Writing about love is like remembering a dream. Some details move like swirls of Vincent van Gogh's Starry Night, while others pop with such vivid colors, sounds, and life that they stay in your bones forever. I can recount everything about falling in love with my partner: where I was, what the sounds were, the way he smiled, and how it felt like I was breaking and becoming whole again all at once. We've been together more than seven years, and I still fall in love every day. But this is where the fantasy ends: when you’re an Asian-American woman in a relationship with a white partner, to some people, the love you have for each other will never be enough. For some, it will always look like a betrayal. And you may start believing that it is, too.
In October, author Celeste Ng penned an article for The Cut exposing the harassment she and other Asian-American women who are in interracial relationships face online. The article was inspired by Ng’s experiences after tweeting a screenshot of an email from a troll, who wished a mental health disorder upon Ng’s child — all because of her marriage to a white man.
While many were shocked to see this sort of blatant harassment, many Asian women (including myself) and other women of color recognized this behavior all too well. We may have directly experienced it ourselves, or seen the flaming vitriol rise from the sidelines. When Constance Wu first rose to prominence for her work on the ABC sitcom Fresh Off the Boat, many praised her unwavering support for Asian-American representation — but others were laser-focused on criticizing the fact that she was dating a white man at the time. The words "hypocrite" and "self-hating Asian" were eagerly thrown around on Reddit posts about her relationship.
And while Netflix’s To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before melted stone-cold hearts and gave us the internet’s boyfriend Peter Kavinsky, author Jenny Han, who wrote the novel the film is based on, was criticized for being an “Asian American writer who wants to write an aspirational semi-autobiographical story...compelled to make her father white, kill off her Korean mother, and chase after white boys.”
But you don’t need to be famous to receive this level of criticism. Many Asian women widely shared Ng’s piece and expressed similar experiences — myself included. If you are an Asian woman (or any woman of color) in a relationship with a white partner, you may have braced yourself for it to be used against you. It has certainly been used against me.
Over the years, I’ve learned that when I'm involved in an online debate surrounding race, representation, or social justice, it often ends with someone else sharing personal pictures of me and my partner, and my receiving dozens of messages of how I am a “race traitor,” “hypocrite,” and “white-worshipping, brainwashed c*nt.” Like Ng, I’ve also received messages about how my (yet-to-exist) children will develop mental health disorders because I will inevitably pass down this “self-hating,” “internalized racism” gene. And as if I didn’t get the picture enough, these messages are almost always supplemented with links to deeply triggering and brutally violent news stories of white men sexually assaulting, murdering, and torturing their Asian partners.
Anything I say, in the eyes of the people sending these messages, becomes invalid because I’m reduced to the optics of my relationship. To the men attacking me online, my partner represents the reason why people of color are where we are today — oppressed, disenfranchised, and marginalized.
For me, the harassment itself, and the fact that there are groups dedicated to festering such hate, are not the worst parts of this story. I had long known about subreddits Ng mentions in her article, where it’s common for posters to heavily criticize interracial relationships. The worst part is that I can’t brush off this feeling of guilt that the harassment cultivates — something that sits in the pit of my stomach and lurches forward to ask: Are they right? Am I actually a race traitor?
Here, I wish I could write the platitude that love conquers all and be done with it. But I often feel unsupported by the people around me, too. Even some seemingly progressive Asian-Americans (both men and women) I know raise a wary brow and talk about my relationship as if they know more about it than me. This is what hurts me the most, more than any online hate and incessant bullying — when a person who knows nothing about me or my partner turns our relationship into a pseudo-intellectual bullet point as to why I should be discredited, or why I deserve to be the butt of a joke.
But the reality is that the nuances and complexities of how interracial relationships are viewed are often rooted in histories of sexual violence. So in order to move forward and finally outrun the tendrils of colonialism, I also have to confront some uncomfortable truths.
The consequences of Western sexual imperialism spanning from the Philippine-American War, the Vietnam War, and the Korean War still shape how I, an Asian-American woman, am viewed today in our culture. The effects of war trauma and sexual violence are found in the docile, submissive “China doll” stereotypes that also directly intersect with rape culture. Sunny Woan of the Washington and Lee Journal of Civil Rights and Social Justice argues that this stereotype — seen in both mainstream media and pornography — bleeds into the false stereotype that Asian women “exist solely for their sexual gratification as hypersexed and unconditionally submissive creatures...always consenting to sex.” In the book So You Want To Talk About Race, Ijeoma Oluo writes about how these stereotypes can translate to direct violence: “41 [to] 61 percent of Asian American women will be physically or sexually abused by their partners in their lifetime — twice the national average for all women.” The damaging legacy of imperialism extends so much further; I know I am merely scratching the surface.
On the complete opposite side of the spectrum, Asian men have been continuously desexualized and villainized by Western media. Since the 19th century, Asian men have often been portrayed as sexless in comparison to white men; the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1886 further villainized Chinese men as “the yellow peril” and perpetual outsiders in American culture. Ask yourself: How many times have you heard stories of “No Asians” listed on a dating profile, or even heard someone remark, “I’m just not that attracted to Asian guys?”
Again, this is just scratching the surface. The damages of colonialism could fill hundreds of thousands of pages and even then, we still wouldn’t get to the crux of it all.
Could I possibly have been affected by colonialism, too? Of course. Has my choice in a romantic partner been a result of misrepresentation in the media? That is also possible. We have generations of open wounds that have not been given enough time or space to heal.
Does all of this then justify the barrage of harassment, bullying, and gaslighting that I and so many other women have had to deal with? Absolutely not. I have the agency to decide who I want to pursue a romantic relationship with. It’s not up to me, or Celeste Ng, Constance Wu, Jenny Han or any other Asian woman to bear the emotional labor of healing anyone’s trauma. It’s not my responsibility to justify why I am with my white partner, so that someone else can sleep better at night. Asian women, like all women, have the right to choose. Our ability to choose does not give anyone a free pass to harass or bully us into silence about those choices, online or offline.
It also doesn’t make us “race traitors”— because the onus of representing an entire people does not (and should never) lie on a singular person. Singling us out is seemingly easier than confronting the hard fact that we have all been damaged by white supremacy and imperialism. But we will not be the scapegoats for a much larger issue that no one wants to address.
I know that I don’t owe anyone an explanation of my love. How it transcends distances. How I will choose my partner in this lifetime and the next. How it’s chaotic, simple, and graceful all at once. How I know we didn’t fall in love because he is white or because I am Asian. And how I know it will still, inevitably, be seen by some that way.
But the relationship is mine, and not anyone else's. Like describing a dream, explanations are ephemeral and useless to the person who is not in it with you. So I’ll use a cliche again to explain it — love is love and it's enough. To me, not acknowledging it would actually be the biggest betrayal of all.