Kellie Chauvin and a history of Asian women being judged for whom they marry

Remarks about the Chauvins' interracial marriage come from historical emasculation of Asian men and fetishization of Asian women, experts say.

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By Kimmy Yam

As more details around the death of George Floyd are revealed, other developments, including that the ex-officer charged with murder in the case was married to a Hmong American woman, have prompted discussion. It's also led to a spate of hateful online remarks in the Asian American community around interracial relationships.

The ex-officer, Derek Chauvin, was fired the day after Floyd's death and now faces murder and manslaughter charges. The day after his arrest last month, his wife, Kellie, filed for divorce, citing "an irretrievable breakdown" in the marriage. She also indicated her intention to change her name.

Kellie Chauvin in 2018 when she was vying for the title of Mrs. Minnesota America.Jean Pieri / Pioneer Press via AP file

The Chauvins’ interracial marriage has stirred up strong feelings toward Kellie Chauvin among many, including Asian American men, over her relationship with a white man, including accusations of self-loathing and complicity with white supremacy.

Some on the internet have labeled her a “self-hating Asian.” Others have concluded her marriage was a tool to gain social standing in the U.S., and several social media users on Asian American message boards dominated by men have dubbed her a “Lu,” a slang term often used to describe Asian women who are in relationships with white men as a form of white worship.

Many experts feel the reaction is symptomatic of attitudes that many in the community, especially certain men, have held toward women in interracial relationships, particularly with white men. It’s the unfortunate result of a complicated, layered web spun from the historical emasculation of Asian men, fetishization of Asian women and the collision of sexism and racism in the U.S.

Sung Yeon Choimorrow, executive director of the nonprofit National Asian Pacific American Women's Forum, told NBC Asian America that by passing judgment on Asian women's interracial relationships without context or details essentially removes their independence.

“The assumption is that an Asian woman who is married to a white man, she's living some sort of stereotype of a submissive Asian woman, who’s internalizing racism and wanting to be white or being closer to white or whatever,” she said.

That belief, Choimorrow added, “just goes with the whole idea that somehow we don't have a right to live our lives the way we want to.”

Little about the Chauvins’ marriage has been revealed to the public. Kellie, who came to the U.S. as a refugee, mentioned a few details in a 2018 interview with The Twin Cities Pioneer Press before becoming United States Of America's Mrs. Minnesota. She explained she had previously been in an arranged marriage in which she endured domestic abuse. She met Chauvin while she was working in the emergency room of Hennepin County Medical Center in Minneapolis.

Kellie Chauvin is hardly the only Asian woman who has been the target of these comments. In 2018, “Fresh Off the Boat” actress Constance Wu opened up about the anger she received from Asian men — specifically “MRAsians,” an Asian American play on the term “men’s rights activists" — for having dated a white man. Wu, who also starred in the culturally influential Asian American rom-com “Crazy Rich Asians,” was included in a widely circulated meme that, in part, attacked the female cast members for relationships with white men.

Experts pointed out that the underlying rhetoric isn’t confined to message boards or solely the darker corners of the internet. It’s rife throughout Asian American communities, and Asian women have long endured judgment and harassment for their relationship choices. Choimorrow notes it’s become a sort of "locker room talk" among many men in the racial group.

"It's not [just] incel, Reddit conversations,” Choimorrow said. “I'm hearing this amongst people daily.”

But sociologist Nancy Wang Yuen, a scholar focused on Asian American media representation, pointed out that the origins of such anger have some validity. The roots lie in the emasculation of Asian American men, a practice whose history dates back to the 1800s and early 1900s in what is referred to today as the “bachelor society,” Yuen said. That time period marked some of the first waves of immigration from Asia to the U.S. as Chinese workers were recruited to build the transcontinental railroad. One of the preliminary immigrant groups of Filipinos, dubbed the “manong generation,” also arrived in the country a few decades later.

While Asian men made their way stateside, women largely remained in Asia. Yuen noted that simultaneously, limits on Asian female immigration were instituted via the Page Act of 1875, which banned the importation of women “for the purpose of prostitution.” According to research published in The Modern American, the legislation may have been meant to cut off prostitution, but it was often weaponized to keep any Asian woman from entering the country, as it granted immigration officers the authority to determine whether a woman was of “high moral character.”

Moreover, antimiscegenation laws, or bans on interracial unions, kept Asian men from marrying other races, Yuen noted. It wasn’t until the 1967 case, Loving v. Virginia, that such legislation was declared unconstitutional.

“Americans thought of [Asian men] as emasculated,” she said. “They’re not perceived as virile because there’s no women. Because of immigration laws, there was a whole bachelor society … and so you have all these different kinds of Asian men in the United States who did not have partners.”

As the image of Asian men was once, in part, the architecture of racist legislation, the sexless, undesirable trope was further confirmed by Hollywood depictions of the race. Even heartthrob Japanese actor Sessue Hayakawa, who did experience appeal from white women, was used to show Asian men as sexual threats during a period of rising anti-Japanese sentiment.

Often, these portrayals of both men and women evolved with war, Yuen added. For example, the sexualization of Asian women on screen was heightened after the Vietnam War due to prostitution and sex trafficking that American military men often took part in. Stanley Kubrick’s 1987 film “Full Metal Jacket” infamously perpetuates the stereotype of women as sexual deviants with a scene featuring a Vietnamese sex worker exclaiming, “Me so horny.”

Asian women were seen as "the spoils of war and Asian men were seen as threats,” she said. “So always seeing them as either an enemy to be conquered or an enemy to be feared, all that has to do with the stereotypes of Asian men and women.”

Yuen is quick to point out that Asian women, who possessed very little decision-making power throughout U.S. history, were neither behind the legislation nor the narratives in the American entertainment industry.

The historical emasculation of Asian men stings to this day. A study from OkCupid found that Asian men were ranked least desirable among all demographics. Another study found that the majority of its Asian American female respondents reported their attraction, from a young age, was overwhelmingly to European American boys.

Pawan Dhingra, a sociologist and a professor of American studies at Amherst College, said this is in part due to the fact that Asian American women were not only consumers of Western media that perpetuated such stereotypes about Asian men while romanticizing the sensitive, “masculine” white man, they also internalized some cultural baggage from the often-patriarchal societies of their heritages.

“It comes from a set of assumptions we internalize ourselves. We see immigrant parents, or relationships between men and women in the homeland, that might be more traditional gender roles,” Dhingra said. “We assume that it applies to all people of our background, even no matter where they grew up.”

However, directing anger toward Asian women for their interracial relationships uncovers a host of problematic underlying beliefs, experts said. Some of the vitriol stems from erroneous assumptions that because women are seen as more sexually desirable, they are therefore more privileged. Anthony Ocampo — a sociologist who focuses on race, immigration and LGBTQ issues — bluntly referred to that particular argument as “unbelievably stupid.”

“Privilege is the ability to navigate the social world and experience social mobility without your identity hampering your journey. In what world do you see Asian women getting frontrunners for public office, being tapped to be CEOs of companies, to be considered for leads in Hollywood movies?” the scholar said. “Sure, Asian men aren't being tapped for these opportunities either, but Asian women aren't the problem — white gatekeepers are.”

Moreover, Choimorrow said the idea that Asian women are more privileged ignores the dangerous byproducts of their fetishization. This includes not only the dehumanization of these women, but also the susceptibility to harassment and violence due to the submissive stereotype.

From "21 to 55 percent of Asian women in the U.S. report experiencing intimate physical and/or sexual violence during their lifetime," the Asian Pacific Institute on Gender-Based Violence reported. The range is based on a compilation of studies of disaggregated samples of Asian ethnicities in local communities. The National Sexual Violence Resource Center reported that about 1 in 5 women in the U.S. overall have experienced completed or attempted rape during her lifetime.

“I just hate this whole Olympics of the oppressed,” Choimorrow said. “I just think it’s such a short-sighted approach. Dude, you don't walk out every day worrying about your physical safety. For women, that’s exactly what we worry about when we walk out our door.”

Yuen echoed her thoughts, adding, “Just because Asian women don't share the same kinds of challenges as Asian men doesn't mean that they should be held to a different standard or at their struggle within the racial sexual politics of the United States. It isn’t any less valid.”

Dhingra also acknowledged that there lies a double standard when it comes to Asian women, leading the group to be judged more harshly than their male peers. He explained that it comes down to a uniquely racialized brand of sexism. Being in relationships with other Asian Americans has been seen as a sort of litmus test for how “committed” one is to the race. Additionally, because of the existing stereotype of Asian women as submissive, particularly to white men, the sight of an Asian woman in an interracial relationship can trigger the idea that she is perpetuating existing stereotypes. He explained that there’s a perception that Asian women are reproducing racism toward Asian men and affirming the idea that they’re not worth dating.

He said the collision of sexism and racism has made it so that there’s a stricter, more unfair dynamic placed on Asian American women.

The burden placed on Asian American women to date within their own race also presents another problematic idea: that women are still thought of as property, Choimorrow noted. It’s just another form of toxic masculinity, she said, as the expectation that Asian women date Asian men means there is no agency in their dating choices. It’s a mentality that has been inherited through our heritages, she said.

“Even in Korea, as a woman, your value isn't so much as you are marriageable,” she said. “So many of our cultures have these things very deeply ingrained in the way we value and think about women.”

Little has changed, Choimorrow believes. Even as many Asian Americans continue to fight for racial justice, some ideas have been slow to evolve.

“Especially in the progressive circles, they're focused on their oppression as a racial minority, that they often don't think about what they're perpetuating as men,” she said.

The undue pressure toward Asian American women to “fix” the existing structures is not productive in helping mend the reductive perceptions of Asian men, Ocampo said.

Simply put, “You don't need to subjugate women, including Asian women, to feel sexy. That's just f------ lame.”

Dhingra is adamant that no assumptions should be made about any couple’s racial dynamic, particularly if there’s no personal connection to the couple. But he also emphasized that people need to push back on the perpetuation of the problematic ideas in society that devalue Asian Americans while upholding whiteness.

Ocampo had similar thoughts, explaining that more people should be demanding more complicated Asian male characters on screen, rather than those who fit “some perfectly chiseled IG model aesthetic,” he said, referencing carefully curated photos from models on Instagram.

While there are many social reasons for why we value whiteness that Dhingra said are “pretty messed up,” Asian Americans should seek to dismantle them and thus “get to the point where we have more confidence when people do form interracial relationships, because we actually care about that particular individual as a person.”

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