After eight people, six of them Asian women, were killed this week in shootings near Atlanta, a law enforcement official said that in the gunman’s own words, his actions were “not racially motivated,” but caused by “sexual addiction.” The official, Captain Jay Baker of the Sheriff’s Office in Cherokee County, where one of the three massage businesses targeted by the white man was located, added that the investigation was in its early stages. But the implication wasn’t lost on anyone: it had to be one motive or the other, not both.
Understandably, that insinuation was met with anger and incredulity by many Asian-American women, for whom racism and sexism have always been intertwined—racism often takes the form of unwanted sexual come-ons, while sexual harassment is often overtly racist. As for the rest of the world, this sad realisation comes shortly after reports of anti-Asian attacks surged after the Trump administration repeatedly emphasised China’s connection to the COVID-19 pandemic.
As reported by The New York Times, “there is evidence that most of the hate, unlike other types of bias crime, has been directed at women.” Captain Baker’s briefing on the attacks on Wednesday 17 March included an assertion that the accused gunman, who is white, had been having “a really bad day,” which many women took as yet another way of excusing violence against them. A really bad day, really?
His comments were widely criticised, and he was later found to have promoted sales of an anti-Asian t-shirt. Following the news, the Sheriff’s Office later said in a statement that the Captain’s remarks were “not intended to disrespect any of the victims” or to “express empathy or sympathy for the suspect.” Once again, the authorities seemed to completely miss the point.
Asian women, in general, have long been victims of misogyny as well as violence, by men of all races (including Asian men). Asian-American women, more specifically, have long been stereotyped as sexually submissive, portrayed in popular culture as exotic and manipulative or as inherently superior to other women in a way that completely erases their personality.
Our generation grew up watching Mean Girls, failing to even notice the blatant anti-Asian jokes and Tina Fey’s obvious disrespect towards the Asian community. In the US, men regularly approach Asian women with awful pick-up lines such as ‘Me so horny, I love you long time’ delivered in weird broken English.
Sung Yeon Choimorrow, the executive director of the National Asian Pacific American Women’s Forum (NAPAWF), said that when she first came to the US to attend college in 2000, she was “stunned, dumbfounded, horrified” by the way she was frequently approached by male strangers who professed to love Korean women.
The men, she said, ranged in age from the very young to the very old, and seemed never to understand that their attention was not flattering. “I’ve experienced racism. I’ve experienced sexism. But I never experienced the two like that as I have when I came to the US.”
Keeping this in mind, that’s part of the reason many Asian-American women viewed this week’s shootings as the culmination of this racialised misogyny. Federal data suggest that across the country, the victims of most violent hate crimes are men.
Yet, according to The New York Times, a recent analysis conducted by a group called Stop AAPI Hate, which collects reports of hate incidents against Asian-American and Pacific Islander communities, said that out of nearly 3,800 incidents recorded in 2020 and 2021, more than two-thirds of the reports came from women. This highlights the fact that crimes against Asian women are mostly unaccounted for.
For now, very little is known about the motives of the Atlanta gunman, but organisations that track hate crimes have paid increasing attention to misogyny as a “gateway drug” to other types of extremism, such as violent racism, in the wake of the slaughter of 10 people in Toronto in 2018 by an incel.
Meanwhile, the fetishisation of Asian women has a long history initially shaped by the US’ law and policy. The Page Act of 1875, which ostensibly banned the importation of women for prostitution, effectively prevented Chinese women from entering the country, while laws prohibiting mixed-race marriages left male Chinese immigrants perpetual bachelors.
Overseas, poverty and war gave rise to a prostitution industry that provided inexpensive sex to American servicemen in Korea, Thailand, the Philippines and Vietnam, compounding stereotypes of Asian women as exotic sex objects or manipulators trying to ‘entrap American husbands’.
Hate and violence against Asian-Americans, particularly Asian-American women, is nothing new. While investigators continue to assess whether the shootings were racially or sexually motivated, Asian-American women already have the answer. It’s both.
“If Asian American men are more image-conscious due to insecurity, is that why they’re so into fashion?” muses Mic Nguyen on his podcast Asian Not Asian. The New York-based podcast, hosted by comedians Nguyen and Fumi Abe, explores topics involving life as an Asian American and discusses what Asian masculinity truly is. While laughing and joking, the two men chat with guests who are notable writers, actors, and comedians, such as Kimmy Yam from HuffPost Asian Voices, Alexander Hodge aka ‘hot Asian bae’ from HBO’s Insecure, and Crazy Rich Asian’s Ronny Chieng.
To learn more about this fairly quiet phenomenon, I slid into Nguyen’s DMs to chat about the impact of fashion on Asian American male identity and the future of Asian men in America through clothes and clout.
Like the podcast’s slogan states, these are “American issues no American cares about”—and it’s spot on. Although there is a whole other subset of this conversation involving LGBTQ Asian American men, it’s the cisgender straight men and their new way of approaching masculinity that stood out the most. If you search online ‘Asian, masculinity, and fashion’ you won’t find much, except on Reddit, which will bombard you with threads titled “How to be confident”, “How to be masculine”, and even a thread asking how East Asians can dress like fuckboys to display alpha-ness.
These are some of the most searched topics, especially in the Reddit community, aptly named ‘Asian Masculinity’. According to Neilsen’s 2019 report, the Asian American population has grown to 7 million in the past decade, which is more than any other ethnic group in America and it’s predicted to be the largest immigrant group in the nation by 2055. As they are major influencers of consumption in America, brands and marketers should start looking into the psychological drive behind Asian American men’s attraction to streetwear, which is one of the highest-grossing markets in the fashion industry.
So why are Asian American men drawn to street fashion? Fashion has a way of changing people’s perceptions of you, and streetwear, more specifically, has been an ideal solution to combat stereotypes of emasculation. According to C. H. Chen, scholar and author of the Feminization of Asian (American) Men in the U.S Mass Media, Asian men have been historically emasculated in America through occupational pigeon-holing and unsavoury media representation. In the 19th-century, Asian men who immigrated to the U.S. to work on the railroads were eventually pushed towards cooking and cleaning jobs, or ‘women’s work’.
This associated them with being feminine and ‘weak’, which still affects how Asian American men are treated in the U.S. today. According to the co-founder of the brand The Hundreds, Bobby Kim, when he spoke to Hypebeast, “Streetwear has always been this weird, strangely male thing.” It’s always been associated with masculinity and been a pillar of Americana—two things that Asian American men aspire to be accepted into. “Asian Americans are always trying to communicate to White society that we belong here,” explains Nguyen.
The pursuit of a romantic partnership could be another reason why Asian American men are into street fashion. Historically, Asian American men have been seen as undesirable due to the same stereotype of being effeminate. Wearing the latest Hype hoodie or sneakers is a way to fight these stereotypes. “We know we’re being looked at. We’re being judged based off of certain things,” says Nguyen. “Asian American guys think about it, maybe at a subconscious level, to communicate that they’re desirable.” Nguyen also adds that, at first, he used fashion like a peacock strategy to get noticed: “You dress as loud as possible so people can’t peg you as a nerd and to combat media stereotypes.”
According to Jian Deleon in a panel discussion with Banana Magazine, the editorial director and trend forecaster for Highsnobiety and Complex conveyed that Asian American men are able to switch between being American and being Asian or some hybrid form of the two. Fashion is what enables that cultural interchange. Nguyen adds to that idea, saying that Asian American men may not necessarily be into fashion but are very aware of how fitting in certain groups navigates a power dynamic. “It’s a crazy mind fuck for an Asian American person,” says Nguyen.
People fight between dressing ‘beyond their race’, but at the same time, they go through the guilt that comes with it, because they feel like they’re hiding their race behind fashion. And still, sometimes it doesn’t even help, explains Nguyen, “I would wear capes or purple jeans, but people would still confuse me for another Asian guy at work. I was acutely aware of how limited the power of fashion could be when it came to trying to carve a certain identity.”
As Asian representation is slowly changing in the U.S., a cultural shift is emerging. Instead of men being Asian in America, they feel more like Asian American men. Yet, according to Nguyen, no one really knows how to be Asian American or what that even means. “I was trying to make an identity with my clothes. It wasn’t an Asian American identity because there isn’t really an Asian American identity, to begin with.” In America, Asians are either put in the ‘White’ or ‘Black’ box in regard to navigating what culture to follow in the American mindset.
But they weren’t welcome in either of those boxes. Safe spaces are slowly being built for Asian men to become more confident and validated in their existence. As Asian American men have just recently stepped into the mainstream spotlight with Asian Hollywood, this conversation on how to be a man and how to be an Asian American man is still a grey area. There are many resources discussing men, masculinity, and fashion, but adding a cultural layer brings new facets to the topic. As Nguyen wisely said, “the change has to come from within.” Clothes are a great conduit for change but they’re not the actual cure.