(10 min read time)
It all began with an Asian American Fiction class.
A young Korean American college student, I eagerly awaited my first-ever Asian American Studies course. Class-required readings included very representative and completely unproblematic Asian American classics such as Amy Tan’s Joy Luck Club and Celeste Ng’s Everything I Never Told You. My South Asian instructor was especially adamant about discrediting any criticism of Joy Luck Club or Amy Tan, citing the novel’s role in empowering Asian women like herself. Knowing Joy Luck Club was consistently criticized for its orientalist tropes¹, white savior narrative², and negative portrayal of Asian men³, when Celeste Ng’s ridiculous tweets suggesting she found Asian men “unattractive” because we all reminded her of her “cousins” resurfaced online, I started to question my instructor’s logic.
During one lecture, she made it a point to dismiss author and pioneering playwright Frank Chin as nothing more than an angry misogynist. Already skeptical of her views, I looked up Frank Chin and eventually stumbled upon “Racist Love”, an essay he co-wrote with Jeffery Paul Chan.⁴ Nearly half a century later, no body of work more plainly lays out the current state of Asian America. This 1972 paper answered the question I asked myself in 2018:
If novels and authors that claim to uplift Asian women while disparaging Asian men are lauded and deemed mainstays of an Asian American curriculum, then what does that mean for me as an Asian man living in America?
“[Most Asian American authors] confirm the popular stereotypes of Chinese-Americans, find Chinese-America repulsive, and don’t identify with it… The white stereotype of the Asian is unique in that it is the only racial stereotype completely devoid of manhood…The mere fact that [most] American-born Chinese-American writers are women reinforces this aspect of the stereotype.”
— Frank Chin and Jeffery Paul Chan, “Racist Love”
The seminal essay introduced me to white supremacy’s harmful and persistent machinations and explained Asian America’s decision to sell out through its “acceptance of white standards of objectivity, beauty, behavior, and achievement as being morally absolute”. These revelations violently woke me from a lifelong mental stupor. I suddenly realized that each racial micro- and macro- aggression I experienced throughout my life was intimately connected to and deeply rooted in my country’s toxic relationship with Yellow-ness. Energized by a mix of anger, curiosity, shame, and — ironically —relief, I scoured the Internet for more meaningful discourse to further develop my racial awareness. Browsing Asian subreddits, I sifted through a number of “how to get white girls and be an alpha Asian bro” posts but eventually found some older, informative threads as well as Tales from Mangri-La, a wonderful podcast dedicated to critically examining the Asian male experience.⁵
One thing led to another. I discovered #AsianTwitter, and without even realizing it, I learned about a broad array of topics concerning Asian America, like the prevalence of white men-Asian women romantic pairings, how Affirmative Action fails to accommodate Asian Americans, the lack of non-racist media representation, and the systemic oppression Asian Americans face under white supremacy, among other things.
I hoped this type of content would inspire the birth of a true Asian American racial consciousness. But after a couple of months, I realized they were echo chambers. Sure, current events and recent developments generated fresh conversations, but the comments and reactions started to look too familiar. Becoming aware of the historic and continued oppression my people face inspired me to engage in activism beyond preaching to the choir. If I did nothing with this knowledge, then I would be complicit with injustice and therefore one with our oppressor. An opportunity presented itself when my mom told me about the Koreatown protests against the undemocratic executive decision to build a homeless shelter in the heart of Koreatown, which was made without consulting local residents.⁶
The Korean news media swarmed me, asking for my perspective as a Korean youth. I must have been one of the youngest folks there, and all the 할머니s (halmeonis) and 할아버지s (hal-abeojis) excitedly expressed how comforting it was to see a young Korean on their side of the protest. I began to understand what they meant as I ran into some mid-to-late Millennial counter-protesters handing out Herb Wesson-issued “myth/fact” sheets designed to curb protest efforts. This pattern of younger Asians dismissing the value of community input extended to social media, where I found some of my Asian American Studies peers peddling the same dishonest, one-sided takes. They accused all Koreans of NIMBY and vilified us as anti-black while regurgitating other anti-Asian liberal talking points (that we are “Crazy Rich” and more privileged than white people), and suggested that denying Asians a voice in how policy is implemented in their own communities is necessary collateral damage to solve homelessness.
Although I refuted their untenable positions (with the help of some random Korean dude I ran into at the protest named Albert), they had greater numbers and stronger optics. My decision to defend Koreatown from an exploitative city council was met with hostility from the same Asian American Studies students who are supposed to be the educated voices and leaders of my community.
“The [acceptable, AKA sellout] minority’s reaction to racist policy is acceptance and apparent satisfaction.”
— Frank Chin and Jeffery Paul Chan, “Racist Love”
In the end, we won. Koreatown residents were able to choose a new location for the shelter a half-mile away from the originally proposed site. The opposition was never to aiding the homeless, but to the city council’s decision to build structures in Koreatown without asking the locals where these shelters would be placed — something that did not occur in wealthier, whiter cities, whose actual NIMBYism shifted their burden onto communities of color.
Despite my disgust with Asian American Studies majors churning out pseudo-intellectual word salads, I spent the next few months listening to lectures for an introductory Asian American Studies class. Unlike the Asian American Fiction seminar, which primarily consisted of non-majors, this class was a requirement for all students enrolled in Asian American Studies. It was a history course, covering everything from Asians emigrating from China to escape the Opium Wars to how we became the present day “model minority”. But though the material covered a wide variety of topics, the tone of the lectures did not correspond with the truly grim Asian American history I knew; the massacres, lynchings, and ethnic cleansing that terrorized the first wave of Asian Americans were all missing. I had to feign ignorance and interject mid-lecture with questions for the professor to briefly discuss the emasculation of Asian men, Chinese bachelor societies, and the genocide of Asian men through the pincer effect of the 1875 Page Act and anti-miscegenation laws. After class, I even approached the professor to point out what I believed to be notable absences from her lecture material, only to be lavished with unwanted praise about how “smart” I was while she completely ignored my questions.
I knew another Asian American Studies professor, whom I previously befriended at some networking event. This woman was the director of the Asian American Studies center and her name is well known across academic circles. I dropped by her office one day, where we struck up a conversation that eventually led to the topic of race. Shockingly, she concluded that we must even sympathize with white nationalists for the sake of racial progress. She tried to justify her idea by making some vague reference to Malcolm X becoming an internationalist late in his life, which still bewilders me because Malcolm X turned to the international stage to build a pan-African movement that would dismantle white supremacy, not to sing “Kumbaya” with racist white people.
Still wanting to explore real-world Asian activism, I secured a summer internship at the K.W. Lee Center, a Koreatown-based non-profit, before the end of the school year. Unlike my previous engagements with Asian activism, which were often frustrating, my time at the K.W. Lee Center was an overall positive experience. I learned what community organizing was like first-hand with fellow Korean-Americans and developed a good relationship with the president, who deeply cares for Koreatown. I even enjoyed interacting with the high school interns, whose (terrible) freestyle rap battles, oily teenage faces, and excessively noisy conversations over girls, music, and sports made me think of how obnoxious I must have been at their age.
But things were not always so rosy and nostalgic at the K.W. Lee Center. One of the trainers was a Korean American woman who constantly bragged about going on dates with white men, and the other was a Korean American man who constantly lectured me about my “light-skinned Asian male privilege”. Unsurprisingly, his college major was Asian American Studies.
While interning there, I spent a weekend at the Pilipino Workers Center in Downtown for Summer Activist Training (SAT), a 3-day program that serves as a boot camp for aspiring Asian American activists. A motley group of folks was present — men, women, queer, dark-skinned, light-skinned, rich, poor — but all were Asians in their 20s. I went in with high hopes based on a friend’s recommendation but I was sorely disappointed by the end. Our days were filled with workshops led by spokespeople from fairly prominent Asian non-profits. As I sat through these presentations, which consisted of trivial and irrelevant activist training activities such as learning storytelling to garner sympathy and playing games to develop “teamwork”, I quietly observed these self-proclaimed activists.
One woman, a representative from some Asian American labor advocacy organization, shared unsolicited details about her aspiring modeling career. Another woman passionately informed us about the poor working conditions of Thai women and how we must “do something”, not specifying what exactly that something would be, and then left after being picked up by her white husband. Someone from the Chinatown Community for Equitable Development (CCED) tried to enlighten us with ideas of a new utopia in which Asian Americans, with their reprehensibly enormous wealth (pushing the Model Minority myth by citing highest average income while ignoring how many Asians live in abject poverty⁷) would partake in a massive redistribution of wealth to support Black and Brown communities.
I didn’t know any other Asian activists who led activist training on Saturday mornings to shamelessly promote themselves, who came home to their oppressor’s loving arms every day, or who recited fantasy tales and insisted they were true. What are these people…?
Activism is not some side gig. It’s not an opportunity to virtue-signal for your white friends, nor is it a platform to spread lies. I saw true activism with my own eyes at the Koreatown protest, where anyone could feel the collective energy of a people resisting oppression and fighting for change. Their dedication is so passionate because these issues endanger their homes, their families, and their livelihoods. Until demands to recognize these essential rights are met, activism is nothing but a lifestyle.
When I saw those “activists” leverage activism to promote their ulterior motives, I started to question my own. Why am I here?
I am not sure what the right answer is, or if there even should be a right answer. But as Socrates said, “there is only one good, knowledge, and one evil, ignorance”. To do nothing with the knowledge I gained would be a victory for ignorance, and thus evil.
But it is very difficult to accomplish anything in Asian activism, even when armed with the necessary knowledge. One fellow participant literally argued with me that Asian American men outmarry more than Asian American women, some bogus or at best very outdated statistic⁸ he apparently learned in his multi-ethnic studies class. Some other guy, a pre-law student, defended Justice Lewis F. Powell for his supposed “good intentions” towards Asians, despite the justice’s lone opinion on the Bakke case shifting the justification for Affirmative Action from remedying societal discrimination to the appearance of “diversity”, which has since harmed Asian applicants.⁹
During a dinner, the SAT program leaders designated four tables for caucuses. Each table would host a topic for conversation, these four topics being “Anti-blackness in the Asian community”, “Asian male privilege”, “East Asian privilege”, and “Mental Health Awareness”. I sat there kind of dumbfounded as the 25 or so aspiring Asian activists collectively began to criticize Asians for xyz reasons over dinner, which by the way was catering from some horrific “Asian fusion” abomination of bibimbap, an embarrassment to one of my favorite Korean dishes. After literally and figuratively taking a deep breath, I moved over to the table devoted to discussing “Asian male privilege”, an already festering conversation condemning Asian American men’s rampant “misogyny and patriarchy”, to throw in my two cents. Put simply, I loaded my knowledge cannons and fired away. In the end, only one person remained: a fellow Asian man named Anthony, who after initially showing signs of cognitive dissonance started to finally grapple with the truth of Asian male oppression. For everyone else, there was no such process. What should have been an opportunity to question the prevailing narrative became a race to run away from the truth. Anthony and I were ostracized to the “losers table” for the remainder of the program.
My internship at the K.W. Lee Center, which was more pleasant than SAT, inspired me to apply for a position at the Korean American Coalition (KAC). At the time, I assumed that Korean American activism was more praxis-oriented and thus superior to the disappointment that is the rest of Asian American activism. The Korean activists I met did not talk endlessly about checking our mythical privilege and apparently inherent anti-blackness; instead, they took to the streets and rallied with the people against the undemocratic building of a homeless shelter. Additionally, I was familiar with KAC’s role in protesting the shelter¹⁰ as well as their work to prevent more than half of Koreatown becoming subdivided into Little Bangladesh.¹¹ Surely this had to be one of the “good” Asian activist organizations!
The interview, which I had with the KAC executive director himself, was terrible beyond imagination. As most people are raised to believe, I thought job interviews were an opportunity for employers to determine if someone would be a good fit as an employee, not an occasion to bully and insult potential candidates. When our interview moved on from sharing formalities to discussing racial issues, the director flat out denied there ever was an ethnic cleansing of Asian Americans¹², calling me “extreme” for asserting well documented¹³ and widely accepted¹⁴ historical facts. In addition, my perfectly justifiable idea of punishing racists through social ostracization was shut down because empty words¹⁵ are more “strategic” (AKA least inflammatory to the status quo).
You can read more details as well as the angry letter I sent him in the following Twitter thread:
Looking back now, I am not sure if he was simply dim-witted and ignorant or deliberately malicious. In my opinion, these are two sides of the same coin.
My 6-month foray into Asian American activism is best encapsulated by my conversation with that guy at Summer Activist Training who tried to argue that Asian men statistically outmarry more than Asian women. He literally tried to refute empirical data from the Pew Research Center.¹⁶
How is this any different than reciting “two plus two equals five”? Am I living in some Orwellian dystopia?
46 years ago, “Racist Love” declared that “the best self-contempt to condition into the minority has its sources seemingly within the minority group itself. The vehicles of this illusion are education and the publishing establishment”. Both this article and reputable scholars have exposed the illusory “Facade of Leadership”¹⁷ which has already instilled self-hate into the minds of many young Asian Americans.
In order for true Asian American activism to flourish today, the only logical option is to abandon the simplistic frameworks that cultivate a false consciousness and instead rebuild our pool of knowledge. A new Asian American movement must pursue actionable solutions based on history, facts, and evidence-based politics.
Guest writer Joo Hyun is a Korean American college student. He enjoys playing the piano. You can follow him on Twitter @hyuneeah.