I just read this collection of essays by Wesley Yang called “The Souls Of Yellow Folk” that’s incredibly thought provoking but so confusingly scattered that I don’t know how to talk about it but I want to try.
What’s most fascinating is his thesis: Asian-American men as a group have a particular understanding and resentment in society that no other group has. As a minority, they understand the pain and resentment of other minorities. At the same time, because they don’t share in many of the historical subjugations of other minority groups, their grievances are the least likely to receive (or deserve) public recognition. So they experience the frustration of being a minority but receive the least amount of attention for it.
Simultaneously, they understand the contemporary resentments of white men also; the criticisms against white masculinity extend somewhat to Asian-American men as well. But while Asian-American men are accepted, they aren’t truly included in important ways when it comes to societal power that white men largely hold. The Asian-American man is both a minority and male, and as Yang puts it, he experiences the frustration of both and is denied the entitlements of either.
I’m not sure how much I agree with that thesis, but it’s an idea I’d never thought about before, and the essays that deal with it (the book is terribly named – only a fraction of the book actually deals with his thesis) made me think a ton. Maybe none more than an essay entitled “Is It OK to Be White?”
There are so many layers to that question. On a superficial level, the answer to the question is, of course, yes – it’s OK to be white, it’s a ridiculous question to even ask. But would it be acceptable to publicly post posters saying “It’s OK To Be White” around town? Or on a school campus? The answer is no, right? Because when posted publicly like that, it’s not just an assertion of something obvious, it comes across as a response to something unspoken, that it’s in small part dismissing or belittling the minority experience, in the same way that “All Lives Matter” isn’t just a true slogan spoken in a vacuum, it’s a response that in part dismisses the significance and pain of “Black Lives Matter.” The context for the essay was that some trolls on 4chan did exactly that, organized a mass posting of “It’s OK To Be White” posters, to provoke a predictable response (though not as strong as they might have hoped) that they wanted to use to use as fuel for the right, that it’s absurd that something that is, without qualification, true, could be considered racist. It is though, right? Racist? Not because of its content, but because of its context. And in context, answering the question “Is It OK To Be White?” is surprisingly fraught. It is OK, but you can’t say that in a certain way.
Then Yang explores a level below that, one I think is the most interesting. To start, he believes that we live in an age of resentment politics, and I completely agree. Minority groups are resentful of their poor treatment throughout history. But those in power, largely white males, are now resentful in return. The interesting thing is that Yang (again coming from the viewpoint that Asian-American males can uniquely identify with all sides) seems to understand the white resentment, and it’s actually kind of compelling.
What do white males have to be resentful about? Part of it is that the language of minority resentment has shifted. I’ll just quote him: “In recent years, we’ve seen the rhetoric of social-justice activism change. Where once the targets of those concerns to fight injustice were ‘racism’ and ‘sexism,’ today the targets are ‘whiteness’ and ‘masculinity’…. there is no whiteness independent of the domination of nonwhites, and no masculinity independent of the domination of women.” Yang quotes various sources, including Ta-Nahesi Coates and some feminist writers, and he’s right – they really do use this language, and it’s more widespread than I had understood. So it’s not just racism and sexism that’s attacked. Their language says that whiteness and masculinity itself is bad.
That’s problematic on many levels. It’s easy to see how that language can fuel resentment, when a group is criticized not for what it does, but for who they are. Yang speculates that it may have had a counterproductive effect, specifically in helping the rise of Trump. It’s old news that white resentment helped fuel Trump’s election. But Yang is the first person I’ve read to connect the dots in this way, that otherwise moderate whites might feel resentful because they feel under attack for being white, not for being racist. And that actual white supremacists feel wrongly emboldened because see a large mass of resentful whites and see them as being actual racists to the same extremity as themselves.
Along similar lines, Yang points out, with specific examples, how the language around white supremacy has shifted. It used to mean things like slavery, genocide, colonialism and segregation. Most people still think of it in these terms, and the societal consensus against it is based on that understanding. But academia and the media have constantly expanded the notion of what’s white supremacy. He publishes a list of things that reflect white supremacy distributed by one antiracism nonprofit. Some at the top of the list are clearly over the line, things like hate crimes, swastikas, racial slurs. There are some more questionable but still plausible ones further down the list like Confederate flags, mass incarceration, and housing discrimination. But then the list includes things like “assuming that intentions are good enough”, “color blindness”, and “virtuous victim narrative.” These are not necessarily good, but calling them white supremacy?
The problem in doing that, as Yang points out, is not in the goals of the list themselves, which are worthy, but that instead of engaging in debate and persuasion to convince, it’s using disciplinary power to delegitimize, stigmatize, and shame people with contrary views. And if you so broadly expand the notion of “white supremacy”, it waters it down so that it actually loses its power.
Yang argues that we should be more careful in our language. Going back to criticizing racism and sexism, not whiteness and masculinity. And using more proportionality and nuance in describing different harms related to race. He thinks it would defuse some of the tension around this discussion. While I don’t agree with all of what he writes, I do think he’s spot on with this.
Maybe the most confusing part of the book is that his thesis is so intriguing but he does not much with it – his most insightful advice is around the discussion of white privilege. He doesn’t say much about the Asian-American experience at all, other than express the frustration of it. Asian-Americans have not been subject to anywhere near the level of subjugation and harm that other minority groups have. And yet, we have been harmed, and we continue to be kept from those in power. I don’t know how to talk about that.