely on taking up Kipling’s “White Man’s burden. He called imperialism a “manly” duty that American men must take up. Civilized men had a “manly duty to ‘destroy and uplift’ lesser, primitive men,” namely Asians, “for their own good and the good of civilization. Roosevelt’s express and blatant collocation of colonizing Asia and labeling that act as “manly” illustrates how throughout American history imperialism in and even Western scholarship on Asia has been viewed in a sexualized context. (p 282).

Such trends can be found in other forms of colonialism, but is most pronounced and best documented in the American cases. In Vietnam, despite the backlash back on mainland US the role of the military was still clear, and the American military made it their first priority that the US soldiers were not affected by the accusations of immoral warfare back home. Woan notes:

During the Vietnam War, five U.S. military bases stationed in Thailand sheltered 40,000 to 68 50,000 American GIs at any given time. Between 1966 and 1969, as many as 70,000 U.S. soldiers came to Thailand for “Rest and Recreation” (“R&R”) and ignited a sex industry. R&R facilities have been, and continue to be, a vital component of the U.S. military policy. With pervasive disregard for human rights, the military accepts access to indigenous women’s bodies as a “necessity” for American GIs stationed overseas. (p. 284).

After the Vietnam war, there was a massive marketing campaign by tourism industries in the United States and in Southeast Asian countries targeting White men to sustain Thailand’s sex industry. By the 1990s millions of American and European tourists went to Southeast Asia specifically for its sex industry, something that is still widespread today. Woan hammers home the point: “in 1995, for example, a study reported that sixty-five percent of tourists to Thailand “were reportedly single men on vacation.” It was this form of sexual imperialism that created the modern stereotypes today.

But what does this mean? What are its implications? Are all relationships founded on the internalization of these stereotypes? What is certain is that these issues need to be discussed.

Although most educated, global minded, and self-reflective people would consider themselves to be beyond these kinds of stereotypes, many times these stereotypes are internalized and perpetuated by these people themselves. This article for example highlights the ways in which the stereotype has turned from white worship due to sexual imperialism to white worship based on the idea that western cultures are “superior” to Asian ones. Nothing can be further from the truth. Asian identity in America has, in my opinion, infused sufficiently with mainstream American culture such that it has become something closer to Americanism rather than its Asian roots. As such, to claim that white worship or aspiring to whiteness in the West is the same – or similar in severity – is in my opinion incorrect. This distinction is extremely important.

But what does this mean? Does this mean all Asian females buy into the stereotype? Of course not, but one thing is for certain: the modern stereotype needs tackling. While there may be some truth to the “WMAF” relationship founded on these stereotypes, I believe that many critics – most notably those on Reddit and certain Eurasian bloggers – commit the error of lumping all forms of WMAF interracial relationships as coming from the same strand, and thereby incorrectly lumping all women under the same generalisation of “white worship.”

Given the wall of text above, it may seem to some readers that I am, like some Hapa bloggers, fiercely against the WMAF relationship. Nothing can be further from the truth. What I am against is WMAF relationships predicated upon these stereotypes. What I am also against are baseless generalisations that all WMAF relationships are racist. I do not for a second believe that, because I myself am a product of a WMAF relationship in East Asia, and my parents certainly did not buy into those stereotypes. The historical complexities of interracial relationships go far beyond mere racism.

Emma Teng’s book Eurasian: Mixed Identities in the United States, China, and Hong Kong, 1842–1943 (2013) dispels the “one-way street” that all interracial relationships were shunned and rejected by Americans due to racism. In fact, as she points out, in the latter half of the nineteenth century the number of white women who married Chinese men were astronomical. Due to the number of white men in America for employment on the railroads (among other things), the lack of Asian women meant that their interactions with women tended to be white. As a consequence, many of the first settlers in Chinatown were Eurasian children with Asian fathers and white mothers from working-class backgrounds.

Beyond the working-class, Emma Teng also discusses upper-class marriages of Yung Wing, the first Chinese graduate of Yale, who wed Mary Kellogg. Huang Tianfu,a rich businessman’s son who later became Republic of China’s consulate in San Francisco, who married Mae Munro Watkins and moved to China. These were all successful marriages. Emma Teng also finds that of the many interracial marriages in Shanghai, their Eurasian children identified not with the “desired” race trope of whiteness, but simply by their father’s ethnic orientation. Again, this shows the race and gender dynamic of intermarriage, rather than simply racial terms.

Evidently, not all interracial relationships in history are a one-way street of white men prowling on easy Asian females. In fact, there is a whole other dimension (surprise surprise) to interracial relationships. Nothing is simple

On Eurasian Writer’s blog, he writes a post painstakingly detailing that loads of white nationalist racists have Asian wives, and this by extension that must mean that all white men who pursue Asian women are by definition racist. Eurasian Writer goes on to offer proof that all Asian preference for white men is rooted in their desire for white looking babies. Not only is this a severe case of post hoc fallacy (just because some of them do does not lay any ground for extrapolation without a wider data set) but it is a dangerous oversimplification that goes against the complexities of history. As I have painstakingly tried to point out, sexual imperialism does indeed exist, and there does exist a severe issue of white worship in some cases. It is simply foolish to make sweeping generalisations, and asserting that all WMAF relationships are founded on white sexual imperialism is as ridiculous as asserting that all WMBF relationships are a product of a master/slave relationship. We simply cannot reduce complex intercultural human relationships into a simple abstract normative assertion. Japanese sexual imperialism existed in Korea and in China during the Second World War. Would you say all Japanese male and Chinese/Korean female relationships in the modern era are founded on Japanese masculinity? Media certainly portrays Japanese people as more refined and cultured than Chinese people, so why does that assertion sound so ridiculous?

Historically speaking, white sexual imperialism does exist. But it is equally historical as the sheer numbers of white women who married Chinese men in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, many of whom even moved to China and had to discard their American identity due to racism on both sides. In the complex veins of history, one cannot and should not generalise. Sure, white sexual imperialism is historically grounded. Certainly, Asian women’s “aspiration for whiteness” does have a historical basis (more on that in future posts). But so does the fact that white women have historically married Asian men, to the blessings of both sides of the family. These are not insignificant numbers either. Many of them also went on to become extremely successful members of society. The gender/race orientation of these Eurasians did not matter much either – Sir Robert Ho Tung Bosman was an extremely successful WMAF child, as was Ernest François Eugène Douwes Dekker.

Therefore, I argue it is clear that one should not look at the racial orientation of interracial relationships. Rather, one should look at the circumstances and social orientations of the relationship. Rather than claim all WMAF relationships are a product of racism due to the fact that white nationalists have Asian wives, we should identify the circumstance of the interracial relationship. How did they meet? What are their backgrounds? These categories are much more useful in helping us understand why some interracial relationships are so broken, whereas others have blossomed.

One thought on “The origins of white sexual imperialism

  1. -“Asian Americans have the highest number of associates at top New York law firms, yet the lowest conversion rate to partner.”

    Interesting stat. Asian Americans working in ‘big law’ tend to play the ‘Asian’ card only when it wins them brownie points with diversity committees (I’ve discussed this on my blog).

    -“the error of lumping all forms of WMAF interracial relationships as coming from the same strand”

    Plus celebrating AMWF as if it is some magic wand against racism and oppression and ignoring the fact that some (by no means all, just like WMAF) of these relationships are also based on self-hate and white-worship by the AM, and the WF taking advantage of her whiteness to snag a white-worshipping partner.

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