Black Men, Asian Women: Exploring Fantasy and Reality, Starting with TV Hospital Dramas

Article excerpt

As a South Asian woman with a long and pluralistic dating history, I am amazed these days to see two couples comprised of Asian women and Black men every week. The sugary romance between the excessively noble characters played by Parminder Nagra and Shafiq Atkins on ER follows the much hotter one between Ming Na Wen and Mekhi Phifer that ended two seasons ago. Grey's Anatomy features Sandra Oh in an up-and -down relationship with Isaiah Washington.

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What accounts for such interest? It's as though these couples have been pouring out of medical schools and producers decided to capture the trend.

The representations tread the line between cultural authenticity, sometimes considered stereotype, and colorblindness. The women exhibit some level of conflict with their cultures and are slightly neurotic: Ming Na dreaded telling her immigrant parents that she was having a baby out of wedlock; Nagra quit her job in a bout of rebellion against family expectation to work as a convenience store clerk. The men are dangerous but tender. Phifer grew up without a father and has a temper; Gallant went off to serve in Iraq. I did laugh at the effort to bridge cultures, though, when Nagra's character got married wearing a white sari. White is the Hindu color of mourning.

The hype about interracial television couples is that Americans have moved so far past race they don't even notice. "Honestly, we really don't even talk about it or consider that it's an interracial couple," said ER's Executive Producer David Zabel in an interview with Diversity Inc. He claims that a quick look at MTV proves that younger people don't draw those lines.

Web-surfing indicates that younger people do indeed draw those lines, at least for purposes of fulfilling their attractions. On Tribe NY, I found a group for Asian women who love Black men, and on Blasian.com I found Black men who love Asian women. The website African and Asian American Unity has tools for getting to know the other culture that include instructions on how to keep a bonsai, cook Chinese greens and participate in Kwanzaa. It also has a highly insightful advice column, "Ask Mike," in which a bald, slim, goateed Black man will answer your romantic questions at great length for free. The vast majority of questions were from people under 25 wanting to know how they could find, keep or correct their Black or Asian partner.

An Analysis of Desire

While the number of such actual couples remains small (an unknown but undoubtedly tiny portion of the 2 percent of U.S. residents in interracial marriages), there does appear to be a dramatic growth among daters in particular places.

Particular neighborhoods in Brooklyn and Los Angeles seem to have become havens for Black men seeking Asian women and vice versa. While sitting on her stoop in Ft. Greene, Brooklyn, a Japanese friend was approached by an Asian woman walking with her baby stroller. The woman asked whether my friend had any kids. She was searching for potential members of a group for kids with a Black father and Asian mother.

Darrell Hamamoto, professor of Asian American studies at the University of California--Davis, believes the attraction is rooted in prevailing stereotypes stemming from Black men's military experiences in Asia. Hamamoto gained some notoriety as the producer of a pornographic film featuring Asian sex--his effort to complicate and abandon the stereotypes of oversexed Asian women and impotent Asian men. He asserts that the U.S. military draws large numbers of Black men looking for a ladder to the middle class, whose status changes when they go abroad. These men see Asian women as subjects of the American--and, by implication, their own--empire.

"This trend is rooted with American colonialism and occupation. Material and historical forces shape these relationships," said Hamamoto. "You have three, four, five generations of African-American men who have served oversees in Asia, whose experience with Asian women has been pretty intense in a foreign land where they are treated not as subordinate people but as superior Americans. …