“I’m Not a Bigot Because I Prefer a Certain Kind of Person”

Eddie Kim took on people who wrote “no Asians” on Tinder. Then he realized his own biases.

Aymann Ismail and a hand holding a phone with a dating app on the screen.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Tero Vesalainen/iStock/Getty Images Plus and Lisa Larson Walker.

Eddie Kim wasn’t prepared for the radio silence he faced as an Asian guy on Tinder. He had a “creeping sensation that it’s not just my bio, it’s not just my photos, but it’s my race.” He heard the same thing from a lot of Asian men—but he saw how Asian men evaluated women by race, too. Kim, a staff writer at Mel magazine, talked to Aymann Ismail about his experience on a recent episode of Man Up. They discussed the role of race in online dating and examined their own biases. A portion of their conversation, which has been edited and condensed for clarity, is below.

Aymann Ismail: So I, like you, started the whole Tinder thing late. I was on a monogamous streak for so much of my life where online dating, when it did come out, just wasn’t interesting to me. And when eventually I did start a profile—just for fun, ’cause I was curious—I started to recognize my own biases toward other people.

I would scroll past a Muslim woman. I’m Muslim, and my instinct would be to swipe left, to swipe no, because I felt a little bit of shame in having that religious connection. But I don’t know that person. I haven’t even exchanged words with this person, but I was still projecting this idea of the religious Muslim, the person who takes their religion very seriously, onto them. And after reading your piece, I felt like that wasn’t fair. And I’m starting to wonder how conscious people are of those biases that they might hold, and what’s a good way to make them aware of those biases?

Eddie Kim: I think we’re seeing it certainly in the political world right now, where people are confronting their biases—and often not doing a great job of that. And I think sex is even more charged because it’s so intimate. It’s so personal. A lot of the feedback—and, honestly, hate mail—that I got for that sexual racism article was “I’m not a bigot because I prefer a certain kind of person.” And I’m just like, all right, that’s cool. I’m not saying you’re a bigot per se.

But for myself, when I was going to USC, I probably started to exoticize blond white women. That was a demographic that wasn’t as prevalent in my school in Honolulu, and generally in Hawaii it’s not the dominant archetype. And here I am in Southern California on a campus full of white women. And my attraction toward that, that was a bias in and of itself, and I didn’t acknowledge it during college. I think I started acknowledging it afterward, when I started seeing a therapist, when I started being a little bit more introspective about why I prefer the things I do and what that says about me. And that’s the process that a lot of guys would benefit from, only because it’s just investigating blind spots. And I think if you can investigate all sorts of blind spots in your life, you become a more confident, well-rounded person. Even if it is insecurities that you’re looking into.

For me, I almost had an aversion to being another Asian guy with an Asian girl. There was something about that image, that very cliquey thing that I saw often in college within that community that I didn’t like. I wanted to “diversify,” I guess? But did that factor into your dating life at all at any point? Or was it really about the insecurity about religion, and tackling that with someone from your faith?

Ismail: Yeah, a constant fixture in my life was this desire to be a better Muslim. My ideas of how to practice my religion were very clearly prescribed. And if I wasn’t fulfilling all of the requirements, one of them being not dating or sexually interacting with anyone of the opposite sex—or the same sex, for that matter—then I wasn’t fulfilling that prescribed idea of who a Muslim was. And so I didn’t want to advertise that. I didn’t want to acknowledge that. And one of the ways that I did that was avoiding relationship or contact with Muslim women. I was thinking about that because of how you were describing people projecting these very messed-up stereotypes onto people. And even though I’ve had to reconcile stereotypes used against me—as a Muslim man, people see us as these overly aggressive, possessive, culturally inept men—I almost felt like I’m not innocent. I’ve done the same to Muslim women. So it almost made me curious.

But I’m also really interested in what you just said about white women. This idea of projecting your own ideals onto someone else, seeing them as the goal, the most ideal version of your partner. Where did those ideas come from? And I wonder if any of it is connected to your own insecurities toward how you may be perceived—or other Asian men specifically with other Asian women.

Kim: I was a rebellious teenager. And my parents were very kind to me, looking back at the whole process. But I do think about moments when my mom would sit me down and be like, “It would be great if you could marry a nice Korean girl, someone we can bring into the family.” Because my parents are assimilated, but their first language is still Korean. Their English is not super proficient even now, after a couple decades. And it was said with a wink—I didn’t grow up with parents who were really strict about “bring home a Korean girl.” But it was almost like this repeated joke that existed throughout my teenage years. And—credit to my parents—even they had to come around. I’ve never dated a Korean woman. They came around to my partners, just by understanding it’s about what makes me happy and fulfilled, not about what we expect as part of our family.

But even something like that—am I running from that demand from my parents at a young age toward whiteness? Is it because of going to USC and being surrounded by these idealized women? You look at the football team’s Song Girls. It’s just a cliché, ingrained within the culture. So I think of it in terms of my adolescence. I think of it in terms of maturity in my late teens, into my 20s. And when you look at sex stars and the most beautiful women that make People magazine’s list and things like that, it is about whiteness. You see it repeated over and over again. And I think that subconscious stimulus, just from culture, is enough to make anyone lured to it. I don’t mean to make it sound like a bad thing, but it can be a bad thing if we don’t think about why we ended up with the people that we ended up with.

And for me, I am in a great relationship with a partner who is white, who is blond. But she is so open-minded and so willing to have these conversations with me that it makes the whole thing just more fulfilling. As opposed to me being suspicious about my reasons or the cultural forces that brought me there.

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