Reddit and Instagram backlash highlights Asian masculinity movement’s toxic rise

Relationships are hard — especially when the public is fascinated by your every move. Such is the case with gymnast Sunisa Lee, an Olympic gold medalist and a freshman at Auburn University, who recently announced her new relationship status with Jaylin Smith, who is Black and plays football at USC. But an image of the couple on Instagram was met with so many hateful messages that Lee, who is Hmong American, had to turn off comments on the post.

Men’s Rights Asians, aka “MRAsians” (a play on Men’s Rights Activists), is a subculture that harasses and terrorizes anyone who threatens their masculinity.

Backlash to interracial relationships isn’t a new thing, nor is it a uniquely Hmong, or Asian thing. The criticism of Suni Lee was complicated, reflecting the multi-faceted stereotypes and sometimes contradictory concerns of the broader Asian American community. But at least some of her critics came from a particularly toxic movement in the Asian community. And the kind of racially tinged sexism they perpetuate is gaining visibly online as part of a vocal minority of Asian men who feel ownership of Asian women specifically.

Men’s Rights Asians, aka “MRAsians” (a play on Men’s Rights Activists), is a subculture that harasses and terrorizes anyone who threatens their masculinity — mainly Asian women (and nonbinary people). Actress Constance Wu, writer Celeste Ng and activist Eileen Huang have all spoken out about their experiences with MRAsian-led online harassment, which can include doxxing and even threats of violence.

Reddit especially has proven to be a fertile platform for these groups, with threads like r/AZNIdentity and r/AsianMasculinity, a subreddit of TheRedPill, attracting tens of thousands of followers.

Historically, Asian men in Western culture have had to deal with emasculating media portrayals and stereotypes that cast them as either perpetual foreigners or relentless nerds. These perceptions have created biases that affect Asian men in the workplace and even in their romantic lives. Their frustration is understandable. But instead of building solidarity with female peers — who must combat their own stereotypes imposed by white supremacy — MRAsians instead reinforce misogynistic views, weaponizing statistics against Asian women. One such argument is the idea that because Asian women have been historically objectified and fetishized, they have an advantage in society. In fact, Asian women have experienced nearly 70 percent of all anti-Asian hate crimes reported in 2020, and Asian women report high rates of sexual violence and intimate partner violence.

The 2021 Atlanta spa shooter — who killed eight people, including six women of Asian descent — blamed a “sex addiction” for his violence, furthering the hypersexualization of Asian women. But MRAsians equate sexual desirability with power. According to this warped view, Asian women who choose non-Asian partners undermine the agency of Asian men, furthering their emasculation and, consequently, upholding white supremacy. Taking this thought process a step further, Asian women who date outside their communities are “race traitors.”

Ironically, MRAsians glorify Asian male/white female relationships. Actor Steven Yeun, known for playing Glenn from “The Walking Dead,” was valorized as an inspirational sex symbol and considered “The Great Asian Hope” by some male Asian fans for his character’s relationship with a white woman. (The self-aware Yeun was confused by the praise, telling The New York Times, “It’s just so paper-thin — you’re asking Asian men to be validated by whiteness, and you’re basically saying that I can only feel like a man if I’m with a white woman, which is just a terrible thing to think.”)

The backlash to Suni Lee’s relationship also highlights a high level of anti-Blackness among MRAsians — as well as in other corners of the Asian community. MRAsian posts on Reddit have questioned whether the Black Lives Matters movement shifts the focus away from anti-Asian hate and inaccurately claimed that most perpetrators of Asian hate crimes are Black (studies indicate that three-quarters of attackers in recent anti-Asian hate crimes have been white.)

The backlash to Sunni Lee’s relationship also highlights a high level of anti-Blackness among MRAsians — as well as in other corners of the Asian community.

We never want to give incel or misogynist groups more clout than they deserve. And, of course, MRAsians are only a small subculture within the Asian community (even though MRAsians will likely claim “any attack on them is an attack on all Asian men”). And yet, I think it’s necessary to share how dangerous these views can be, and the hatred they represent. MRAsians are speaking out across many different online platforms now, presenting their toxic viewpoints on YouTube, in podcasts, and on TikTok, giving them a place in mainstream culture.

Social media is a great thing, but it can easily be weaponized. I know I’ll likely be hounded by faceless social media avatars for this piece; there will be assumptions made about my dating history and supposed love for white men, even though I’ve been with my Asian partner for more than a decade. I clearly have no issue with Asian men.

What I do have an issue with are men who feel ownership over women (or nonbinary persons), and the harassment these women suffer on social media because of it. According to Slate’s profile on MRAsians, the official r/aznidentity guidebook previously provided users tips for anonymous harassment on Twitter — before editing their rules three months ago to sound more inclusive. I’d like to believe that group has changed. I guess we’ll find out.

Like most men’s rights advocates, MRAsians also see Asian feminism as the vilification of Asian men. Not only do MRAsians attack Asian women dating outside of their race, they also oppose feminists who advocate for equal pay, reproductive rights, LGBTQ+ rights, and sex worker rights. MRAsians have threatened Asian feminists, causing a chilling effect. According to a Johns Hopkins University study on the problem, this effect enables the “political erasure of Asian American women through the normalization of online gendered violence.” In the long term, this hurts the advancement of Asian feminism and women in general.

Ultimately, there remains no clear solution for the friction between MRAsians and the Asian women. There will always be men who believe they’re the true victims, even as they openly harass and threaten us. We can only continue to call out MRAsians behavior and not allow these types of actions to be normalized in society.

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