‘Crazy Rich Asians’ Will Not Liberate Us

Delusions of Whiteness drove this author to reject the ‘model minority’ stereotype

Photo: Beowulf Sheehan

TThe term “Asian American” used to be radical. It was coined in 1968 by Berkeley students empowered by the Black Panthers and anti-imperialists. The national grassroots group Asian American Political Alliance was one of the first attempts to create an activist coalition of people previously defined as “Oriental” or by individual ethnicities.

In the 50 years that have passed, Asian Americans have become the fastest-growing demographic in the United States, comprising more than 20 million people across dozens of ethnic groups. But what it actually means to be Asian American is less clear than ever, as disaggregated data shows deep economic and social stratification between groups (eight of the 19 largest Asian groups had higher poverty rates compared to the U.S. average), exacerbated by the ever-widening gap between rich and poor. Yet, time and time again, we are told we’re next in line to be White.

Rebuffing this tidy “model minority” narrative is a new essay collection from writer Cathy Park Hong. Simmering with a white-hot, righteous, clarifying rage, Minor Feelings: An Asian American Reckoning is a dive into the psychological condition of being an Asian American and a necessary and urgent polemic against White supremacy, capitalism, and imperialism.

According to Hong, a professor at Rutgers University, Newark, and the poetry editor at the New Republic, minor feelings arise when the mainstream perception of your social standing contradicts your reality as a person of color. It’s cognitive dissonance characterized by stasis — more of a hum than a roar, but a form of racial trauma nonetheless.

“You are told, ‘Things are so much better,’ while you think, ‘Things are the same.’ You are told, ‘Asian Americans are so successful,’ while you feel like a failure,” she writes.

These feelings are inconvenient because they stand in stark contrast with the meritocratic myth that if you work harder, you will succeed. In reality, that belief — and that outcome — has always been connected to race.

“Whiteness has been ingrained in us since we were children,” Hong told ZORA in an interview. “Therefore, many Asian Americans still suffer from internalized racism that makes us equate happiness — and status — with proximity to Whiteness. We think that if we work hard enough and be good capitalists, we will finally find belonging.”

HHong’s radicalization came when she attended Oberlin College, where she balanced her studies of English and creative writing with close readings of Marx and Hegel, and later worked as a fact-checker and politics writer for the Village Voice and other publications during Mayor Rudy Giuliani’s term in New York. But it wasn’t until grad school at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop that Hong truly felt like a writer. Growing up, she didn’t know any poets who looked like her. “I didn’t think I had the permission to write, to be a poet,” she says.

Since then, Hong has garnered an impressive résumé, publishing three poetry collections and getting a Fulbright fellowship in South Korea, where she wrote about humanitarian issues and translated stories from North Korean refugees living in Seoul.

In 2014, Hong wrote an essay called “Delusions of Whiteness in the Avant-Garde,” in which she denounced racism in poetry and the idea that people of color can “casually slip in and out of identities like a video game avatar, when there are those who are consistently harassed, surveilled, profiled, or deported for whom they are.”

The essay, originally published in a small leftist journal called Lana Turner, went viral and sparked conversations even beyond the poetry world about the Eurocentric denunciation of “identity politics” in art. Afterward, she felt a stirring to do more. “I wasn’t finished writing,” she says. “I just felt I had more to say about institutional racism and the role of the artist.”

In “Minor Feelings,” the spiritual successor to the essay “Delusions of Whiteness,” Hong rejects palatability and the premise that America is the promised land.

The project morphed from a book of poetry to a novel about the 1992 Los Angeles riots, an event that stuck with her, though Hong didn’t witness it personally, having left her birthplace of Koreatown as a young child. It eventually became the essay collection it is today, through which she examines the riots in the context of anti-Black racism in Asian communities and how the state and overarching media narrative pitted Korean Americans and African Americans against each other.

In Minor Feelings, the spiritual successor to “Delusions of Whiteness,” Hong rejects palatability and the premise that America is the promised land. She shares stories of feeling ostracized by other Korean Americans girls in church camp, having to speak for her immigrant mother so adults wouldn’t condescend to her, and being forced to comfort a White friend after Hong was harassed and threatened on the subway for being Asian.

Through this book, Hong says, “I really wanted to write about the psychological effects of being defined in a way that is not your own reality, not just the lack of representation or what Asian American identity is.”

What weaves Hong’s seven essays together are her attempts to reconcile inner conflict. Whether she’s celebrating “bad English,” critiquing films like Moonrise Kingdom and Blade Runner 2049, or reflecting on the 1982 rape and murder of Korean American avant-garde artist Theresa Hak Kyung Cha, she probes the contradictions and uncertainties that exist within her convictions.

Since Hong’s college days, the traditionally White publishing world has become much more receptive to stories from people of color. The groundswell of novels, poetry collections, and memoirs from Asian American writers — including but not limited to R.O. Kwon, Mira Jacob, Celeste Ng, Cinelle Barnes, and Viet Thanh Nguyen — receiving mainstream recognition is long overdue. However, there are still challenges that come with having to translate your experiences and creative vision to an industry that retains a myopic perspective on identity. Sometimes that means stories get sanitized in order to fit in with the apolitical immigrant success story.

One of the most lauded Asian American writers today is Ocean Vuong, a poet whose 2019 debut novel, On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous, closely follows his own experiences as a Vietnamese American son of refugees. Hong points out in Minor Feelings that the press never fails to mention that Vuong didn’t learn to read until age 11 but frequently omits discussion of the queer themes that permeate his work.

This is the same issue that Alexander Chee ran into 20 years ago when he shopped around his proposal for Edinburgh, a tender coming-of-age novel about a queer Korean American who reckons with childhood sexual abuse. “They couldn’t figure out if it was an Asian American novel or what they call a gay novel,” Chee told GEN earlier this month.

Such nuance threatens the clear-cut, oft-celebrated narrative of the resilient immigrant prodigy that is hard to combat if there has been only one “single story” about a group of people, as Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie puts it. When only one story gets told, the rest get watered down.

For example, in 2015, prior to the premiere of ABC’s Fresh Off the Boat, the first Asian American sitcom in 20 years, New York restaurateur Eddie Huang wrote a blistering op-ed that accused the show creators of adapting his memoir of a complicated, angry childhood into a “universal, ambiguous, cornstarch story about Asian Americans.” For good measure, Huang was even encouraged to say “America is great” in the pilot narration.

These are just three high-profile examples of the many indignities and erasures that Asian Americans in the arts and other marginalized groups face when the only acceptable reading of your culture is for a White audience.

WWithin this “vague purgatorial status” that Asian Americans occupy, between the binaries of Black and White, there are still uncomfortable truths we haven’t fully addressed — about ourselves, but also where we stand in history.

At the crux of Hong’s worldview is her desire to dismantle capitalism, which has weaponized the image of Asian American success to put down other minorities, though she admits that goal may be too prescriptive for some.

“I’m hoping that this book will help Asian Americans in various communities to really stand up and start defining themselves against this single story,” she says.

This also means standing in solidarity with other marginalized people and understanding how our struggles are interconnected. It doesn’t stop at achieving more representation in entertainment, media, and publishing — certainly not unworthy goals — though it’s worth stating that another Crazy Rich Asians won’t liberate us.

For Hong, liberation begins when we reckon with “where we stand in America and examining where we stand in a capitalist racist hierarchy — how we are complicit, how we are implicated, and ways in which we can build bridges.”

“I’m not interested in ‘humanizing’ the Asian American experience,” Hong says. “That is weak sauce to me. I think, for me, it’s more about using my perspective as an Asian American to… tear down what is [considered] the universal experience.”

Born out of a desire to divide and subjugate, the universal Asian experience has never existed. That’s why sharing our complicated, messy stories feels more urgent than ever. In speaking aloud our hopes, fears, and visions for a better future, we will find that we never needed permission in the first place.

Taylor Moore is a freelance writer living in Chicago, IL. You can find her online at www.taylorgmoore.co and on Twitter at @taylormundo.

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