Over the last week, New Zealand singer Lorde has been the subject of racist cyber-bullying on Twitter after a photo of the 17-year-old singer and her boyfriend, James Lowe, was posted to social media. Odd Future rapper Tyler, the Creator Instagrammed a picture of the couple with the caption "Hhahahahahah." Lorde quickly dismissed his mockery, responding: "Was this supposed to make me feel something?" Tyler, the Creator then shot back: "NOT AT ALL, IT MADE ME LAUGH."
What could be so funny about Lorde's boyfriend? Judging from social media, the problem is that he's Asian.
After the controversial hip-hop artist's comments hit the Web, fans of One Direction and Justin Bieber joined in mocking Lowe on Twitter and Instagram. Their motivation? An unfounded rumor that Lorde called those artists "ugly." For the fans, criticizing Lorde's boyfriend's appearance has provided a means of retaliation.
Although it might just look like another case of ordinary teen cyber-bullying, this backlash is also indicative of the lingering stigma against dating Asian men, fueled by prejudice and racial stereotyping.
Typical comments called Lowe a "Chinese sort of Ostrich boyfriend" or a "ching chong boyfriend," comparing him to Mao Tse-tung and Long Duk Dong from "Sixteen Candles." One Twitter user quipped, "Come back to us when your boyfriend doesn't look like PSY gone wrong." Others left remarks hitting below the belt, as it were.
In an item for Jezebel, Lindy West argued that it's not just that James Lowe is ugly; it's that their relationship violates the norms of what we expect from dating -- and what types of people we consider attractive.
"Our culture has a lot of social and literal capital tied up in the idea that conventional physical beauty is the defining factor in successful relationships," West wrote. "When couples like Lorde and Lowe violate that tacit social contract (by, you know, just liking each other a lot while being slightly different amounts of 'hot'), the response is usually swift, bewildered, and thick with disgust. Even the tweets that don't specifically mention Lowe's race, I suspect, are at least partially driven by our culture's nasty stereotyping of Asian men as unsexy and sexless."
For C.N. Le, a sociology professor at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, "this is due to pervasive cultural stereotypes" about Asian American men -- that they are "nerdy ... or not masculine enough." As Le explained during a WBEZ interview in 2012, these biases create a "cultural penalty" in the dating world, one with quantifiable costs.
"In crunching the numbers," Le said, "[researchers] found on an aggregate level, Latino men have to make something like $70,000 more than a comparable white man for a white women to be open to dating them." With African American men, that figure shoots up to $120,000, and for Asian men, it's even higher: $250,000.
PolicyMic's Justin Chan argued that the cards are thus stacked against Asian men, too often considered "undateable."
"A 2007 study conducted by researchers at Columbia University, which surveyed a group of over 400 students who participated orchestrated 'speed dating' sessions, showed that African American and white women said 'yes' 65% less often to the prospect of dating Asian men in comparison to men of their own race, while Hispanic women said yes 50% less frequently," Chan explained.
Surveys from PolicyMic and OKCupid support Chan's assertion that racism is alive and well in the dating world; this can have particularly harmful consequences for the ethnic and racial minorities who face these daily prejudices. This isn't just about preferences, Marc Ambinder writes in an article for the Week. "This is real racism, blatant and banal, casual and even comfortable," he argues.
Ambinder called dating "the last racial taboo," and it won't be solved just by communicating with mates of other ethnicities and backgrounds. As the Guardian's Bim Adewunmi showed, online dating can be an outlet for racism itself. "More than one person has asked me if it's true 'what they say about black girls,' " Adewumni wrote. "Several have asked me: 'So where do you really come from?' "
Clearly we have a lot of issues to work out, and we can address them by starting a conversation on race rather than just dumping our prejudices onto other people. And we should be grateful for people like Lorde, who openly challenge how we look at dating by being unapologetic about who they love. For Asian men like James Lowe, it's a necessary reminder that they exist too.
[Update, 10:17 a.m., Dec. 12: C.N. Le's last name was mispelled as Lee in a previous version of this post.]