I know it's not entirely shocking that there are racist people on Twitter. And neither is it entirely shocking that teenagers can be horrible, superficial and judgement at times. So we shouldn't be surprised when these things converge, but this particular case is interesting because it tells you a lot about the racist attitudes that are prevalent in our society about Asian men.
For those of you living under a rock that is impervious to popular music, Lorde is a white singer/songwriter from New Zealand who has made a big splash globally with smart electro-indie-pop songs that are smarter and better crafted than would normally be expected from one so young (she's just turned 17). Lorde also happens to be in a relationship, if a few photos that have leaked over Twitter would suggest, and her boyfriend is a slightly geeky looking Asian guy named James Lowe.
Normally one would think this a fairly unremarkable fact, but not so. A legion of One Direction and Justin Bieber fans took it upon themselves to unleash a torrent of tweets calling Lowe ugly and making the most unimaginative of racial put-downs. The stimulus for this was apparently Lorde referring to Bieber and 1D as "ugly", although there is no evidence for this actually happening. Rumour was enough. Below are just a selection of the many, many tweets on the subject.
Lorde I hate u and ur boyfriend is Asian
— kevin cochran (@kcochrann) December 12, 2013
@lordemusic your Boyfriend is an Asian fag!
— NIALL FOLLOW ME (@saschamuz) December 12, 2013
I'm not a fan if Bieber or 1D, but what the fuck ate you thinking Lorde? Your boyfriend looks like a retarded asian pedophile.
— Andrew Lee (@KingoftheGeeks1) December 11, 2013
Lorde says that Justin's ugly meanwhile her boyfriend looks like an Asian monkey😂😂😂😂😂😂
— Tatianaa Mariaaaa (@BieberVersace_) December 7, 2013
Lorde's boyfriend is so ugly and we can't say she is with him for the size of his dick because he is asian
— Zayn Malik (@fixmyheartl0uis) December 7, 2013
I still can't believe Lorde's boyfriend is Asian like girl u could do better
— swag (@nackina) October 22, 2013
lorde and her boyfriend should move to africa and have ugly asian babies together bYE
— worthless (@avonwithjustin) December 7, 2013
lorde has the nerve to call Justin ugly but her boyfriend looks like a deformed asian jackie chan tho
— Jackie. (@TheJackieBieber) December 7, 2013
I used to like lorde but idk how I feel now that her songs relate to her Asian boyfriend
— itspatbitch (@PLlamos) December 8, 2013
There are even some tweets that clearly mean well, and attack the racist bullying tweeters, yet display racist assumptions about the attractiveness of Asian men.
FUCKING TEENS THESE DAYS STOP HATTING ON LORDE'S BOYFRIEND GET OVER IT HE ASIAN OKAY BUT HE PROBABLY HAS A GOOD PERSONALITY.THINK ABOUT IT
— AngelicCatDesu (@Nathali48171011) December 11, 2013
Lorde' boyfriend is Asian, big fucking whoop. You don't always date someone because they are good looking ffs, get with it. #morons
— An† (@x_Scarab_x) December 5, 2013
Note the equivalence of "Asian" with "ugly" in those above tweets.
First of all, by the standards of regular people, James Lowe is not ugly. He's sort of nondescript looking, and doesn't look like someone who could successfully audition to be in One Direction. If you saw him on the street or in a social situation, outside the context of him dating a pop star, you wouldn't think he was ugly at all. All of which is probably irrelevant anyway, since ugly or not, it's just possible that he's a really cool nice guy who is interesting to talk to and knows how to treat a girl with respect. But it's not like those are important qualities in a relationship, right...?
I'm not going to claim that Asian males are the greatest victims of racism in the world, but they do suffer from a particular kind of racism. A great many people view them as incapable of being sexy or attractive, and assume that every Asian man is a maths nerd. In the US, African Americans face worse racism than Asians, yet there is no shortage of black athletes and entertainers portrayed as desirable - Beyonce, Denzel Washington, Tyson Beckford, to name but three. Where Asians are concerned, Asian women are quite often portrayed as desirable, although there is frequently a fetishistic aspect to this. Asian men just do not register on the radar of popular culture in terms of desirability. There are no Asian leading men on American TV. When an Asian-American man did blaze his own trail into national consciousness through sports - basketball star Jeremy Lin - the small-dick jokes were not far behind.
If you're thinking, "Yeah, but... Asian men just aren't all that hot", you are entitled to your opinion. But bear in mind that physical attraction has a great deal to do with cultural conditioning. Asian men are so invisible in popular culture that many people (such as many of the above) seem not even to have considered the idea that they might be date-worthy. By contrast, there are people in the world who might never have seen a white man in the flesh, but who could decide that white men are handsome based on the ubiquity of Brad Pitt or Justin Timberlake. Same goes for black Americans. If Westerners were constantly exposed to images of say, Godfrey Gao or Takeshi Kaneshiro or Johnny Tri Nguyen, there would be a huge change in perception. Sure, there are still a whole host of Asian guys out there whose physical appearance is underwhelming, but you could say the same about white guys too. No one has convinced me that Tom Hanks or Nicholas Cage are any better than average looking, yet they have played romantic leading men in countless movies.
By the way... since no one can actually find any evidence of Lorde calling either Justin Bieber or One Direction "ugly", it might be puzzling that the rumour could become so prevalent as to elicit this kind of response. But it's actually not so surprising. She has criticised some artists before, including Bieber, of whom she said in an interview: "I feel like the influences that are there in the industry for people my age, like Justin Bieber or whatever, are just maybe not a very real depiction of what it's like to be a young person." For the kind of fans who like Justin Bieber and his ilk, the physical attractiveness of pop stars is inseparable from whatever musical talents they have. No one got successful making teen pop without being conventionally attractive to some degree. So implying that Justin Bieber is not a very good artist may as well be the same as saying he is ugly, since his image is at the root of his appeal.
Bear in mind as well that the typical teenager is riddled with anxieties about their own appearance and how it compares with other people, so disparaging someone else for being "ugly" has a sort of cathartic effect, and enables the bully to feel a little better about his or herself by placing themselves slightly higher on the attractiveness hierarchy than someone else. I can't imagine it feels all that good for someone like James Lowe however, who has been vilified as an ugly freak by hundreds or strangers, all for the heinous crime of dating someone who happened to be famous.