by Aneeta H
Mixed race relationships have long been a social ‘issue’ that has for better or worse been fodder for public debate. Two weeks ago, the BBC piloted the first of a 3 part documentary series entitled ‘Mixed Britannia’. It reveals what’s plugged to be the untold history of the mixed race community in Britain. George Alagiah, a Sri Lankan born Tamil who became a British citizen and news presenter, hosts it. Alagiah is married to a Caucasian woman and the program is refreshingly interleaved with personal anecdotes and reflections. Evidently, mixed race couples come in countless racial or ethnic permutations but the documentary, thus far, focuses on the experiences of British Caucasian women married to men of another race and the sorts of obstacles and social stigmas they have had to cope with and overcome.
Being a mixed race couple (but of ‘opposite’ pairing to those mainly featured in the program), my husband and I took a special interest in watching Mixed Britannia. The fact that I am from Singapore and he is English and we now live in the United Kingdom has been offering us new perspectives on the trials and tribulations of being an Asian woman married to a Caucasian man living in a ‘Western’ country. We were keen to compare notes with those couples sharing their stories in the program and understand the social history behind attitudes that the people in the UK have towards our relationship.
Our discussions thus far seem to suggest that while there are clearly some differences in the experiences of couples that comprise of the Asian man and Caucasian woman pairing and the Asian woman and Caucasian man pairing, what isn’t very different – nor very surprising – is the fact that a great deal of prejudice relating to mixed race coupling is more often than not targeted at the woman, regardless of whether she is Asian or Caucasian. And even less surprising is that it tends to take her sexuality as its point of contention.
Caucasian women married to Black or Asian men in the 1930s who were interviewed in Mixed Britannia claimed that they were commonly accused of sexual promiscuity; because they had chosen to marry ‘outside their own kind’, they were written off by their families, society and even the country, as ‘trollops’ or ‘prostitutes’ unworthy of British citizenship. While these sorts of accusations aren’t made as blatantly in this day and age, the attitudes still persist and manifest themselves in more nuanced forms of prejudice which continue to victimize women more than men.
To be clear, this prejudice doesn’t exist only in Britain; it affects all ‘permutations’ of mixed race couples everywhere, but our main focus was the fact that these days, it seems to happen more to Asian women partnering Caucasian men than to Caucasian women partnering Asian men.
From observation, personal experience and experiences shared by other Asian women coupled with Caucasian men, my husband and I came to the conclusion that the impressions, judgments, stigmas, stereotypes and difficulties that stem from the pairing of Asian women and Caucasian men, are generally the same regardless of where in the world – Asia or ‘The West’ – one finds this pairing.
To be blunt, but without wanting to over-generalize, many of the very first judgments, where there are specifically race related ones, are often about the Asian woman. She is usually thought to be socially, intellectually and financially inferior and therefore very likely to be an opportunist who uses her sexuality to ‘trap’ men. Either that or she is a strong but deceitful and domineering gold-digger.
Judgment of the Caucasian male partner sometimes follows. He is deemed either an unfortunate guileless soul spellbound by the exotic,wily ‘Dragon Lady’; a (secret) chauvinist; or an opportunistic but stupid sexual pervert.
There are certainly cases where it is true that Asian women look to acquire financial security or a ‘cushier’ life by marrying a Caucasian man. One need only spot a nubile young Asian thing in hot pants hanging off the arm of an aged, over-weight Caucasian to (sometimes rightly) jump to the conclusion that she’s using her youth, attractiveness and sexual wiles to make financial gains. The man needn’t even be ‘rich’ by ‘developed country’ standards because it will likely be the case that whatever he earns in Pounds or Euros is more than she could hope for, should she have married a young and handsome man from her village.
There is undoubtedly evidence from the thriving mail order bride industry that makes millions from providing men from ‘The West’ with women from ‘The East’ that these stereotypes aren’t conjured up from thin air. The fact that these ‘brides’ are from vastly different socio-economic backgrounds to their prospective husbands, and that the content of many of these sites is aimed at Caucasian men who clearly have preferences for women who pander to this time worn stereotype of the Asian woman as youthful, sexy and subservient, does suggest that there is a market primed for manipulation out there.
However, there are also many Asian women and Caucasian men, who, like ‘purely’ Asian and ‘purely’ ‘Caucasian couples, meet, fall in love and don’t treat each other like commodities. Yet, we gather that the instant impression of Asian women (and sometimes, their Caucasian partners) by far too many people (otherwise open-minded, educated and morally good people at that) is one of unsubstantiated suspicion or disrespectful dismissiveness and disregard.
Unfortunately, it is true that there’s a much stronger stigma (one that is arguably grounded in common experience and observation) for the nubile Asian girl and the aged paunchy Caucasian man to fight than there is for the more ‘matched’ mixed race couple. By ‘matched’, I mostly mean mixed race couples of similar age. But this is not to suggest that the latter have an easy time of it.
George Alagiah shares the response his wife Frances’ grandfather had when he heard about his granddaughter’s Sri Lankan boyfriend – “Is this Ala-what’s-it educated?” George and Frances were of similar age and George had studied politics at the University of Durham. It remains to be seen what the grandfather might have assumed had George been George Smith rather than Alagiah.
One might not be surprised to learn that many Caucasian parents and grandparents who first hear about their son or grandson’s Asian girlfriend instinctively assume that she is not as well educated, not as well-off and probably not very morally upright. They think it wise and discerning to ‘warn’ their son or grandson of the chance that girl may be a manipulative gold-digger and that he should be careful.
Likewise, there are Asian parents who might warn their daughters that Caucasian men take Asian brides because they want a subservient woman to do their bidding. Fortunately for me, the first thing my parents said when I told them about my Caucasian boyfriend (now husband) was, “You sound like you really like him, hopefully we’ll get to meet him soon”. It was similar to the sort of thing they had said when I told them about my ex-boyfriend – an Asian – and I would like to think it is because they saw beyond race and perhaps more importantly, trusted that they raised me well enough to make my own good judgments.
The gist of my gripe here is hardly new. To suggest that prejudice against Asian women who partner Caucasian men has existed for a while would be an understatement. The term ‘Dragon Lady’, for example, was coined in 1930 after it appeared in the comic strip Terry and the Pirates. Popular Western media has constantly played to this ‘Dragon Lady’ stereotype and other stereotypes of the Asian woman as hyper-sexual, cunning and deceitful or simple-minded and lacking self-respect.
The list of accused popular culture includes: Puccini’s Madame Butterfly; the film The World of Suzie Wong; musicals South Pacific and Miss Saigon; the TV series Ally McBeal, which featured the cold, fierce and over-sexualized dominatrix character Ling Woo; literary works such as Michel Houellebecq’s Platform about the Thai sex trade; Graham Greenes’ The Quiet American; W. Somerset Maugham’s short story The Letter, which portrays the Asian woman as ‘Dragon Lady’; Roland Meyer’s Saramani, Cambodian Dancer , which suggests that Asian women are Eve-like temptresses; and even paintings by Gauguin, which arguably ‘fetishize’ young Polynesian women.
Singaporeans would be familiar with the descriptor ‘Sarong Party Girl (SPG)’ – a derogatory term referring to Asian women partnering Caucasian men. Jim Aitchison and Theseus Chan popularized the term in a collection of ‘humorous’ books and the stereotype flourished in the 1970s after novels and films like Paul Theroux’s Saint Jack. The SPG is written off by many Singaporean men (and women) as a desperate gold digging, marriage-wrecking ‘siren’ sort who frequents nightclubs and bars that Caucasian men are known to patronize so that she can use her sexual prowess and cunning to snag them. As a point of note, there aren’t any popular terms used to describe Asian men who partner Caucasian women.
It is not just popular culture that is responsible though. History too, has had a part to play in solidifying the stereotypes and sustaining the preconceptions. The consequences of the colonization of ‘The East’ by ‘The West’ is an area that I am incredibly wary of venturing into in this article for the fact that it is the sort of topic people have written volumes of books about. Yet the fact that some of my husband’s ancestors would have colonized some of mine in the (long gone) days of yore remains true. At times, my husband and I have observed that the delicate socio-historical fabric of many of the once colonized Asian countries is treated roughly by the persistent attitudes of cultural, social, economic and political superiority and glorification that some of the older generation of ‘The West’ have yet to leave behind. Casual and careless comments at the mixed-race family dinner table about the ‘glory days’ of ‘The Empire’; or anecdotes that drag up examples of Asian subservience to Caucasians, while not necessarily racist, do show up some uncomfortable signs of possibly latent prejudice or at least (and at best) indefensible insensitivity.
In line with this, those familiar with Madame Butterfly might be aware of the phenomenon called ‘Pinkerton Syndrome’, which is the bias towards Caucasians by Asians based on the erroneous belief that Caucasians are superior to them. It is a phenomenon which is arguably a post-colonial effect. It wouldn’t be uncommon for Singaporeans and other Asians to quite automatically suspect and typecast an Asian woman who dates Caucasian men, and even such a woman’s family, as suffering from this syndrome.
On the other hand, comments by Asians that implicitly suggest that ‘Ang Mohs’ are necessarily pompous slave drivers who think they are entitled to take what they wish from Asia (including its women) is simply rude, presumptuous and callous. Furthermore, the idea of women as things to be ‘taken’ by men (Caucasian or otherwise) reeks of the sort of sexism that ironically, seems to transcend all racial and ethic boundaries.
The world has definitely come a long way from banning mixed race marriage or measuring the IQs of mixed race children in eugenics experiments. The sight of mixed race couples holding hands, kissing and supermarketing together with children in tow is so common in Singapore, London and just about every major city in the world that most people don’t normally pay attention to it. This doesn’t mean prejudice has faded into oblivion though. There are still many people who would say they have absolutely no issues with mixed race couples or children but they would prefer that their own children stick to their own race. The justification for this is varied but a concern often raised is “It will make their lives and those of their children harder.” Sadly, this comment only reveals that the acceptance and embracing of others regardless of race, creed or religion that is taken for granted as the norm in this day and age is at best a veneer; and as a society, we still have a long way to go in terms of genuine race and colour blindness.
I have essentially raised two issues in this article – one of inherent racial prejudice and the other, of particular prejudice against the women in mixed relationships – both of which I feel are tightly connected and at least in the case of mixed race relationships, feed dangerously off each other. The fact that people seem to rebuke the women in mixed race relationships more than the men is a sad indication that apart from racial discrimination tied to mixed race relationships, women who genuinely fall in love with men outside their race have to fight that much harder against sexual prejudice and preconceptions as well. As Alagiah suggests in Mixed Britannia, these women – and perhaps even myself, for the simple reason that I fell in love with a ‘white’ man – are nothing short of heroines.
You can watch Mixed Britannia on BBC at www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/b015qms8/Mixed_Britannia_19101939/
Aneeta H is an architect. Her biggest regret is not eating the Boat Quay Bak Chor Mee on her last trip back to Singapore.