just asking questions

Wesley Yang on Asian-Americans, Political Correctness, and the Struggle for Recognition

Wesley Yang. Photo: Rich Woodson

Wesley Yang is a Korean-American essayist who, over the past decade, has quietly emerged as one of the most provocative and heterodox writers on race and identity in America. His debut book, The Souls of Yellow Folk, out this month from W. W. Norton, has been named by Publisher’s Weekly as one of the nonfiction books of the year. A collection of the author’s published essays, the book includes the “The Face of Seung-Hui Cho” — a terrifying meditation on racial grievance and male sexual resentment refracted through Yang’s identification with the Virginia Tech mass shooter — and the National Magazine Award–winning “Paper Tigers,” a response to Amy Chua’s Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, in which Yang sums up his feelings toward “Asian values” thusly: “Fuck filial piety. Fuck grade-grubbing … Fuck earnest, striving, middle-class servility.”

Yang writes forcefully about the psychic pain of life as a racial minority in America. Yet in his more recent work, some of which appears in this collection, he has become a searing and controversial critic of progressive identity politics. In an October column for Tablet, Yang blasted “political correctness” for “threaten[ing] the core values of those for whom truth seeking is the lifeblood of their calling” and “empower[ing] a cohort of bureaucratic mediocrities and opportunists who launder their personal pathology and power seeking as the height of political and social virtue.” Yang’s increasingly vocal attacks on identity politics have attracted criticism of their own: In a review of The Souls of Yellow Folk for Bookforum, the Asian-American writer Frank Guan described Yang as the “yellow epigone” of free-speech warriors like Jordan Peterson (whom Yang has profiled) and a “timid comformist” siding with those — white men — “who already hold power.”

So where does Wesley Yang stand? His project, described in the introductory essay of the book, is to illuminate the “liminal place” of the Asian man in the American cultural imagination: “an ‘honorary white’ person who will always be denied the full perquisites of whiteness; an entitled man who will never quite be regarded or treated as a man; a nominal minority whose claim to be a ‘person of color’ deserving of the special regard reserved for victims is taken seriously by no one.” Neither truly oppressed nor truly an oppressor, the Asian man’s marginality to the identity categories that dominate our culture war is, for Yang, “the source of his claim to centrality, indeed his universality.”

Yang spoke with Intelligencer about his new book, political correctness, and the role of Asian-Americans in the culture war. This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Talk a bit about your own background.
I am a child of two immigrants from Korea. They were both refugees from the Korean War. They’re actually quite unique, having been in the country in the 1950s, because the 1924 immigration act more or less ended any legal immigration from Asia until 1965. At the time my parents were here, there were fewer than a million people of Asian descent living in America.

Were they tiger parents?
No, in part because they were from an earlier cohort and so were sociologically distinct from the Asians who later came to embody the typical Asian-American experience. But both of them had also had their familial lives — as well as the continuity of Asian-y culture — destroyed by the war. Korean culture just wasn’t deeply embedded in their own psyches.

Of course, an immigrant like my mother is going to have a much sterner set of ideas about parenting than the normative white American parent at the time. But neither my brother nor I were overachievers. I graduated in the bottom half of my high-school class and went to Rutgers.

I was interested in writing, so after college I went to work for one of those free weekly newspapers and then I worked at a small daily newspaper for a couple years. And then, through just a single contact, I got connected with these people who were starting a magazine called n+1. And I did some writing for them and sort of piece by piece became a freelance writer.

The title of the book is The Soul of Yellow Folk, which is obviously kind of a play on W. E. B. Du Bois’s The Soul of Black Folk, and which suggests the book is some sort of statement about the Asian-American experience…
The title is a kind of very irreverent and dry joke. How could it be otherwise? If I were earnestly trying to appropriate the work of this revered author I think it would be both delusional and disrespectful. The point is that these are the essays that launched my career, and they did so by foregrounding the Asian-American identity and using it as a foil and proxy for the larger set of themes I wanted to deal with.

So it’s like, how do you make this thing, Asianness, not end up having the invisibility that is endemic to it just reimposed upon it? You come up with a title that pops — that invokes something and then facetiously withdraws from it. Like, of course my role is not to be the W. E. B. Du Bois for Asians of the 21st century. It’s a completely different problem.

The Souls of Yellow Folk. Photo: W. W. Norton & Company

So when I came up with the title, I knew there was a risk that the book would be straw-manned by its critics and had to think about whether that risk was worth taking. And it has been straw-manned in the most grotesquely literal and pedestrian ways. But that’s the way it should be. The people who get it, get it, and they’re supposed to get it. And the people who don’t, don’t. I don’t want them to get it, and they can straw-man me in the pages of our major newspapers and magazines, which they have done.

So why write about Asian-American identity at all?
I did not set out to be the person who wrote about the Asian-American identity, in part because it’s this kind of lukewarm conundrum that is not of any interest to anyone. That is the essence of what the conundrum consists of: that you’re presumptively regarded as this kind of cipher or void, someone whose role is to be seen as tertiary, a support figure — somebody providing technical assistance, perhaps, but not a central figure in any of the dramas of the age. It’s not ultimately determinative of your fate, but that’s the presumption. So this was this thing, it was part of my life, but it was not something that I had articulated.

Why did I write about it? I was conscripted into it. It all goes back to the thing that I wrote about the Virginia Tech killer (“The Face of Seung-Hui Cho”), which was this kind of eruption or effusion of some deeply unresolved psychological … I won’t even call it a trauma, but a meta-trauma. And it was on the basis of that piece of writing that people became interested in me as a writer. My editor at New York Magazine contacted me with stuff like having me read the Sex Diaries, and then when the Amy Chua book about tiger parenting came out, they asked me if I wanted to write about it. And my answer was, “No, I do not want to write about this, what do you want me to say?”

But they gently encouraged to me to start calling around and formulating this thing. And that became one of the essays in the collection, “Paper Tigers,” which was one of the early examples of how a story could go viral by battening on to racially charged questions. And while writing it, I was conscious that there was already an Asian-American studies discourse about the subject, in which everything is mapped out in this formulaic jargon that I’ve always been resistant to, but which also covers a lot of the same emotional territory that I ended up writing about. I felt that by approaching the subject naïvely, without the theoretical armature that people rely on to make this discourse very rote and uninteresting, that I could make it come alive again. And I think I succeeded.

Having done that, I was continually conscripted to write about Asian-Americans and I began to see the very emptiness of the category, the very thing that makes people’s eyes glaze over, is what made it potentially a kind of volatile sore point in the culture. And that is something I’m always interested in, which is poking my finger into various volatile sore points in the culture. There are all of these contradictions in the proper consensus of how we’re supposed to think about race. And Asians are situated in this very liminal space in the midst of it. And that liminal space, if you press on it hard enough, could potentially open new realities up.

Such as?
Well, Asian identity is this kind of very strange fulcrum point. We’re the happiest to intermarry, the most readily received as an intermarrying class. But at the same time, in certain other ways, we’re the most culturally alien, the ones that are least likely to be seen on television or on a movie screen, such that one movie that happens to have an Asian-American cast, despite having only one Asian-American character, is the cause of all this strange catharsis and activism and weeping.

Like, Asians are the odd man out in both this traditional American hierarchy, which culminates in the white bro, and the alternate progressive hierarchy, which culminates in the intersectional stack. These hierarchies, which are rivals to one another in this ongoing cultural polemic, are both able to find their other in the Asian person.

What I end up proposing at the end of my introductory essay is that this very liminality of the Asian-American condition, as the person who is neither the white person nor the person of color, is going to allow the Asian person to say and do things that white liberals are now afraid to say and do, which is to stand up for certain fundamental values. Because the Asian-American male in particular is so dramatically other to both sides, he’s just in a position to be able to call bullshit on everyone.

Look — right now at UC Berkeley, it’s classified as a microaggression to say “I think the most qualified person should get the job,” or that “you can make it in America if you try.” And Asian-Americans can actually say that this is absurd. It’s something that seems more credible from people who are first-generation immigrants than it would from others. It doesn’t mean that we’re going to take some crudely triumphalist view of the Asian-American experience or the American experience, which of course is a history that is built on genocide and slavery, but we can say that yes, there is actually a correlation between effort and reward, and a culture that is not able to say that is not long for the world.

A lot of your own essays — I’m thinking particularly of the Cho piece and “Paper Tigers,” though there are others — touch on what we might call “microaggressions,” these small but wounding personal slights, and the psychological pain that results from that. At the same time, you’ve been quite critical of the sort of identity politics that has introduced the microaggression into our lexicon.
What is it that I’m interested in all of these cases? Oppression, pain, the place where individual pain, or psychopathology or greed or anger articulates itself into some form of politics. And the demand for recognition that has now been unleashed in our politics in recent years, mostly as a result of our attainments.

Like, all of this is premised to a certain degree on equality. American law was white supremacist — it excluded Asians for 40 years. But that ended in 1965, and the Asians that came in after that went into the elite universities of this country within a single generation. There’s just no precedent for this kind of progress to be made by any group of immigrants anywhere in the history of the world. We wouldn’t even be able to conceive of the microaggression were not the macroaggression stigmatized and on the retreat. My parents’ homes were reduced to rubble in Korea. To speak to them about a microaggression is just not credible, it’s simply absurd.

On the other hand, it’s also true that there’s a lot of pain that goes with being an Asian-American, which I write about. These things are in tension in my own life and psychology and they are in tension in the lives of everyone who lives them. What I want you take away from the book is a series of exercises, where you have been made to enter into arguments that go below the level of simple propositional arguments and get to the emotional core of things. It goes beyond the microaggression. The microaggression is an attempt to create a kind of legalistic point where you can call people out on things or punish them. But it isn’t even the things that you can call someone out for that are ultimately determinative of your fate. Some person may simply decline to show you the same degree of friendliness or regard as they would some other person. They may not consciously be guilty of anything. And that sort of thing iterated over time could mean that you are a much unhappier and lonelier person than you otherwise would have been, and I think that that’s just true, and it’s fine to talk about it and it’s fine to be angry about it and it’s fine to write an essay about it.

But it’s like, when one looks at remediating that through a system of policing speech and thought, then you cross over into this whole other territory where you’re talking about extinguishing human freedom for the purpose of pursuing some person’s ill-defined therapeutic grievance.

One big theme running throughout the essays is this disorienting gap between the polite myths of liberal society and then the way that people actually experience the world, and the effect of the internet in blowing this gap wide open. On the one hand, it reveals all these extremely unflattering things about the way people work, while on the other hand, consolidating this deeply unreal discourse that there’s tremendous pressure for people to publicly affirm.

This comes through especially in “Game Theory,” about the pickup artists. The advent of online dating gives you this ability to sort through people with maximum efficiency. And these pickup artists are learning to hack it,  and what works is not at all to be the sort of kind, respectful, feminist man that one is encouraged to be. What works is to be a total sociopath. It’s doesn’t lead to the most fulfilling relationships, maybe, but the pickup artists are achieving their direct goal of getting women into bed, and they’re doing so through false bravado and preying on women’s insecurities.
All people are driven to some degree by a set of algorithms. No one is reducible to them, and all of us index our humanity in some sense by the extent to which we are not reducible to them. At the same time, nobody acts without reference to those algorithms. And I have a fascination with these brutally realistic depictions of the human entity as a machine whose purpose is to survive and replicate.

The original pickup artists were these dark anti-heros. And what was interesting was their application of a kind of nerdish, game-playing rationality to this thing, love, that we imagine to be least susceptible to it. And through them we discovery that no, in fact, like all other forms of human behavior, love is susceptible to a certain kind of mastery. Now, to some extent, all of their literature is bullshit and bluster and promotional garbage. But on the other hand, yes, people who meet one another place each other within relative hierarchies, and the feelings they have toward one another have to do with that. And people who deny that those things exist are not being honest.

So the pickup artists were engaged in something very subversive to our social contract and to human decency, but in the process, they were also telling us a kind of truth about our society. That was what I wanted to describe. And that doesn’t have to do necessarily with Asians, but it’s like, what would it take to admit the existence of the Asian man and his conundrums and resentments and his secret pride and his shame into our conception of what it means to be a person in America? Our perceptions of many things would have to change in order to do that. And they would have to change in ways that people are not comfortable with.

One way in which this comes out, it seems, is that a lot of criticism you’ve received, going back to “Paper Tigers,” is essentially saying that because you’re not writing about the experience of Asian-American men in these explicitly woke terms, you’re taking the side of white patriarchy.

But part of the Asian male grievance you describe is being denied full manhood in American culture — not getting to be aggressive, to take leadership roles, to be sexually attractive to women. And from the intersectional point of view, that demand for full masculinity is seen as illegitimate because masculinity itself is illegitimate. So they have to say, No, no, no, this can’t be your actual grievance, you have to be mistaking it for something else, which ends up reproducing the very dynamic you’re describing in which the Asian grievance is invisible unless it can be instrumentalized within a larger cultural polemic.
Yeah, I mean it’s very simple. It’s just that as an Asian man, you’re presumptively a loser to be overlooked. That could just be my own projection, and many people have argued that’s the case. There’s no objective way to resolve this, although of course there are studies. So when it comes to Asian-American desirability, there was a study that was done by the Freakonomics guy. This was before the Tinder age, when your dating profile included a lot more information. And he reached the conclusion that the Asian-American male would have to make something like $370,000 more per year to be on parity with his otherwise identical white counterpart in terms of the likelihood that he would get a response.

So just as the Asian-American male is seen by Harvard as the highest achieving academically and yet the least interesting in his personality, the Asian-American male also has the highest median income in America, and yet the manner in which he is judged by participants on these dating sites is not so different from the way Harvard is judging him. There are very different motives and reasons for why that’s the case, and yet it all ends up feeding the same kind of complex.

Of course, back when I wrote about all of this in “Paper Tigers,” in 2011, there wasn’t yet this cottage industry of identity-grievance takes, which has since become the business model of a lot of large media companies. Today, every time a person expresses something like what I’ve just described, someone will come along and decry it as “toxic masculinity.” If Eddie Huang or even John Cho said something to the effect of, [the difficulties of dating as an Asian man] are actually true and they’re true to my own experiences, their complaints would immediately be assimilated to the category of the toxic male, which is a form of being that simply must be eradicated within these progressive doctrines.

And there’s this incredible unreality to this whole discourse. It’s extremely involuted, self-referential, and jargon-ridden, where people talk in ways that are just not consonant with anyone’s actual experiences. And for the most part, you can get the people who write these things in a room and have a conversation with them and nothing they will say will be as uncompromising and as brutal as what they end up sounding like in this very strange form of professional ideological writing that has taken over the category of identity politics. I feel like I’m writing about things that have a lot of overlap with what these people are talking about, but ultimately the hard ideological carapace in which it is presented is just completely alien to me at the level of aesthetics, at the level of thinking, at the level of honesty to experience.

But they’ve managed to set themselves up with a kind of gatekeeping power over this discourse, and that’s just how things are going to be. I just hope that I can continue to say the things that I feel to be true, and ultimately there will be enough people who don’t want to see things through the lens of this totalizing ideology but to see them as they actually are.

And do Asian-Americans have a role in that?
A point that I make these days is that America needs an Asian-American president. To say that is typically to elicit a kind of halfway facetious, partly scornful laughter on the part of the other person. And there’s a kind of unexamined reason why it does generate that kind of response.

But look at what happened at Yale after the Christakis affair. They hired their first Asian-American dean. And they did the same thing at the University of Missouri after their racially tense summer of 2015 — they hired their first Asian-American dean. It’s almost like, mortifyingly too obvious a move. But it also makes perfect sense. You take someone who is not really white and not really a person of color and you put them in a mediating role. And nobody is really happy about it, because nobody really likes Asian people, but they don’t really fear them either, so they can default to them as a kind of lukewarm alternative that both sides in this tense argument can tolerate. And from that moment of lukewarm toleration, which of course is the essence of the Asian-American experience, one can see the iteration, the rearticulation, and the restrengthening of fundamental commitments and values that have now come under threat.

And they’ve come under threat simply because there’s this complex system of lies that grows ever more insular and ever more gaslighting of those who remain within it, such that no truths are speakable. So is the Asian person someone who can speak some truth? This is what I have been attempting, not just because I see some sort of social utility in my role but because that’s my temperament. Any time there’s going to be a series of dogmas placed upon what you’re supposed to think or say, I’m going to put myself on the side in opposition to that. Because the search for truth necessarily involves flouting those kind of restrictions.

And in my view, the struggle against political correctness and against racism should not be opposed to one another. They should be seen as part of a common project. If we’re going to arrive at the fundamental reworking of our racial and gender constitution that is called for, everything must be on the table. And one must be able, at minimum, to speak freely, so long as one is doing it in good faith. And of course there are many bad-faith actors out there who have made things worse for everyone. And those people should be marginalized and rightly so, because we’re not at a moment where bad-faith action can have any kind of salutary effect.

But I proceed from the premise, which may be a false one but which is the only one that I think that I can operate on, that there are in fact people who are trying to think about these issues in good faith. They may not be the ones who are assigned to look at my work, but they’re out there and one can enter into dialogue with them and, ultimately, restore the health of our discourse, simply by talking about things that are complex and conflicted, by speaking about one’s anger and one’s pain, and also by subjecting one’s self to the test of reality, so that you don’t take your anger and pain as a warrant to eradicate, like, freedom in America, right?

Wesley Yang on Asian-Americans and Political Correctness