Beyond Racial Bias: The Elephant in the Bedroom

Chye-Ling Huang and James Roque are two Asian millennial creatives, activists and best friends who’ve decided to confront the elephants in their bedrooms – why have they only dated Pākehā people? Naomii Seah sits down with them to chat about love, dating and unconscious bias as Asians in Aotearoa.

Posted on
13.03.22

The moment I heard the premise of Chye-Ling Huang and James Roque’s new podcast and mini-documentary series, The Elephant in the Bedroom, I was hooked.

Chye-Ling and James are the sort of Asian millennial creatives that I’d spent my breathless teenage years looking up to. They’re the founders of Proudly Asian Theatre. They’ve both carved out successful careers in the Aotearoa arts sector – James as a writer and comedian, and Chye-Ling as an actor, director and writer. As any Asian kid knows, a successful career in the arts is the ultimate rebellion, and that, in my eyes, makes them unspeakably cool. Both are verifiable giants in our arts landscape, so it was hard to imagine that both James and Chye-Ling might struggle with the same things as me – a penchant for Pākehā partners. 

But that’s exactly what the duo explores in their new series, which launched on Valentine’s Day 2022. It’s a question that’s uncomfortable and hugely confronting. Because, as it turns out, although the two have clout I can only dream of, we all live as Asians in Aotearoa. And that means living in – and having your whole life affected by – the cluster-fuck post-colonial nightmare that is racial politics in New Zealand. 

It was hard to imagine that both James and Chye-Ling might struggle with the same things as me – a penchant for Pākehā partners

And, as the two point out, when it comes to love and dating, people can often be dismissive of these questions. It’s not like I can control it. It’s just who I’m attracted to, someone might say. That’s what I told myself for a while, anyway.

And to a certain extent, maybe you can’t control attraction. But when I think back over my dating history – from my very first boyfriend, who told me his friends wanted to ‘try’ Asian women, like a new instant noodle flavour; to the boyfriend who made me feel bad about my favourite Asian snacks; to the countless people who tried to tell me about their Asian ex-girlfriends of a completely different ethnicity – I had to wonder why I had been chasing Pākehā partners in the first place. Why hadn’t I really been interested in BIPOC before? What was it about Pākehā that, no matter how badly I was treated by some random brunette dude with blue eyes, I always went back for more? 

So one Tuesday morning at 7am, I dragged myself in front of my laptop in pursuit of the truth. As I waited nervously for Chye-Ling and James to join the Zoom, I stared at myself in the grainy, 1-pixel quality of my laptop camera. Did I have a racial bias?

For a multisensory experience, watch the trailer and episodes while reading.

Naomii Seah: Okay I think that’s recording… hi, it’s so nice to meet you both! 

James Roque: Nice to meet you as well, thanks for talking to us about this. 

Chye-Ling Huang: James, your mic is so crispy; you’re so professional. 

JR: Does that sound alright? 

CLH: Did you just lower your voice an octave to sound a bit sexier? 

NS: [Laughter.] So to get started, can you guys tell me about the podcast?

Well, we both noticed this pattern ages ago, right? That us dating Pākehā was a thing

JR: Well, we both noticed this pattern ages ago, right? That us dating Pākehā was a thing. And it became a punchline for each of us to make fun of each other. We've always talked about wanting to make work out of it. But we weren't sure what format to do it in. 

CLH: I’ve explored race and dating in my work, across plays, and across little snippety things that I've made. And James has talked about race and dating in his comedy. But this project is really unique because podcast as a format, I think, has an inherent obligation to honesty. And although that's not true across all podcasts, for us, we were like, okay, here's a form where we can actually be honest, face it head-on. There's no narrative and no characters. It's just James and me, facing the elephant in the bedroom.

JR: [Bemused eye-roll.] Oh god. 

NS: Tell me about when you both realised that this was a pattern in your life.

JR: Well, I guess the question is, like, how many times do you need to do something to realise there's a repeating pattern? All my long-term relationships have been brunette women – brunette, Pākehā women from Christchurch. And that’s been a punch line that I've used for a long time – that my type is brown-haired white women from Christchurch.

CLH: It’s also James’s excuse as to why we’ve never dated! 

JR: No, that's… there were other reasons! But I've always had an eye on it. Maybe after I dated my second girlfriend who had that particular look, and then I went back through my casual dating history, and I was like, oh shit, everyone here is white

Then I started noticing patterns in the women that I'd be attracted to in film and on TV. And, this might be TMI, patterns in the porn that I watched. We talk about this in the podcast – there’s this issue of representation and what's deemed attractive, not only in the films and stuff that you watch but also in porn. I feel like people give themselves a pass when it comes to porn; they're like, that's just what gets me going, and so that's the keywords that I type in my search bar. But porn is a place where you can really notice patterns because you literally type in words. For me, it's been like a slow process of understanding and noticing this pattern and behaviour. What about you, Chye-Ling?

They said, “Oh, you definitely have a type. You date, like, white bird-men.” I was like, “What do you mean?” And they said, “You date tall white guys with big noses

CLH: Same for me. There was someone I was dating at Unitec. I broke up with that person because they cheated on me. My sweet rebound was a guy in the year above, and someone made this remark. They said, “Oh, you definitely have a type. You date, like, white bird-men.” I was like, “What do you mean?” And they said, “You date tall white guys with big noses. That is your type.” And I was so hyper-offended [laughter]. 

JR: That's pretty accurate! 

CLH: I guess I was so offended because it was entirely accurate. And I think the same thing happened to me. I didn’t know why I had that type. And this is the interesting question that the podcast poses: is having that type wrong? If you realise you have a type, like, oh, I mostly date funny guys, or I mostly date short women, or I really like people with confidence, like, are any of those bad? Is it bad that I like guys with big noses? Like, why do I like that? I'm not sure. 

But when it comes to the race part, I think that's a bit harder to ignore. By the time we made this podcast, I had gotten into an open relationship for the first time. And that gave me a chance to explore different dynamics. Having my first long-term queer relationship, and having an open relationship – it’s like once you've broken down one barrier, or one binary, and you realise you can be multitudes of things, it opened the door to question everything else. And this is a historical investigation for James and me. And it's been quite cathartic to face it head-on.

JR: That is 100% the question at the heart of the show. It's socially acceptable to have types like I date funny guys, or I date women who are a certain height, etc. And no one really bats an eyelid at that stuff. Everyone's like, well, that's fine. But I think the question of the show is: is it morally okay to have that type when it comes to race?

For us, what we found was that it starts to get really complicated, because race is often tied to social and systemic inequities. When those things intersect, you're dealing with a whole ‘nother layer of complication. 

That kind of sums up what the show is. It started as this question that’s like a bit of string hanging off a shirt, right? You tug at it a bit, and eventually you're fucking unravelling the whole thing. I wanted to call the show Sexy Worms, because it’s like a can of worms that you open and you can’t put it back. It’s just, like, a mess. You look at one aspect and go; oh, surely this will be simple and easy to distil down to one point. And then you do your research, and you find out that it's not simple at all. It’s connected to a thousand other things that are extremely complicated.

NS: Where do you think this type comes from for you guys personally? I guess I’ve spent a bit of time thinking about this as well. For me, if you look at any teen drama, it’s just white dudes with brown hair and blue eyes. Personally, I think I was always trying to date someone who looks like – oh my God – Matty Healy, the frontman for The 1975. Or Logan Lerman from The Perks of Being a Wallflower

Proximity – literally who you're around – is also complicated, because that comes from class divides and geopolitical lines drawn where people live. Ethnocentrism – sexual imprinting – is who you're taught to be attracted to, and who your first positive sexual influences are. Porn – that's a big one that I think solidifies your existing types. Socialisation in general and inherited racial trauma is another one. 

CLH: I have a list, actually! 

In the podcast we talk about influence – the media's influence on our types. Then there’s dating to assimilate to the dominant culture. Hypergamy is marrying or dating someone of a higher caste or social status to kind of, like, level up, which is connected to assimilation. Proximity – literally who you're around – is also complicated, because that comes from class divides and geopolitical lines drawn where people live. Ethnocentrism – sexual imprinting – is who you're taught to be attracted to, and who your first positive sexual influences are. Porn – that's a big one that I think solidifies your existing types. Socialisation in general and inherited racial trauma is another one. 

I definitely have overthought this a lot. But for me, I grew up really shy. So I surrounded myself with really confident, loud people because I wanted to be like those people – I was attracted to that quality that I didn't have. And most of the time, that was white boys. Loud-mouth white boys. I think, for me, that's where it started. Plus representation, because I remember having a massive crush on Wheeler, in Captain Planet. But yeah, I don't think it's proximity for me. There were plenty of brown and Asian guys, and other people of colour at my high schools. 

JR: The main theory for me is that I grew up in the Philippines before moving to New Zealand. And the Philippines has a strong ghost of colonisation still haunting it. There was, like, white worship in the Philippines; people would bleach their skin to be lighter. And when we moved to New Zealand, I became surrounded by people who looked like the ideal. The type had been drilled into me then, and when we moved, my family obviously didn't just forget all that stuff. It was ripe for it; I moved to a country that was abundant with the women I was taught to be attracted to. And so that, for me, is the biggest running theory. This hangover from colonisation. 

But what about you? What ethnicity are you, Naomii – if you don't mind me asking?

NS: I’m Malaysian Chinese!… You sound like the white boys I date [laughter]. 

JR: [Laughter] but, like, where are you really from? 

NS: Ha! But, yeah, I understand that; we have a long history of colonisation too. 

How do you guys feel about it going the other way? [Pākehā people dating minorities?]

Yeah. Especially white dudes with Asian fetishes. Fucking sort your shit out!

CLH: Well, that's the thing – no one's coming for white people if they're just dating white people, but it becomes weird when there’s a pattern of dating a certain minority. Or, if you're looking at people of colour, exclusively dating white people. That's to do with so many different dynamics, being the minority or majority and in other countries and different cultures. In the New Zealand context, where we've made the podcast, white people are seen as the norm or the majority. And [racial bias] becomes problematic because of that reason. I really want white people to consider their dating bias as well. I think it's just as important.

JR: Yeah. Especially white dudes with Asian fetishes. Fucking sort your shit out!

CLH: I think white people, more than anyone, really need to have a look at what they're up to. And it goes both ways. But I think that's why we made this podcast: because James and I feel an obligation and a pressure to think about these things. About our dynamic with race and racial bias because we are Asian, because we are Asian activists, and because we're creatives who dissect these ideas on the regular. There is an onus on people of colour to have these thoughts and conversations, and that onus should also be on white people because we can't be perpetuating the stuff without their input.

JR: We can't live in a world where you can do ‘colour-blind dating’, as long as systemic and social inequities exist. And that's something that we learned during the show – everything always comes back to the stratified white supremacist culture that we live in. It's the shitty surprise in the Kinder Surprises you open: oh, it's white supremacy again! And that's why I think this is a conversation that everyone should be having. Everyone should be ready to look at their dating history through a critical lens. Because I think you can only understand yourself better as a person.

In our second episode, I feel like there's a really big turning point for both of us. A friend goes: Asian people are obsessed with whether or not they should date an Asian person or a white person. Why aren't [they] asking: why don't I date brown people? Like, why are we always looking in that direction?

CLH: It’s a symptom, and the podcast reveals the problem. 

***

The next day, I sat down to listen to The Elephant in The Bedroom – and I didn’t stop listening to it until I had finished all five episodes, and it was dark outside. 

James and Chye-Ling were right: I do understand myself better now. The podcast is funny, empathetic, kind and intelligent. It made me think more about who I was, where I came from, what might have shaped me and what I could do about it. And although it was scary, examining my dating history felt like picking the scab off a wound that’s finally healing.

The Elephant in the Bedroom is essential listening for anyone who dates in Aotearoa and, indeed, in the 21st century. It turns out we might all have an elephant in the bedroom. But we don’t have to face it alone. 

This interview has been edited for clarity and conciseness.

The Elephant in the Bedroom, brought to you by RNZ, is available now on all podcast streaming services, including Apple Music, Spotify and Tahi. 

Feature image: Ankita Singh

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