Friday, February 3, 2012

"He looks good for an Asian."

A reader emailed me this question:

What do u think when ppl say things like, "he/she looks good for an Asian/black person"? Do u think it's offensive? It's like many ppl ive met in the usa think that whites look better than others, and some would say "you are pretty for a (black) girl". Why is this? I don't think they are racist. Just strongly favoring the Caucasian look. Which can't be helped and isn't their fault...but I find it sad and kind of disturbing.

This is a pretty common thing. I've heard these sorts of comments made about various races.
And yes, of course that's offensive. It doesn't mean they hate blacks/Asians/whatever, but they clearly have a perspective (whether conscious or not) that whites are naturally more attractive than others. The person saying might think it's a compliment, but it's an extremely backhanded one.
When someone says, for example:
"You are pretty for a black girl",
they are effectively saying:
"I believe black women are instrinsically quite ugly. However, you are not like the rest of them; you are actually quite pretty. Mind you, you are probably not as pretty as most white women, because white women are intrinsically prettier than black women. But, as that ugly race of black women go, you are one of the better ones."
So, no, it's not really a compliment.

I don't really have any problem with someone thinking such things - we all have our own preferences, after all - but to say it out loud not only makes the person look ignorant, but will probably offend people too.

The problem with "he/she looks good for an Asian/black person" -type comments is that it assumes some sort of objective measure of physical attractiveness. While good looks can be objectively measured to a certain extent, a significant element of what we find attractive is culturally defined. Which is to say, influenced by cultural values and prevailing trends. Some examples would be South Asians preferring light skin or black dudes liking women with "thick" figures". The ancient Chinese practice of foot-binding for women, or the practice of blackening women's teeth in medieval Japan, are examples of standards of beauty that exist in a specific context but seem downright bizarre today.

And the other extremely important aspect to attraction is of course personal taste. Two men growing up in the same cultural circumstances can have very different preferences. One may like brunettes, the other redheads. One may like curvy, busty women, the other may prefer a small and thin figure.

So to say that someone is or isn't attractive is not as straightforward as some might think. While it might be possible to speak on behalf of what you think other people might agree on, ultimately we can only speak of our personal opinions.

And even if the person who said "You are pretty for a black girl", instead said something more correct like, "I don't normally find black girls that attractive, but I find you to be very pretty", he would still sound like a bit of a jerk.

So if someone is good-looking and you need to comment on it, perhaps it's best to do so without the qualifier.  Stick with the "he's good looking" and leave out the "... for an Asian" part. It will just highlight your ignorance.

To paraphrase the theme song of an 80s sitcom:

"... the world don't move to the beat of just one drum... what might be hot to you may not be hot to some."


  1. I wrote on this subject also awhile back.

    I think that Asian men hear more of this kind of sentiment from others within the Asian-American community than they do from non-Asians.

  2. I've had this same comment said about me not too long ago. I had one woman who was a friend of a friend said the whole "You're pretty for an Asian girl" line. She even added, " You're eyes aren't so slitty" as if it was a compliment. I was taken aback by this, but I retorted, "Maybe I am pretty for an Asian girl, but I know that I'm prettier than you." lol!

  3. @ Ben:
    your post is on-point.

    @ Leigh:
    You are half-white, yeah? You could have also said that you are pretty for a white girl!

    1. @ES:

      I'm full Asian. I'm Filipino to be exact. Do I look half white? As for that snappy comeback, "You are pretty for a white girl", yes, I should've used it. Oh, well. I still put her in her place. :)

    2. Ya I knew Filipino, but not sure why I thought you had a white parent. From looking at the gravatar you use at Abagond's blog, you look a bit Eurasian, but that's just one small picture.

  4. Here's a "bigger" picture of my gravatar on Abagond's blog. I think I look full Asian, yes? :)