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The Backlash Against Sunisa Lee’s Interracial Relationship Is All Too Familiar to Asian Women

Increasingly emboldened MRAsians, or "men's rights Asians," have long targeted Asian women who date non-Asian men as the no. 1 perpetrators of anti-Asian racism

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Screenshot: @sunisalee/Instagram

Sunisa Lee, a Hmong-American, Olympic gold medalist gymnast, and Auburn University freshman, is in a relationship, and a lot of people have taken it upon themselves to have opinions about this. For any woman of color, and certainly for Asian women, it’s not hard to guess why: Lee is in an interracial relationship with Jaylin Smith, who is Black and a fellow student athlete at USC. 

At the end of December, Lee posted photos of the couple on her Instagram, which was met with a deluge of hateful comments. Lee turned off comments on the post, and when a fan posted a TikTok video in support of Lee, writing, “I know that Sunisa will be judged by certain eyes in the Hmong Community because her man is Black. LOVE is LOVE, no matter what race or gender you are,” Lee responded with the comment, “This makes me so happy. I’ve received so much hate [crying emoji] They support me when it’s beneficial for them never when it comes to my happiness. Thank you!”

As Lee’s reply implies, much of the “hate” she’s received comes from her own community. Many Asian women are accused, often by Asian men, of “hating themselves” or being “race traitors” if they’re partnered with non-Asian men. Some of the leading perpetrators of this racist, sexist harassment are the increasingly vocal “MRAsians,” or “men’s rights Asians,” who primarily convene in Asian identity Reddit threads. They purport to fight back against the very real issue of anti-Asian racism, but more often than not, that entails bullying Asian women for allegedly choosing white men or non-Asian men over them. Many users on the astoundingly toxic r/AsianMasculinity Reddit are already lashing out at Lee for her reply to the TikTok video, parroting familiar MRAsian talking points about Asian women’s supposed failure to support Asian men.

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How MRAsians Attack Asian Women and Non-Binary People

Eileen Huang, a popular digital organizer, educator, and TikToker on AAPI issues, and a junior at Yale, has been the subject of significant online harassment campaigns from MRAsians. Huang’s writing and other social media posts, which often focus on anti-Asian racism, anti-imperialism, and anti-Blackness within Asian communities, began going viral in 2020. Huang, who is non-binary, said they learned about MRAsians when they started to “harass, dox, send rape and sexual violence threats,” and led other online campaigns to intimidate and “psychologically torture” Huang.

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“They wouldn’t really engage with my arguments, or the work and advocacy I was doing,” Huang told Jezebel. “The first thing I saw was them screenshotting pictures of me with white people, or friends or ex-partners, and they would be like, ‘Oh, look at her, how can you complain about white supremacy when you sleep with white men or want to sleep with them?’” The screenshots wound up on fake Instagram pages impersonating Huang, and on Asian identity Reddit threads where Huang’s harassers convened.

MRAsians make this argument against seemingly every Asian woman or non-binary person they come across, regardless of whether there’s a white boyfriend in their photos, Huang said, because “in reality it doesn’t even matter who an Asian woman dates—if you provoke MRAsians, that’s how they’ll attack you.”

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I, too, have been among the ranks of Asian women and non-binary people assigned an imaginary white boyfriend by MRAsians. Last summer, shortly after I wrote an article questioning why Shang-Chi was the protagonist of Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings when his sister was objectively cooler in every way, the article was shared in an MRAsian TikTok video that went viral, and my online accounts were flooded with very specific, targeted, and graphic messages insisting I was a “white man’s whore,” and that I had a white boyfriend I somehow didn’t know existed. (Though, Sebastian Stan, if you’re reading this, that could be you!) The experience was uncomfortable and initially confusing for me, prompting me to temporarily put my social media accounts on private and turn off all comments and message requests as I tried to comb through my posts for anything that might have signaled to my harassers that I was secretly, shamefully hiding a white boyfriend.

Sunisa Lee does not have a fake white boyfriend. But her relationship with her notably real Black boyfriend has drawn vitriol from MRAsian corners of the internet nonetheless. Huang said the backlash against Lee and her relationship is rooted in anti-Blackness that’s endemic among MRAsians, as well as many Asian communities in general. Like nearly every other aspect of MRAsians’ ideology, Huang believes this anti-Blackness comes at least in part from MRAsians’ insecurities about their desirability under white supremacy. “They’ll stereotype Black men as hyper-masculine and aggressive, and more sexually desirable, and that’s something they want,” they said, citing extensive commentary in MRAsian Reddit threads and social media. “They’ll tell themselves that the people who are perpetrating the most hatred toward Asians are Black people. They’ll overall just ignore white supremacy as the actual root of any of this.”

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MRAsians’ Misguided Fight Against White Supremacy

Huang said MRAsians “ignore” white supremacy, but many of them actually see themselves as fighting it by targeting and harassing Asian women—particularly those perceived to have non-Asian partners—because they see these two identities as a conjoined, singular evil.

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Jenn Fang, an Asian-American feminist activist who founded the popular Asian feminist blog Reappropriate in 2002, has similarly found herself on the receiving end of digital harassment campaigns from Asian men espousing the racist, sexist ideology of MRAsians. And like Huang, she’s found that her harassers see Asian feminists like her, rather than actual anti-Asian and white supremacist systems, as the oppressor.

According to Fang, MRAsians believe Asian men and Asian women “need to practice political authenticity through their personal lives, and their sex lives in particular,” because MRAsians see “Asian men as emasculated in American society.” This, she said, creates a responsibility for Asian women “to promote Asian men as worthy sex partners, which is Asian women’s most useful form of activism.” Any Asian woman who isn’t adequately wielding their sexuality on behalf of Asian men is thus “inauthentic,” a “sellout.”

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Last year, MRAsians seized an opportunity to became louder online as the rise of anti-Asian violence in the U.S. finally gained national attention. Mainstream media didn’t exactly make it hard for them: Coverage of anti-Asian racism rarely if ever considered the unique dimensions of oppression Asian women face under white supremacy and patriarchy, instead focusing on surface-level complaints from more privileged Asians that could be made digestible to white people on social media. Incidents of violence were framed as “violent attacks against individuals without any discussion about structural oppression, settler colonialism, military imperialism, patriarchy, ableism—any of these things that help us to understand social injustice as intersectional,” Fang said. According to Huang, coverage of the #StopAsianHate movement focused on Hollywood representation, or selectively fixated on “hate crimes” by Black and other people of color. This perpetuated racist tropes about Black-Asian conflict, and fueled harmful calls for more carceral responses.

Even after a fatal shooting in an Atlanta massage parlor perpetrated by a white man who called Asian women sexual “temptations” last March, legacy media coverage of anti-Asian racism often failed to contextualize the day-to-day, racialized misogyny Asian women face, and the routine violence that Asian sex workers or Asian people perceived to be sex workers experience. This resulted in a system-wide failure to investigate the violent fetishization of Asian feminine identity—which can be traced to hundreds of years of western imperialism and the sexual enslavement of colonized Asian women by the U.S. military—and how this has contributed to the victim-blaming and erasure of Asian sexual assault survivors.

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“About two-thirds of people reporting anti-Asian violence are women,” Fang said. “Yet, we’re not really having that conversation nationally, about who within the community is more vulnerable to the hateful rhetoric or the material harm associated with it.”

When media coverage of anti-Asian racism neglects to interrogate the heightened oppressions Asian women and non-binary people face, this allows MRAsians to harass them with little pushback. And they view their harassment as not just warranted, but as an act of resistance—to them, Asian women are more powerful than Asian men in American society, because of white men’s fetishization. MRAsians erroneously “conflate being sexually desirable to someone with agency and power,” Huang said, and consequently, the entire scope of what they perceive as anti-Asian oppression is that Asian women don’t automatically sleep with them because they’re Asian. This fact alone, rather than the persistent threat of physical violence for being Asian, or the increasing gentrification of marginalized Asian communities, “makes [Asian men] singularly the most oppressed people on the planet.”

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It’s worth noting MRAsians’ grand calculus of determining oppression vs. privilege within their communities at no point considers the possibility that MRAsians are rejected by women not because of their racial identities, but their insufferable whining and abusive behaviors.

The Shared Experiences of Asian Women and Non-Binary People

Huang’s criticisms of Asian communities for anti-Blackness and other problematic attitudes came at the same time as a rise in anti-Asian violence, making them particularly vulnerable to MRAsians’ retaliation. MRAsians plotted about how to “cancel” Huang on Reddit, contacted Yale, mass-reported Huang on Twitter to ultimately get their account suspended, and tried to get Huang fired from their internship. One Reddit user claimed Huang has “blood on her hands.” In MRAsians’ eyes, Huang, not institutionalized white supremacy, was the real enemy.

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These attacks, Huang said, helped them empathize with the very public backlash Sunisa Lee is facing.

Even before Lee’s relationship became Instagram official at the end of December, the champion gymnast has opened up about facing anti-Asian racism. In November, she told Popsugar that she and a group of Asian, female friends had been called racial slurs and were pepper-sprayed when they went out one night. “I didn’t do anything to them, and having the reputation, it’s so hard because I didn’t want to do anything that could get me into trouble. I just let it happen,” Lee recalled. Her experiences underscore how Asian women simultaneously experience anti-Asian racism from outside of their communities, and misogyny from within their communities.

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There are real and important ways that cisgender, straight Asian men are oppressed and wronged by white supremacy, which invalidates and punishes non-white expressions of masculinity. Being racist toward other people of color, or verbally assaulting Asian women—including noted Olympic gymnasts—with non-Asian partners merely fractures the solidarity that’s essential to dismantling dual white supremacist and patriarchal oppressions.

Eventually, the harassment I experienced after writing about Shang-Chi’s sister abated, and I took some comfort in commiserating with other Asian women working in media who shared similar, gross experiences. But until such time as the men behind MRAsian online harassment campaigns attempt self-reflection, or perhaps read a single text about race and gender, they’ll have to forgive me for choosing to spend my time with the imaginary white boyfriend they’ve assigned me over them.