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  • Intimacy, Desire, and the Construction of Self in Relationships between Asian American Women and White American Men
  • Kumiko Nemoto (bio)


This study examines interracial rrelationships between Asian Ameri-cans and white Americans. The goal is to understand how the social construction of sexual desire is shaped by race and gender. This study begins with the argument that racialized images and discourses on "Asian women" and "White men" have been produced within the hierarchies of local and global structures of race, gender, and nation. Through an examination of life-history interviews, this study addresses how Asian American women married to or partnered with white men have strategically participated in the re-generation of these discourses. My goal is to understand how and why Asian American women submit to, resist, and identify with hegemonic white masculinity.

Study of Intermarriage and Controlling Images

Several previous studies have found that Asian American women are almost twice as likely to outmarry as are Asian American men.1 This gender gap is unique to Asian Americans' intermarital pattern, since in other racial groups men outmarry more than women.2 However, the gap is only speculatively identified to result from general factors rather than from specific racial and gender structures.3 In these studies, racial and gender hierarchies, such as the link between mainstream stereotypes and the high [End Page 27] rate of Asian American women's outmarriage with white men, have remained unexplored.4 I argue that to explore how racialized desires contribute to particular patterns of intermarriage, we need to study the "social discourses of race," which individuals experience diversely even within the same racial group. In my study, I address how a variety of Asian American women differently engage in and negotiate with the social discourse of racialized femininity and masculinity.

Scholars have discussed racial stereotypes as significant components of racialized desires. A few studies have pointed out the role played by "controlling images" in Asian American women's hypergamy with white men.5 Such images of Asian Americans include the commonly used "Madam Butterfly" theme in Hollywood films, in which Asian American women have been portrayed as "alluring, provocative, and mysterious as well as passive, yielding, and vulnerable."6 Images of Asian American women as overly feminine, exotic, and sexual—and of Asian American men as sexually undesirable—"uphold white masculine hegemony."7 Thus, the Asian American woman "is marrying 'up' (and therefore 'out' of) the racial/gender hierarchy in which white males occupy the superordinate position," and these women often perceive Asian American men as undesirable partners in romance.8


I conducted interviews in Austin, Texas in 2000 and 2001, with fifteen racially mixed couples and twelve singles who had previously dated interracially. Nine out of the fifteen couples were married. The respondents' ages varied from early twenties to mid-sixties. All of the respondents were citizens or permanent residents of the United States. They included Filipino, Chinese, Korean, Japanese, and Cambodian Americans as well as white Americans. The sample did not include any biracial or multiracial Asian Americans or Asian Americans with non-heterosexual orientations.

The main purpose of this diverse ethnic and national sampling was to look at Asian Americans' different and complex engagements in racialized femininity. Mainstream society views Asian American women [End Page 28] as over-feminine and submissive. My aim is not to characterize different Asian American women's experiences as immutable or to impute fixed characteristics to "Asian" woman-ness. Rather, I want to examine the multiplicity and heterogeneity in these women's strategies for accommodating and resisting the hegemonic essentializing of "Asian" femininity.9

The justification for my considering the vastly different groups of women in my study as one category, "Asian and Asian American," is twofold. First, the white American men in my interviews displayed a general desire for Asian and Asian American women, rather than a specific desire, say, for first-generation Filipina American women or second-generation Chinese American women. Secondly, the focus of my study is the desire for certain white American masculinities among a very broad group of Asian and Asian American women. While I do consider differences between the various groups of women included in the study...


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