Yellow Fever

Desire is something that’s irrational, and often delusional.

Hitomi Nozoe in Giants and Toys (January, 1956)

Grace M. Cho is an associate professor of sociology, anthropology, and women’s studies at the City University of New York, College of Staten Island, and author of Haunting the Korean Diaspora: Shame, Secrecy, and the Forgotten War (Minnesota, 2008). Blending fiction, fantasy, autoethnography, psychoanalysis, and historical research, Cho’s book excavates the trauma memories of the over 1 million Korean women who provided sexual labor for U.S. military personnel during the Korean War. Following the so-called “forgotten war,” more than 100,000 women married GIs and moved to the U.S., becoming the first major wave of the Korean-American diaspora—a direct result of U.S. neocolonialism and militarism.

In the wake of #MeToo, mainstream media attention around structural sexual power inequalities continues to center white female narratives and largely ignore the legacy of modern American imperialism and the sexual labor of colonized subjects. Tracing the repressed history of physical and psychic violence between the U.S. and Korea may enable a new way of understanding—and remembering—the impact of the Korean War, and the “chemistry” between Korean women and white men.

How problematic is the concept of racial sexual fetishes? How much of the concept of a racial sexual fetish, and the act of calling it a “fetish” in the first place, is the result of underexamined power dynamics and histories? Is the designation “fetish” racist in itself?

GRACE M. CHO.— First of all, “fetish” is an anthropological term that refers to an object that’s imbued with some kind of mystical quality. Karl Marx famously described the commodity as a fetish, whose power is to make the social relations embedded in it invisible. So we could think of the idea of “the Asian fetish”—the symbolic representation of the sexualized Asian woman / feminized man—as having the power to make the histories of colonization embedded within it disappear.

You could take, for example, the history of American soldiers having commercial access to women in South Korea and Japan, or American tourists having access to sexual services in Thailand, for example, and reduce it to a personal preference for Asian women. Most non-Asian men who think Asian women are hot probably aren’t conscious of these geopolitical power relations in their dating lives. Yes, attraction is something very subjective, but there are also always historical residues acting on one’s unconscious within the subjective experience. You also have to question the larger forces that went into creating the opportunities for sexual contact in the first place.

Even if you take a seemingly neutral power dynamic of say, two graduate students at Harvard, in which there’s a Korean-American woman and a white man, the history of American military empire allowed the two of them to meet, because so much of the Korean diaspora in the U.S. came here through military sex workers who married American servicemen. Yet most people don’t see that in the interracial relationship, especially if both parties have some form of privilege or power. In general, we’ve been conditioned to not see those historical traces.

It’s interesting that you asked if the term “fetish” is racist in itself because the word, in the anthropological sense, came about through the colonial encounter. It’s a thoroughly Eurocentric term that degraded the spiritual and cultural beliefs of black and brown people. Indigenous people’s use of “fetish objects” was considered primitive, whereas Europeans’ use of “religious icons” was totally normal.

The concept of a racial fetish seems predicated on the hegemony of whiteness, with anything deviating from “white” being seen, by many, as a fetish—a white man with a history of dating only white woman does not seem to stand out as extraordinary, for example, while a white man who dates only Asian women, or many Asian women, is often seen (by both white and Asian people) as having a “fetish”…

I’ve heard people talk about racial fetishes among people of color, too, but it does seem to only be used to connote difference. I think it was Freud who popularized the idea of the sexual fetish, and for him it was based on sexual difference. It was all about the boy’s castration anxiety. In response to the trauma of discovering that his mother doesn’t have a penis, he fetishizes an object that will stand in for the missing phallus. I wonder if the psychoanalytic idea that the sexual fetish arises from this scene of discovering that you’re different from your love object is why the word “fetish” is used to describe cross-racial desire. Or maybe, as you say, it’s rooted in white hegemony so that white-on-white desire is illegible as a fetish.

The selective use of “fetish,” though, implies that certain preferences are normal or socially sanctioned, while others are deemed inappropriate, distasteful, even. Foot fetish, Asian fetish—conflating a racial “fetish” with something more “shameful” like a foot fetish feels in itself racist.

Although American/white culture seems especially prone to reappropriating other cultures—tiki torches, “tribal” Halloween costumes, white people with dreadlocks, etc.—assimilation into white American culture isn’t seen as appropriative. Again, with the implication that whiteness is the standard, the norm to strive towards, with everything else a deviation.

I am thinking also of the women in your book, your mother, mine . . . Women of the Korean diaspora who migrated to the U.S., often becoming the only Koreans in small, predominantly white towns where rapid assimilation to American culture (which was equated with whiteness) was understood as essential for surviving social, as well as literal, death. Can we even talk about “Asian women” as a category, especially in the context of this conversation, when their histories, cultures, and relationships to the U.S. are so varied?

Clearly it is problematic to lump all “Asian women” together, but if a fetish is based in fantasy, the exact ethnicity or national origin of the fetishized person is almost irrelevant. The person becomes a projection screen for the fantasy. I’ve heard people talk about how they have specific preferences for romantic partners of a particular ethnicity, and it might come from having had some contact with the culture, it might be because of a previous relationship that they’re trying to recreate, or it might come from some internalized fantasy image that they’ve gotten from the media.

In terms of geographical scope and the terms and language used, how do you think this discussion is best framed? How different would these questions be if they were situated in Europe, or within Asia, or anywhere else?

Some of the things we’ve been talking about are specific to the U.S., but I think more broadly, we’re talking about cross-racial and colonial/neocolonial desires. We could think about it in terms of Mary Louise Pratt’s idea of the contact zone—spaces that were born out of asymmetrical and sometimes violent power relations, where people have intimate encounters.

You could think about that idea in any part of the world. How, for example, do we think about a relationship between a South Korean man and a Thai woman, keeping in mind that South Korean companies have invested in the Thai sex trade? Or a South Korean man and a Filipina migrant woman who may have gone to South Korea as a mail-order bride or as a sex worker at a U.S. military base, now that very few Korean women work around the bases.

In our multiculti society, we like to feel all celebratory about diversity, but it’s important to remember the historical and structural violence that made us multicultural in the first place.

As a Korean woman raised mostly in the U.S., observing the patriarchal, sexist elements of Korean culture from a distance made me wary of dating Korean men, no matter how unfair that is…

I’ve heard this from other Korean-American women. In particular, I remember having a conversation with a friend in grad school who said that she couldn’t date Korean men because of having witnessed her father’s abuse of her mother. My response was that having grown up with a white American father, I was wary about dating white men. Although the level of physical violence in my childhood home was not as severe or persistent as in hers, my father had institutional power that my mother didn’t have, and as I grew into adulthood, I came to understand the ways in which he was complicit with the structural violence my mother suffered from.

We also have to consider the agency of Asian/Korean women in contemporary WMAF couplings; to reduce it solely to the will of white men is unfair and incorrect. So how much of the WMAF coupling is also the desire of Korean/Asian women desiring white men? Or self-loathing on the part of Asians or Asian Americans, feeling “less than” a white counterpart?

Absolutely, it’s flawed and reductive to say that Asian women are victims of white men. We are also desiring agents, and yes, some Asian women do consciously or unconsciously prefer white men for a variety of reasons, including the ones you’ve mentioned—rejection of one’s parents’ patriarchal culture or a wish to whiten oneself. This is emblematic of a historical legacy in which the West has always positioned itself as superior—stronger, more sophisticated, more progressive—while the rest of the world is backwards, feminized, in need of rescue. It reminds me of the Gayatri Spivak quote: “white men saving brown women from brown men.” Asian women have also internalized the colonizer’s logic.

Going back to the example of military prostitution in Korea, I think a lot of the women who ended up marrying American soldiers were acting out of desire, not just desperation, but the desire wasn’t necessarily for the man—it could have been for the opportunities that marrying him and moving to the U.S. represented. Is this an act of agency? Yes, it is. Does that mean that these women weren’t victims of structural violence? No. The two things are not mutually exclusive. As Saba Mahmood says, agency is the “capacity for action that specific relations of subordination create and enable.”

I also want to caution anyone observing a WMAF coupling against assuming that it’s because of a fetish or even a pattern on the part of either of the parties. The focus shouldn’t be on the individual choices but on the structures, histories, and unconscious forces that created these particular choices in the first place. We have to remember the ways in which our society is segregated—it often brings whites and Asians together in social spaces such as schools and workplaces.

This raises other questions that we probably don’t have time to address now, but they’re worth mentioning. Why do we find Asians so often grouped with whites, but not blacks and whites or blacks and Asians? Where do Asian men fit into all of this? The very same colonial forces we’ve been talking about have asexualized Asian men while hypersexualizing Asian women.

Absolutely—the sexualization of Asian women feels inextricable from the desexualization of Asian men.

The colonized or occupied country was always feminized, a kind of symbolic “castration” of Asian men. In Korea, where so many of the women were sex workers for the U.S. military, and where the South Korean military was subordinated to the United States, this sense of one’s masculinity being threatened was even more pronounced. In my work I’ve argued that this was one of the reasons for South Korea’s national hatred towards Korean women who worked around U.S. military bases.

In his essay “Notes on the Phantom,” Nicolas Abraham writes that traumatic loss, aka “phantom,” is “produced not so much by the original trauma as by the fact of its being kept hidden,” a concept which you expand upon in your book. In Haunting, you use multiple forms to develop a kind of writing that registers the “unassimilable of trauma,” the “nonnarrativizable,” and what you call a “diasporic vision.” Like trauma, racial sexual desire seems to elude straightforward rationalization.

Desire is definitely something that’s irrational, and often delusional. In the quote above, Abraham talks about how trauma registers in the unconscious, in the body, in ways that trouble rationality. So if we think about a racial fetish as something that’s rooted in historical trauma, or that carries forth traces of historical trauma, then we’re talking about the merging of desire and trauma. It’s doubly elusive.

To try to investigate concepts that we lack the language for, or to try to investigate such subjects within the strictures of academia must be challenging; are the limits of an academic approach the reason why you also pursue an art practice?

Yes, for sure. Ironically, I first found a space to do creative work within academia, as a grad student in sociology. I studied trauma and the unconscious with my adviser, Patricia Clough, and she encouraged me to experiment with my writing and research forms. To me, the study of trauma really lent itself to performance and creative writing precisely because of what cannot be explained, but only sensed, so I ended up combining that with scholarly research. Art allows you to communicate with an audience in a way that academic writing fails to do on its own.