It is somewhat amazing that in the two years or so since Wesley Yang wrote his piece for the New York magazine and I'm still deriving so much rich material from it to post about! Perhaps it is the general dearth of Asian men being given opportunities to voice strong opinions in mainstream outlets that may explain my continued revisiting of the one that stands out the most.
My original opinions on Yang's piece were critical, but I noticed an interesting phenomenon in some other responses to his piece - the fact that he had actually chosen to focus on Asian men seemed to be a source of criticism. Despite all the issues that I had with Yang's piece, the one positive that I took from his piece was that he had focused on Asian-American men. I don't think he should have been criticized for that - although I did not agree with much of what he wrote, the fact that he chose to focus specifically on Asian men is in and of itself not a good reason to criticize his piece. But some critiques seemed to find Yang's Asian-male-centric focus to be problematic.
A response piece written in Slate magazine by Nina Shen Rastogi at the time offered some valid criticisms of Yang's piece, and then threw in this somewhat leading remark in the second paragraph...
As the accompanying Yang, recent college grad Jefferson Mao, restaurateur Eddie Huang, and "pickup artist" J.T. Tran make clear, this essay gazes up at that woody canopy from a decidedly male perspective. The 9,000-word piece profiles several young Asian-American men but there is only one woman — a marketer for IBM — who emerges as anything near a character, though she's far less vividly drawn than any of the males. What's more, male sexual inadequacy is a consistent theme in Yang's lament: Failing to master the nuances of American masculinity is portrayed as a key part of the Asian-American experience. (On the question of where that leaves us Asian-American women, Yang is silent.)The fact that the above comment occurs in the second paragraph might suggest how important it was to Rastogi to point out that Asian women did not feature in Yang's piece. To me this is a bizarre and perhaps, petty, criticism; Yang's piece is about the Asian male experience, and that is worthy of focus and attention in and of itself without having to be all-inclusive. How mentioning Asian women in the piece might perhaps lend greater credibility is never explained by Rastogi.
The emboldened part of the criticism is especially perplexing. Asian men's masculinity issues - that is, America's cultural dehumanization of Asian men - is a key part of the Asian-American experience. Where that leaves Asian women is really up to Asian women to explain, and Rastogi would have done better to, perhaps, put forward her own ideas on this instead of offering pointless, insinuative criticisms that seem to be little more than discomfort that there exists an Asian male experience that need not require the presence of Asian women to give it validity. The fact is, Asian men have their own set of issues relating to race, or otherwise, that are deserving of their own space and opportunity for investigation and which is necessarily independent of Asian women's issues. Why this disturbs folks is beyond the scope of this piece to explain.
In another critique, which I found to be insightful overall, an Asian male blogger at a space called "Scattered Speculations" offers similar criticisms....
I ask this, following Vijay Prashad’s wonderful book The Karma of Brown Folk, because I think what Asian Americans (I hesitate to say “we” here) seem to constantly miss is how much discourses of “Asian American success” and “model minority” are used (not necessarily by us at first) for the reproduction of the American racial strata whose logic and raison d’etre is anti-Black, and largely sexist. (I need not remind you all the racist figures of “welfare queen” that began under Reagan and came to a boiling point in Bill Clinton. It is he who ended welfare after all.) And most importantly, how Asian American men benefit from this. More than anything, I’m troubled by Yang’s utter ignorance of this fact. There is no mention of African Americans or women. Hence, his piece is littered with stories about Asian American men’s inability to get what white men get—whether it be in the realm of college admissions, professional mobility, or white women. (It is on this last point that I find the non-mention of Asian American women, even just an aside, to be rather odd.)The author of that blog - a dude named Sam Han - ups the ante in the above comment, calling Yang out for not mentioning African-Americans as well as women as, perhaps, being more harmed by the model minority stereotype and notions of Asian-American success. But, again, the implication is that Asian men's experiences don't have a legitimate claim for specific focus and that such issues are devalued without a wider context. This is like having your child repeatedly come home from school with a bloody nose, asking him or her to explain what happened and how he or she feels about it, but then criticizing the answer because they fail to mention how their bloody nose affects their classmates.
But even more problematic in the Han criticism is that it, ironically, fails to notice that many stereotypes bring benefits to varying degrees to those who are stereotyped based on one's position on the political spectrum. Asian women "benefit" from the stereotype of being passive and submissive (that is, "safe"), by being more readily accepted - at least as media figures - than Asian men, and perhaps even more so than black women. African-Americans benefit from America's suspicion of Asians by being more associated with being "American" - that is, black loyalties are rarely questioned.
Worst of all, Han's criticism implies that Asians are somehow required to answer for stereotypes that they had no role in creating. I don't think that we are required to answer for stereotypes that others create about us, especially when - as I pointed out here - it is questionable the actual degree to which the model minority stereotype actually informs government social policies, and it is mostly Asians themselves who seem to be the one's most likely to talk about it these days. More importantly, the model minority myth hurts Asians more than anyone else - a fact that gets lost in our drive to perform damage control the effects on other groups of a stereotypes that we did not create. No, it is ridiculous to insist that a discussion on the specific issues that affect Asian men should have an "all-inclusive" element. The subject is worthy of attention in and of itself, without the need to apologize for its existence.
Although it may not be the intention of the two critics above, the result of such criticisms is that it insists that Asian men's issues (and, strangely, by extension all Asian issues) are more credible or even valid only if they don't somehow only focus on Asian men. This is tantamount to saying that the Asian male voice cannot speak on its own behalf specifically, but must highlight related issues along the way. If we were to follow this policy, it would mean that Asians can have no credible autonomous voice, and that Asian men's issues are only valid relative to the issues of other oppressed groups. That is a dangerous way of thinking. Albeit unintentional, this way of thinking is actually a classic Red Herring type approach that is usually used by those opposed to any minority voice.
Occasionally, the apparent drive to tamper with and temper the Asian male experience manifests in snide ways. In an article from earlier in the year, Slate writer, Anne Ishii, offers a somewhat eye-rollingly derisive review of a biography called "Fresh Off The Boat" by Asian-American provocateur (of sorts), Eddie Huang. Ishii's review seems to go a step further and instead of insisting that there be no focus on Asian men, she seems to haughtily find the whole process of Asian men blindly sorting their way through pervasive racist stereotypes to be distasteful - who do Asian men they think they are, indeed?! In fact, it is almost as though Ishii is embarrassed that Huang has a racialized masculinity - as though it is his fault - and she is somehow losing face because of it.
In short, Asian men's stories - just like any other demographic - are significant in their own right without having to be vehicles for other oppressed groups. Yes, there is a time and place for that kind of crossover work, but given the dearth of Asian men's points of view in the mainstream, it seems petty (and repressive) for people to insist that what little time we are afforded to present a specific Asian male perspective must be shared with others who may, in fact, already possess greater opportunities and avenues to recount their experiences than Asian men could even hope for.
For all of the criticisms that have been levelled at Wesley Yang's piece, the most unexpected (and pointless) is that he was somehow at fault because he focused on issues specifically from the perspective of Asian men. Criticizing this further marginalizes Asian men, and represses their opportunities to have an autonomous voice within American culture.