I’m a white guy who dates Asian girls—but I don’t have 'yellow fever'

Don't assume my partner is just a fetish.

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Complex Original

Image via Complex Original

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As a white kid growing up in a largely Chinese suburb of Toronto, I spent much of my time thinking about Asian girls.

They sat next to me in class, ate in our school’s cafeteria, and ran around the yard during recess, so my interest—especially as a horny, pubescent boy—wasn’t cause for concern. 

I first heard about “yellow fever” during elementary school after a few guys mentioned it. Back then, the term was shorthand for someone white who had a crush on someone Asian, and at our school, it applied to the girls as much as it did the boys.

I didn’t think much about yellow fever at the time, though, because my 12-year-old brain was a veritable encyclopedia of crude lingo. To me, it was just another form of teasing that I threw into my sizable trashcan of forgotten terms, lying dormant all these years—until now.

After spending half of my twenties living and working in Hong Kong and South Korea, I returned to North America last summer, at 30, with a reputation as a White Guy Who Dates Asian Girls. Friends are once again teasing me for having “yellow fever,” and as far as facts are concerned, I can’t argue with the designation: My current partner is Chinese-American, while my most recent ex-girlfriend is Vietnamese-Canadian. 

...to my ears, I’m being called a deviant. A sexual objectifier.

But it still bugs me. 

I can dismiss their playful ribbing the same way I dismissed most name-calling during elementary school—after all, there’s nothing wrong with dating women of Asian descent—but “yellow fever” isn’t an innocuous, empty label. To some, its subtext is heavily charged. Friends may just be having fun, but to my ears, I’m being called a deviant. A sexual objectifier.

Google “yellow fever,” and you’ll see that many Asian women have taken back the term to shame white men who fetishize them based on racial stereotypes. Such men believe all Asian women are docile and hypersexual, and happily project these qualities onto potential romantic partners. In other words, they prey on Asian women simply because they’re Asian.

But this essay isn’t about that type of yellow fever. It’s about me, remember?

While I’m sympathetic to the plight of Asian women who are exotified by awful white men, this new, zeitgeisty application of the term “yellow fever” hasn’t replaced the way it was used in my schoolyard all those years ago: as a catchall term for any white person who pursues any Asian person.

This is the same way my friends use it while teasing me now—they’re not accusing me of fetishizing my current or past girlfriends. On the contrary, I'm sure my friends see me as the educated, well-intentioned, liberal-minded guy I am. They’re just referencing that old childhood label I’m forced to wear as a white guy who happens to date Asian women more often than not.

The casual, schoolyard variant of “yellow fever”—currently Urban Dictionary’s top definition of the termis what I want to talk about.

So, let's talk about it.

Think for a second about what my friends are saying when they describe me as someone with yellow fever. They’re not saying I irrationally, compulsively, and obsessively fetishize my Asian partners; instead, they’re implying that I consider a woman’s race when dating. Maybe we all do and maybe it’s just part of our lengthy list of sexual preferences. I accept that.

But because of the negative connotations associated with yellow fever’s other, more troublesome definition, the label is disrespectful to every smart, funny, kind, beautiful, and wholly wonderful Asian women I’ve loved. It suggests that their race was more important to me than their other attributes.

When strangers and acquaintances casually accuse me of having yellow fever, it’s both personally insulting and racist towards my Asian partners. That’s because, one, they wouldn’t have doubted my feelings for these women had they been white, and two, they’re implying that these women date men who only value them for their skin color. The term, then, becomes a way to shame white men and Asian women for entering relationships with each other.

It’s one of the weirder forms of racism out there: an accusation of racism that is itself racist.

It’s one of the weirder forms of racism out there: an accusation of racism that is itself racist.

So, why is our default reaction to just shrug it off? Why is it okay for white guys who date Asian girls to regularly hear that they have yellow fever?

I’ll go even further, and suggest that shaming someone for their interracial relationship can actually encourage them to have racist thoughts. I’m guilty of this. Whenever someone teases me for having yellow fever, my knee-jerk reaction is to defend myself by rattling off my romantic resume, including all the non-Asian women I’ve dated or fooled around with (“Oh, come on, my girlfriend in college was white!”). My logic is that the greater the list’s diversity, the less it can be said that I have a racial fetish. But it’s the equivalent of standing on a mountaintop, and shouting: I date white women, too, you guys! I have a healthy attitude towards women and race!

Isn’t the reverse true, though? By accusing me of objectifying women based on their race, I felt compelled to do just that. Without hesitation, I categorized past partners along racial lines, and referenced a time when I’d also dated within my own race. I took the bait—and that’s shameful, too.

My frustrations with casual charges of yellow fever aren’t unique—I’m sure many of the points I’ve raised, here, also apply to other kinds of relationship-shaming. But I wrote this essay because the term is becoming more popular.

We should absolutely bring greater awareness to the ugly fetishization of Asian women, but by liberally using “yellow fever” to describe deviant behavior, it continues thriving as a loaded way to describe healthy interracial relationships. So, why not dump the term altogether?

Imagine: Fetishists are fetishists, racists are racists, and a White Guy Who Dates Asian Girls is exactly that. Can’t we leave everything else in the schoolyard?

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