Wednesday, November 27, 2013

What About Us?

Well.....What About You?

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.


  1. Great observation on the societal attempt to silence Asian men. I think it's normal to expect that from "mainstream" society, which still largely likes to act as though racism is a relic of the past. But it's very interesting when Asian women do the same.

    I think that Asian women are threatened by Asian men's voices for a few reasons. First, let's get the obvious out of the way and acknowledge that there are some Asian douchebags out there whose idea of racial and gender justice go only so far as, "Hey, how come Asian guys aren't getting more of teh sex?" These guys will often attack Asian women for being sellouts and whores (much like how White MRAs operate), while also yearning to be fetishized by White women. But those are extreme examples, and to treat all concerned Asian men as those types of guys is prejudice in and of itself.

    So what could be another reason? I believe that one of the big factors is the unquestioned internalization of White Feminism by Asian women. We have to acknowledge that feminism as we know it is tailor-made for the White Female Experience, and to not account for race creates a serious misalignment of values. It's the equivalent of trying to transpose a piece of music without changing the key signature. (White) feminists are rightly suspicious of (White) men trying to intrude upon feminists' space because White men are afforded so many platforms in the first place. But Asian men don't have that same privilege, yet some Asian women treat Asian men as if we're as privileged as White men when it comes to voicing our interests. It's as though we get all of the disadvantages of being the most powerful group yet none of the advantages.

    Another reason is that Asian women feel that the attention span given to Asian Americans by "mainstream" America is very short, so that it's a harsh zero-sum game. Whatever scraps from the table are thrown to Asian Americans, Asian women must take as much as they can, and whatever attention given to Asian men must necessarily come at the expense of the women. It's the same principle of minority groups fighting each other over funding from the government.

    The sad thing here is that Asian women obviously do not see their interests aligned with those of Asian men. Otherwise, there wouldn't be such an adversarial relationship when it comes to allocation of media resources.

    You made an astute observation on how Asian viewpoints are seen as irrelevant, unless paired up with some more "legitimate" cause. This isn't only limited to social or political issues. In the big scheme of things, Asians are simply valued less. If hundreds of thousands of Asians die in a tsunami, the REAL story that matters is the suffering of a few hundred Western tourists and expats. If an Asian person becomes a global superstar, s/he's not a REAL superstar if s/he's "only" got the support of a billion+ Asians. If Yao Ming or Jeremy Lin gets voted as an all-star, it doesn't REALLY count because most of their votes are presumably from Asians.

    The all-too-clear message is that an Asian opinion or thought by itself is worthless, and it needs to be legitimized by another, preferably a White. That's the Asian American story, isn't it? The need to legitimize one's presence in America by pairing oneself off with a non-Asian, preferably a White person?

    1. Baakus

      That is a great point about internalizing white feminism - I had never thought about it that way before. One of the criticisms of white feminism is that it overlooks or downplays issues of race - and I have certainly heard some Asian feminists equivocate or their racial experience and their experiences of sexism, or simply downplay racism. Good points.

      But I'm not so sure that I would so far as to say that it is all Asian women who smother Asian men's voices, but is probably just a few who have opportunities or drive to do so.

      I may upset some, but my observation (albeit casual) is that Asian-Americans tend to be lethargic about challenging people who take it uıpon themselves to "speak for the community" - and this applies to Asian women too. It could be that Asian women - for whatever reason - choose not to challenge these more outspoken ones.

      And yes, there does seem to be a parasitic quality about how Asians conceive of their place in this society

    2. I think there are a few key reasons that Asians are so "lethargic." Firstly, though Asian men complain about being devalued in American society, it's relatively easy for them to retreat back into Asian American, or even Asian social groups. Unlike, say, Black Americans, Asian Americans are still pretty well-connected with their ancestral homelands, so if they face rejection in America, they can always "go back," either literally or figuratively. Having this option is both a benefit and a detriment because it can all-too-often be a safety valve.

      And that brings me to Asian women. I think a lot of them don't speak up because there's no real pressing need for them to do so. When you're in an all-Asian environment, you feel much safer and racism from non-Asians becomes this distant and almost abstract idea that's totally removed from your everyday existence.

      The only way to really experience prejudice is to venture outside of all-Asian circles, but the Asian women who do this are probably ones who want to associate primarily with White people anyway, so they're not going to prioritize speaking up for Asian men. And since these women are more likely to be rewarded with media access by White society, it's only their voices we hear.

      In short, it's all too easy for Asian Americans to be annoyed by racism, but then just retreat into all-Asian circles where they can safely ignore the problems. And the ones that do venture outside of these Asian social groups are probably ones that want to fit into White society better, so they're not going to rock the boat in a way that would jeopardize their inclusion.

    3. Some good points, we are apparently fucked either way. I propose Asian ethnic racial cleansing of the sell-outs. only the most Asian survive. what y'all think

  2. The solution I propose is to acquire marketable desired skills and credentials to leave U.S.A., settling in other nations where East Asian immigrants (especially for East Asian men) are valued and respected, like in a variety of European and Latin American countries. You got to learn their national language though, whatever it may be (Polish, French, Spanish, Dutch, Welsh, Swedish, etc.) OR just go back to our ancestral homeland; East Asia + Southeast Asia itself. Another option is to move to Australia if you've grown up with the English language and more comfortable speaking it as most Asian Americans were raised.

    1. I think the opposite is better - create the political climate for more east and SE Asian immigration so that we are no longer the minority of minorities.