During the summer of 2016, I craved nothing quite like the percussive chime from the phone in my pocket — a little “bing” that seemed to cut through the loudest of bars and the most crucial of conversations, sending a bolt of dopamine straight into the dark corner of my brain that worries about getting laid.
What can I say? Breaking up is hard to do, and I’d already blown a few weeks negotiating with my ex, lying around like a dog’s ragdoll and sucking down enough THC to trip up several adult rhinos, in no particular order. The prospect of hopping on a dating app seemed simple and hopeful, by comparison. It was easy enough to load up a few photos and tap out a self-deprecating bio for my profile, and even easier to start swiping on the infinite string of women that flowed forth. By the end of the first day, I was an old and cynical pro, swiping indiscriminately to the steady bass beat of Daniel Avery while perched on the toilet.
My phone chimed intermittently through the next few weeks as I matched with women on Tinder, when I spotted an unexpected trend. Why, exactly, was I being paired with so many Asian women in a row? Moreover, why wasn’t I matching with more white girls, Latin girls or black girls?
I’d happily dated Asian women in the past, but the idea that I wasn’t going to, and maybe couldn’t, match with another demographic of women became a fixation as the days passed. I took new pictures, toyed with the description in my profile and swiped approvingly on more faces than ever before, to little avail. I heard the voices of other friends, most of them white guys, who had excitedly shown me their stream of matches, hyping up how easy it was to meet a diverse bunch of people with the swipe of a finger. Then I heard my own voice: Maybe you’re not attractive enough. Maybe you look boring. Maybe you look pudgy. You’re stupid for bothering to do this. You’re even stupider for caring about the results. At least you’ve got some matches?
Here I was, feeling crazy but committed to the idea that something bigger was amiss. And as I started searching internet forums and lobbing questions at other Asian American guys in my social circles, I realized there were a lot of other men with a similar insecurity they couldn’t shake. One day, as I clicked into one white woman’s bio, I spotted the four words that summed up the fear in my head: “Sorry, not into Asians.”
Asian Americans stand at an especially perplexing intersection of privilege and discrimination. It’s the fastest-growing, best-educated and highest-income racial group in the country, inspiring the mythical stereotype of “model minority” success. Apparently, that doesn’t matter much in the online dating world, as research shows that Asian men consistently rank lowest for attractiveness out of all major racial groups.
A study conducted using match statistics from the dating site OKCupid from 2009 to 2014, for example, shows the lowest rates of approval for Asian men from white, black and Latina women (the exception: Asian women). This has held true despite an increasing number of OKCupid users claiming they don’t have a strong preference to date within their race. Meanwhile, a 2013 study dubbed “Mate Selection in Cyberspace” found that white men have the best odds of being contacted by a woman “even if all racial groups are equally represented in a dating website,” with women reaching out to white men more frequently than all other racial groups, and even preferring non-college-educated white men to college-educated Asian men. This trend has been studied before, with similar reports in 2009 and 2011 finding similar results.
Still, I was surprised to find that the phrase “sorry, not into Asians” triggered nods of recognition from a wide range of guys I knew — both straight and gay. “I know exactly how you felt,” says Alan*, an old friend who’s now 27. “It makes you think you’re going crazy. On a Grindr profile, guys will literally just write ‘no Asians.’ But at least that’s explicit. In real life, like at a bar, it feels like you’re not even there. No one makes eye contact with you. It makes you think you’re walking through these spaces but not feeling human.”
Alan, who is gay, went to college in Massachusetts before getting a job in Washington, D.C., where he started to explore LGBTQ spaces and nightlife. He picked up on one key lesson from his black queer friends, who made it a priority to profile the demographics of a bar or club before committing to it. “It’s not a secret in the gay community that the young, rich, cisgender white man is preferable above all else, and it’s hard to get away from that,” he says. “It was the first time I watched this dynamic up close.”
Matt*, another Asian-American friend from college, went even further: He claims that the frustration of subtle rejection has repressed his own preference for dating women of other racial groups. “I do feel held back knowing that my race may be a factor, so in the past I’ve gone with a more comfortable route: dating Asian women. Any time I date outside my race, I consider it a win,” he writes to me over Facebook. “I’m friends with girls who claim they’re not into Asians, and when questioned, it’s usually things like, ‘They aren’t confident enough’ or masculine enough, which just tells me they believe some sort of stereotype.”
The U.S. in 2018 is more diverse than it’s ever been, with a surge of racial integration in major cities since 1990 and current projections showing the country could become a majority-minority nation by 2044. We’re a long way from fixing the vexing problems of racial inequality, whether that’s in the income gap, in housing segregation or outright threats from fellow citizens, but in theory, the socially liberal consciousness of young Americans would seem to suggest that the dating pool shouldn’t be so racialized. Yet for a lot of men of color, “sexual racism” isn’t just an insecurity, but a reality that plays out in clubs, bars and online over and over again, usually in small but pervasive ways.
“Asian women have been sexualized and exoticized by mainstream culture in America, but Asian men haven’t seen that effect. We’re shown as the studious nerd in mass media, but the images of Asian men are rarely expressed with substance,” says Jin Kim, a family and marriage therapist in Los Angeles who is Korean-American. “Think about actual pornography. Asian men may show up as this very fetishized character, but otherwise, it’s 90 percent white men in mainstream roles. It definitely impacts people. It surely impacted me.”
Kim has both gay and straight Asian male friends who have expressed their struggles with casual dating, as well as Asian male clients who have come to him perplexed by their inability to form a more diverse dating pool. It can take a long time for someone to confront the idea that their race is “holding them back,” Kim says. Other times, the lessons can be seared into one’s brain at a much younger age, notes master certified relationship coach Amie Leadingham. One of her clients surprised her by wondering whether there was a way to work on his habit of only dating Asian women. Through multiple talks, Leadingham discovered that the 39-year-old had endured a scarring moment in the fifth grade, when he asked a white friend whether he should ask a crush to the school dance.
“And this Caucasian kid told him, ‘No, you can’t do that, because white girls don’t like Asian boys. Don’t bother!’ It was a blatantly racist belief that left a huge impression,” Leadingham recalled. “My client finally realized what social programming had happened as a child.”
Sexual racism isn’t a systemic problem exclusive to Asian men — research has certainly found similar discriminatory preferences against black and Latino men — but the reasons for lingering anti-Asian biases are unique. Portrayals of black men in history and modern American culture have heightened the notion that they’re hypersexualized with traditionally masculine traits, whether it’s via a network TV show or over-the-top cuck porn where women swoon comically over the “big black cock.” Asian men, meanwhile, have contended with the exact opposite: We hear too many jokes about our tiny dicks, whether it’s on The Bachelorette or in the Hangover 2 or from Sacha Baron Cohen as Ali G at the Oscars. Or we just get shit on as being inherently unattractive, like when Steve Harvey runs his mouth for a laugh or Asians get portrayed in undersexed stereotypes like Sixteen Candles’ Long Duk Dong or Silicon Valley’s Jian Yang.
I’m certain that growing up in Hawaii, where Asians form the majority demographic, helped me downplay such negative imagery. Most of my romances as a teen involved Asian girls, and I didn’t sense any tension until I arrived at the University of Southern California in L.A., where I ran headfirst into a whole different set of archetypal women, including the idealized blonde sorority girl. I had no aspirations of being a fratty white dudebro, nor did I feel any latent shame for being Korean. I did, however, think more deeply about how my racial identity set me apart, and why I hardly ever saw faces like mine kissing, well, blonde sorority girls. It’s only now that I recognize that I avoided hanging out in clique-y Asian groups too often out of the fear of being pigeonholed.
It’s a fucked-up complex that plays out in a lot of Asian men’s minds and across the internet, including on the Reddit page r/AsianMasculinity, where some guys talk up the “win” of snagging a white girl as a sort of Moby Dick moment. The engagement of blonde Twitch streamer Lisa Vannatta, aka STPeach, to her Korean boyfriend Jay earlier this year inspired both admiration and racist flak (typical comment: “lmao she settlin for asian dick when she looks like that”) across forums and on YouTube. Redditors on r/AZNIdentity, meanwhile, rallied behind a direct form of advocacy by funding an Asian male-white woman porn shoot earlier this year, as a sort of fuck-you to racist trolls on 4Chan.
“I relate to the idea of a white partner being a win. It’s a gross way to think about romance,” Alan says with an uncomfortable laugh. “But I almost feel like I need to date a white guy to prove that I can. As if that would somehow reflect my self-worth better. It’s utter bullshit, but that’s what everything seems to suggest to me.”
One of the most common questions posed online is how an Asian man can overcome discrimination in dating, which is something that Ralph, aka SquatsandRice on Reddit, has discussed at length. The 29-year-old architect’s strategy has been to lean into traditional masculinity, by working out, getting nice haircuts and spending less time in front of the TV and more time at bars and clubs around New York City, cultivating a “vibe” and a quiver of pickup techniques he says has led to more women than he has time for.
Asian men “get pushed into a box” by media portrayals, their conservative parents, insular Asian friend groups and other factors, Ralph says, which hurts their sexual pride and leads to doubts about what kind of man or woman they deserve to be with. His popular “Tinder Manifesto” thread acknowledges this explicitly (“The uncomfortable truth is that the deck is stacked against us. If you’re a normal white dude that’s a -1, but if you’re a normal Asian dude that’s a -10”), but also lays out steps he says can work for other Asian men who are struggling.
“On Tinder, most guys go for the ‘mass appeal’ route. They try to be the American dream, i.e., super outgoing, wearing a suit, rock-climbing with friends, etc. That will work if you’re some blue-eyed blond-haired white dude. Society has made that guy the American dream, not you, the Asian dude,” he tells me. “If she’s an attractive girl, why would she pick you when she already has multiple ‘better’ versions of you to choose from? So stop trying to appeal to the image of what you think ‘Mr. American Dream’ is, and put out your own authentic self, with authentic quirks.”
Ralph was dismissive when I asked him what he thinks might change in the future (“I hate this question — it’s a waste of time for most guys to worry or think about”), but in retrospect, I’m not sure there’s a good answer. Every person I interviewed believes that increasing media representation, especially portrayals of Asian men as romantic leads, is a major piece of the puzzle. Considering the rarity of such portrayals even in the 2010s (the newly released film Crazy Rich Asians is certainly a refreshing sight), I’m not convinced the tide will turn quickly enough.
Meanwhile, therapist Jin Kim adds that simply talking about the pressures of Asian men in the dating pool is an important tool: “Validating [Asian men’s] experiences and exploring the greater issues, legitimizing what they feel, is really powerful in and of itself. I want these conversations so my clients can be conscious and guide the next steps after that realization, including digging into any shame about their cultural background.”
So much of the emotional labor still falls on Asian men, though Leadingham points out there’s a silver lining. The dating coach remains wary of simple dating apps like Tinder or Bumble that use algorithms, warning men to not be stubborn about their lack of success, like I once was. She also reminds me that I found my own partner — a white woman, incidentally — in the real world, through more organic relationships. “Ultimately, women love people who can make them laugh and feel safe and secure. You’re shifting stereotypes just by getting out there and showing people the reality of interacting with an Asian man,” she says. “Being confident and letting go doesn’t mean ignoring the challenges. But the key is that it only takes that one person to open up to you, and make something meaningful happen.”
It’s not an easy answer for most Asian guys, but it’s perhaps the only one we can rely on for now.