(14 min read)
“What and how much had I lost by trying to do only what was expected of me instead of what I myself had wished to do?”
— Ralph Ellison, Invisible Man
When I first started delving into online Asian Diaspora spaces this year, one word I constantly saw thrown around was “self-hate,” which was commonly used as a pejorative towards Asians who kowtow to white supremacy, i.e. Asians with internalized racism. Any Asian who even pays a modicum of attention to Asian American news has seen clear instances of this behavior: Tila Tequila doing the Nazi salute at a white supremacist convention¹ and Ken Jeong acting like a minstrel² come to mind as prominent, grotesque examples of this phenomenon. Academic studies such as Dr. Karen Pyke’s research on the internalized racism of Asian women³ as well as the Clark Doll Experiment⁴, the latter being recreated in 2005 with identical results, have provided empirical evidence to the objective existence of racial self-hatred.
While self-hatred does indeed exist in spades within the Asian community, role modeled by ultra-assimilationist representatives who were handpicked by the white power structure, I fail to see what Asian Americans can do with those who engage in such behavior besides condemning them. These celebrities, “leaders”, and “activists” have shamelessly sold out and their names will thus go down in history, as Benedict Arnold’s has. But to be honest, however much they infuriate me, my anger towards them dissipates rather quickly; I can simply cross their names off the list of over 20 million Asian Americans who are potentially helpers in lifting the oppression placed on my people, and all of them can, frankly, go to hell. My ire is instead reserved for the apathetic Asians, the folks stuck in the barren wastelands of “let’s discuss boba and K-Pop”, never quite making it to the Pro-Asian or self-hate ends of the spectrum of Asian diasporic consciousness.
A recent poll by the National Public Radio has revealed that only 61 percent of Asian Americans believe discrimination against them exists, and a shocking 68 percent of those Asians attribute that discrimination to individual prejudice.⁵ These figures indicate widespread ignorance amongst Asian Americans about themselves, which invariably stems from self-apathy. Any Asians who are literate, know how to Google, and have an ounce of interest in their own people will quickly realize the history of Asians in America reads like the synopsis to a horror flick. Asian Americans cannot understand the present without even attempting to know the past. Otherwise, they are living meaningless, mediocre lives, happy to just be a chink who never wonders why. They are no better than Martin Luther King Jr.’s “white moderate,” a group he declared as “the Negro’s great stumbling block in the stride toward freedom . . . who is more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice.”⁶
Why is this self-apathy so prevalent in the Asian American community? Speaking from personal experience, I would say it comes from a gross misconception of the Asian American identity.
Growing up Asian American
My parents were born in the impoverished conditions of a 1970s South Korea still recovering from the war. The country’s deplorable living standards, which were lagging behind that of North Korea’s⁷, caused many Koreans from that generation to grow up poor. My parents have told me stories of being unable to afford even a banana in those destitute times. Media and news were heavily censored as well; for instance, my parents never heard of the 1948 Jeju Uprising⁸ that claimed 30,000 lives or the infamous 1980 democratic uprising in Gwangju⁹, two national tragedies ultimately resulting from the United States’ installment of right-wing former pro-Japanese collaborators into positions of power. My parents only found out about those events upon immigrating to the States in the ‘80s, but instead of despising the Yankees for their heinous meddling, they were easily enamored with “the land of opportunity”, having grown up in Korea idolizing white Hollywood stars such as Audrey Hepburn and Harrison Ford.
Having equated white America with prosperity and as a refuge from the war-torn conditions of home, my parents were already colorblind to some extent. Race didn’t really matter; living comfortably did. My mom and dad, after their tumultuous childhood experiences, wanted to compensate for their poor upbringing by ensuring my formative years were spent in material comfort and safety. As a result of blatant structural racism, the safest, most affluent communities with the best schools were white suburban neighborhoods. Although I was born in the racially and economically diverse city of Los Angeles, I would be raised in one of the whitest and richest parts of it.
Despite my upbringing, I was never rich or well-off by any means. While I did enjoy certain privileges such as piano lessons or a nice dinner on my birthday, some of my childhood friends never had to worry about money. I remember visiting their giant mansions, being greeted by luxurious sports cars and swimming or playing tennis in their multi-story (!) backyards. Watching my friends get picked up after school in their parent’s Maseratis and Bentleys, or be handsomely rewarded with a shiny new Nissan GT-R simply for turning 16 was not an uncommon sight. But the sizable gulf in wealth I experienced with some of my peers almost never undermined our friendships. I struggled much more with “overcoming” my skin color.
Most of my best friends in elementary school were the few Asians in my grade. Naturally, I found myself gravitating towards them, due to our common appearance, common culture, and in most cases, our shared obsession with the Japanese manga Naruto. However, my once intimate friendships were abruptly and unilaterally discontinued by my friends when we entered middle school. I suspected a multitude of factors; after all, the social milieu changed drastically from elementary to middle school, teenage hormones started kicking in, and there were many new faces to befriend. When I did confront my former friends, they would insinuate that I was boring and naive, despite not long ago having had the time of their lives with me doing “science experiments” with cherry bombs in empty parking lots and fervently laughing along to the most vile and overtly sexual conversations 12-year-old boys could possibly have over our summertime sleepovers. I remember being very disappointed in one friend, who professed to me only a few months before that I was his best friend, when he secretly did not invite me to his birthday party. His new besties? All white boys and white girls. For me, it was clear my friends had begun to dissociate themselves from Asianness, perceiving it as boring and naive and lame. I guess I was slow to pick up social cues, or just stubborn in not falling for The Man’s social engineering¹⁰ tricks. As a result, I still to this day recall 7th grade as the loneliest and longest time of my life.
Eventually, I relented to the social pressure. For instance, I stopped attending my Korean church and tried to be funny by telling everyone “K-Pop is so gay!” The pressure was only compounded by Ken Jeong’s infamous Oscar-for-minstrels winning performance in The Hangover, which was released the summer before my 8th grade. I realized I had to act a certain way — as a sidekick, as the comic relief character — to gain any social standing at my white school, and social standing was important to 13-year-old me who was previously deprived of normal companionship.
Not long after understanding this dynamic, I was forced to make a small exception. I made one Asian friend (among many white friends) in 8th grade, our friendship held together by our mutual penchant for making fun of Asian culture, people, and food. Although he was like me in these ways, he was also quite the skilled animator and video editor, skills which he used to make entertaining short YouTube videos on mostly innocuous topics and stories. Only one of his videos, an animated clip named “Why are Asians so good at math?” went viral, accumulating over 300,000 views, and he made just short of $1000 from YouTube ad money. From this, I learned that perpetuating stereotypes and looking down on Asianness does not just grant you social standing at school, it makes you popular worldwide.
I want to make a distinction here between self-hate and self-apathy. I did not run around acting like a minstrel because I hated my Asianness; in fact, I reveled in it, for it was the source of my newfound, more popular personality. My self-loathing behavior was all performative, grounded in a twisted, subverted, and racist version of what it meant to be Asian. My apathy was reserved for my previously more dignified form of Asianness, which I had long forgotten.
Growing up Asian American Pt. 2
With this perverse state of mind, I moved on to high school, which was whiter than Wonder Bread. I clearly remember taking a demographics survey and the results reporting my school was 85 percent white, not including the many half-Asian students from White Male-Asian Female parents. When you walk into an environment like that unprepared as a young minority, their collective caucasity overwhelms you. It’s not like a slap in the face or stepping into a bucket of cold water type of momentary shock — you marinate in whiteness for 4 years. As a result, whiteness seeps through every pore of your body and alters how you perceive reality. My eyes went colorblind, my ears perked up to Taylor Swift’s white music about white people in white love stories, and perhaps most tragically, my taste buds developed a predilection for dry club sandwiches, unseasoned potato salad, casseroles, and other forms of bland white food. It was probably a good thing I did not care too much for philosophy or politics in high school, because I might have graduated a Nazi like Hank Yoo.¹¹
But no matter how closely my behavior mimicked that of white people, they always reminded me I was not white. When “Gangnam Style” gained popularity my sophomore year of high school, a couple of my white friends recreated the viral video with a picture of my face photoshopped onto the Korean pop singer PSY’s body, and the video was quickly shared around on Facebook (interestingly, they didn’t do this during Linsanity, which happened the same year “Gangnam Style” came out). The edited video became so popular even one of my teachers played it in class, much to the hysterical enjoyment of my peers. On a side note, the teachers did not treat me much differently than my white teenage classmates. My AP U.S. History teacher once casually remarked that the Asian men at school, including the associate principal, a calculus teacher, and myself, all looked identical. My world history teacher, a Black man, pushed forth an unfounded narrative that Koreans were chief instigators of the 1992 LA Riots, absolving white people of their role in beating Rodney King and manipulating the media to manufacture tensions between the Korean and Black communities.¹² My AP Government teacher, a white man married to an Asian woman, once “joked” that I would be gang-raped if I were in prison due to my “youthful” appearance.
“Growing up Asian American is like having PTSD.”
— Albert Hur
Despite these horrific experiences that were slowly chipping away at my soul, I appeared to have had a successful high school career, earning excellent grades, making many white friends, going to prom with a white girl, and getting drunk at white parties. But at what cost?
Growing up Asian American Pt. 3
I started college at a major state school where over 40% of the student population is Asian. As I got to know the fresh faces in my dorms and class discussions, I found myself having some difficulty even making conversation. Ever since the 8th grade, I only knew how to socialize as a token Asian, which is difficult to be once I suddenly became just one of many Asians. Eventually, I acclimated myself to this new situation as I lived, ate, and studied with these people who looked like me. These people looked like me!
I then participated in a variety of organizations and activities, most of which were for Asians or were majority Asian anyways. During this time, I rediscovered my Korean heritage, partied with people whose faces glowed red like mine after drinking, and came to regret ever looking down on K-Pop (shoutout to Irene noona <3). However, I soon sobered from my brief reconciliation honeymoon with Asianness when my romantic advances on an Asian girl were rejected with, “Sorry, I only date white guys.” As any Asian guy would be, I was devastated, partly by the rejection itself but mostly by the response. But this turned out to be a decently popular sentiment amongst the Asian American women at my school. When I would dare ask why, they would bark at me about “preference” or in some cases actually try and make an argument using pseudo-scientific racism regarding Asian masculinity. Somewhat stunned, I went back to discuss with the friends I made in the Asian organizations I joined, only to realize how so many white people, especially white guys, were populating these clubs. Seriously, why is a white guy the producer of an Asian American theater company? Why is a white guy “captain” of an Asian hip-hop choreography team?
It was around then when I discovered Asian American online spaces, where the discourse mirrored the shock I felt in real life. Upon educating myself further on Asian American history and issues, I pushed back against these hairy and smelly invaders by trying to make people uncomfortable about white inclusivity. For instance, I wrote and submitted a 3 act script about the Chinese bachelor societies so that it could be performed by the Asian American theater company I was a part of; however, the organization quickly rejected the story and opted for a colorblind romantic comedy. Maybe I could have written more fleshed out characters or smartened up the dialogue, but I doubt even the best writers could have sold a script antagonizing white people to all the white apologists with yellow faces and actual white people running the theater company. What was the point of even calling it an “Asian American” theater company?
The incident was concerning because this organization was the first and largest collegiate Asian American theater company in the US. Created by Randall Park and his friends, the company spawned many Asian Americans in entertainment such as Park, Ali Wong, Chris Dinh, Tim Chiou, Yumi Sakugawa, Michael Golamco, and Leonard Wu. As a company which is clearly a significant feeder of Asian Americans in entertainment, what happens when it produces more and more of these white apologist type of Asians? I already saw glimpses of the future when Wong Fu Productions released “Yappie,”¹³ a show about young Asian American professionals that for some reason prominently features a white man. Is the inclusion of white people supposed to be an integral part of the Asian American identity?
No. It shouldn’t be.
What is Asian American Identity?
“One of the reasons why [the Asian American label] even came to be — it is a creation of Asian-Americans themselves in the 1960s — was to foster unity and coalition-building. The idea is that together, we can be more unified and lobby and advocate on common issues.”¹⁴
— Dr. Erika Lee, author of The Making of Asian America
As Dr. Lee states, the term “Asian American” was coined to unify all the various Asian groups in America, so that they could more effectively lobby and advocate on common issues. In other words, the Asian American identity was created as a political identity in opposition to the existing power structure, which in America is white supremacy.
I thought I had come a long way from high school in developing my Asian American consciousness. But the identity I had once subverted in order to serve whiteness and later reclaimed in college turned out to be have been counterfeit, too. If Asian American identity is actually supposed to stand in opposition to whiteness, then what identity have we been subscribing to all this time? How does accepting racist love¹⁵ uphold being truly Asian American?
I fear that decades’ worth of unchecked assimilation has begotten a pathetic racial identity that kowtows to white supremacy, further disgracing itself by blatantly plagiarizing the “Asian American” label. Those assimilationists, which include self-proclaimed “activists”, empirical-research-denying celebrities¹⁶, and various problematic authors, have developed this alternate identity out of their common avarice and weak wills. In a white supremacist society, making amends with the oppressor guarantees short-term gains, but never true equality. Allowing these types to sell-out without repercussions encouraged other Asians to do the same, and when they made up the majority, they seized legitimacy and co-opted the name for themselves. Of course, white supremacy enjoys this meek version of Asian America; how else is it going to get away with instituting bamboo ceilings¹⁷ and dehumanizing Asian people?
Asian America was and still is an oppressed minority group. In order to resolve our issues, we the people must collectively reject this alternate, neutered identity, as it is inherently subservient to whiteness, and pursue justice by collectively opposing white power, the action that is the foundational block of the original Asian American identity.
How to Restore True Asian American Identity
In The Wretched of the Earth¹⁸, Frantz Fanon writes that producing “combat literature,” writing that galvanizes the people into boldly opposing the oppressor, is imperative to any liberation movement and should be articulated through all modes of artistic expression. Asian American identity is, in this vein, a combat identity, and it needs combat art to rally its people. While Asian America severely lacks examples of combat art, it can learn and take inspiration from previously successful examples. One such example, also renown for its breathtaking beauty, is the music of 19th-century Polish composer and pianist Frédéric Chopin.¹⁹
Born into a Poland that had been partitioned²⁰ by Austria, Prussia, and Russia, Chopin spent much of his life longing for the sovereignty of his country and his people. Following the events of the 1830 November Uprising²¹, an armed Polish rebellion that was crushed while leaving 40,000 of his compatriots dead, Chopin intuited the sorrowful yet patriotic emotions of his people by skillfully incorporating Polish folk themes into his musical compositions. He was so gifted at this that music pundits have credited Chopin with the idea of introducing nationalism into music, despite his music having no lyrics. It is no coincidence that some of Chopin’s most beloved works include titles such as the “Revolutionary Étude” and the “Heroic Polonaise.”
“Now that the Poles are in deep mourning [after the failure of the November Uprising of 1830], their appeal to us artists is even stronger … If the mighty autocrat in the north [i.e. Nicholas I of Russia] could know that in Chopin’s works, in the simple strains of his mazurkas, there lurks a dangerous enemy, he would place a ban on his music. Chopin’s works are cannon[s] buried in flowers!”
— Robert Schumann, famous German composer and music critic
As dangerous as cannons indeed, Chopin’s music was officially banned by Tsar Nicholas I during Russia’s occupation of Poland over fears that it would instigate patriotism, dissent and rebellion amongst the Polish people. Nearly a century later, Hitler did the same when Nazi Germany invaded Poland.²²
As expected, true combat art is not received well by the oppressor. It is supposed to be controversial. Thus Asian American art based on “universal”, “colorblind”, and other such innocuous topics is ineffective because it does nothing to challenge the white supremacist status quo. The product has to be biased; obviously against the oppressor, but also in favor of Asian Americans.
“Loving blackness as political resistance transforms our ways of looking and being, and thus creates the conditions necessary for us to move against the forces of domination and death and reclaim black life.”
— bell hooks, Black Looks: Race and Representation²³
Famous African American feminist and activist bell hooks declared that the act of a minority loving oneself in a racist environment is resistance. Combat art must adopt this characteristic of self-love, because this is how it stays true to its identity while transcending time and context. We see this with Chopin’s music: although Poland is no longer partitioned, his music is still played nearly 200 years after his death, continually echoing melodies of self-determination and Polish patriotism.
Likewise, Asian Americans must create a unique brand of combat art that prioritizes self-love, and trumpet it unapologetically across the Anglo-Saxon model.²⁴
It must stand as a bulwark of resistance, and it must instill the Asian American combat identity into the hearts and minds of all Asian diaspora. Only when the spirit and self-love of our people are revived will there be a collective imagination, and out of this, true heroes for the Asian American cause.²⁵
Chopin’s Polonaise in A-Flat Major, Op. 53, also known as the “Heroic Polonaise”:
Cho Seong Jin of South Korea, the reigning winner of the prestigious International Chopin Piano Competition, delivers his award-winning rendition of the “Heroic Polonaise.” Of course, a Korean man possesses the appropriate musicality to express Chopin’s raw emotions desiring national sovereignty.
Writer Joo Hyun is a Korean American college student. He enjoys playing the piano. Follow him on Twitter @hyuneeah