Anti-Asian Violence Must Be a Bigger Part of America’s Racial Discourse
Alexander Chee and Cathy Park Hong on how the pandemic has cracked open discrimination against Asian American communities
In the fall of 2019 I received an email from the poet and critic Cathy Park Hong telling me she had written an essay collection, Minor Feelings: An Asian American Reckoning. She asked me to read it and consider it for a blurb. I receive roughly three or four requests like this on most weeks, sometimes as many as three or four a day, but I am a fan of Hong’s, and I remembered her indelible 2014 essay on whiteness and the avant-garde in poetry. If a collection from her meant more of that, I knew I wanted to see it. Her description of her book also caught at me: “Minor Feelings is a collection of essays where I try to, as honestly as I can, deal with the inner life and politics of Asian Americans, an identity that is often unmentioned in the national discourse about race.”
None of my anticipation prepared me for the powerful reading experience that followed. The first essay, “United,” begins with a feeling — her sense of a tic in her face, a tingle no one around her could see but that she was sure was there. This becomes a way of understanding herself as an Asian American writer, the “vague purgatorial status” of being the “carpenter ants of the service industry, the apparatchiks of the corporate world,” whose only defense from racial self-hatred “is to be hard on yourself, which becomes compulsive, and therefore a comfort, to peck yourself to death.” Observations like this, delivered in passing on the way to her larger points — the essay is ultimately about the figure of David Dao, the Vietnamese man violently dragged from a United Airlines flight — all of this took time to absorb. As I went on, each page articulated at least one thing I had either suspected or knew but had never quite said aloud or written down.
What It Feels Like to Inhabit an Asian Body in America
In her new book of essays, ‘Minor Feelings,’ Cathy Park Hong confronts an identity that ‘takes up apologetic space’
By the time I reached the last essay, “The Indebted,” about how we Asians are “everywhere now,” that begins by asking “who are we when we become better than them in a system that destroyed us,” I was the blurber who was late, a little past the deadline for the publisher but determined to say something about this book, which I did manage. All blurbs are experiments in miniaturizing enthusiasm effectively, and I was struggling with how to address how original and transformative the collection was for me.
I have since felt weirdly protective, like a stage mother, hitting the RT button on every positive review of Minor Feelings on Twitter, prepared to send angry emails to anyone who didn’t love it enough. I experienced having read it like reaching a new understanding of so many interactions, personal, political, aesthetic, that I was not surprised when this book became the whisperer for my horrible pandemic year, making it legible to me. I have seen Minor Feelings popping up on social media enough that I know readers are weighing in, but all the same, when asked to speak to Hong for GEN, I jumped at the chance to check in with her, and to insist on the collection to a new audience. She graciously spoke to me for an hour or so about art, politics, anti-Asian violence, white supremacy, and hair metal, the last which I hope she writes about someday in her next collection.
Alexander Chee: You were among the first people to have a book come out during this quarantine period, and not just any book but this incredibly thoughtful collection of essays about your life as a poet, a writer, an Asian American, and a Korean American. I think something that’s unspoken when you publish a book is that you have all these ideas about how it’s going to go. How did it go?
Cathy Park Hong: Of all the issues that you worry about before your book comes out, I think “pandemic” is at the bottom of the list.
My main fear before Minor Feelings came out was that no one was going to care. That’s because within our racial discourse there’s often no room for the Asian American voice, which is precisely why I wrote the book. I was thinking there was a crucial part about race that we were not tackling.
But more than that, the book was very personal. It wasn’t like I was trying to write a definitive manifesto of the Asian American experience. It was more that I wanted to write what it felt like to grow up in an invisible body and with the hidden persecuted history that I had as a Korean. I thought that story needed to be told, but as I was writing it, I had this acute discomfort that no one was going to care.
I was heartened then that through word of mouth, there have been a lot of Asian Americans who have been reading the book and gifting it to their friends and spreading the word. Readers said they felt like it was both a mirror and a window to their racial experience. I realized how starved Asian Americans are for having a raw, angry, and complicated portrait of being Asian in America.
I love this idea of the book as a mirror and a window. I think it really describes for me the way that when I was reading it, I felt like it made so many experiences legible. The strange nature of racism against Asian Americans is this way you go from being invisible to hypervisible in a heartbeat — two different kinds of erasure. Especially for Korean Americans. Where I grew up in Maine, people tried to engage me, like, where are you from? I just stopped bringing up Korea, because nobody knew where it was, even as close as we were in the 1970s to the Korean War. So many people were like, “What’s Korea?”
“Korea, is that part of China?”
Yes. Oh my God.
Now they think, oh, Korea, K-pop. I love K-pop.
It’s the difference between my brother bringing dried anchovies in a bag to school as a snack and getting chased around the playground because they thought it was gross… to his daughter, my niece, using the Hanja for our last name in her Instagram because it’s cool.
When I was growing up, the cool Asians pretended that they weren’t Asian. For instance, I went through an unfortunate hair metal phase. I know how many Generation X Asians were all into the Smiths and new wave. I was into hair metal, and then I got into punk, and then I got in indie rock. I idolized musicians above anyone else. I thought they were pretty much all white.
Later, I discovered that a few of the musicians I enjoyed as a kid were half Asian. I was just completely dumbfounded when I discovered, for instance, that Eddie Van Halen was part Indonesian. And it really made me sad that they hid that identity. They just wanted to pass as white so they wouldn’t be different in any way
So it wasn’t just mainstream culture, it was also any kind of alternative culture where a lot of Asians were ashamed of their identity and tried to pass as white. I’m really glad to see that that’s not like that anymore, that there’s a lot of pride, whether you’re full Asian or half Asian or a quarter Asian.
Another of my nieces is also a quarter Korean — she’s Korean, Puerto Rican, Scotch-Irish — and she recently asked me to teach her to make japchae because she felt like her lunch box wasn’t Asian enough. It was a very different and deliberate experience of the lunch box. This experience is in the essays that I read from my students at Dartmouth, where I’ve had a lot of students writing about what they see as Asian American culture, a pan-Asian experience in the suburbs where they have friends who are from all of these different countries. One student wrote about how she could remember when her lunch box was a source of shame, and then it eventually became a source of competitive pride, the other Asian students showing what they’d brought and bragging about what they were eating, or sharing and trading.
We’ve come a long way.
A kind of night market experience of lunch.
A timeline of race can be told through a timeline of lunch boxes. My daughter sometimes brings kimbap to school and her white friend is jealous. She was like, “What is that? I want some of that. That looks delicious.” It’s completely different than when I was a kid. And friends would come over and they would say, “Oh my God, what’s that stink? It smells like feet” and so forth. There’s a lot of progress with non-Asian kids being more accepting of what we bring to lunch. America is still not ready to have that discussion about race beyond the Black/white binary. But in terms of the quality of life for kids like your niece or my daughter, it seems more accepting than when I was a kid.
I wonder if there is backlash to the violence that we’re seeing. It’s something that I definitely have seen over the years with the LGBTQ civil rights struggle, the way in which any kind of civil rights gains, for example, are met with violence, usually against queer people of color and especially trans people. I’ve been trying to think about if that at all maps on to this. It’s not that we’re seeing civil rights gains — it’s more like cultural cachet. It’s such a strange experience to be able to see mainstream acceptance of, say, K-pop, or to see K-pop fans become a political force. When we saw the way that they organized against Trump, and then also these really brutal, ugly assaults. This is the thing I’ve been trying to synthesize in my brain. And I wondered if that was true to you.
I think trying to explain what’s happening is like trying to explain 4D chess. And not just to other people, but to myself, because there’s so many different intersectional layers to what’s happening with the violence. First off, I will say that it’s not necessarily a backlash or a backlash against the popularity of K-pop for instance.
Anti-Asian racism has always been constant in this country because it’s always been a part of this country from the mid-1800s, when Chinese laborers were brought in to use as cheap laborers to replace slaves. They weren’t meant to stay in this country. White people brought them in to kick them out.
From that point on, we were always treated as guests in this nation or as replacement for Black people. And as guests, we were ostracized, but we were also valorized in relation to Black Americans, and obviously that would build resentment from African Americans against Asians.
We’re used to thinking of race as oppression Olympics. Who is the most oppressed? Who’s the least oppressed? And who’s sort of oppressed in the middle?
Our experience is different than what African Americans have gone through, which is slavery, segregation, and economic dispossession, or what Indigenous people have experienced, which is genocide. But Asians are different because we were actually excluded from immigration. We were driven out. We were unassimilable.
White people still drive the narrative about Asian Americans. We have yet to have control over our own stories. And unfortunately, because of this, the “model minority” myth still sticks. It just keeps coming back. I’m so sick of talking about it, but so far, it’s impossible to knock it down.
What I see happening on the streets is different from what we’re seeing on, I don’t know, Instagram for instance. I see something that’s more along the lines of the 1992 L.A. riots, where it’s like African Americans and other poor Latinx immigrants, against working-class Asian merchants. A lot of this violence is happening not in rural towns or the suburbs. It’s happening in cities like Oakland and K-Town in L.A. and in Chinatown in New York.
There is another white flight happening where wealthier people are fleeing to the suburbs and the cities have emptied out. Who’s left are more marginalized immigrants and Black people. It’s the same dynamic where Black people are desperate or angry because they’ve been suffering the most from Covid, and they’ve been essential workers. But Asians are suffering too. Working-class Asians have one of the highest unemployment rates among all races during the pandemic. And like Koreans during the L.A. riots, they’re poor. They’re barely above destitution.
Then there are white people who are looking at this and divorcing themselves from it, much like they did during the ’92 riots. They’re saying, “This is not our problem. The person who killed that Thai grandfather is Black. It wasn’t a white person.” These are the reactions that I’m hearing. And when I say, “Oh, it’s white supremacy,” they’re offended and say, “It’s not white people who are beating up Asians.” First of all, I want to say that it’s been white people, even in the recent past—like the two Indians in Kansas who were shot by a white man because they were mistaken for Iranian terrorists in 2017. But I also want to say that it’s this triangulated relationship that Black, Asian, and white people have had for so long, and white people are the ones who devised this triangulated relationship in order to maintain white dominance. But to explain all of that, you can’t just tweet it.
You can’t tweet your way through that.
It takes a lot of listening to each other’s stories. Trump opened up the wound, but it was always there. It’s always simmering right under the surface, and it can take just any incident or anything to rip it open. Adjacently, that’s what happened with South Asians after 9/11. I think maybe at some point anti-Asian violence will probably maybe die down, but it will come back in the way that anti-Muslim hate will come back, or people will start attacking another immigrant group, unless we really, really try to get at the root of the problem, which also involves completely restructuring our capitalist society.
It’s such a strange issue because on the one hand, yes, it does feel like four-dimensional chess — until somebody’s shoving you onto the train tracks. Then it doesn’t feel like 4D chess at all. It just feels like street violence.
It does, yeah.
And that’s the part that becomes so bizarre. How does engaging with that complexity ever address that? That’s the part that I’ve been trying to write about. My sense of the animosity Trump built up during his whole presidency toward Asian people, before the pandemic, is that it seems always to have come around to threatening the nuclear annihilation of North Korea, or dealing competitively with China. The pandemic seemed like his chance to take it to a new level — to offer a scapegoat even in advance of his destructive negligence. It became a license for his recklessness, a ready excuse anytime someone suggested he hadn’t done enough.
I think that we have to constantly say that discrimination is wrong. Hate crimes are wrong. Demeaning another group is wrong. It doesn’t matter if you’re a Black person demeaning an Asian person, an Asian person demeaning a Black person, an Indigenous person demeaning a Latinx person, or a Latinx cis person demeaning a trans person. We need to hold each other accountable in our respective communities and make sure that other marginalized groups are not being demeaned and denigrated. We have to be better than those white supremacists.
AAPI has been left out of the racial discourse which has caused a lot of damage, I think. When an Asian American was talking about anti-Asian discrimination and BIPOC solidarity, another woman of color said, see this is why the name BIPOC doesn’t work, because then everyone thinks they are BIPOC. As if it’s an exclusive club! Racial discourse must include AAPI. Other marginalized communities should get to know our histories of colonization and exclusion first before they jump to these false judgments that we’re almost white.
I’m also worried about the fractures within the Asian community. My mother supported a lot of Trump’s anti-Chinese rhetoric, and there are other Asian immigrants who also supported Trump’s anti-Chinese rhetoric because they hate China. It’s so different than the way that younger-generation Asian Americans hear Trump’s China Biden talk as a xenophobic dog whistle, as opposed to their parents who thought Trump was the right man to curb Chinese expansionism. A lot of immigrants have this deep-seated fear of communism which drives them to the right. And I’m worried that these hate crimes will drive them further right.
I do think one of the few experiences that we all have in common as Asian Americans is misidentification. We have all been mistaken for a member of another group at some point. “Will I bother to correct them?” comes through my mind now. As a child I was always saying, “No, I’m not Chinese. No, I’m not Japanese. No, I’m Korean.” And when people replied, “What’s Korean?” I felt the humiliation of trying to fix something that doesn’t want my answers. Correcting someone on the street for thinking I’m Chinese now, that has begun to feel like a lack of solidarity on my part — I won’t do it again. I guess I’m coming back to your book, as you think about this year. You’re going to keep writing essays about these experiences, right?
I am interested in digging deeper into some points that I talked about in Minor Feelings. It’s funny how some people picked up Minor Feelings thinking that it was going to be this definitive compendium on Asian American history, and then they were sorely disappointed to find out that I spent a whole chapter writing about my college friendships. It was never meant to be definitive; it was always my very subjective portrait of an artist as an Asian American.
I also think that there were a lot of thorny subjects that I just touched upon, and that was just the tip of the iceberg. And I think I’ll probably delve deeper into that. What form it’s going to take, I don’t know. Americans are not really ready to look at race; they can only look at race in these basic building blocks.
What’s most important is that we need to really listen to each other and hear each other’s stories. A lot of the fractious divides have to do with the fact that we don’t know each other because everything that we’ve heard about each other has been through white people. Some Asian Americans think Black people are criminals, or they’re lazy, or these horrible, horrible stereotypes — that’s because white supremacy first established that idea. Some Black and Brown people think that Asians are submissive, or are diseased, or they’re the model minority, or whatever. That perception also came from white people. Our stories are still filtered through whiteness. No one knows us.
This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
More on the Asian American experience
Examing a complex identity that has long been defined in relation to the white experience
- Should Asian American communities compare their experiences with the Black Lives Matter movement? Doing so could hurt both groups, writes Elliot Sang
- “Asian American” was shorthand for a status that had never been properly named before, writes Madeline Leung Coleman in her essay on Cathy Park Hong’s Minor Feelings.
- Watching ‘Minari’ took Alexander Chee through his own past and into his own family’s story.