Chemistry Isn't Color-Blind

"We're at the bottom of the pile, right along with black women," said the young Taiwanese-American, his face red with frustration. He was speaking out at a local dinner/discussion event titled "Mating and Dating in the Asian American Community." The rage among the men in that room was palpable as they spoke of a lifetime of sexual invisibility in a culture that constructs them as either effeminate or repulsive.

The sexual marketplace is a minefield for people of color. Our choice of bed partners is defined by a racial hierarchy that places Anglos squarely at the top. They determine who's hot and who's not for the rest of us. Asian men, unfortunately, just don't cut it. Like the geeky Long Duck Dong who chases after a horrified Molly Ringwald in "Sixteen Candles," popular culture regards them as sexual untouchables. No wonder then that so many of my Asian girlfriends grew up lusting after white guys.

"I wanted to be blonde and beautiful. And this was the closest I was going to get," says Meena, an Indian-American. The thought of being further "raced" by going out with fellow Indians was intolerable.

Hollywood reinforces this desire for assimilation by consistently pairing Asian women with Anglo men. While the very sexy Jet Li is not allowed to kiss Bridget Fonda in "Kiss of the Dragon," celluloid Asian babes can't wait to get their clothes off for the dashing white hero. In "Shanghai Knights," actress Fann Wong is matched up with Owen Wilson instead of Jackie Chang, who is conveniently cast as her brother. Hollywood's message is unmistakable: No women for the Asian guy.

Henry, who is part Chinese and part-white, points out that the stereotypes have real-life consequences for the sexual life of an Asian American male. "It means a lot of loneliness. A lot of Friday nights without a date," he says. But Asian men are no less Anglo-centric in their sexual preferences. Author David Mura writes openly of his "rampant promiscuity with white women and an obsession with pornography." Like my friends, he was running as far away as he could from his Asian-ness.

The difference, however, is that Asian women have a much better shot at getting some white booty. Sexual objectification has its benefits. Henry calls it "cultural leverage." In other words, thanks to our exotic status, women like me can choose from a broad palette of sexual options. The men in my community want the right to do the same. Therefore their desire for more movies like the newly released, "The Guru," in which Indian actor Jimi Mistry has both Marisa Tomei and Heather Graham fawning over him. The logic is simple: If an Anglo finds you hot, the rest will follow.

Sounds like a great plan, except that sexual seal of approval may get you more dates, but often comes with a price tag. My Thai friend Susan still fumes over an ad looking for Asian women, which said, "American-born feminists need not apply." The situation within the gay community isn't much better. "Rice queens" (white men with a taste for the Oriental) expect Asian men to play the role of the submissive "bottom." Asians, both male and female, have social capital in our culture, but mostly as docile sex objects.

So it isn't surprising that many of my friends now choose not to exercise their "white" option. The same women who grew up fantasizing about the blonde, blue-eyed stud changed their mind in their 20s. Some combination of personal experience and race consciousness flipped their sexual desire on its head.

"Even if I look at some white guy and think he's cute, I immediately push it aside. I feel like he's never going to really get me," says Nina, a Chinese-American writer. Now she is willing to date any one but an Anglo. Susan gets downright paranoid when she is out with her white gay friend. She chortles, "You're going to think I'm crazy, but I feel like getting up and shouting, 'I'm not his girlfriend!'" Even women who have loving white partners have to worry about how they "look" to others, and often find themselves labeled as sellouts.

Compared to my friends, my childhood in India was relatively sheltered from the harsher realities of race. I spent my teen years falling in and out of love with a number of seriously cute Indian boys. Sure, I had a nauseating crush on Sting, but there was no real prospect of a multiracial romance in my all-Indian world. I could afford to be absurdly naive. My bubble finally burst when an acquaintance suggested -- unfairly, I think -- that my Kiwi boyfriend in graduate school might have a taste for the exotic.

But even after a decade in this country, I was still taken by surprise when the first white person asked me if I'd had an arranged marriage -- all because I'd mentioned that my husband was Indian. It's taken me a long time to understand that in America, my sexual choices are indelibly raced.

A chirpy white woman I once met at an airport lounge said to me, "I don't care about race when it comes to dating. It's all about chemistry." Smug in her liberal credentials, she didn't understand that color-blind attraction is a racial privilege. Even as an increasing number of folks of color find love and companionship outside our community, it's a luxury we simply can't afford. Whomever we love -- and of whatever hue or ethnicity -- our desire has to run a treacherous course fraught with fear, self-hatred and anger.

In a world still defined by racial divisions, there is no such thing as just plain old chemistry.

Lakshmi Chaudhry is a senior editor of AlterNet.

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