“How you look, how you sound”: feeling our prospects for AfroAsian solidarity

October 1, 2020

In the opening pages of her celebrated Minor Feelings: An Asian American Reckoning, Cathy Park Hong engages the age-old topic of racial self-hatred, making the astonishing claim that this subject has been underemphasized in discussing Asian American cultural production:

There’s a ton of literature on the self-hating Jew and the self-hating African American, but not enough has been said about the self-hating Asian. Racial self-hatred is seeing yourself the way the whites see you, which turns you into your own worst enemy. Your own defense is to be hard on yourself, which becomes compulsive, and therefore a comfort, to peck yourself to death. You don’t like how you look, how you sound. You think your Asian features are undefined, like God started pinching out your features and then abandoned you. You hate that there are so many Asians in the room.[1]

This pronouncement that self-hatred ought to comprise the analytical basis for Asian American culture conveys much more about Hong’s literacy in Asian American Studies than it does about the state of our “literature.” Indeed, perhaps the most prominent aspect of Asian racial discourse since 1965 has been what Asian Americanists now widely pan as “the pathology argument.” The academic-theoretical expression of this concept, which has had profound impact in literary studies (of which Hong’s poetry has been a splendidly generative object), is the notion that Freudian melancholia constitutes the Asian American person. It is now an academic commonplace that Asian-ness in America is founded upon the “losses, disappointments, and failures” generalizable to much of post-1965 Asian immigration psychic life, concatenating the model minority myth to the affective structure of racial experience.[2] The argument unfolds that minoritized subjectivity (let’s say: yellowness) commences from the irredeemably lost love-object (whiteness); yellowness loves whiteness, and whiteness does not love yellowness back. According to its authors, David Eng and Shinhee Han, racial melancholia reveals both whiteness’ absolute power as well as the subsequent framework for yellowness’ psychic constitution: as not only tethered to and interpellated by whiteness, but as always already its constitutive other, which, in my view, pathologically seizes up any liberatory possibility while also reducing yellowness, in effect, to a form of narcissistic attachment.[3] Aligning herself with this woe-is-us narrative, Hong suggests that Asian Americans must melancholically pursue self-definition — “how you look, how you sound” — through the lens of racial whiteness, leaving little hope for the possibility of an Asian happily and/or stealthily “undefined” by the white gaze.

In the immediate wake of the appearance of Minor Feelings, the novel coronavirus unleashed an intense wave of anti-Asian sentiment and violence. Appearing in the pages of the New York Times Magazine as the Asian American voice to explain this anti-Asian onslaught, Hong offered yet another shocking pronouncement: “I never would have thought that the word ‘Chink’ would have a resurgence in 2020.”[4] When I first read this sentence, I wondered what kind of liberal-white-poetry enclave Hong had been living in until she recently discovered the “minor feeling” of racial melancholia, and my poet-friends confirmed that it was probably the kind that easily conjures the epithet but tries not to utter it. (In my first year of graduate school, Bob Hass, former poet laureate of the United States, told me that I should speak up because he “couldn’t read my face.”) I wondered, too, what the state of racial discourse must be in this country that such a voice was needed at all, benighted to assuage white liberal consciousness with the silly yet dangerous notion that anti-Asian racism is rare and new, having sneaked its way in through a once-in-a-century pandemic and during a resurgence of fascism, American-style. Unlike Hong, I have lived most of my life with “chink” — a term that originally targeted Asian men specifically — constantly in my ears. Then again, I have never once felt that there are too many Asians in the room.

In the early days of the pandemic in South Carolina, where I have lived for three years, the threat felt palpable enough that in my household, my usually-white-passing partner took on all of the grocery shopping. I also developed a habit of walking our little dog, Teddy, only with my phone fully charged. I found myself frequently checking in on Asian friends and colleagues, scattered all over the country due to the cruelty of academia, from Cambridge to Irvine, New Haven to Oakland, not to mention the many family members who are likewise dispatched to far-flung parts of the country. All I wanted, I thought to myself repeatedly, was there to be so many Asians in the room, to which a newly discovered app, Houseparty, served as metaphor and virtual wish-fulfillment. In the early weeks of the pandemic, amidst this vulnerability, there were so many joyful video and phone conversations, early and late because of time zones, including with my infant niece who will forever be regaled with stories about the opening months of her life. Here was, I thought, true melancholy: not a matter of better understanding oneself vis-à-vis whiteness, but rather a Lordean surviving of white supremacist conditions via the timeless reminder that we are, in fact, surrounded and held and constituted by love bonds — and not by their lack or absence.

The uprisings surrounding a concomitant wave of unmitigated anti-Black violence — upon the murders of Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and George Floyd — comprise the second racial reckoning of 2020, demanding all of our critical attention, political pedagogy, and renewed habits of assembly, care, and love. Yet what are the precise prospects for AfroAsian solidarity in this moment of crisis? Asian American forums, perhaps most seriously in the famously unserious Facebook group called Subtle Asian Traits, have been grappling with this question, establishing deliberate links to our renewed antiracist consciousness during the pandemic. That is, Asian Americans are navigating and addressing anti-Black racism in our communities — most often beginning from our nuclear families, according to Subtle Asian Traits — to impressive effect: in September 2020, 69% of Asian Americans report supporting Black Lives Matter, slightly higher than Hispanics (66%) and in contrast to 55% of the country overall.[5] The general intelligence is rich — and growing.

Echoing the chorus, Vince Schleitwiler sagely reminds us that any new Asian American political consciousness ought to begin exclusively from solidarity with Black Lives Matter, since we only know ourselves as “Asian American” in the first place from the historical alliance between Black and yellow:

As the first Asian American movement demonstrated, the development of such a consciousness cannot end anti-Blackness in itself. But it can remind us that no one, including Asian Americans, will be free until Black people are free, and so solidarity against anti-Blackness must be fundamental to our collective self-definition. Because without it, we wouldn’t even know who we are.[6]

What it means to know ourselves — and to love ourselves — is to align yellowness with Blackness in an anti-Black world. Rather than racial melancholia, Schleitwiler’s focus on the possible end of anti-Blackness stems from the Ontological Turn in Black Studies, specifically the theoretical tendency and field of thought known as Afropessimism that has singlehandedly popularized the notion that anti-Blackness is axiomatic to reality itself. Our racial consciousness as Asians begins with this axiom, where ontology and epistemology meet, and thus, according to Schleitwiler, “it’s crucial to recognize that the impetus to reimagine a critical Asian American racial consciousness was not COVID-19, but Black Lives Matter.” Yet such reimagining is itself a herculean task, given the aforementioned tendency for some powerful Asian Americans, particularly those ensconced in elite academia, to adopt the position that our group is by default, by self-hating pathology, white-desiring and white-allied.

This Asian American form of colonized consciousness has produced at least three interrelated deleterious effects on the ever-growing Black-allied Asian community. First is the mainstream de-centering of pro-Black Asian writers and activists through every step of our history, including contemporary intellectuals such as Schleitwiler, in favor of white-centric voices that center self-hatred and pathology. Second is the foreclosure of possibility for yet more Asian Americans, awakened by Black Lives Matter, newly desiring to duck the white gaze as much as possible so that we can check out “how we look, how we sound,” once we confidently prefer to feel unfettered by it. Finally, there is the misreading of the Asian Americans who have already attempted to do exactly this, (a)voiding white-centrism altogether, by creating forms of yellowness that have pro-Blackness already built in. This racial misinterpretation of Asian Americans, if it can be corrected at all, may offer a way toward an invigorating reimagining of ourselves.

Conflating racial justice with a reductive notion of cultural inheritance, a brazenly reactionary discourse of cultural appropriation has emerged in recent years to stake the claim that culture functions as a property right to be either rightfully owned or wrongfully expropriated. By definition, culture cannot be property, yet given the neoliberal order, it is not surprising that a possessive model of cultural identity, abetted by corporate academia’s obsession with standpoint theory and diversity numbers, is seemingly all that we have. When this erroneous model of cultural capital meets the erroneous presumption of the anti-Black Asian, our prospects can look grim indeed.

Take, for instance, Awkwafina, whose meteoric ascent in popular culture was quickly dimmed, her pre-Hollywood persona and performances as a YouTube hip-hop artist called out as “a case study in cultural appropriation.”[7] Only if one begins from the racist archetype of a white-allied Asian does this reading have political force. What critics of her “performance of Blackness” have missed entirely is that many Asian Americans of mine and Awkwafina’s generation — before Asian American YouTube and before the full-blown globalization of Asian pop cultures — studied Blackness intensely, with Eliotic great labor, driven both by the desire to survive white supremacy and by an abiding, adoring love for Black cultural forms. MC Jin, Jeremy Lin, and Eddie Huang are additional examples of this millennial tendency, as is the most visible Asian American from generation X, Andrew Yang, whose signature policy position, Universal Basic Income, is part and parcel of the Black leftist tradition. The two most public-facing Asian American intellectuals working today, Viet Nguyen and Jeff Chang, both began their vocational paths studying Blackness. Before Wong Fu and Boba shops and The Farewell, many of us routed our racial identities through Blackness, not as uncritical mimicry or opportunistic theft, but rather as our yellowness. Our yellowness was routed through and rooted in Blackness, by necessity as well as by grace. In doing so, we stood on solid historical ground, too, where Grace Lee Boggs, Emma Gee, and Yuri Kochiyama had already tread. Thus, our version of raciality already includes a preferential option for Blackness as a constitutive feature. My students may wonder at the beginning of the term why their professor for Black Feminist Theory and Introduction to African American Studies looks and sounds like he does, and I assure the vocally curious ones that it is they who are new to the room.

For its part, Afropessimism’s ontological argument — that anti-Blackness constitutes the world on the phenomenological, affective, social, and political registers — has made much hay out of explicitly foreclosing interracial solidarity. According to Frank Wilderson, ontology commences from the fault line between the Black and anti-Black, the latter of which includes all non-Black people, thus precluding the possibility of any “analogy” whatsoever. Yet as recent assessments of Wilderson’s long-awaited book have made clear, telling everyday Black people in 2020 that they are enslaved and socially-dead may convey an elitist academic posture at least as much as it does the basis for a liberatory politics.[8] (Please try telling my first-generation, working-class students in AFAM 201 — many of whom are already miffed at Du Bois for calling the inhabitants of the “Sea Islands of the Carolinas,” in the final pages of The Souls of Black Folk, “of primitive type” — that their station in the symbolic order is, ahistorically, that of ‘Slave.’) Ultimately, what makes me sad about both racial melancholia and Afropessimism is just how similar they are, despite their separate claims to a sui generis position for yellowness and Blackness. (I make this comparative explication in full in my forthcoming book, Other Lovings: Queer Love Bonds in Black and Yellow.) Both are rooted in white psychoanalytic theories: Freud for Eng and Han, Lacan for Wilderson. Both insist that the “subjects” they are describing are constituted by absolute negative terms: lack, lovelessness, absence, death. Both abet a popular discourse surrounding one’s ineluctably melancholic or death-bound standpoint as the only one they can ever claim vis-à-vis the white gaze, rejecting others who may have gathered already in the quest to avert both the notion of a singular subject-position and to refuse a determinative whiteness.

What if racial melancholia has simply neglected its conceptual corollary? If yellowness is constituted by a failed love for whiteness, then it follows that whiteness is constituted by its inability to love yellowness back. Wouldn’t one prefer the position of the one who feels love rather than the one who can’t? Read and felt this way, it is quite obviously yellowness that is in the stronger position than whiteness: the position of the lover, the logic of better-to-have-loved-and-lost-than-to-have-never-loved-at-all. What if, by way of that originary loss, our libidinal racial attachments, rather than to a self-hatred based on whiteness, can be and have been routed to a love of the other based on Blackness? What if a new form of love, based on the forms of life that emerge from anti-Blackness — Blackness — is what, in fact, constitutes yellowness? This is our grasping for an us already here, loving those gathered in the social task of so many Asians in the room, albeit a virtual one for now.

[1] Cathy Park Hong, Minor Feelings: An Asian American Reckoning (New York: One World, 2020), 9–10.

[2] David L. Eng and Shinhee Han, Racial Melancholia, Racial Dissociation: On the Social and Psychic Lives of Asian Americans (Durham: Duke University Press, 2019), 50.

[3] See Hua Hsu, “The Stories We Tell, and Don’t Tell, About Asian-American Lives,” The New Yorker, July 17, 2019. https://www.newyorker.com/books/under-review/the-stories-we-tell-and-dont-tell-about-asian-american-lives.

[4] Cathy Park Hong, “The Slur I Never Expected to Hear in 2020,” The New York Times Magazine, April 12, 2020. https://www.nytimes.com/2020/04/12/magazine/asian-american-discrimination-coronavirus.html.

[5] “Asian American support for Black Lives Matter still strong,” September 20, 2020. https://asamnews.com/2020/09/20/support-weakening-for-black-lives-matter-but-still-strong-among-asian-americans-and-blacks.

[6] Vince Schleitwiler, “Solidarity with Black lives demands a new Asian American movement,” International Examiner, July 6, 2020. https://iexaminer.org/solidarity-with-black-lives-demands-a-new-asian-american-movement.

[7] Bettina Makalintal, “Awkwafina’s Past Makes Her a Complicated Icon of Asian American Representation,” Vice, January 24, 2020. https://www.vice.com/en_us/article/pkeg9g/awkwafinas-past-makes-her-a-complicated-icon-of-asian-american-representation.

See also Lauren Michele Jackson, “Who Owns the ‘Blaccent’?,” Vulture, August 24, 2018. https://www.vulture.com/2018/08/awkwafina-blaccent-cultural-appropriation.html.

[8] See Jesse McCarthy, “On Afropessimism,” Los Angeles Review of Books, July 20, 2020. https://lareviewofbooks.org/article/on-afropessimism.

See also Vinson Cunningham, “The Argument of ‘Afropessimism,’” The New Yorker, July 13, 2020. https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2020/07/20/the-argument-of-afropessimism.

Assistant Professor of African American Studies & English Literature, University of South Carolina

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