I grew up as an Asian-American boy in the white suburbs of the San Francisco Bay Area. The median household income of my hometown is in the top 10 percentile of the nation and the public school system is known for football championships and a respectable standard of education. The racial demographics of my town are 68% White, 16% Asian, 8% Hispanic, 5% Multiracial and 3% Black. I can’t recall a single black person that went to my middle or elementary school.
I also don’t remember a time when the white, athletic, easy-going, successful jock was not the standard of male attractiveness in my life. As early as the third grade, the popular boys were pairing up with the popular girls in class and it became very clear who was popular and who was not. I was only cool in the ways that I could become like the jocks and even when I was included physically I was usually picked last on the basketball courts and never given the basketball. Like my parents, I was definitely not invited to their parties, and any attempt to be a part of the “community” often meant putting in wasted effort and being misunderstood.
It turns out that by the time we had graduated fourth grade all the social rules had already been written. The nerds such as myself were seen as less cool, attractive and socially capable. It might have been because our Asian-American parents had made us focus on music instead of sports growing up and we weren’t seen as having the aptitude for what it meant to be a “boy” in our culture. It might have been because we didn’t run in the same circles and weren’t part of the “community”. Whatever the reasons, we were already defined – by others and by ourselves – as inferior. I was seemingly content to be with people “similar to myself” only because I didn’t have to be alone in feeling the difference between me and the cool kids. It was the best possible place for me given the structures that were set up, and I could only do the best for myself with what I was given.
Therefore, I was already telling myself by the fourth grade that I was not acceptable because of who I was in my own skin. Looking back, all I wanted in my early years was to be cool – or even passable. But before puberty, I already felt like I was less of a man. I was not attractive because how could I be if I was only half of boy to begin with? As my skinny, clumsy, off-white body developed into puberty, how could I grow to love it?
You know something is going on when the supposedly “inferior” social group that you belong to is made up largely of Asian-American boys just like yourself. The crazy thing is that back in the day it made sense. I thought that my own skin, personality and differences in culture (way of life) naturally did not belong in the same social circles as the cool kids. Why shouldn’t people like me also not belong? After all, we were in the minority, and many of our parents were foreigners in “American culture”. Fourth grade, middle school, high school – we would all hang out in the same courtyard for brunch and lunch. Rarely would these unspoken rules be broken between us and the wider world. I would say that even among our group there were hierarchies. There were the fun kids that had a higher degree of coolness based on many of the same cultural markers as the jocks. They had some aptitude in talking to other social groups. There were others who were left out of conversations which made it harder and harder to join in. They did not have the cool toys, conversation starters or fun birthday parties so they felt more and more invisible as the years went on.
Middle school, particularly sixth grade, meant spilling over to a bigger and badder version of fourth and fifth grade. The social groups were not just within the classroom but spread across the entirety of society as I knew it. Everyone understood it. I came to expect where people belonged in society and placed them in their social compartments. It was not a choice, because I hated the way I felt about myself in comparison to others. I even tried to leave my social compartment. I spent an entire year of my life plotting my ascension into the “popular” crowd. I thought about it all the time. First, I would sit with them. Then, I would try to play sports with them. I would even pretend to like girls when I had no attraction to them in order to gain their approval. The goal was to never stand out in a way that made me not one of them. I soon realized that I was not one of them. I was even more invisible with them than I had been with my so-called “non-popular friends” (whom I soon realized I liked more). I felt like I was trying to fit into someone else’s skin. There was no point in trying because I would only ever fit into my own social compartment.
The crucial thing to understand is that these social compartments were not just about pairing people with similar interests. They might have been for some people, but for me they fed directly into my idea of my own attractiveness. I started to think of my body, my skinny and off-white Asian body, as unattractive. I compared myself to the bodies of the jocks that I wanted to become but couldn’t because of everything about me. They had white skin, muscle, lighter hair, basketball shorts and popular friends. They were carefree and cool unlike me. They were the ones who were going on dates and getting into relationships, not me. I hated my body simply for the reason that I was Asian. I thought that I was skinny because of my skin color, not because I have a high metabolism. My Asianness became a code word for many of the physical, mental and spiritual parts of me that I felt were inadequate.
I think for many Asian men emasculation and bias towards white perceptions of male attractiveness is a long journey of reclaiming self-esteem and self-love. My process of healing has been steady and hopeful. As a queer, specifically gay, Asian-American male, it is important to understand, however, that the widespread societal emasculation that comes with being a gay man is made worse by the emasculation that comes from being an Asian-American man. Gay men are already taught that they are “less than” other men. Asian-American gay men are often seen as having a place at the bottom of the gay pecking order. They are seen as passive, antisocial, awkward, and unsexed. Their bodies are considered less than other men in terms of appeal, physicality and control. (This is the remnant of a stereotype used by white men to have greater access to Asian women throughout colonial history.) There are plenty of dating profiles, for example, that feel the need to make a blanket “no Asians” statement as if not a single Asian man of any ethnicity could possibly be of any interest to them because of skin color alone. This sends the message that we are not even seen as equals in our own communities. The struggle to reclaim self-esteem and self-love then becomes a longer and more arduous journey.
Furthermore, as a gay man, the racial hierarchies that I have applied to myself affect the way I see attractiveness in others. I had rarely questioned, up to a point, why I seemed to be attracted to a “greater percentage” of white guys. I never questioned why I did double takes on skin color or pined after white actors like my straight female friends. Then it dawned upon me. I was a product of the same racial bias that worked against me. How could I be proud now that my sexuality itself held biases? Being a queer person of color, in and of itself, had become complicated. White gays were OK, because if they dated other white guys that was their own race. I, on the other hand, was already ‘marked’ because of skin color. Who was I going to date in the future? It was less appealing to date a white guy now, even if I felt that he was attractive, because that would be my implicit bias at work. Would he really understand my struggles with Asian emasculation and how that affects my perception of our bodies? Probably not, because his skin color was not a code word for ‘less than’ like I had grown up to believe about myself. Everyone wants to love and be loved by someone who understands them, with whom they can claim an equal playing field.
I have an unhealthy habit – which I really need to unlearn – of looking for blame in myself. This habit causes me to entertain irrational cycles of self-hate. Would I have turned out queer if I had been more “confident in my own skin”? I hear these comments from people who try to use anything – even race – to invalidate queerness. Their words make things so much worse for queer kids of color. You can’t deny queer people dignity and rights using internalized racism as a weapon. We’re talking about a vibrant and resilient people that have been documented for millennia and existed in their respective cultures long before the gross effects of white supremacy led to problematic racial hierarchies. We’re talking about people that exist in similar proportions across racial groups. No, queer people exist because we were made to exist, and we definitely don’t deserve to be considered the result of a “problem” when we are not.
The point is that everyone – regardless of race, gender or sexuality – has racial biases when it comes to standards of attractiveness. This is how we got into the whole “pretty for a _ girl” nonsense in the first place. It’s not Beloved Community or the way of love for ourselves or for each other. I don’t say this as a purely individual charge, because it’s all of us, not just you or me, that are subject to the system. I think we need to stop seeing sin as a comparison between one person’s individual guilt and another person’s individual guilt just so that we can feel like we’re not as bad as them. It’s not us vs. them. Systemic injustice affects us all. As a wise person said to me this morning, “I would be very surprised if you grew up in this country as we know it and did not have racial biases when it comes to how you think of attractiveness.”
Sure, my goal – and hopefully yours – is to challenge the lens that each of us look through so that we can be liberated towards Beloved Community. But guilt is not the answer. It would be absolutely wrong of me to blame myself for the ways in which systems that I do not create and control harm and disadvantage me. Therefore, I choose to love myself for the ways in which I feel broken or less than or tired. I choose to love myself and love my body because I have to do that first before I can fully love others.