My little brother will turn 12 years old with the onset of the New Year.
Aside from making me feel weirdly old (because I can still remember how wrinkly and prune-faced he looked right after emerging from nine months of amniotic stasis — sorry, little dude, love you), this makes me worry a little.
Puberty, the gateway to adolescence (which involves fewer discoveries that are as thrilling but many that are just as miserable), presents its own set of already daunting challenges, especially for young men. He will learn how to navigate these on his own as his physicality, sexuality, and emotionality change with every additional candle on his birthday cake. Mom and Dad can no longer stand in the foreground as tirelessly as they have, constantly ready to rush in with a pair of training wheels when he begins to lose control.
However, what concerns me most is the racism that he will probably face as he grows older — not just as an Asian-American but specifically as a young Asian-American man who is preparing to come into his own.
Growing up as an Asian-American (or Asian-Canadian in America, to be technical) woman, I have had a different experience with racism than any of my male peers. Sociocultural standards afforded me certain leeway or privileges due to my gender (though they also pigeonholed or mistakenly essentialized me on the basis of my gender-race combination).
I hope that that my brother won’t have to deal with much racism — especially not for a while. After all, he’s just a kid. The most difficult discovery he should have to make for the next few years is how annoyed our parents will become when he (inevitably) breaks curfew (unless I’ve broken them in well enough). However, I can’t allow myself full optimism when this racism towards Asian-American males seems just as present as ever, institutional or internalized.
First, society pressures men into adopting traits that it has streamlined into what we consider masculine.
Are those who can’t polish off pitchers of beers and baskets of wings while watching NFL playoff games real men? What about those who choose not to lift weights or drink muscle milk by the gallon? Or those who keep the saliva inside their mouths during the Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show and choose to flip through Gertrude Stein texts rather than Kate Upton’s latest spread? The answers to these questions certainly seem to lean in one direction.
This skewed way in which we define masculinity warps our sense of what a “real” or “manly” man actually constitutes. That is a huge problem.
This is even worse for Asian-American men who suffer the fallout of negative stereotypes that portray them as weak or effeminate. It is not that they can’t or don’t embody any of the traits that we as a society typically associate with masculinity (I’m sure that many an Asian-American man has guzzled beer, gawked at Adriana Lima, or toned his lateral muscles like nobody’s business). It’s that — thanks to colonialism, cultural history, and what-have-you — we don’t think of them as “manly.”
Often, we mischaracterize Asian-American men as “nerds” whose intelligence makes up for what they lack in testosterone-infused oomph. We believe that these are men more capable of fixing our computers, spoon-feeding us the answers to our Calculus homework, or leveling through World of Warcraft than much else. For example, I recall an Asian-American boy I knew during high school who our classmates called “Samsung” — though the nickname may have come out of playfulness or lighthearted humor, it certainly played into these stereotypes.
Potentially, the most damaging part of this racism is how it causes Asian-American men to view themselves in terms of broader American culture. We glorify certain traits associated with masculinity. Because we believe that Asian-American men can’t or don’t possess these traits, we undervalue them in comparison to men of other races. Consequently, many Asian-American men also undervalue themselves.
I don’t know how we as a society can combat this. I don’t know what would be the easiest solution for us. However, I hold my breath and hope that more forthright discourse and education will mitigate the stereotypes that seem so deeply ingrained into our sociocultural perspective. I hope that we will learn to view and treat Asian-American men with the respect they deserve — that we should afford to all minority groups.
As for my brother, I’m just going to cross my fingers and pray to the gods of puberty that he has a relatively easy time navigating and managing any pressures or racism he might face.
I hope he’ll be okay.
For now, I’m just excited to go home for the holidays to celebrate his big birthday and watch him score some touchdowns as one of the leading quarterbacks in his peewee football league.