My lovely little oriental doll: On yellow fever

Kai Akemi doll 1

she shows no emotion at all
stares into space like a dead China doll
— Elliott Smith, “Waltz #2”


The doll image is of a postcard I taped to my refrigerator while living in Chicago some two decades ago, along with a second postcard by the same artist (below). One summer day I held a well-attended house party. Proceedings were interrupted when several female acquaintances, two white Americans and an Asian American, dragged me away from the party and sat me down on the lawn in front of my house. They were upset about the postcards, which objectified Asian women in the worst way. They felt it their duty to grill me at length. Most vociferous of the three was the Asian, a Korean American. The doll pictured above depicted battery and clearly celebrated violence against women, she said. She could not understand why I had these pictures displayed for all to see. She questioned my ethics and wondered why an educated person would be in possession of such images in the first place.

While I was known as a bit of an eccentric in the anarco-leftist scene for my inclinations toward erotica and womanizing, my reputation was otherwise uncontroversial. I had even earned a few progressive feathers for my involvement in political causes. I was certainly never under suspicion of harboring sexist or racist views. Nor had these women come to my party to lecture me but had stumbled upon the offending images. They were genuinely surprised and wanted an explanation. Angry defensiveness on my part would do no good, so I stifled my impatience and heard them out. I also calmly tried to explain what the images were about and where I had acquired them. All to no effect. Our tangled conversation dragged on for the better part of an hour. They left with a revised and unflattering opinion about me. We were to have little further contact after that day.

The images were created by the Japanese artist Kai Akemi. I met her, kimono-clad and exceptionally gorgeous, at an exhibition of her dolls in Kyoto in 1991. I realize that one is not supposed to call attention to a female artist’s physical beauty as opposed to her creations, yet her presentation and poise suggested she wanted to be seen as attractive, as women in Japan and everywhere else tend to do, not to mention she was also a dancer and performance artist, with an obligation to invest in her allure.

More to the point, her attention to her appearance corresponded to the attention to detail in her art. My Japanese was too limited at the time to have much of a discussion, but I do recall her mentioning the similarities of her own dolls to those of the traditional Japanese puppet theater known as Bunraku, with its half human-sized figures held aloft by male puppeteers manipulating them from beneath the stage. Kai’s dolls were designed not for puppet shows but as a unique contribution to the Japanese doll-making tradition, as well as being art objects in their own right. In turn she applies a feminist inflection to this tradition by infusing the dolls with a lifelike expression and realism. Many of her later dolls have featured a more provocative sexuality, e.g., splayed naked with vaginas, reminiscent of the obscene contorted manikins that American artist Cindy Sherman also began producing around that time.

Kai Akemi doll 2

A Kai Akemi doll

What exactly are these female artists getting at in rendering their works as sexualized objects? A simplistic reading sees offense; a more knowing one sees other things going on. Let’s consider the difference between what in literary theory is called a literal versus a figurative reading of something. The former sees only the material object, the latter another layer of meaning, a subtext, a metaphor, a sign of something else. The literal-minded viewer recognizes here only violence, the doll maker inflicting her own trauma on the doll, perhaps in retaliation for the violence she herself experienced from the men in her life. The figurative-minded viewer sees another attitude at work: not actual violence but the idea of it, violence as mediated and transmuted through art. There is a crucial difference between these two approaches to violence, but a minimally artistic sensibility is required to appreciate it.

The modus operandi of artists is irony. To grasp what they’re on to, you need to have a sense of irony too. When the most innocent of creatures, a doll, is subjected to destruction at the hands of a disturbed child, it’s sad. But at the hands of an artist, it’s often humorous and witty. It’s as if to point out that not even dolls can escape relentless aggression. There is also something fitting, as well, about the inflicting of violence on a doll, when men tend to regard real women as dolls. But the ultimate paradox is that these tortured dolls are worked up by the artist into objects of beauty, as if their hapless and violated fragility represents the perfect finishing touch. The artistic sensibility is able to hold this paradox in abeyance, as interesting in its own right, while the lazy, simplistic, conventional reaction is to read into the dolls the glorification of violence.

The modus operandi of artists is irony. To grasp what they’re on to, you need to have a sense of irony too. 

Could it be that my female interrogators, highly educated as they were (we were all from the University of Chicago), in the liberal arts no less, didn’t understand irony? My pointing out to them that the dolls were the creation of a female Japanese artist with her own take on the Japanese doll tradition, did nothing to absolve me of culpability in their eyes. It made not the slightest difference who or for what purpose the images were created; it was enough that they were offensive. Theirs was thus very much a literal reading of the images—these cursed dolls with the misfortune to sport realistic nipples. They sought to censor me, indeed publicly shame me (inasmuch as others at the party had come out onto the lawn to see what the commotion was about) over the fear and power, the blasphemy, of the image.

In this respect their condemnation belonged to the symbolic order of religious orthodoxy, namely those religions—Judaism and Islam—that ban as idolatrous and blasphemous the graphic representation of God. As a result of this prohibition, untold destruction and loss of art has occurred throughout the ages, such as vast troves of Buddhist art at the hands of Muslim desecrators in Central Asia and western China, still rampant today in the Muslim world. That’s the power of the image to cause offense to the fundamentalist mindset. I do not see a substantive difference between the traditional religious condemnation of the image and contemporary Western feminism’s condemnation of the image.


In those years a related incident occurred, and I started to see an emerging pattern. I had invited a fellow female grad-school classmate who lived nearby, a white woman, to a coffeehouse for a friendly chat. I mentioned in passing my being married (at the time) to a Chinese woman. Anger flashed across her face, as if I had insulted her. I had no business, she yelled, in “perpetuating colonialism on a weak and defenseless Asian woman” for my exploitation.

I had heard these arguments before, which were popular in postcolonial and women’s studies courses at the time. Still, it was difficult to digest her response, when I had done nothing to provoke her, though in retrospect I could see what she was trying to express. She had been subject to the same academic indoctrination as my postcard critics. She applied a strictly literal rather than a figurative interpretation to men’s actions. There were no gradations or layers of distinction here, such as between me and a genuine colonialist of the past, or a sex trafficker or wife beater, while my wife must have presented to her mind the pathetic figure of a live oriental doll, to be seized upon and abused just because it was vulnerable and invited it.

“Oh, they’re not smart!” replied another white female colleague I told this story to, referring to Asian women like my wife. She found nothing inappropriate or disturbing about the woman’s reaction in the coffeehouse. What was inappropriate, again, was my having duped a gullible Chinese woman who hadn’t the intelligence to see through my designs, into marriage.

A further example of the hostile reactions to Asian women I’ve encountered over the years was a white woman I met at an academic conference at Purdue University. We hit it off, especially as we discovered we both lived in Chicago. She was blond and attractive, with an extravagant but nicely proportioned figure, in other words fat but in the right places, and I happened to find her appealing. If I hadn’t been married at the time I would have pursued her. Back in Chicago after the conference, we got together for a drink. I proceeded to commit a glaring faux pas that ended things right then and there between us.

My marriage had taken place in China before I had returned to the US for doctoral work. I had adopted the Chinese custom among many married couples there of not wearing a wedding band. It’s assumed everyone over 30 is married, and they don’t feel the need to advertise the fact. I myself had quite liberal ideas on marriage and thought the custom a sensible one. However, I had underestimated how deceptive the same would appear to Americans, not to mention a woman in her mid-30s on the lookout for a man and who had assumed I was single upon first meeting me. Knowing the subject would inevitably come up, I now revealed I was married, to get it out of the way. It cleared the air all right. She was appalled I had misled her even this far. But what really seemed to rile her was the knowledge my wife was Chinese. “They’re anorexic!” she exclaimed with disgust.

I am not the only white male who is attracted to Asian women. There are quite a few. In fact the proclivity is more than a little common, and seemed to crop up everywhere. I recall seeing written or carved on the wooden study tables in the library at grad school the forlorn words, “I want an oriental girl,” “Please help me find an Asian girl,” and the like. I never saw the same plea for women of other races or ethnicities. The proclivity is so common, in fact, that two terms have cropped up to describe it: “Asian fetish” and “yellow fever.” Before I go into how these terms are employed and why I think they are unfair—why the accusatory use of the terms itself constitutes a form of racism—a few preliminaries are in order.


It’s commonly assumed that while racism has existed since time immemorial, it has gradually lessened under the influence of civil society and universal education. After all, haven’t we finally overcome race-based slavery? Isn’t racism in any form universally offensive?

In many respects racism has actually gotten worse, not better over time. It’s debatable how much people in the past stereotyped outside groups or enemies based purely on skin color, but there seems originally to have been no systematic discrimination of whole groups based on their physical attributes. In fact for most of human history, people would seldom have encountered different races; anyone outside of one’s village was a rare sight, to say nothing of foreigners from other lands. In Greek and Roman antiquity, most slaves and masters alike were Caucasian, and race never factored into slavery or servitude. A proto-racist ideology began to take shape only in Renaissance Europe, when the peoples of Africa and Asia were confusedly lumped together as “Mahometans” (Muslims), “Saracens,” “Moors,” “Turks,” etc., these terms serving as obscure signifiers for heathens of darker hue.

In many respects racism has actually gotten worse, not better over time.

Right up through the Enlightenment—and the transatlantic slave trade—Anglo-American society had an inconsistent and inchoate notion of the racial Other. Blacks from Africa were not enslaved because they were black or were regarded as inferior but because they were the cheapest labor to be found. Racism arose as a justification for slavery in response to the growing Abolitionist movement. Only then was the concept of “race” worked up into an ideology, with various classification schemes of the human races devised in the name of “science” and organized hierarchically under the white race. Thus slavery was not the consequence of racism but the other way around.

Not until the twentieth century was the term racism first employed, and not quite in the sense we understand it. The American Richard Henry Pratt is credited with coining the word in 1902. For Pratt, “racism” merely meant segregation, against which he advocated the lesser of the two evils, assimilation. Not that his attitude towards other races was favorable. He had a particularly low opinion of Native Americans:

“A great general has said that the only good Indian is a dead one. In a sense, I agree with the sentiment, but only in this: that all the Indian there is in the race should be dead. Kill the Indian in him, and save the man….In Indian civilization I am a Baptist, because I believe in immersing the Indians in our civilization and when we get them under, holding them there until they are thoroughly soaked.”

The end of slavery in the US was a major milestone, but it would take another 100 years for Western society to come to terms with institutionalized racism. One need not only mention the savagery of lynchings in the American South, which had the active support of many prominent leaders in the US Government, and resulted in the murder of some 5,000 blacks and their white sympathizers. A brief perusal of revered men up through the first half of the twentieth century reveals bigotry to be very much the norm, and blithely racist attitudes commonplace—Jack London’s fear of the Chinese “yellow peril”; George Orwell’s derogatory views of the Burmese in Shooting an Elephant. If you’re still not sure how you feel about the Burmese, let Franklin D. Roosevelt have the final word: “I wish you could put the whole bunch of them into a frying pan with a wall around it and let them stew in their own juice.” Carl Crow writes in his classic account of 1930s Shanghai, Foreign Devils in the Flowery Kingdom (1940), of the large expat community “who looked with considerable disdain and disgust on all Chinese people.” He himself confesses with a straight face to not recognizing his shocked taxi driver who picked him up by chance one day, who had been his former personal chef of four years. He also notes the infamous sign in one Shanghai Foreign Concession park prohibiting entrance to “Dogs and Chinese.”

I mention these examples in order to point out that the most noxious and virulent displays of racism have occurred not in the past but right smack in the modern era, and close enough to the present day to give us pause. Times have changed, of course, after the Nazi genocide (and the added impetus of the Civil Rights movement), which was indeed a major turning point, when racism finally replaced race in public discourse, when the idea of discrimination itself rather than the objects of discrimination came under attack. Racism was hardly eliminated, but it was no longer fashionable in civilized society, whereas prior to that it had been normative, with everyone expected to espouse racist bigotry as a mark of character and in-group solidarity.

This change has occurred only in the past few generations—a mere blip in historical time. Many people, particularly in the United States, have only fitfully come to terms with the new ethic and still can’t quite process it. This is understandable; such a major transformation of the national psyche doesn’t take place overnight. My mother’s side of the family, who hailed from white Protestant Republican Indiana, exemplifies this belated, reluctant response. My grandmother, an otherwise level-headed person, often joked how funny it was to watch black kids running about “just like little monkeys!” Such views die hard and are not amenable to change, especially for her generation, considering that during its nationwide revival in the 1920s, an astounding one third of the Indiana male population had joined the Ku Klux Klan. In her later years, she knew well enough to keep such views confined to the family. Many people today don’t appear overtly racist—that is, until they take you into their private confidence and let you in on what they really think.

My parents’ generation made big progress over the previous generation. I experienced these changes while growing up in the 1960s in notoriously segregated and racist Chicago. My mother was more liberal than most and even once dated a black man after her divorce. My primary school was integrated. We were brought up not to dislike “colored” people. At the same time, my mother’s circle seldom if ever socialized with blacks. We were advised to stay away from the other side of the El tracks, where most of them lived. I had one black friend then, Arthur, a fraught relationship that alternated between his playing with me and beating me up, as if unconsciously acting out the schizophrenic racial milieu of the time.

Some things have obviously continued to improve. Most educated people are no longer racist, at least consciously so. In fact we tend to find it repugnant and quickly dissociate ourselves from any people or groups sympathetic to racism. It is now possible for a black to be elected president of the United States, something inconceivable a few decades ago. Notwithstanding the kicking and screaming of Tea Party stragglers and white supremacist Neanderthals, we could even say that intolerance of racism has now been successfully institutionalized in American society. Nevertheless, racism continues to flourish in numerous subtler guises. It has not disappeared but has only morphed into more palatable, implicit forms. When we examine these in more detail, we begin to suspect that things may not have improved as much as is assumed.


Unlike the more overt bigotry of the “Archie Bunker” generation, few people today maintain the inherent superiority of their own race over other races. Supplanting this old-fashioned racism is the more neutral notion of difference. It’s now taken for granted that all races are created equal. But while they may be equal, they are also, in the minds of many, held to be separate and distinct. And here is the sticking point. The more you regard other races as different from your own, the more likely you are to keep them at a distance. The acid test of immunity to racism is whether you would countenance your own marriage to a person of another race. If not, the term that best describes you is an aversive racist.

Aversive racism grants equality and respect to people of other races but frowns on their mixing: we have our ways and they have theirs. Aversive racists may even show a protective, paternalistic concern for other races so as to shore up their inviolate status, their purity (it used to be our purity), to prevent them from being contaminated or exploited by us. This is what my coffeehouse classmate was getting at when she took offense to my marriage to a Chinese. She was not consciously being racist; on the contrary, she was criticizing me for being racist, or at least implying as much in characterizing me as a white colonialist in modern guise. But her injunction to stick to our own and not get mixed up with people we don’t belong with, not to venture onto the other side of the tracks or the other side of the ocean, wherever they happen to live, is racist through and through.

There are milder varieties of aversive racism, e.g., those who in good conscience deny being racist, strongly express solidarity with other races, yet on some level are conflicted and ambivalent about them. This might be due to habit, say, having grown up in a racially homogeneous rural or suburban environment with few opportunities to meet people outside of the community. Yet we can still be nervous and uncomfortable around people of color despite encountering them on a daily basis, as in any big city. One can have conflicted feelings even when one is in an intimate relationship or marriage to a person of another race (especially without positive reinforcement from family or peers) and constantly needs to assuage one’s own confusion over the legitimacy or worthiness of such a relationship. One can turn one’s ambivalent feelings against people in a hypocritical way, ascribing racism to others but not to oneself. It’s not uncommon, for instance, for whites to smear other whites with the “yellow fever” or “Asian fetish” label while they consider their own relationships with Asians to be above reproach.[1]


The term “yellow fever” should again give us pause, and not just because of its charged association with the old racist epithet, “yellow peril.” The seemingly gentler term of endearment for this white male peculiarity, “Asian fetish,” is equally racist in use. The phrases get bandied about quite a bit these days and seem to function as a garbage disposal unit for people to shove in all their angry thoughts on Asian-Caucasian relationships. The thing to be aware of, however, when employing such terms of potentially threatening or warning import, as philosopher John Austin reminds us in his How to Do Things with Words, is that you are not merely saying something, you are doing something in saying it, in this case making an accusation of racism. Such words carry an “illocutionary force,” a power to stick whether we intend them to or not, precisely because they are speech acts: they enact something in the process of saying it.

The discomfort many people feel over interracial relationships gives rise to a socially shared anxiety that affects everyone involved, including both partners in the relationship, above all if the Asian female half is less than fully confident of her white boyfriend/husband’s intentions. The truth, of course, can never be satisfactorily determined. There will always be a seed of suspicion, no matter how much he may strive to convince her his love is untainted by proclivity for Asians, or that any woman can be assured her beauty or big breasts don’t factor into men’s interest in her, or that I can be assured a woman who requires a tall man loves me not because I am sufficiently tall but because of who I am. The only solution, as I will explain below, is to accept physical and racial attraction for what it is and embrace it as natural.

We find this anxiety cropping up in film and media treatments. “Ever heard of yellow fever?” asks Chinese author Yuan Ren, writing in The Telegraph. “No, not the disease you can pick up when traveling to certain countries. I’m talking about when Caucasian men develop an acute sexual preference for East Asian women—even becoming a fetish, for some” (“‘Yellow fever’ fetish: Why do so many white men want to date a Chinese woman?“). The typical Asian fetishist is portrayed as a morally dubious (“I’m surprised at what British men, both young and old, generally get away with”), often boorish white male, with ridiculous fantasies of the sexually accomplished yet submissive exotic vixen who is bookish and hardworking, gentle and seductive all at once.

A documentary by the Asian-American director Debbie Lum, Seeking Asian Female (2012), similarly features an oafish middle-aged white man in a tempestuous marriage to a tough, rural Chinese woman he met through a mail-order bride service. Though Lum handles their travails with sensitivity and humor, the underlying message is clear: white marriages to overseas Asians are a recipe for disaster. Botko and Gurland’s Mail Order Wife (2004) likewise depicts an interracial train wreck between a lout working as a security guard in New York who keeps a pet python, and his Chinese wife, which takes shocking and hilarious plot turns when the director gets sexually involved with the wife (in a big letdown, the “documentary” is revealed in the closing credits to be staged).

The only solution is to accept physical attraction, including racial attraction, for what it is and not worry about it, indeed embrace it as natural.

Entertaining as such attempts to wrestle with the racist and sexist aspects of Asian-Caucasian relationships are, they suffer from the same fallacy. In zeroing in on the crudest, most risible white male fantasies and delusions about Asian women, they perpetuate the very stereotypes they are trying to dispel. While there are certainly many men, perhaps influenced by Asian-themed porn, who buy into such caricatures, it’s assumed all white men share them. And since the stereotypes are silly and obnoxious, they can only be based on ignorance. Once white men become acquainted with real Asian women (at home or overseas), the reasoning goes, the illusions will fall away. They will no longer be attracted to Asian women, or at least will no longer apprehend them in racial terms, qua Asians. They will only see the woman, not her race. Yellow fever thus exists only by virtue of cultural distance and misinformation. Close that gap, and it vanishes.

Nice in theory, but it doesn’t much correspond to reality. There are vast, burgeoning numbers of interracial relationships around the world, a large proportion of which predictably fall in the most populated region on earth—Asia. I have been getting on in the Far East two decades now, and have had extensive encounters and intimacies with mostly Chinese but also Japanese, Korean, Mongolian, Vietnamese, Thai and Philippine women. What you discover when you’ve lived in foreign lands long enough is that the sheer variety of human personality obscures or erases cultural differences. Norms do exist, and I could list a few if I sat down and thought about them, but they fail to jive with the commonly peddled stereotypes. Reality indeed blows away stereotypes, but the people remain. In overlooking actually existing interracial attraction, in ignoring the many men who are not bound to simplistic stereotypes, the Asian fetish controversy misses the point. It also sweeps the problem under the rug, which of course is one of the traditional ways of dealing with race. Good old aversive racism.


It might come as a surprise that racism could still flourish in today’s progressive and politically conscious climate, at a time when most of us are actively striving to eliminate its last vestiges. Its latest incarnation, all the more tenacious because it appears invisible, can be termed “cultural” or “multicultural” racism. Multicultural racism denies the very existence of race. There are two main academic arguments for this. First, earlier racial categorization schemes such as the theory of polygeny (distinct geographical origins of the various races), long employed as a justification for racist policies and claims of white supremacy, have been discredited by science on genetic evidence. The consensus now is that all races are mixed and we all ultimately hail from Africa. Any attempt to classify distinct races, or to employ the loaded term “race,” is an arbitrary and ideologically motivated exercise.

Second, the degree of physical (or “racial”) variation within any population is greater than the differences between populations, thus invalidating race as a useful distinguishing criterion for any purpose. Physical characteristics that loosely identify or associate groups with certain territories undeniably exist, but anthropologists now prefer to use the term ethnicity rather than race to describe them.

I would not be opposed to the replacement of “race” by “ethnicity”—who cares what term is used as long as it gets the job done?—were it not for certain problems in collapsing the two terms. In its most neutral sense, race refers to the purely physical features a person shares with others of the same genetically common group or ancestry. Ethnicity, while it may presuppose certain racial markers, typically also includes a cultural or national component. As such, it is a highly polysemous and ambiguous term, entailing various interpretive possibilities, some mutually exclusive.

For example, if I express a preference for women of “Chinese ethnicity,” this could either mean an interest in females of Chinese nationality and cultural background, with attendant traits (ability in Chinese language, Confucian values, traditional gendered behavior, etc.). Or, on the contrary, it could mean an interest in females of Chinese ancestral origin and racial features. In the former case, the woman’s ethnicity is more important to me than her race, though they are coupled. She can be expected to enjoy Chinese food and perhaps be able to cook it, which suits my own taste for the cuisine. Chinese wives are known for being astute and disciplined with money and taking control of the family finances, which also suits me since I am careless with money. Their penchant for not drinking and smoking promises health—and healthy offspring. She’s likely sexually modest and shy as well, suggesting she’ll be a faithful wife. (Note that these are not stereotypes but cultural traits observed from many years in China.) Finally, I happen to like the looks of Chinese women, and if I can find an attractive one, that’s the icing on the cake.

But what if, on the other hand, I don’t fancy someone likely bound by rigid, conservative mores? What if I want a woman who looks Chinese yet shares my own culture’s values and reference points? Someone I can invite to a jazz club or rock concert and she’s not only aware of this kind of music but into it as well and was planning on inviting me; who shares a similar interest in books, movies or politics that we can wrangle about at length, and who’s not afraid to voice her sexual preferences and fantasies. In this latter case I will prefer an American-born Chinese (or equally a Canadian, British or Australian-born one since the cultures are close enough) to a Chinese national; the woman’s race is more important to me than her ethnicity. Sure, she may take a sentimental interest in her heritage (as many of the second or third generation do) but probably doesn’t feel a very strong connection to it, and may bristle at the suggestion she should. Again, this is fine with me, as I too don’t have much interest in her heritage. We just happen to find each other, well, hot. And if I can’t find a Chinese American, I’ll go for a Japanese or Korean-American, because it’s East Asian racial features that turn me on more than a particular ethnicity.

So we can see that the term Chinese (or East Asian) “ethnicity” can mean wholly different things to different people and is meaningless out of context.

As another example of the ambiguity of the terms “ethnicity” and “race,” consider the long swath of land extending from Burma eastward through Thailand and Cambodia and south down into Malaysia. Each of these four countries contains its own dominant ethnic group—the Bamar (or Burmese), the Thai, the Khmer, and the Malay. But racially speaking there is no correspondence between the physical features of these various peoples and their respective ethnicity. In all four countries we see the same continuum of racial types from darker Indian to lighter-skinned Chinese facial structure and features (along with lighter-skinned Indians and darker-skinned Chinese), reflecting the centuries and millennia of east-west migration and racial mixing right up through the present. If one is interested in how this mixing occurred, ethnicity doesn’t tell us very much, since it took place long before the present-day ethnic divisions were created. Moreover, the officially proclaimed geographical origin of certain ethnic groups may be different from their actual origin; the Bamar originally migrated down into present-day Myanmar from the Himalayas, and Nepalese or Tibetan-like features can be seen in some Burmese—a fine point not captured by the construct of Burmese “ethnicity.”

I wish to stress that I am in no way sympathetic to an essentialist conception of race (i.e. polygeny), according to which distinct and separate racial divisions and origins are presumed to have always existed and will always exist. Such theories, as noted above, seek to classify people by race for nefarious ideological or discriminatory purposes. In reality, races as well as ethnicities have no clear origin and come and go. They form and re-form whenever a population is closed off from outside contact for long periods, increasing the extent of inbreeding, which inevitably causes similarity of physical features over generations and can persist in various individuals long after ethnic dispersion. To observe or note these features in others, to be interested in them, need not imply a racist attitude or prejudice.

I can turn these observations around on myself. I am North American Caucasian of mixed European extraction from nineteenth-century immigrant forebears (roughly one third English, one third French and one third Danish, or so I was informed by my family). Many enjoy the pastime of reading people’s faces and bodies like an ancestral map. A woman once, without knowing my lineage, pointed out my Danish nose. I was hardly offended by her remark but impressed by her acuity. I am not, of course, “racially” Danish, which hardly makes sense, but neither am I “ethnically” Danish, a country to which I haven’t the slightest connection except through distant relatives. The trace of this heritage survives in one feature of my face, and I’m inclined to call this a racial rather than an ethnic feature, if only to distinguish it from non-existent cultural associations.

Instead of betraying fear of people based on their race, multiculturalism betrays fear of race in the abstract.

It is unfortunate that today it is considered racist to discuss race in any context or capacity—except to accuse others of racism. Inasmuch as this requires a loss of observational complexity, a collapsing of linguistic distinctions, a smudging of fine points, the eradication of an undesirable concept, it is Orwellian, a form of Newspeak. It is also futile and doesn’t do much to combat racism anyway, since people can be racist even while strictly following politically correct terminology. One can be aversive in practice, for instance, toward people of Asian or African “ethnicity” instead of “race,” sidestepping any implication of racism by a mere substitution of terms. Multicultural racism—pretending racial distinctions do not exist while only ethnic ones do—is finally, I suggest, a form of aversive racism. Instead of betraying fear of people based on their race, it betrays fear of race in the abstract.


Like it or not, a lot of white men go for Asian women, and they would not hesitate to assert their preference as racial attraction pure and simple. It’s a fact, if a mysterious one and not amenable to easy explanation, that many are drawn to people of other races. Some evolutionary biologists claim that on a species level we are motivated toward genetic difference and variety as a safeguard against inbreeding. This entails the interesting possibility that interracial attraction is not something that needs to be explained but is the default condition. Then again, many more people, probably the majority, are not attracted to people of other races and prefer their own. If what the biologists are saying is true, how then do we account for same-race preference?

There are age-old, deeply ingrained cultural prohibitions against mixing with outside groups, originally to secure tribal obedience and loyalty. The psychological effects of this indoctrination are internalized and reinforced from generation to generation by a constant barrage of racist and/or nationalist xenophobia. To many, the specter of the Other is inextricably bound to feelings of hostility or disgust. But in our internationalized and more enlightened world today, such indoctrination doesn’t always do its job, and for growing numbers of people racial brainwashing is unsuccessful. Were it not for the powerful pull of these countervailing prejudices, physical attraction for other races might be the norm for everyone.

As if in reaction to the interracial taboo, some people become so enamored of another race (or ethnicity) that it becomes a kind of racism in its own right: reverse racism, the valorization of another race, possibly accompanied by hatred of one’s own. It’s a seductive term that’s easy enough to throw around and accuse others of, so it should not be employed lightly. If your fixation on the Other is exclusive and intolerant, if you refuse to engage anyone outside your tribe of worship, if you persist in an irrational contempt towards people of your own tribe, then let’s call it reverse racism. But if your preference is tolerant, open and flexible, which I think applies to most interracial attraction, reverse racism is not the right term. It’s just racial preference—or racial engagement.

I recall the case of Yoshie, a sexy young Japanese woman I met in a Chicago café around a decade ago. She was in the US to do fieldwork on the American blues for her BA thesis. American music has been a fascination for the Japanese since the end of World War II, and a sexual fad, a kind of “black fever,” for black American GIs stationed in the US army base in Yokohama, took off in the 1980s, as documented by the popular writer Amy Yamada (herself married to a black American) in such novels as Bedtime Eyes. The more ambitious girls went after black jazz and blues musicians doing gigs in the country, who were themselves drawn to Japanese women out of mutual interest. So Yoshie’s research subject was not surprising to me.

Amy Yamada

She adopted an informal ethnographic methodology, visiting every blues bar she could find in New Orleans, Memphis, Chicago and New York over her six-month stay, befriending black male lead singers and their band members, and presumably sleeping with them (as I would have too had I been in her shoes). I witnessed this firsthand when she agreed to a date and I took her to a blues bar in my neighborhood that wasn’t on her list, nor was she familiar with the singer performing that night. When the first set ended, she ran up to him and threw her arms around him as if they were old friends. If he was taken aback, he didn’t show it. She was friendly with me but focused on him. I excused myself and went home early, leaving her to pursue her evening’s research unencumbered. That was the last I saw of Yoshie. A few weeks later I got a strange email from her, saying she had been robbed while living with some men in a houseboat in Michigan City and was now without any money. I replied with an offer of help but there was no second email from her.

Was I upset about her slighting me for a black man? I was very attracted to her and frustrated at not being able to get her into bed myself, at least once. But no, I was not upset and certainly did not begrudge her her racial preference. On the contrary, I found her story highly intriguing and regretted losing contact, if only to be able to follow up and read the results of her findings.

Can we call her proclivity “reverse racism”? Was she not into whites generally or just not into me personally? I will never know. And what difference does it make? What I can say is that in engaging the Other on the most personal of levels, racial preference is certainly on higher moral ground than traditional racism. I recall the middle-aged Japanese businessman I once tutored English to who related with a straight face how the sight of the black waiter’s hand on the white plate of eggs he was served while on a trip to the US almost caused him to throw up. Next to such blatant racism, Yoshie’s and Amy Yamada’s spirited lust for black men is laudable and encouraging.

[1] As when the expat Beijing blogger Alec Ash called me a “creepy white man with yellow fever” (

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Like this post? Buy the book (see contents):
At the Teahouse Café – Essays from the Middle Kingdom

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