Studies show that APAs have high “outmarriage” rates. But as always, there’s more to the story than just the headline.
By C.N. Le, Asian-Nation
One of the most public manifestations of race is the choice of one’s partner or spouse. This very individual and personal aspect can sometimes produce a lot of public discussion. Studies consistently show that Asian Americans have the highest “outmarriage” rates — marrying someone else outside of their own ethnic group. But as always, there’s more to the story than just the headline.
The Public and Private Sides of Ethnicity
Whether it’s dating or marrying someone of a different race, interracial relationships are not a new phenomenon among Asian Americans. When the first Filipino and Chinese workers came to the U.S. in the 1700 and 1800s, they were almost exclusively men. A few of them eventually married women in the U.S. who were not Asian. However, many people soon saw Asian intermarriage with Whites as a threat to American society. Therefore, anti-miscegenation laws were passed that prohibited Asians from marrying Whites.
History shows that these anti-miscegenation laws were very common in the U.S. The first such laws were passed in the 1600s to prevent freed Black slaves from marrying Whites. Not until 1967 did the U.S. Supreme Court rule that such laws were unconstitutional. At that time, 38 states in the U.S. had formal laws on their books that prohibited non-Whites from marrying Whites. As you can see, it’s only been in recent years that interracial marriages are relatively common in American society.
Of course, anti-miscegenation laws were part of a larger anti-Asian movement that eventually led to the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882 and other restrictive regulations. These laws actually made the situation worse because Asian men were no longer able to bring their wives over to the U.S. So in a way, those who wanted to become married had no other choice but to socialize with non-Asians. After World War II, however, the gender dynamics of this interracial process flip-flopped. U.S. servicemen who fought and were stationed overseas in Asian countries began coming home with Asian “war brides.” These Chinese, Japanese, Filipino, Korean, and Vietnamese women eventually played a role in developing the Asian American community by sponsoring their relatives to immigrate to the U.S.
These days, Asian Americans in interracial relationships are very common. One of the best research articles on this topic is a study conducted by Shinagawa and Pang entitled “Asian American Panethnicity and Intermarriage,” reprinted in the highly recommended Asian Americans: Experiences and Perspectives. Similar in structure to their study, I have analyzed national data from the Census 2000 Supplemental Survey to construct the following table, which updates the results from 1990 to 2000 and represents data from the entire U.S. and not just California. The table shows the percentage of six Asian ethnic groups who are married to either someone within their ethnic group, to another Asian (outside their ethnic group), or to someone who is White, Black, or Hispanic/Latino, by husbands and wives.
You should also note that because this research uses sample data, inherently there is a small degree of sampling error, which basically means that some of the proportions you see have a small margin of error. In other words, just because a proportion is listed as 0.0 (i.e., a Filipino husband and a Black wife, etc.) does not mean that there are zero examples of those marriages in the overall U.S. population.
Marriage Among Asian Americans
These are certainly a lot of numbers to consider. Basically, what these stats tell us is that among these six Asian American ethnic groups, among husbands, the groups that are most likely to intermarry with Whites are Filipinos and Japanese while among wives, it’s Japanese and Koreans. Although the numbers for intermarriage with Blacks and Hispanics/Latinos are low, Asians who are most likely to intermarry with Blacks are Japanese American husbands and Asian Indian wives, while Filipino Americans (husbands and wives) are most likely to intermarry with Hispanics/Latinos. Those who are most likely to marry within their own ethnic group are Vietnamese Americans (husbands and wives) while Japanese Americans (husbands and wives) are most likely to marry another Asian American (outside their own ethnic group).
These results can be considered in combination with the Shinagawa and Pang article, which points out that for all Asian ethnic groups and both husbands and wives, the percentage who are intermarrying with Whites has increased in recent decades, with the one exception of Japanese American wives. However, their study also finds that all Asian ethnic groups and husbands and wives are also more likely to marry another Asian (either within their own ethnic group or some other Asian ethnic group) than before, and that despite the increasing popularity of Asian intermarriage with Whites, the data show that these days Asian Americans are much more likely to marry another Asian than to marry a White person.
Nonetheless, intermarriage is making its mark in the Asian American community. The figure from the Census Bureau chart below reports that among the six major Asian American ethnic groups in 2000, Japanese Americans had the highest proportion of their total population that are in combination with at least one more Asian ethnic group (i.e., Japanese-Chinese) or with at least one other race (i.e., Japanese-White) at over 30%. Conversely, Vietnamese Americans have the lowest such rates, which makes sense because they are the most recently arrived Asian ethnic group and it is likely to take more time for them to become ‘maritally assimilated.’
Sociologists and psychologists like to ask why Asian Americans choose to intermarry with Whites. My research, in which I statistically analyze data from the 2000 Census, suggests that among Asian American men and with all other things being equal, those who are immigrants and those who live in a state where there are large Asian communities (i.e., CA, FL, HI, IL, NY, and TX) are less likely to intermarry with Whites than those who were born in the U.S. and those who live outside one of those six states. Also, Filipino Americans and Chinese Americans are also more likely to intermarry with Whites, again with all other things being equal. Further, Asian American men tho who turned 18 years of age in 1985 or later are also more likely to intermarry with Whites.
My statistical analysis also suggests that among Asian American women, similar to men, those who are immigrants, those who live in one of those six states with large Asian communities, and those who turned 18 in 1985 or later are more likely to have a White husband, all other things being equal. In addition, Asian American women of Chinese, Filipino, Korean, and Vietnamese ancestry, those who are homeowners, those who are paid employees (as opposed to owning their own business), and those who turned 18 from 1970-1984 are also more likely to intermarry with Whites. Again, these are only preliminary conclusions using statistical analysis.
More generally, sociologists have a few theories on why Asians marry Whites. One theory emphasizes that marrying a White person is the ultimate form of assimilation (see the article “Assimilation and Ethnic Identity” at Asian Nation) and signifies full acceptance by White society. Therefore, an Asian American may marry a White person because s/he (consciously or unconsciously) wants to be fully accepted in White society. However, to many people, this theory sounds rather condescending since it presumes that the only reason why an Asian American would marry a White would be to fulfill a need for acceptance.
nother related theory that may also sound a little patronizing is the belief that Asian Americans marry Whites to increase their social status, since Whites generally occupy the highest socio-cultural position in the U.S.’s racial hierarchy. In other words, even if a working-class Asian American marries another working-class White, her social status will still improve, compared to if she married someone else in her ethnic group or even another Asian.
True Love is a Two-Way Street
The other issue that comes into play here is how Asian women are frequently fetishized. Historically, it was very common for Asian women to be portrayed as docile, subservient, exotic, mysterious, and/or seductive. These images can be traced back to Chinese prostitutes who were “imported” into the U.S. back in the 1800s and through the prevalence of “war brides” (Asian women marrying U.S. military servicemen) after World War II. Many Asian Americans argue that this cultural stereotype or fetish of Asian women is a large reason why many males (particularly White males) are attracted to Asian women. In this sense, Asian women are not seen as equal partners but rather as sexual objects to be controlled and used by the male.
These critics point out that in most areas of popular American culture, rarely do you see the opposite happening — Asian males being the subjects of infatuation or sexual desire by White women. In fact, these critics would point out that Asian males have been and continue to be purposely portrayed as non-sexual martial arts experts, nerds and geeks, or evil villains, and that this portrayal serves to eliminate Asian males as potential rivals to White males for the affection of Asian women. These critics also note that it is the saddest irony when Asian women either allow themselves to be objectified and fetishized, or when they buy into and accept these demeaning portrayals of Asian men and eliminate them as potential partners.
As I mentioned, these theories and criticisms can sound rather one-sided. However painful or ingrating they may be, it is necessary for us to look at how both Asian American men and women can become the targets of objectification, and how this reinforces and perpetuates ethnic stereotypes against both. Fortunately, that is not always the story for many, even most interracial relationships. What these criticisms don’t mention is why Asian Americans sometimes marry within their ethnic group.
Sometimes, particularly for young Asian immigrant women, they are forced into marrying within their own ethnic group by family members and cultural traditions. They also don’t point out the traditional patriarchy and sexism that still exists among many Asian men and their expectations that Asian women are merely their possessions and must obey their every command. I may be wrong, but that type of thinking by males, whether they’re White, Asian, or whatever else, is not going to win the hearts of many women, Asian or otherwise.
The point is, dating and marriage decisions can be complicated but they don’t have to be. It’s hard enough to find a person with whom you are completely compatible. When you find that person, his/her race may be one consideration, but in the end I think most people would agree with me that love, a true appreciation of their similarities and differences, mutual respect, and genuine equality are the most important factors.