When you take into account the images of the acceptable roles of the Asian nerd-slash-social outcast and Asian clown that are appreciated and contrast them to the Asian male pop stars that seem to have no cachet with the Western mainstream, one of the most obvious differences is that the Asian male pop stars exude sexiness whereas the clowns and the geeks, even though they are completely able to be cool–like PSY–do not. Even the most dangerous of the Asian male stereotypes, the martial artist, is denied any notable sexuality in the movies that become mainstream popular in the West.
Bruce Lee’s most popular movie in the US is Enter the Dragon. He doesn’t get the girl. When Jet Li was still someone that people were trying to make a star in America, he starred in Romeo Must Die and, rather than Aaliyah’s romantic counterpart, he is merely a platonic friend at the end. Apparently pre-screening audiences booed the interracial kiss version which was screened. The producers must have known since they had already prepared an edit without a kiss.
Thus, even when the power of the Asian martial artist or the gunplay of the cop and gangster is appreciated by the white heterosexual male hegemonic power structure that rules the mainstream, the potential threat of Asian male sexuality is clearly not and, therefore, for heterosexual Asian and Asian American men to see mainstream success, it genuinely helps not only to fit one of the pre-ordained acceptable Asian male roles (nerd, martial artist, gangster, and clown), but also to avoid any positive displays of sexuality and presenting yourself in a manner that can be seen as desirable to heterosexual women.
The male vanguard of K-pop–with polished music, image, and music videos, dressed in high fashion and with hard bodies that they aren’t shy in showing off–fit none of these prescribed stereotypes and definitely exude sexiness, as well as frequently contesting the sexiness of hyper-masculinity prevalent in the West (especially North America). And the confident display of Asian male sexuality from these pop stars might simply be enough for Western audiences to find reasons in those cultural differences–whether the fashion, the style of music, or the differences in acceptable masculinity–to reject that particular image of Asians. And that might be one reason why Asian pop keeps losing its bid for a place in Western mainstream music.
I’m often asked why I’ve focused so much more on anti-black racism than on Asians over the years. Some suggest I suffer from internalized racism.
That might well be true, since who doesn’t suffer from internalized racism? I mean, even white people internalize racism. The difference is that white people’s internalized racism is against people of color, and it’s backed up by those who control societal institutions and capital.
But some folk have more on their minds. They say that focusing on black and white reinforces a false racial binary that marginalizes the experiences of non-black people of color. No argument here. But I also think that trying to mix things up by putting non-black people of color in the middle is a problem because there’s no “middle.”
So there’s most of my answer. I’m sure I do suffer from internalized racism, but I don’t think that racism is defined only in terms of black and white. I also don’t think white supremacy is a simple vertical hierarchy with whites on top, black people on the bottom, and the rest of us in the middle.
So why do I expend so much effort on lifting up the oppression of black people? Because anti-black racism is the fulcrum of white supremacy.
A fulcrum is defined by Merriam-Webster as “the support about which a lever turns” or, alternatively, “one that supplies capability for action.” In other words, if you want to move something, you need a pry bar and some leverage, and what gives you leverage is the fulcrum – that thing you use so the pry bar works like a see-saw.
The racial arrangement in the U.S. is ever changing. There is no “bottom.” Different groups have more ability to affect others at different times because our roles are not fixed. But, while there’s no bottom, there is something like a binary in that white people exist on one side of these dynamics – the side with force and intention. The way they mostly assert that force and intention is through the fulcrum of anti-black racism.
One year I vacationed in Mexico and spent the entire time in the water, body surfing and boogie boarding. My skin got really dark, which I don’t care about one way or another, though I am afraid of sun damage and skin cancer, in that order. I made one mistake that trip though, and it wasn’t forgetting sunscreen (always, always remember sunscreen). My mistake was going to see my grandmother right after. The first thing she said, once she got over the shock, was “How did you get so dark?!” For the rest of the visit, she introduced me to her friends as “My Granddaughter-Who’s-Normally-Not-This-Dark.”
Light skin is still prized in Asia for a number of reasons that have to do with longstanding notions of race, class, and gender. Good thing then, that there’s a booming market for skin whitening creams, many of them manufactured by Western companies! And good thing the companies who make these creams also make commercials, because quite a few of them–beyond their creepy, disturbing premise–are kinda hilarious.