You and Your Pale East Asian Ex-Boyfriends

The femmephobic guy I mentioned in my most recent post also told me that he found me unattractive because of internalized colorism. “all my past relationships were with pale skinned east Asian guys rip” he texted me. He shared that he did not have a specific plan to work through his internalized colorist sexual preferences.

I first felt a surge of anger. Thoughts emerged like: you’re Southeast Asian too! We’re basically the same skin tone! Wtf is wrong with you! I didn’t feel hurt that he found me unattractive; I don’t care what men think of me and I had already sensed some underlying incompatibilities between us. Rather, his actions and lack thereof reminded me of Asian men I’ve known who prefer to date white people and view that as a preference as opposed to a function of internalized racism. His lack of agency in unlearning his internalized colorism also reminded me of people who articulate issues within themselves yet do not take specific steps toward self-improvement. When I went on a date with this guy, he carried a copy of Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye, which now strikes me as additionally ironic given his own unresolved colorism.

After I let myself feel my anger, I took a step back. More compassionate or at least sympathetic thoughts emerged. I remembered on our date how he told me about how in Thailand, he often saw billboards and posters that glorified light-skinned Asian folks. When I texted him and asked if his friends contributed to his colorism, he acknowledged that his community in Thailand often perpetuated colorism without viewing that behavior as problematic. He himself named how he considered himself unattractive because of his internalized colorism.

This scenario reminds me of my research about men and toxic masculinity, as well as my encounters with certain men who did not know how to express emotions in healthy ways. How much responsibility do we place on men – as well as women and nonbinary folks – to go to therapy and take actions outside of therapy to address their issues? Or how much do we work to prevent patriarchy and toxic masculinity, as well as other forces of systemic oppression such as white supremacy and colorism from occurring in the first place? One of my many amazing undergrad students told me in a meeting about how she believes in the importance of both, of recognizing the harmful role of systemic oppression and at the same time believing in people’s autonomy to take action to heal and recover.

I am by no means perfect either. In high school I valued thinness and restricted my eating, in large part because of abuse occurring in my family and my own tendency toward perfectionism, before discovering feminism and internalizing more empowering messages instead. In early college I struggled with communication while navigating PTSD, until I went to long-term outpatient therapy and grew more comfortable asserting what I want in more direct ways. At the beginning of grad school I used AAVE in my speech before a friend pointed it out to me, and for a few minutes I reacted defensively before eventually apologizing, owning up to my collusion in anti-Blackness and then doing better.

I don’t think I deserve cookies for trying to grow as a person. At the same time, I feel proud of myself for doing my best to improve, especially after interacting with this MwUIC (Man with Unresolved Internalized Colorism) who reported no agency to address his colorist sexual preferences. I talked about this issue of motivation to change with a few of my best and closer friends, and we identified some factors that may motivate some people to change or not, especially when they do have access to resources to try and heal and grow. These included: 1) a lack of privilege or having privilege (e.g., people with more privilege may not feel motivated to change because they can still do fine enough in life even not addressing their issues, whereas for myself I felt like I *had* to be a better person because no one else would do the work for me), 2) a lack of agency or having agency (e.g., I and my close friends view ourselves as people who are capable of growing as people and taking tangible actions to do so, whereas others view themselves in more passive terms), and 3) the social circle you surround yourself with (e.g., this guy sounds like he’s friends with people who aren’t unmotivated to address internalized colorism, whereas my best friends and I always hold each other accountable for self-growth and improvement).

In some ways, this issue of people improving or not reminds me of what it felt like growing up in my biological family. I remember at one point in elementary school I brought home a writing assignment where my teacher instructed us to write about our families. When my mom found the assignment, she exploded in fury and yelled at me because I had written that my mother has anger issues, my brother has anger issues because of my mom’s anger issues, and my father spent most of his time outside of the house. What strikes me as unfortunate about this now: instead of thinking something along the lines of like hm, my small child perceives our family in this way, maybe we can enact some behaviors to improve as people, my mother directed her energy outward into anger toward me, instead of reflection about herself.

Growing up, I always felt the most attuned to my family’s emotions and interpersonal dynamics, the one responsible for mitigating people’s anger and harm when possible. In the present day, I still feel motivated to empower myself and my communities and to try and prevent and fight societal oppression. At the same time, I’m drawing boundaries, in particular with those who harm me and show a lack of willingness to change. As an adult I have that agency now; I wish I had had it sooner.

This MwUIC may have wanted to [REDACTED] my [REDACTED] if I had been more masculine, lighter-skinned, and East Asian. In another world, a different version of me may have coped by trying to gain more muscle, or trying to change how I look to come across as more masculine. In this present moment though, I feel no desire to do that because I already have what sustains me – a loving relationship with myself and my friends, pop music, books. Even if the prevalence of colorism across the world remains out of my control, I can still control how I show up in my day to day life, which for now, feels like enough.

It’s been awhile since I’ve shared a selfie of me on this blog, so here I am! Sitting in my office, getting ready to see clients, not obsessing or favoring pale-skinned East Asian men. Love that for me!

What do you think motivates people to change or prevents people from changing? How have you grown and what factors have helped you to do so, or not? General reactions to this post? I’m screaming nine days until match day and I know where I’m headed for my final year of my PhD wowow. Hoping to fit one more post in before then amidst research and clinical work and books and friends and food and all else. Until next post!


Filed under Personal, Society

11 responses to “You and Your Pale East Asian Ex-Boyfriends

  1. Manaal

    Hi Thomas! I hope you’re doing well. I loved reading about how you and your friends reflected on the factors that perpetuate internalised colorism. Thank you for sharing some very interesting insights. I’m wondering whether point 1) may actually be reverse? like having privilege empowers you to take charge. You have the money, resources and a better education to view things more holistically, and because of all your resources, you may feel like you have a greater sense of agency over your own life. Whereas underprivileged people may feel like they must be content with what they have since it’s the only option, and may feel less empowered to improve, given how they’ve internalised their low status in society. I think the solution in this case should be for us as a society to equalise the distribution of power. One of the ways this can happen is when people with more privilege use their privilege to fight for those with less power.
    I wish you good luck for match day, and am so proud of you for almost completing you PhD!

    • Love this thoughtful comment, thank you for sharing Manaal! I totally hear that about how people with more privilege possess resources that allow them to take charge of their own lives. It’s interesting though, because at the same time, I’ve met many privileged people who really have no desire to fight for marginalized populations or even examine their own prejudices – it’s like they’re so comfortable with their privilege (or separated from those who are marginalized) that they don’t even recognize that there are moral issues they could try to address. I’ve also encountered marginalized people who once they gain access to positions of power, they go and perpetuate the same harm that their oppressors once did, just to those who are now below them in whatever hierarchy they’re at. So I feel like yes, people with more privilege have more opportunities and resources to grow and change, and at the same time I’m thinking that maybe that privilege itself can disincentive some from taking action to develop for the better

  2. Well MwUIC sounds deeply peculiar. Fancy telling you all that as if he was somehow proud of it, or yes, had no agency and had been made to be like that. Self-knowledge without change, very odd. I’ve addressed some stuff through reading and learning even when it’s hard to – I had some issues around some stuff to do with trans people that I didn’t understand and was uncomfortable with but read to educate myself and changed my feelings (not as strong as opinions, but I often notice I feel threatened by performances of hyper-femininity). I also forced myself to read Me and White Supremacy even though it was super-challenging, and did note some stuff there from my past I have at least acknowledged and examined, and got empowered to keep pushing diverse books out on my blog.

    • Is self-knowledge without change odd? I linger on that point often. Sometimes I have the impression that we’re so aware of what we’re doing that we need to go to great lengths to disguise or justify it. At least that’s what many forms of discrimination seem like to me. People looking for tools to create hierarchy.

      • The Pink Agendist, interesting perspective! I myself would feel shame and then motivation to change if I knew I were perpetuating oppression, so it’s intriguing to reflect on who develops that motivation or not. Like how can we socialize people and/or encourage people to disrupt hierarchy? I appreciate you taking the time to stop by here.

    • Liz, thank you for your fellow roast take on MwUIC, it’s super validating and heartwarming! I appreciate you sharing about your own growth and perspective. I like a lot of the elements you name in your comment and one thing that’s standing out to me now is how you write about feeling threatened – I feel like it takes self-awareness, effort, and emotional strength to explore how our *own* issues, insecurities, etc. influence our willingness to be compassionate, equitable, just, and more so I’m glad you did that and I hope we all can get to that point! As a non-Black POC I’m definitely with you in terms of challenging anti-Blackness as well as other forms of oppression.

  3. Your entries are so interesting and of course well written. You use your life’s experiences to illustrate points, share knowledge and make me think. I’m glad that MwUIC is not in your life anymore. It’s interesting – until last year, I’ve never heard of the term AAVE. I’ve seen it but always figured that if people grew up in an environment where that was prevalent, it would be natural to assume that style of talk.

    I think personal change is tough. You really have to want it and understand what it takes to change. And then there’s commitment, fear of failure and encouragement (or lack of) from your friends / family.

    I hope you’ll do a quick update once you find your match. Sending lots of warm and happy thoughts to you.

    • I also want to add something about friendships (which is unrelated to this entry). I’ve always found it interesting that you stay so connected to your close friends and have regular and frequent chats with them. You actively work on your friendships. So I’ve started reaching out to a couple of good friends and asked them what I can do to be a better and supportive friend. They aren’t in the same city. I wanted to see how often they want to chat, meet and how. One said he doesn’t check emails frequently. So text is the best. The other preferred frequent chats on Zoom. But we stopped short of setting a schedule and just let it be a bit more organic. I think it surprised them but it was a good surprise. So you deserve a big thank you. 🙂

      • Thanks for writing Matt and I hope you’re doing well! I appreciate you validating my blog and I’m glad that how I try and write about my life experiences feels illuminating in some way if even a small one. (: Yep so glad MwUIC is out of the picture too. In terms of AAVE, I think it’s especially problematic that oftentimes non-Black people of color and white people will use it specifically in settings to advance their careers, oftentimes while perpetuating harm against Black folks (this article does a good job of going in a bit deeper than I will in this comment:

        All of the factors you list about change being tough are helpful to consider so I can continue to practice patience with folks. And I’ll do my best to update the blog about match, if not this week then by next week at the latest! Also yes love that you reached out to your friends in this way! No matter what the outcome it’s cool that you put in the effort to see what happens. (:

  4. HAH. Oh, if this was a novel, someone would say, with his carrying Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye…”Too much!” /giggles

    • It honestly is too much! My close friends and I still laugh about how he was carrying that novel in particular while holding such internalized racist views. Yikes.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s