Racism and attraction: yellow fever, pity fucks and he’s just not that into you.


At the risk of mentioning Jet Li in two consecutive blog posts, I watched Romeo Must Die again the other day. I’d last watched it shortly after it was released in 2000 and remembered it fondly. Unsurprisingly, it turns out that it’s a terrible movie in pretty much every way. I should really never revisit adolescent favourites (except for The Craft, that still holds up).

Nevertheless, it remains one of the only mainstream movies I can think of that features a central romance1 between a black woman (Aaliyah) and an Asian man (Jet Li) — two groups that arguably suffer the most from gendered racial stereotypes and how they play into norms of attractiveness.

Models outside Abercrombie and Fitch store in Singapore. A&F is notorious for racist employment practices, all-white advertising, and offensive t-shirt slogans.

The politics of sex is one of my top interests, along with anti-racism, so sexual racism is a topic that always catches my attention. Last week Good Weekend published an article on race-based attraction by Benjamin Law, in which he talks about prejudice against Asian men, especially among gay men. He mentions that Australian gay magazine DNA has had no identifiably Asian cover model in its 146 issue history, which for me is a no-brainer instance of racism.

Law also talks about profiles on Grindr (a smartphone hook-up app) stating “No Asians”. Sometimes I think racism no longer surprises me, but actually it regularly does. It surprises me that people will blatantly state “no Asians” not because I don’t expect people to have these attitudes but because I expect them to delude themselves into thinking it’s a coincidence. Or at the very least, I expect that they’d conceal their bigotry in case it turns off people they would like to fuck. Then again, as a sex-focused app, Grindr profiles tend to be fairly anonymous — headless torsos and minimal information. Douchebags of Grindr documents the racism, fatphobia, femmephobia, materialism and general arrogance common on the site.

Dating website OK Cupid shows a far greater disparity between stated attitudes to race,  and actual behaviour in rates of reply to correspondents of different racial identities: while only 6 per cent of heterosexual users believed interracial marriage was a bad idea, 38 per cent stated that they would strongly prefer to date someone of their own skin colour or racial background, and men of all racial backgrounds replied to black women about 25 per cent less than they did to other women of a similar compatibility score. Notably, more than twice as many white users of all sexual orientations stated that they would strongly prefer to date someone of their own skin colour or racial background compared to non-white users.

But it is necessarily racist to have racialised preferences when it comes to sex and dating? Heather Corinna of sex ed website Scarleteen thinks not, and compares race to gender:

Whether we are attracted to men, women or both isn’t something we can really control. Who we’re attracted to is largely hardwired and often pretty random and individual.

The same goes with race, hair color, eye color, shoe size, height, weight, how a person dresses, what music they like, how long someone’s neck is, what their voice sounds like, how they move, who they vote for, what books they like … the whole kit and kaboodle. Who we find sexually attractive varies a whole lot between people, and while we get to choose who we date and who we are sexually active with, we don’t get to choose who we want to date and who we find attractive.

Sure, to some extent our preferences might be unfathomable, inexplicable and beyond our control. And to be honest, as an unsympathetic (or perhaps just unimaginative) pansexual I have to admit I don’t really understand gendered orientation either. But I’m unconvinced by the claim that if it’s not sexist to prefer (or rather, require) a particular gender, then it’s not racist to have racial preferences either. I’m pretty sure gender is a poor parallel for race in many situations, but especially when it comes to sex.

Gender aside, anyone can see that there’s a difference between having a thing for long necks or thick eyebrows and having “no fats, no fems, no Asians” as a kind of door policy. If your personal preferences are exactly in line with your (sub)culture’s dominant paradigm of beauty, desirability and disgust, you probably need to interrogate your desires. Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore (editor of Nobody Passes) says as much in Alex Rowlson’s article for fab magazine, “Not just a preference“.

 If we were living in a culture where everything was the same, it wouldn’t be a problem. But when sexual preference reinforces dominant systems of power in an unquestioning way, that’s when it becomes problematic.

Rowlson discusses a number of possible responses to exclusionary desires: Michael J Faris thinks they can be phrased in more specific or positive ways – for example, “I like hairy men” instead of “no Asians” if that’s the physical basis of the racial preference. ML Sugie argues that such a preference is no more valid, saying that “aesthetic reasons” are code for “unjustifiable hierarchies that I don’t want to explain”. Sycamore suggests confronting the bigots, and Raymond Miller proposes naming, shaming and boycotting them. Sugie says that the path to liberation is paved with “indiscriminate promiscuity” that ignores all the traits which are supposed to define the boundaries of our desires. Sluthood will in fact save the world.

But if finding an entire group of people unattractive usually comes from a place of hate, chasing isn’t any better. When my friends and I started flagging opinicus rampant, our blog reconsidering (gay male) hanky code from a pangender and feminist perspective, the first hankies we removed were the racial and fat fetish ones.  While desiring a role or dynamic (such as seeking a top or a pony) is valid and hot, I’m uncomfortable with limiting the body such a role inhabits. Maybe that’s the difference between orientation and attraction.

That said, it’s worth noting that a preference for any minority or marginalised group is considered a fetish, while preferences for the dominant ideal usually go unstated and unchecked. What can you do when you don’t know if a rejection is based on dodgy “preferences”? I think consent means you always have to accept rejections graciously:

[R]ejection can be based on prejudice. It can be cissexist or racist or fatphobic or biphobic or ageist or ableist or anti-virgin or whatever else. And if someone voices those sentiments, you’re right to call them up on it. But nobody owes you an explanation on why they don’t want to fuck you or date you.

And what do you do if you have dodgy preferences, racial or otherwise? I think we need to be honest with ourselves. Don’t pretend to be into someone if you’re not, no one wants to be thrown a pity fuck when they could be doing something hotter. Like masturbating. But we also need to think about what forms our desires. Consider if your “type” is a received image or an inclination to repetition. Imagine what it would be like to be attracted to someone you might have ruled out for whatever reason. Seriously analyse and deconstruct what you find attractive. And be open to surprise.

1. Well, maybe more courtship than romance because they never even kiss. A quick search also brings up John Cho and Gabrielle Union on a tv show I’ve never heard of called Flash Forward, which from what I can gather might be a bit more satisfying if you’re looking for on-screen action.

Jinghua Qian

Author: Jinghua Qian

Jinghua Qian is a Shanghai-born cultural commentator living in Boonwurrung and Wurundjeri country. Eir work focuses on marginalisation and resistance, and spans verse, prose, performance and broadcast. Jinghua has written for Overland, Sydney Morning Herald, and SBS, performed at Melbourne Writers Festival and The Famous Spiegeltent, and presented multilingual queer programming for 3CR Community Radio.

7 thoughts on “Racism and attraction: yellow fever, pity fucks and he’s just not that into you.”

  1. I regularly have this debate with friends about Grinder/Gaydar and the prolific “No Asians” comments you find on people’s profiles. I can see this argument has many sides. Here are three viewpoints I have come across:

    (1) My initial view was that, these are dating sites and each individual should be able to signal what they are attracted to and what they are not in order to limit the sub-set of responses or messages they may receive (purely from a pragmatic stand point). Granted, they may be denying themselves an opportunity to meet someone fantastically beautiful and soulful by wiping a whole race out of their subset, but that is a (potentially foolish?) choice they have made. If these comments were not there, we would have many a young asian gay man engaging in wishful conversations with racist time-wasters who didn’t bother to be upfront about the prejudicial nature of their sexuality/attraction. It also allows all people (yellow, white, brown, whatever) to identify potential racists and stay away from them. This brings me to view (2).

    (2): I have a white friend who prefers not to meet anyone who writes “no asians” on their profile – even though he is not asian himself. To him, he is not attracted to racists. So he appreciates these comments as they help him identify behaviour/individuals he is not attracted to, thereby eliminating useless conversation with people he’s not likely to find adorable.

    (3) I have a third friend who disagrees with both points of view. His point of view is this: image the experience today, of a young gay asian man browsing Grindr or Gaydar in Australia? Flicking through profile after profile stating “no asians” has the effect of diminishing self-worth, pride in one’s identity, and re-enforces negative messaging on race. He thinks it is disgusting to see this and believes this should be moderated out during the profile posting process (as most profiles are reviewed anyway for things like explicit images). He feels these websites are a public forum and it is objectionable and wrong to put such material up there that can affect people so immensely.

    There we go…three views. To be perfectly ambivalent (as I often am) I must say I do see merit in all of them.

  2. Agreed, Bee – it’s easier to address racism when it’s upfront and explicit. And Grindr is primarily a hook-up site; if you’re looking for a brief, casual, sexual encounter, it seems fair to state your physical preferences. But my take on (1) is not that those who want “no fats, femmes or Asians” should conceal their prejudice, but interrogate its source. Desire does change.

    And I think (3) outweighs (2).

  3. Just kidding! You’re really wise and woke, sister/ other social media savvy expert on the functions of “people” (dare I say chess pieces on your grand board!). You hit the nail on the head here… love the blog <3

Your thoughts?