Last year, I rejected an Asian man.
Apparently, there’s a lot of politics around this. But I had my reasons: a) I identified as a lesbian at the time, b) I was dating a woman, and c) I wasn’t attracted to him.
They didn’t seem to satisfy him – unsurprisingly, as he already knew my relationship status. I asked him why he couldn’t find available women on a dating app instead of trying to proposition lesbians with girlfriends. His response was this: ‘Asian and white women don’t want to date Asian men.’
These words have haunted me since. I had long been sympathetic to Asian men who railed against their characterisation by Western media as emasculated and undesirable. But the context of his comment rubbed me the wrong way, like he was implying that the real reason that I had rejected him was not because of my sexuality, but internalised racism against Asian men.
I grew bitter as I mused. What made him entitled to date Asian and white women, anyway? If he was so concerned about racism, what about his own? Then I realised: blaming other people for his celibacy, a sense of entitlement towards women… This is the exact thing an incel would say.
And that’s how I discovered ricecels.
Incels (involuntary celibates) are cisgender heterosexual men who can’t get laid and become radical misogynists as a result. As the YouTuber Natalie Wynn explains, incels blame their unattractive features and ‘hypergamy’ – the assumption that women in their ‘league’ only want to date more attractive men – rather than, say, their desperation and misogyny. Ricecels (also known as MRAsians, a play on ‘Men’s Rights Activists’) are a subgroup of East and Southeast Asian incels who put their status down to race.
There are some stats to support the ricecel point of view. A 2015 study showed that 35% of Asian-American men were single, as opposed to 18% of their female counterparts. A 2018 study echoes these findings, noting that Asian-American men are a uniquely disadvantaged racial and gender category when it comes to both heterosexual and same-sex relationships.
In the r/ricecels subreddit, users often focus on media portrayals of Asian men and WMAF (white male, Asian female) couples. These are legitimate issues that have been discussed in mainstream, non-incel spaces. Asian male media figures regularly combat stereotypes perpetuated in movies and television of them being nerdy and emasculated. Meanwhile, Asian women have lent a critical eye to the ‘yellow fever’ tendencies of white men who fetishise Asian women as ideal submissive partners – including far-right figures like Richard Spencer and Andrew Anglin. Such associations have led Asians to interrogate their model minority status and its acceptability to and complicity with white supremacists. These issues stem from historical factors in how the US has policed Asian immigration and Asian presence.
Ricecels make a misogynistic meal of valid inquiries. One post on r/ricecels summarises the general mood – ‘I am asian [sic], therefore I am virgin’ – while a reply clarifies, ‘Unless you have a slit between your legs’. Fixated on WMAF as the root of their involuntary celibacy, they theorise that Asian women will date even the most inadequate of white men to avoid dating Asian men.
Demonising Asian women who date or marry white men as ‘race traitors’, ricecels harass Asian public figures such as Constance Wu, Celeste Ng, and Australian YouTuber Natalie Tran for having current or past white partners. It doesn’t stop there: Elliot Rodger, the incel who conducted a massacre in California in 2014, was half-Asian and put his ‘celibacy’ down to race. Conversely, without a trace of irony, ricecels glorify AMWF (Asian male, white female) relationships for apparently bucking the trend.
Another post on r/ricecels even attacks Asian lesbians, claiming that they pretend to love women to avoid Asian men. The community expresses no concern about racist rejections that queer Asian men face (‘no fats, no femmes, no Asians’).
Disturbingly, the ricecels’ misogynistic stances aren’t restricted to self-identified ricecels. We hear their echoes on other subreddits (r/hapas, r/aznidentity, r/EasternSunRising, and r/AsianMasculinity) and in person.
To be frank, the aforementioned studies and statistics don’t correspond with my own observations. Most of the Asian men I know have no trouble dating. Are Asian-Australian men subject to the same stereotypes?
If stereotypes are the problem, then Australians are seeing plenty of Asians that don’t necessarily conform to them. While racism toward Asian Australians persists, we now represent Australia’s largest racial minority: as of 2016, Asians comprised 16.3% of the Australian population. In comparison, as of 2018, Asians comprised only 6.5% of the American population. We’re also more concentrated in the capital cities, which means we often have close-knit communities with a well-developed sense of diasporic identity. Here in Sydney, it’s possible to grow up surrounded by Asians, and many of us watch Asian media in which Asian men are abundant and framed as attractive.
So it seems Asian-Australian men don’t have much to complain about. During a stand-up show delivered to a largely Asian audience in Cabramatta, comedian David Truong claims, ‘Women just don’t go for Asian men.’ The joke falls flat; when an audience member disagrees, Truong retorts, ‘Because you’re fucking so hot! You look like the guy from Crazy Rich Asians … fuck that’s brutal.’
I would love to end the matter here: Asian men, stop whinging if you can’t get dates, it’s just cos you’re not hot! Wash their problems off my hands. Just plain old misogyny here, nothing to see folks!
But the truth is that it’s not so neat. Because the Asian-Australian community itself is not neat. Although Asian-Australian men may not face huge hurdles when dating, the underlying issues that ricecels speak to still permeate our communities.
Outside real-life interactions, Asian-Australians are nigh on invisible. Australian media itself presents few Asian faces, although the ones that appear are portrayed neutrally. The more negative depictions of Asian men are conveyed through American media, which is inescapable even for Asian-Australians who interact more with Asian media. Asian media presents its own set of representational issues. The experiences of Asians in Asia don’t align with those of Asians in the West, and the models of masculinity don’t always align with how Asian-Australian men perceive and present themselves.
And I do know quite a few WMAF couples, way more than AMWF or AF with any other ethnicity. It is unfair to attack WMAF pairings on the whole because genuine love cannot be policed, and we don’t have intel into the dynamics of every such relationship. Still, we cannot escape the reality that Asian first-generation migrants tend to hold racist, colourist, and classist prejudices that they pass onto their children.
Ricecels, in their misogynistic and all-consuming focus on the sins of Asian women, don’t discuss them, but there are messages that diasporic Asians of any gender often hear about race and dating. Several of my friends complain that their parents don’t ‘allow’ them to date non-Asians and dark-skinned people. Even for younger Asians who don’t share these prejudices, cultural values like filial piety make them reluctant to disobey their parents’ desires. One of my Chinese friends is dating a South Asian man to her parents’ ire, and they have made it clear that they would rather her date either a Chinese person, or ‘at least’ a white man.
This attitude shows that the Asian community is aware of its model minority status. By playing the part of the hardworking, middle-class, and politically conservative ethnic minority, Asians are invited to side with white supremacy against the other ‘noisy’ and ‘problematic’ races. And by encouraging their children to enter relationships with white people, Asians recognise that whiteness is desirable as it represents access to privilege in Australian society. Asians knowingly seek out this privilege through proximity to whiteness.
But this thinking reflects a broader misogynistic mindset that sees women as property to be traded between patriarchal groups. Ricecels have a problem with WMAF because they view the Asian woman as abandoning Asians to ‘marry out’. On the other hand, they view AMWF as a white woman joining the Asian community.
It’s true that we internalise racism. I was shocked when one of my Asian friends said outright that she preferred to date white men. The Asian men she knew were mummy’s boys who would want to turn her into a housewife, she explained, and in her experience, they had always dismissed her non-STEM field of work. She was also interested in the idea of ‘cute mixed kids’.
These are unfair assumptions about Asian men that I once also harboured. As a teenager, I attended an all-girls school; the only Asian boys I knew were the stinky loudmouths from our brother school and church. Their annoyingness was simply the annoyingness of all teenagers, but I too had been willing to write the off the whole demographic.
Asian women who do date Asian men are sometimes disappointed by their relative lack of political awareness. Young Asian-Australian women often enter political spaces and discussions about feminism, queerness, and race; young Asian-Australian men tend to have more apolitical interactions with each other. It’s regrettably true that many young Asian-Australian men engage in racial jokes, say the n-word, or deploy casual homophobia and misogyny. One friend said they felt lulled into a false sense of security when dating Asian men, thinking that they would be ‘woke’ as fellow people of colour, and was blindsided by spurts of bigotry.
What does this mean? Was the ricecel man I rejected right after all?
Well, any way you spin it, ricecels cannot be justified. They are virulent misogynists who only care about racism as far as it affects their dating life. The Asian community has bigger problems and no one is oppressed by women who choose not to date them – no one is entitled to partners.
As for Asian women who date white men, it’s harder to say. Unlike ricecels, they don’t share a common ideology about interracial dating. For every white-worshipping Asian woman who is dating a white man, there will be others who are simply in love with their partners.
There’s a larger issue at play here. See, the problem isn’t just Asian men not being sexy on TV or people not meeting enough Asian boys in real life. The problem is that we live in a society that lets white people define themselves on their own terms, while people of colour will always be racialised. When my teenage self saw boys around her being annoying, she projected it as an issue of all Asian men being annoying. When my friend encounters Asian boys who invalidate her work, she projects these attitudes onto Asian men as a whole: even though we have a government full of white men currently trying to invalidate non-STEM disciplines, she doesn’t read that behaviour as typical of white men as a whole.
Likewise, when ricecels see WMAF couples, their instinct is to attack Asian women for white worship and internalised racism. What could’ve been innocent, genuine attraction is immediately racialised without any understanding of the context of that relationship, simply because ricecels project the issues that some Asian women have onto the rest of the group.
In a white supremacist society, it’s not just a matter of representation. The foundations of our nation do not allow people of colour to exist neutrally. Even among ourselves, we are constantly read as hegemonic extensions of our race.
A year on from that unsettling ricecel incident, I’ve realised that I’m bisexual. The men I’ve dated since have been Asian.
Was this a conscious decision? Well, I tended to find the Asians I encountered more attractive and felt that I had more in common with them than the non-Asians I had spoken to. But I can’t deny that I’ve also become intensely aware of how my internalised biases can come into play and I want to avoid that kind of situation. It’s not a catch-all solution for Asian women to decolonise our minds, but it’s how I’ve chosen to exercise my awareness of these issues.
The burden does not, however, rest on our individual dating choices. Ricecels weaponise anti-racist language to maintain a misogynistic status quo; some Asian women who date white men weaponise feminist language to maintain a racist status quo. But this inter-community conflict avoids attacking the real culprit: the white supremacy that underpins Australian society.