In 2016 Daniel Hotzclaw, a multiracial Asian American man with a white father and Japanese mother, was convicted of raping multiple black women during his time as an Oklahoma City police officer.1 Hotzclaw was convicted of targeting these women knowing that their social status—poor, black, and sometimes previously convicted of criminal activity—would undermine their potential claims against him of sexual assault. In short, Holtzclaw used his proximity to whiteness to violently exploit and abuse black women.2
Ki Joo (KC) Choi set out to write a book on Asian American Christian ethics. In pursuing this project, however, he realized he first needed to define “Asian American” as a category. This latter task required more careful attention than expected and is the focus of Disciplined by Race. A second volume focusing on normative Asian American Christian ethics is forthcoming. The heart of Choi’s argument in this first volume is that Asian Americans are “disciplined” by race in such a way as to always be racialized according to standards of whiteness that they can never fully embody and even define what it might mean to be Asian.
As a multiracial Asian American man, I have spent countless hours thinking about Holtzclaw, his crimes, and the systems that enabled him to perpetrate them. As an Asian American Christian who has also spent much of my professional life working with people racialized as black, brown, yellow, and white for racial justice, I believe that part of what it means to be a person of color3 in the United States is to resist racism on a daily basis. Because of this experience I have long resisted the suggestion sometimes made that Asian Americans are “honorary whites.”
I am a person of color, too, and I have known that since I was young. I knew it when I was called a “gook” by a white peer as a child. I knew it when an elementary school teacher told a classroom full of students that they could be anything they wanted to be when they grew up but that I could never be president of the United States because I was Korean. I knew it when I was subtly and bluntly informed by others that I was not white or American “enough” in this or that way no matter my paternity.
So, I have resisted Choi’s emerging vision of Asian American Christian ethics because he is so clear that one of the great moral temptations Asian Americans face is what he has called elsewhere “Asian American whiteness.”4 Asian Americans, he argues, too often want to be white and are successful at appropriating some signals of whiteness: education, income, and a hatred of other people of color, especially black people. In this, we often find ourselves aiding and abetting the historic crime of white supremacy, especially its portions that are virulently anti-black.
We do not (have to) give in to this temptation, I want to insist to Choi, because we have faced our own history of racialized injustice. I live down the street from one of the many places on the West Coast where Chinese workers were gathered up like cattle and put on ships to China because of the racist fear and hatred of the white majority. As a child I went to the state fair on the same grounds that once served as an internment camp for Japanese Americans during World War II. Though my name is McCarty and my facial features resemble my (white) father more than my (Korean) mother, I, too, have been made to feel like a perpetual foreigner who might be included in the next round of “yellow peril” that could sweep the United States. And so I know there are others with eyes more slanted, skin more yellow or brown, accent thicker, religion more Buddhist or Muslim or Hindu or Sikh or Shinto, who surely must feel solidarity with racialized others who have their own histories of oppression.
And yet, Holtzclaw raped. And yet, Asian Americans, brown and yellow, push forward lawsuits seeking to change affirmative action laws and policies with the hope that their children might gain some more access to power—often at the expense of our black and Latinx neighbors.5 And yet, too many Asian Americans embrace their model minority status as evidence of their virtue or worthiness while simultaneously seeing it as evidence that others browner and blacker lack some deep-seated something that might help them succeed in this country like they and their progeny have. And so, Choi’s argument about the racialization of Asian Americans forces me to wrestle with my own racialized identity and the racialized identities of my Asian American siblings.
Scholars of race in the modern world have taught us that race is not a biological category but a social construction that differs across time and space. However, more often than not they have focused their analyses on what these constructions look like for blackness, whiteness, or some gradation in-between. In this volume Choi fills an important lacuna by giving us a nuanced analysis of the racialization of those we call Asian American. Drawing on the social sciences, popular journalism and opinion essays, Asian American fiction, and Christian ethics, Choi weaves a complicated picture of the ways that Asian Americans are racialized to either be more “Asian” than American or, perhaps more tragically, “white” in their American-ness. Asian Americans are defined racially by others and never according to our own history or identities. We are either homogenized into the always-foreign, and threatening, category of “Asian” or we are allowed proximity to whiteness by being distanced from other people of color when we are branded the “model minority.”
In short, the racialization of Asian Americans is, in Choi’s words, “fundamentally restrictive.” The racialization of Asian Americans restricts what kinds of “Asians” or “Americans” Asian Americans can be while still being recognizably Asian American. This restrictive racialization also restricts what moral agency can look like for persons who are Asian American in a society so often defined by the categories of whiteness and blackness. To construct any normative ethic for Asian American Christians one must first face head-on the reality of these socially constructed and morally restrictive boundaries. In drawing our attention to the nuanced, sometimes contradictory, and always imposing way that Asian Americans are racialized as Asian Americans, Choi has helped us to see more clearly the challenges and opportunities for Asian American Christian ethics in a racialized and racially unjust society that benefits those racialized as white, oppresses those racialized as black, and plays those racialized otherwise against themselves to keep that structure in place. The work he has done in this volume is groundbreaking and will inform any work done in Asian American Christian ethics for the foreseeable future.
It is this argument that Choi’s four interlocutors—Jennifer Harvey, Traci West, Ramón Luzárraga, and Jonathan Tran—engage from their own racialized experiences as people who have been racialized as white, black, Latinx, and Asian American. And there are two impulses that arise in these four response: first, the impulse to name and struggle with the dominance or relevance of whiteness, blackness, and/or the black-white binary in their own work or experience (West, Harvey, Luzárraga), and, second, the impulse to insist that Choi’s work gives too much power to this frame and, therefore, unwittingly reinscribes it (Tran). West also reminds us of the importance of intersectional analyses of racism by pointing to areas where more work could have been done related to gender and sexuality injustice but are absent from Choi’s book.
The possibility of solidarity across different experiences of racialization is also raised by several of the authors, but is not pursued with much depth. This is the case, in large part, because the argument Choi gives us has reminded our four respondents of the importance of paying attention to their own racialization before attending to the work of cross-racial solidarity and justice-seeking. We see in these early responses to Choi’s work that paying attention to particular experiences of racialization can transform the way that Christian ethicists do ethics. This may be the greatest gift of Choi’s book; a gift for which I am grateful.
Camila Domonoske, “Former Oklahoma City Police Officer Sentenced to 263 Years for Sexual Assaults,” NPR.org, January 21, 2016, https://www.npr.org/sections/thetwo-way/2016/01/21/463867164/former-oklahoma-city-police-officer-sentenced-to-263-years-for-sexual-assaults.↩
I am following Choi’s use of Melanie Bush’s definition of whiteness as both “the compilation of institutional privileges and ideological characteristics bestowed upon members of the dominant group in societies organized by the idea and practice of pan-European supremacy” and the related “white racial frame” which uses “stereotypes, metaphors, images, emotions, and narratives” that “both emanate from and support systemic racism.” Whiteness, then, is both a social-structural system and a cultural production that reinforce and reproduce each other in societies organized by racialized categories in which “white” denotes those at the top of the social, economic, cultural, and political order.↩
I do not understand “person of color” merely to refer descriptively of all people who are not racialized as white. Rather, I understand “person of color” to be a moral-political identity that recognizes both the particularity of racialized injustice in the United States and the ways those particular injustices are the product of racial systems of white supremacy that harm all people not racialized as white.↩
James W. McCarty, review of Asian American Christian Ethics, by Grace Kao and Ilsup Ahn, Marginalia, January 18, 2019, https://marginalia.lareviewofbooks.org/asian-american-ethics-identity/.↩
Anemona Hartocollis, “Does Harvard Admissions Discriminate? The Lawsuit on Affirmative Action, Explained,” New York Times, October 15, 2018, https://www.nytimes.com/2018/10/15/us/harvard-affirmative-action-asian-americans.html.↩
Confronting Asian-Black Conflicts
I am captivated by the ways in which K. C. Choi directly engages contemporary racial conflicts among communities of color in his critical study of racism in the United States, Disciplined by Race: Theological Ethics and the Problem of Asian American Identity.
Choi assails a New York Times opinion-editorial (6/24/2018) on the controversy over fair access to New York City’s specialized public high schools. The editorial mentions Asian American protests against a new integration plan. Because of the editorial’s concern with whether Asian American parents are more interested in aligning themselves with white New Yorkers “at the expense of African Americans and Latino/na communities” (14), as Choi explains it, he criticizes the editorial for ignoring how Asian American New Yorkers have been trapped by social inequalities and disadvantages. Therefore, he maintains, they are portrayed as removed from racist realities confronting other communities of color, namely African American and Latinx communities. Choi also cites “the uneasy, fraught relationship between Asian Americans and the Black Lives Matter movement” (9). He illustrates this tension by citing the details of an incident where African American activists beat an Asian American Milwaukee Sentinel journalist on the street. The Asian American journalist was trying to cover a Milwaukee police shooting of a disarmed African American.
Disciplined by Race sharply criticizes a “black-white paradigm” that has prevailed analytically in anti-racist scholarship and remains the dominant symbol of racism in the United States in both the popular cultural imagination and major reference points of its social history. In this common bifurcation, Asian Americans are “literally caught in the middle like a ping-pong ball bandied about between two competing players in American racial politics” (24). He argues that “Asian Americans also serve as convenient scapegoats for the injustices suffered by African Americans at the hands of white society, as was the case with Peter Liang” (24). Liang is the New York City police officer who accidentally shot Akai Gurley and then delayed calling for and administering immediate medical assistance. Gurley died. Officer Liang was convicted of manslaughter but sentenced to probation and community service.
Centered on Asian American racial identity, Choi fearlessly delves into some of the thorniest aspects of US racial politics when referencing examples that involve Asian Americans and African Americans. He analyzes certain dynamics of racial conflict that foment racist animus and perpetuate the racist structuring of privilege and advantage in church and society. Too many of us who identify as scholars in Christian studies want to have safely convivial sessions of hand-wringing about the evils of racism (or of class exploitation, heterosexism, sexism, and similar forms of the structural privileging of some at the cost of the disempowerment of others). Some of us, who are not drawn to this convivial tone, instead relish obstreperous condemnations of the evils of racism, but usually still maintain a safe distance. For in either case, convivial or obstreperous, we tacitly claim immunity to the toxins of racism by virtue of our hand-wringing complaints or condemning judgments. Clinging to such harbor, we refuse to tarry in the weeds of conflict. That is, we try to avoid the necessary negotiations of conflicting racial group interests and competing desires for empowerment. We try to hide from the distortedness of our humanity that can occur as a result of complicity with the racist systemic harm that such negotiations of political conflicts can reinforce.
With references to African Americans and their political tensions with Asian Americans so centrally incorporated in this text, Choi audaciously beckons to his readers. Actually, it is more than an invitation. He insists on deep, intercultural consideration of the impactful conflicts among people of color that are connected to white racism’s disciplining influence on Asian American identity. I embrace this insistence. Indeed, I welcome it as a crucial, though difficult, component for the development of anti-racist solidarity. Choi decries what he identifies as support for “black insensitivity to and, thus perpetuation of the stereotyping of Asian Americans” (18) in varying critiques. His subjects include Black Lives Matter movement activists and black and Latinx parents protesting standardized testing as the sole criteria for admission to a New York City public high school that I mentioned above, as well as racial comments of black pop icons Chris Rock and Steve Harvey, and the articulation of anti-blackness by anti-racist theological ethicist Katie Walker Grimes.
As I spent time with these critiques I admit that I found myself experiencing some discomfort. But my discomfort needs scrutiny. I must ask myself if my discomfort is grounded in a reflexive, race-based, and anti-intellectual defensiveness. After reading Choi’s account of Black Lives Matter activists beating an Asian American journalist as he sought to report police violence against an unarmed black person I winced with amorphous feelings of racial shame that might have also stoked some defensiveness. Additionally, I am not sure if my discomfort signals that I am succumbing to the tired routine of racial group victim-status competition. This recurrent phenomenon in public discourse can malignantly undercut any anti-racist ethical framework that takes seriously the multiple, differing manifestations of racist victimization that historically marginalized groups of color experience. To genuinely embrace consideration of intercultural conflicts that permeate an ethical dissection of US racism requires one to ask oneself such unsettling questions, right?
At the same time, I am certain that part of my discomfort emerges from the possible neglect of black subjectivity in Disciplined by Race. In its attention to “black insensitivity to and, thus perpetuation of the stereotyping of Asian Americans” this kind of neglect may contribute to a troubling obfuscation. Blacks are useful in these arguments about the racial marginalization of Asian Americans in US racial politics but attention to black subjectivity may be lacking in this text and thus the harms of certain structural aspects of anti-black racism obscured. For instance, attention to the human worth of blacks such as Akai Gurley, the black man accidentally shot by Asian American NYC police rookie Peter Liang, appears to be missing. Might Choi’s reflections on racist disciplining have incorporated more discussion of the lethal consequences of devaluing black human worth and how that devaluation might have been operative as those New York police officers—Liang and his partner Shaun Landau—panicked and argued over the best response to the mistake while Gurley lay dying?
Furthermore, I found myself wanting more engagement of the systemic benefits of racial assimilation for Asian Americans alongside of the focus on the identity constraints and confinement that racial assimilation performs in the racist disciplining process that subjugates them. There are systemic benefits for Asian Americans in claiming a status of not black—not a dumb-lazy-violent-angry black. For the New York Asian American parents insisting on maintaining a high school admissions policy centered on standardized tests, for instance, the systemic benefits of white racism for those Asian Americans may need to be considered. I understand Choi’s complaint about an explicit critique in the New York Times opinion-editorial that portrays “Asian American and white New Yorkers as, together, having benefited” from the admissions policy black and Latinx parents found unfair, thereby “advancing the perception of Asian Americans as disconnected to the realities facing other communities of color” (15). But the Asian American parents and their children did benefit from that policy and its commitment to the institutionalization of supposedly “race-blind” assumptions, did they not? I was not certain how such structural benefits fit into the identity-based claims of this ethic and its emphasis on the harms of white racism for Asian Americans.
There are also intersectional structural issues directly related to social identity with which I wished for more engagement in Disciplined by Race, such as how sexism and heteronormativity play a role in the white racist disciplining of Asian Americans. Gender and sexism, for instance, was a key element in the Harvard affirmative action complaint Choi mentions. The complaint, jointly brought by Asian Americans and white conservatives, claimed that “high performing male Asian Americans” are disadvantaged in Harvard’s admissions policies. There is already too much scholarly silence on how sex/gender norms enforce structural benefits for heterosexual Asian Americans in conjunction with punishments and stigma for queer and gender-nonconforming community members—especially in many Asian American Christian communities.
One of the most compellingly aspects of this Christian ethics text can be found in its conceptualization of white racism in a manner that refreshingly and consistently decenters white racial identity and white people’s authoritative voices and experiences as benchmarks for analysis. This decentering takes place as Disciplined by Race describes how the confining social process of the racialization of Asian Americans can hinder innovation and creativity that are crucial mechanisms for their resistance to racism. As I have stressed here, the book’s decentering of whiteness certainly does not lead to an evasion of the subject of racial conflicts. When Choi calls for a halt to the cycle of resentment caused by African Americans who “do not take seriously the realities of Asian Americans, which only then feeds into the susceptibility of Asian Americans to the manipulations of whiteness and racial resentment of African Americans” (108) my uneasiness and disagreement with such formulations about causation are awakened.
Yet, I relish the conceptual spaces of conflict that this text requires us to enter as it invokes lived societal conflicts. In its ethics vision of provocative and deep challenges of racism, black-Asian American conflict seems to function similarly to the ways in which Asian American hybridity is incorporated. They are deployed in Disciplined by Race in a manner that facilitates struggle with the intense terrain of racist toxicity, furthering the work of solidarity. And, solidarity is never a destination, but always a process.
Asian Americans and Hispanics Dialoguing Along the Way
Any Hispanic’s response to K. C. Choi is complicated from the beginning. Choi writes that his project is to “move away from a cultural understanding of Asian American identity and . . . we need to think about Asian American identity in distinctly racialized terms” (2). Therefore, any Hispanic response faces a challenge because Hispanic identity has never been tied exclusively to any single racial category. A Hispanic can be as white as any European, as black as any African, and every single hue of skin color in between. Hispanics can be Asian too. Chinese, Japanese, and Korean immigration to Latin America has informed Hispanic identity. Filipinos are not usually considered Hispanic by Spanish-speaking peoples. However, any dialogue between Hispanics and Asians cannot ignore that culture produced by the encounter between the Spanish and the diverse peoples of that archipelago. If Hispanics cannot be unified by race, then what is left are the cultural qualities shared by all Hispanics, most notably a shared knowledge and use of the Spanish language, shared historical roots and experience in Spain, Latin America and, for US Hispanics, the United States, and a shared religious experience which transcends the churches Hispanics worship in. This means that the project of Hispanic identity is moving in a direction diametrically opposite the project Choi takes up. Despite this difference in goal, Asian Americans and Hispanics have overlapping experiences in their respective journeys, which this response will address.
Choi speaks to something all too well known to Asian Americans and Hispanics in US history, the motive for the development of one’s own identity is a response to being racialized and stereotyped by a white majority. Taking on Choi’s definition of racialization, Asians and Hispanics are a people who “inhabit bodies or forms of life that are molded by racial hierarchies of value and relationship” (3). A white, pan-European attitude of supremacy did this molding and imposed how Asian Americans and Hispanics ought to look and live from without, instead of recognizing and accepting the intrinsic diversity of Asian Americans or Hispanics as understood and defined by Asian Americans and Hispanics themselves. Whole peoples are locked into a set of very limiting stereotypes all too often bought into by the affected groups themselves. The motive practiced by whites ranged from outright prejudice to an impatience dealing with a people in their richness and complexity. The difficulty Cornel West had in identifying who Hispanics are (35) is a challenge shared by many. However, unlike West who had the good sense to not reach a conclusion about Hispanic identity, he is vulnerable (37) to making what too many people, in their impatience to generalize do: they lock Hispanics, Asian Americans, and other groups into narrow, fixed identities. This action is not unique to whites, and Asian Americans were not the first to suffer its effects.
In American history, whites racialized other groups who were later accepted as white by the larger US society. Consider the example of Italian immigrants to the United States. Italy did not become a united nation until 1871. Italians identified themselves by the region they migrated from. “Italian,” and epithets like “wop,” are examples of the racialization Choi describes, because from the late nineteenth century through the 1960s, those words carried stereotypes of a people, from diverse regions, speaking dialects of the same Italian language family, as exotic, idol worshipers, persons of great physical strength but dubious intelligence, with a propensity to violence.
Hispanics, unfortunately, have a history with their own marginalization of Asians, encapsulated by the phrase they apply to all Asians who emigrated to Latin America and who are also part of the US Hispanic community. “Los Chinos” (the Chinese) is the Spanish shorthand used to describe any Hispanic of Asian background, regardless of their actual country of origin. Asian Hispanics have used the phrase to describe themselves too. For example, when Alberto Fujimori, who hailed from Peru’s long-established Japanese community, ran for the presidency of his country for the first time, his ad campaign called on his fellow citizens to vote for “el Chino.” This phrase can be used by Hispanics without a conscious intent to be prejudicial. If one is unclear about the origin of a Hispanic Asian, that phrase is used to continue the conversation. However, regardless of the intent of the person using this phrase, to describe all Hispanic Asians as “Chinos” is prejudicial by any objective standard. This phrase encapsulates a generalization about Asian Hispanics which molds their identity according to a set of stereotypes. These stereotypes include comments meant to be complimentary as well as insults. Remarks about Asian Hispanics’ strong work ethic and family cohesion, comments about the children produced through a union between Asian Hispanics and Hispanics of another racial background standing outside the mainstream, and the cultural limitations bracketing the roles Asian Hispanics ought to fill (such as the stereotype that Asian Hispanics are best running groceries and dry goods stores), all serve as examples. This stereotyping of Asian Hispanics by their fellow Hispanics is a type of colorism, akin to the prejudice black persons in Brazil receive from their fellow Brazilians. This type of racism does not segregate these groups to the point of social exclusion from the mainstream of Hispanic culture and society. Instead, it limits the economic, political, and social opportunities where Asian Hispanics and Brazilian blacks may participate in that culture and society. White Hispanics have practiced this colorism against other Hispanics of African, Asian, and Indigenous ancestry.
This Hispanic racialization originated in the Spanish conquest of most of the Americas, and the Portuguese colonization of Brazil. These settlers brought with them the myth of a racial hierarchy that originated in the Christian reconquest of Spain from the Muslim Moors, followed by the expulsion of them and the Jews. The sangre azul (blue blood) myth was based on the fiction of the pure Catholic Spaniard, whose blood was unmixed with that of his Jewish or Muslim neighbor. In the Americas, it translated to the idea that the more Spanish, or Portuguese (in other words the whiter one was), the higher their level in society. Asian migrants to Latin America got placed into this racist, colorist, hierarchy.
Choi is correct to use the word “liminal” to describe the Asian Americans as sitting on the threshold between two cultures (63). Hispanics are in a similar situation. United States’ society often does not know how to handle such complexity, and seeks to marginalize the group in question into preexisting categories of race and culture. They are racialized according to Choi (65). Consequently, he doubts whether Asians, or Hispanics for that matter, could develop a new space as a people which can transcend this racialization. Choi also doubts whether the use of Virgilio Elizondo’s concept of Mestisaje to speak of Asian and Asian American experience as a unique creation, more than the sum of its ancestral parts (62), is an effective strategy to combat racialization from without. Despite the fact that Asian Americans and Hispanics, borrowing an idea of Roberto Goizueta, live “in between,” or what Choi identifies as a liminal space between the culture of our respective ancestors and the culture we encounter in the United States, he argues that racialization is such that both groups will gravitate to what whites want. Racialization regulates the terms of hybridity, expropriating it for its own purposes.
However, if demographic trends in the United States hold, and rates of intercultural and interracial continue to increase, the future of the United States may eventually overwhelm the racialized status quo. The Chua-Rubenfeld sisters Choi references (45) may be the future. It is what some commentators call the “Brazilian” future of the United States. Ethnic and cultural identities which Choi correctly points out have been challenged and destabilized will continue to be so, and with greater frequency and intensity, the more hybrid we become as a human species (46). He is correct to say, too, that debates about cultural originality and authenticity will get us nowhere, because such debates ignore the fact that ethnic and cultural identities are always subject to social forces and individual choices, some welcome, and others not, some freely chosen, and others imposed from without (51–52). Any claim to the contrary is to argue that there exists what Choi identifies as a normative standard for being a particular ethnicity or member of a culture (53). This is wrong on the grounds of anthropology and history, which demonstrate that such identity evolved over the centuries, and as Choi points out is still evolving.
Where does this take us long term, theologically? There are two extremes to avoid. One extreme is to declare ethnic and racial identity relativized in face of a shared essential human ontology. Racial and ethnic difference is acknowledged to exist, but its reality is trivially true, dwarfed by our shared human ontology which is located in the human soul. Its advocates would say it avoids the problems of essentializing race and culture Choi speaks of (41–42). But, to move in this direction is to risk Gnosticism because that move would result in denying our God-given embodied selves. The other extreme is to essentialize ethnic identity to the point that only those who belong to that group are authorized to speak to and analyze their own experiences about how they perceive their shared life and being. But, to do that would spell the end of the humanities because there would be nothing human beings could share and dialogue on. It would spell the end of the universal nature of Christianity, as it breaks up into schismatic ethnic and racial churches limited to their own radically contextualized religious and theological imaginations.
Contextual theology could be viewed as a dialogical strategy for Christians to approach a shared universal truth from increasingly diverse backgrounds. How to go about this dialogue, avoid the traps of racialization Choi articulates, and articulate a renewed shared humanity which can also be, as St. Paul states in his Letter to the Galatians, one in Jesus Christ, is a challenge for our time.
Response to Choi’s Disciplined by Race
I am currently writing a book called Yellow Christianity: An Intervention on Christian Anti-Racist Discourse. Since I spend a lot of time there developing an account of Asian American Christianity, I spend my time here initially highlighting, often citing verbatim, two really interesting things Professor Choi says in his book. Both are brilliant insights, critically important if not also controversial, importantly clear and powerfully articulated. My hope is that these insights are among the things people will take away from his book, which should advance a conversation that has become somewhat stagnant and sometimes decadent. I conclude with a question that arises when the two insights are combined.
The first really interesting thing is the problematic of Asian American life as Professor Choi understands it, basically that we Asian Americans are damned if we do and damned if we don’t, so buffeted are we on all sides by whiteness. Choi describes the fundamental problem thusly, “The desire to belong and the desire to be someone is befitting the situation that Asian Americans find themselves in. To some extent, that desire is the Asian American story. . . . Rather than inviting Asian Americans to occupy a space for the creative satiation of that desire, whiteness demands that Asian Americans occupy either the space of whiteness, to the extent that it is allowed, or the space of Asianness, as whiteness defines it.” This leads to the reality that, as Choi writes, “even Asian American ‘choices’ to be counter-cultural, that is, to stand at a distance from or . . . struggle against conceptions of Asianness expected of them by preceding parental generations, may not be acts of resistance after all. Instead, they merely amount to the following of a script that is not of their own making but one that succeeding generations of Asian Americans have simply assumed as counter cultural when in fact it is an inconspicuous form of being ‘American,’” that is, “belonging to whiteness.”
In light of this, Choi picks up from some Asian Americans the idea that, “if we are fundamentally dialogic creatures, then cultivating, enlivening, and securing autonomy in our conception of selfhood takes on renewed urgency. In other words, if our freedom is not zero, then we are not simply subsumed by or an epiphenomenon of our relationality but related to others in a way that does not threaten the integrity of our independence from them. . . . One critical way of maintaining the capacity to engage with one’s relations rather than being overdetermined by them is to advance autonomy, to recognize its intrinsic importance.”
But Choi finally finds these notions continuous, actually, with the internal logic of the problematic itself, because “without a clearer sense of what it means to be defiant or interesting” the claim of autonomy Asian Americans advocate through “self-love”
is susceptible to emulating (or has no choice but to rely on and accept) prevailing notions of value or meaning, [opening itself] up to imitating forms of life that are patriarchal, misogynistic, and self-indulgent. And there is no reason to exclude racist from this list. . . . So long as self-love is advanced without a normative account of what [autonomy or self-love] mean and a standard by which such normativity is to be derived and defended, then there is little reason to think that such self-love can sufficiently avoid patterns of life that, while may “appear” interesting, ends up promoting, wittingly or not, the interest of white racism.
Choi concludes his book with this grim view that without normative scripts, Asian Americans have no idea how to be good, yet all the normative scripts on offer proscribe Asian Americans to the normalizing powers of whiteness.
A second really interesting thing is the intervention Professor Choi stages on certain antiracist discourses, specifically the way those discourses can hurt not only the cause of Asian American liberation but, as such, all liberation. For example, Choi takes up Katie Walker Grimes’s argument that we ought to recast whiteness as explicitly anti-blackness. Summarizing the argument, he writes, “Grimes advocates for a black-nonblack framework for discussing race rather than a white-nonwhite dichotomy as a way of calling attention to the singularity of black experience formed by slavery . . . the black-nonblack framework sheds light on how not all persons of color occupy the same racial position. In fact, Grimes suggests, not only are the racial realities different, many non-black persons must be recognized as having social status at the expense of black violence and marginalization.” Grimes, Choi writes, “makes it abundantly clear that at least with reference to Asian Americans, they are not only different in their racial positioning from African Americans, but are in possession of a kind of social power and freedom that marks them as participating in anti-blackness.” This anti-black participation “frames the racial realities of Asian Americans, as a community immune from racial discrimination. Minimizing, but perhaps, more accurately, trivializing, the plight of Asian Americans of Southeast Asian descent, she notes, ‘Asian Americans end up in prison at lower rates than everyone else.’ To acknowledge the gains of nonblack persons of color such as Asian Americans sheds light on how ‘the relative affluence and educational success of Asian Americans’ contributes to or ‘partake[s] in the discourse that purports to unmask the inherent weaknesses of African Americans.’” To which Professor Choi responds,
Black-Asian relations do not simply move in the direction of Asian Americans purportedly surpassing African Americans economically and, thus, participating in the suppression of black freedom; the dynamic also moves in the other direction. Grimes in only giving perfunctory gloss to Asian American social gains too easily ignores and, perhaps, absolves black insensitivity to and, thus, perpetuation of the stereotyping of Asian Americans. . . . Such oversight of, or maybe even refusal to acknowledge, the more nuanced and discomfiting character of inter-racial relations is part and parcel of the larger trivialization of the complicated political, economic, and social realities that Asian Americans confront.
Adjudicating who is more harmed or at a social disadvantage is not the primary point, nor should it be; it is ultimately fruitless, further pitting one community of color against another, jeopardizing racial solidarity. The more salient and consequential point is that Grimes fails to account for the complexity of Asian American social realities due to the insistence on the Manichean dichotomy of black versus nonblack. . . . To acknowledge the complicated social realities of Asian Americans is more than to simply call attention to the fact that Asian Americans are in a more economically, politically, and culturally precarious situation than is commonly recognized. More importantly, such insistence pertains to the notion that the very opacity of the complicated social realities of Asian Americans is itself a function of white racism working on both Asian Americans and African Americans alike. . . . That marginalization of Asian Americans in racial discourse, paradoxically, grants more power to whiteness since it obscures the fullness of the logic of white racism, that is, how white racism operates to further its colonizing reach. Such obscurity is inevitable when racial discourse is singularly focused on how white racism pivots, to borrow a description from Ta-Nehisi Coates, the plundering of black bodies. This is not to deny that black bodies have been subjugated and that they continue to be systemically threatened and harmed. But . . .
and one really needs to hear this,
the very fact that such a qualification or disclaimer must be made, by an Asian American, to indicate the veracity of white racial evil suggests how nonblack persons of color, especially Asian Americans, are only given the choice to arrive to the conversation on racism in an inherently different position, one that is secondary or minor at best, that is, as ancillary experiences to the true force of white racism. To the extent that anti-blackness, in its emphasis on the singular experience of black persons and how nonblack persons re-inscribe white freedom at the expense of black bodies, displaces Asian Americans from the center to the periphery of discussions on racism, the black-nonblack dichotomy ends up no more than perpetuating the black-white dichotomy that has traditionally framed how race is discussed in the U.S.
With both of these insights on board, let me raise a question. Let me characterize Professor Choi’s first insight about the pervasiveness of whiteness as compelling if not entirely convincing. That is, I think we have reason to believe that whiteness dominates in the way Choi describes, and helpfully in terms of Asian Americans, but not as dominantly and as grimly as he describes. I’ll return to this in a moment. Next, let me characterize the second insight as getting at something problematic, but not surprisingly so. Recall that Choi discovers a problematic series of moves in Professor Walker Grimes’s argument, and he finds the problem there indicative of much anti-racism discourse. He delineates it this way: Walker Grimes first transitions whiteness to anti-blackness and then charges non-black ethnic minorities of whiteness as anti-blackness. Choi thinks Walker Grimes can only get away with the second move by trading in racial stereotypes beholden to the model minority myth. This all comes under the cover of a regnant white/black binary that reduces racism/antiracism to white people and black people, casting everyone else to the side, or as I will say, to the back row. I think Professor Choi is certainly right about all of this, and it is the brilliance and courage of his book to lay it out for us.
Here is where my question comes in. What if the way Choi describes whiteness as not only dominative but as completely dominant creates problematic moves of the kind we find in Walker Grimes? What if Choi’s first insight conceptually sets up the ground for the very problem his second insight uncovers? I mean this not simply as an issue of Choi’s work here, but for all analyses that begin with the presumption of whiteness as completely dominant. I take Choi’s two insights and the way they combine to be indicative of this larger pattern of thought now pervasive in antiracism thinking.
In that forthcoming book of mine, I have a chapter titled “On the Uses and Misuses of Whiteness Discourse.” There is no need here to get into the weeds I get into there, so let me summarize the argument. Whiteness discourse, which over the last few decades has exploded onto the antiracist scene, works as a combination of theories about, first, white identity, and second, non-white suffering. Those theories work as explanatory tools that can help us, when used properly, understand, respectively, why white social identity is so prized as to justify racist brutality for its attainment and maintenance, and how white racism unfurls as a material settlement of the cosmic privations Christians refer to as sin. Both of these theories work when attached to material analyses of racism. They work less well when uses of “whiteness” go off the rails from those material instantiations (say, historic and everyday racism and their capillary transmissions through proxy processes and commitments) toward transhistorical versions of “whiteness.” To be sure, it is an irresistible aspect of material analysis to straddle conceptual rails; only from the edge do we get the view from the edge. But falling off those rails is a tendency we must resist. When we don’t, abstractions take over and we tend toward the kinds of gnostic formulations that have long captivated Christian theorists. Here whiteness becomes that Manichean something-out-there on mission to destroy everything, including God. In “On the Uses and Misuses of Whiteness Discourse,” I argue that most uses of “whiteness” totter off the edge toward the immaterial. I also argue that this ambiguity is rhetorically expedient if not altogether purposeful. Talking about the material processes comprising white social identity and white racism with the glint of this transhistorical something-out-there makes of whiteness even more than it already is (and given what it already is, one wonders why more needs to be added). The ambiguity, I suggest, reveals some confusion about what the ambiguous uses want the concept to do, where the confusion issues from the unbearable conditions of white racism in all of its brutality. The ambiguity will also prove troublesome for future claims of racism, though I’m not sure whether much can be done about this since, as I argue, “whiteness” mirrors “post-racialism,” the former saying that racism is everywhere in order to check the latter saying racism is nowhere. I lastly say that the confusion and ambiguity are not entirely regrettable, since speech can be confused in an importantly substantive way, as aesthetically, ethically, and politically salient forms of rhetorical protest.
As for Professor Choi’s two insights, I think the first insight, the one where whiteness is given as totally dominant, leads to the problem uncovered by his second insight, the casting of Asian American life to the wrong side anti-blackness. Whiteness as a concept has a storied and impressive intellectual pedigree, counting W. E. B. Du Bois, Derrick Bell, Toni Morrison, and bell hooks among its progenitors. It also has a troubled history of reception among scholars who have questioned its methods and conclusions. I suspect that most uses of whiteness are cognizant neither of its legacy of development nor of its troubled history. Nor need they be. More likely whiteness as a popular concept of antiracism follows something like the genius of Frank Wilderson’s seductive account of the singularity of black suffering. Tied to these formulations and popularized by the aforementioned Ta-Nehisi Coates as our generation’s James Baldwin, a transhistorical whiteness as something-out-there ends up hogging the show with Asian Americans and non-black others sitting in the back row.
We need accounts of whiteness sophisticated enough to take into view its material possessions, and vulnerabilities. I am thinking of those able to take into account whiteness as a contingent material development, making whiteness hardly transhistorical but rather a real and present danger, not something-out-there but something somewhere, replete with biopolitical vulnerabilities in which the work of antiracism goes about its life.
10.1.19 | Jennifer Harvey
Asian American Identity as Racial Identity
Breaking the Binary without Losing Race
Right at the beginning of Disciplined by Race: Theological Ethics and the Problem of Asian American Identity, Ki Joo (KC) Choi reminds us of the importance of theological particularity. Particularity is necessary any time we aspire to make larger normative claims and contributions to the work of theological ethics. Taking this methodological commitment seriously, Choi proceeds to envision a project that will engage the particularities of the Asian American experience in order to “asses, integrate and learn from contemporary debates on racism” as these pertain to the work of theological ethics.
Ultimately, Choi delivers on this vision—at least, in part. Disciplined by Race is an excellent and critically important book. It takes up a number of truly difficult issues pertaining to race and racial difference in US-American life, including as these pertain to the relationship of Asian Americans to whiteness and white supremacy, as well as to the complexities of African American and Asian American relationships. Indeed, to Choi’s aspiration that his project will “assess, integrate and learn from” engagement with contemporary debates on racism, I would add “provocatively” and “constructively advance” our collective debates on racism. For that’s what Disciplined by Race does.
Ironically, it is the “in part” that makes this book so successful. A salient reason Disciplined by Race is excellent is because Choi first scales back—way back—on his initial ambition. Choi begins this book by being appropriately careful to acknowledge the innate difficulty of presuming to articulate anything approaching a normative claim about Asian American theological ethics. For what is the Asian American experience, after all? Is it even possible to speak meaningfully of such an experience? If so, how, given the “wild diversity” (Choi’s words) of Asian American identities? What could such a project hope to accomplish without reducing identity to a form of essence or falling into false and unsatisfying binaries that turn on claims of authentic or inauthentic Asian Americanness?
Choi is so appropriately careful that after setting out he quickly pivots to shift the locus of the book. Within the first several pages, he tells the reader he can’t actually pursue the project as initially conceived in these pages. He can’t write an Asian American theological ethics. Not yet. The question of “what it means to be Asian American” presents itself as such a fundamental methodological challenge that Choi must instead begin—and this is where he will choose to remain throughout Disciplined by Race—his much larger project by devoting an entire book to the difficulties and possibilities of making “a case for what it means to be Asian American.” It seems to me the portion of Choi’s larger project represented in these pages is best understood as an attempt to make a case that something can be meaningfully said about being Asian American in the United States; something so sound that theological-ethical scrutiny will not only become possible but, perhaps, even demanded.
The moment this narrower but razor-sharp purpose snapped into view, Choi had my full attention. This book will make many contributions. But what I am most interested in here is with the ways the early author-decision just described leads to a truly provocative and constructive advancement of our current debates over race and racism—not only within theological ethics, but beyond.
In Disciplined by Race, Choi endeavors to read Asian American as a distinctly racialized US-American identity, rather than merely or primarily a cultural one. He doesn’t claim, of course, that culture is irrelevant nor than it can be disconnected from Asian American life. But he engages the problematic many of us already recognize as pervasive in the Asian American experience. Namely, the ways peoples of diverse places of origin, of diverse generations, with diverse immigrations histories, living in diverse US geographical contexts complicate the answers that are possible in response to the collective “who are you?”
Choi demonstrates that the challenge of social or collective identity relative to Asian American peoples can be understood, at a distilled level, as that of continually having two options imposed. He argues that the question that constantly arrives is really this: are you “really white” or are you “really Asian”?
Choi helps the reader understand the extent to which both of these options are contained within a white racial frame. That may be more obvious in the case of the “white” part of the identity question (or perhaps it’s a loyalty question). Clearly this question presumes a falsely elevated norm or racial ideal played in a white supremacist key that simultaneously conflates whiteness with who gets to be considered authentically “US-American.” But Choi makes clear, as well, the degree to which the Asian American being imagined in the “really Asian” part of the question is also the product of a white imaginary. He demonstrates this beautifully through an exposé on the absurdity of presumptions of authenticity. Who is more authentically Chinese, a Cantonese or Mandarin-speaking person? According to whom? And in which part of New York City? What is authentic Vietnamese food? Who gets to cook it? And whose food can never be authentically Vietnamese no matter how it tastes? This “Asian,” he shows, is an identity framed for and by a white voyeur.
What I appreciate deeply here is that Choi’s decision to problematize authenticity does not proceed to then take a familiar turn. It does not become a reason to conclude that talking about or analyzing race is thus also an inherently dead-end essentializing project (and that the Asian American experience somehow proves that). I’m grateful because I’ve seen this far too many times both within and beyond the world of ethics. Instead, Choi makes a different move. Problematizing notions of authentic culture, Choi is able to successfully argue that anything less than a racial reading of Asian American identity will simply not be up to the task of adequately rendering the Asian American experience. So much terrain opens up as a result of this move; terrain that will no doubt be more fully explored in subsequent iterations of Choi’s larger project.
It’s worth noting that racializing the Asian American experience or reading Asian American identity as racial still leaves plenty of room to include attention to the ways hybridity and/or interculturalness also can and do help make sense of Asian American experiences. But Choi insists, and I think he’s correct, that ultimately neither hybridity nor interculturality are adequate to the task of assessing—let alone resisting—the ways whiteness constantly disciplines Asian American identities.
One major reason I find Choi’s move to argue for a racial reading of the Asian American experience so powerful is because Disciplined by Race begins to offer me language to more fully understand, and more meaningfully engage, critiques that have sometimes hovered in direct or close proximity to my own longtime work. Familiar to any reader of Disciplined by Race will be the ongoing critique that debates over racism in the United States remain rooted in or persistently pivot back toward a Black-white binary. My own project is to engage in critical assessments of whiteness with enough care—or particularity—that they too might make a broader, normative contribution to the work of ethics. As a result, in much of my work I engage the Black experience and the interracial relationships through which white US-Americans have constructed oppressive identify formations while simultaneously engaging in concrete, material and systemic legacies of violence, resource hoarding and more. I have long appreciated the Black-white binary critique as apt and important, and have assumed it to be relevant to my project—a weakness within it somewhere along the continuum of potential-to-
Still, while believing the critique to be apt and important, I have consistently struggled to respond to it adequately. Early in my scholarly trajectory, I attempted to move out of the binary by more consistently deploying triangular readings of US history; focusing on Native, African, European people’s relations. In more recent work I’ve used frameworks developed through assessing white and Black US-American relationships to think about white relationships to immigration issues and Latino/a communities, and to centering Native sovereignty amidst discussions of environmental ethics and climate change. But while these approaches are better, on their own they do not fully respond the binary critique.
In theoretical terms we cannot really articulate adequate understandings of the meaning of race in the United States while only focused on two (or even three) racial communities. In moral terms a binary (or even a triangle) renders non-Black or non-Native people of color irrelevant or marginalized in work on race and racism.
Yet at the heart of my struggle to meaningfully respond has been my inability to find a way to complicate the binary (or, triangle) in a manner that didn’t fall prey to a movement toward multicultural, or pluralist, or diversity-focused frameworks for thinking about the meaning of difference in US-American life. And that I’ve been unwilling to do. I recognize that non-Black and/or non-Native experiences are as salient, urgent and devastating when it comes to white supremacy. But I also know what white people—even those of us attempting to make assertions about equity, inclusion or even justice (within and beyond the academy)—do with multiculturalism or pluralism. Namely, they (we) LOVE IT. We love it.
What we don’t love are challenges that remain firmly rooted in the language of white supremacy. What we don’t love are challenges rooted in the language of race. And that is morally and ethically significant; it tellingly reveals that there is more work to be done precisely at those sites. Meanwhile, I’ve simply not figured out how to get out of the binary (or even triangle) bind in a way that doesn’t give whiteness some relief. So, work to more fully account for diversities of identity and experience notions of hybridity? Yes. Post-colonial frameworks? Yes. Mestizaje articulations of identity and the significance of borders and boundaries? Yes. Non-essentializing race-talk? Of course. But I’ve been so in touch with the consequences and risks of what has often seemed to me a kind of loosening of race talk in moments where the critique of binary (triangle) frameworks show up that—given my own project—I just have not figured out a satisfying way to move otherwise.
To that end Disciplined by Race is truly an intellectual gift. It articulates the Asian American experience as a racial experience. It uncovers layers through which we can understand it to be such and offers clear theoretical pathways that unveil how it should be understood, allowing us to see the Asian American experience anew in the process. In so doing it makes it more possible to contend with real inadequacies in binary/triangular work on race (in my own and in others), without giving whiteness and white supremacy any wiggle room.
Through Choi’s reading of Asian Americanness as a racialized experience, new questions become possible to ask and explore toward the end of more adequate contentions with white supremacy. To give just one provocative and compelling example, Choi deploys the notion of passing to demonstrate and expose the ways misperceptions of “racial immunity” and “transcendence” are experiences innate to the racialization of Asian Americans by whiteness. The very conditions that have made it difficult to speak meaningfully about the racism Asian American peoples experience are simultaneously the results of and serve to further strengthen whiteness and white supremacy. Choi also goes on to analyze the impact that the opacity of the actual racial experiences of Asian Americans has on both Asian Americans and African Americans; and, of course, on their relationships to one another.
I close by taking up one more entrée point Disciplined by Race opens that energizes me. It comes at the end and surely will be taken up further in the next installation of Choi’s larger project. Choi demonstrates that in addition to being harmful to Asian American peoples themselves, marginalizing Asian Americans in racial discourse grants more power to whiteness because it “obscures the fullness of the logic of white racism.” By successfully articulating the Asian American experience as a racial one Choi has enabled a question to become available—indeed, to become impossible to ignore in any work on race claiming to be morally serious about challenging white supremacy. The question is this: “What is lost if Asian Americans are not intentionally and more fully accounted for in how whiteness has continued to shape institutional and cultural life?”
It’s here that the reader begins to get glimmers of the ways this deep dive into the particularities of Asian American experiences can and will become precisely the ground on which normative contributions and claims critical for the larger theological enterprise will emerge. (Contributions that would indeed “be lost” if we do not more intentionally and fully account for Asian Americans relative to questions of whiteness and white supremacy.) Having succeeded in making the case that much can be meaningfully said about the Asian American experience and that theological-ethical is absolutely demanded, Disciplined by Race closes by drawing forth some of the implications the book’s able articulation of that experience yields.
Choi begins, at the end, to argue for the ways moral agency in Asian American life can and must manifest as resistance. This must include resisting the disciplinary power of whiteness that shows up in formations of identity. Given the particularity of the Asian American racial experience, Choi gestures toward the implication of the importance of developing stronger notions and doses of autonomy within and amidst our understanding of human beings as relationally constituted. He locates this imperative in a deeper, but all too brief, discussion of the ways anxiety in human life (all human life) compel us to take notions of identity and the self as answers, rather than recognizing them as the questions they truly are.
Choi suggests that articulating agency as one thinks about the Asian American experience may necessarily involve deeper thinking about the call to radical self-love. He suggests there’s moral value in being/becoming interesting, defiant and even “salty” in response to white racial discipling of Asian American identity. But he wants to root such value deeply in a norm of self-love turned outward, toward the benefit of others, and rooted in an acknowledgment of the web of relations that enable the self to be.
There is a lot here and the closing of Disciplined by Race left me wanting more. For here were gestures all too brief, but that begin to point at powerful questions about agency that are indeed universally salient even as they emerged through this deeply particular engagement of the specificity of whiteness and white supremacy in the Asian American experience. The brevity of these gestures, however, was not a weakness. It was merely evidence of a book well done. Choi has accomplished the smaller piece of the larger project in Disciplined by Race that he was clear, from the beginning pages, had to be accomplished first. And now, these rich, inviting, and creative implications and possibilities can be taken up with the fullness and depth that they too warrant. I look forward to reading installment number two.
10.1.19 | KC Choi
Response to Harvey
One goal of my book is to establish the methodological importance of taking Asian American experience(s) seriously. This means to me approaching the authority of scripture and living within the Christian tradition always in dialogue (and sometimes in tension) with the truths that our experiences as Asian Americans point to. One of the convictions driving my work is that Asian American theology (and Asian American theological ethics, more particularly) has insufficiently grappled with the “Asian American” part of Asian American theology and thus the need to confront, interpret, and assess the many dimensions of what it means to be Asian American beyond conventional, simplistic formulations. This will lead to many uneasy discussions that, in my opinion, we as Asian Americans Christians have been reluctant to have, at least in any sustained manner. One of those difficult discussions is, as the title of the book makes plain, how Asian American life is disciplined by race, which is to say that who we are as Asian Americans is inextricably tied to the logic and aims of white racism. So, whether Asians Americans want to admit it or not, when Asian Americans insist on focusing on our cultural particularities on the assumption that there is no monolithic or, at the very least, shared understanding of Asian Americanness, then Asian Americans miss how we participate (or, more specifically, are made to participate) in one of the overarching narratives that drive US society, that of race. Thus, the black-white narrative of American racism is not an ancillary feature of Asian American life, but a central one.
More on the yellow-black-white entanglement in my response to Professor West below. Here, I want to underline the following: this discussion ought not to be merely an intramural one, between and simply for Asia American theologians and the larger Asian American community. Another equally important goal of my book is to propose that focusing on the racial disciplining of Asian American life will be impactful for how theologians, whether Asian or not, think about a number of issues regarding racial justice. Professor Harvey beautifully identifies one of those implications in a way that I only attend to obliquely. In making it more explicit, Harvey shows, at least in one important way, why focusing on the racial disciplining of Asian American identity matters for Christian ethics, and not just Asian American Christian ethics.
She notes that in moving away from a cultural construal of Asian American identity to a deeply racialized one, my book offers a way of talking about the experiences of non-black persons of color that does not resort to an affirmation of multiculturalism or pluralism, or at least an account of multiculturalism that is cheap. Such cheap accounts—i.e., in response to whiteness, we must affirm not only blackness, but also the “loveliness” of Latinx persons, native persons, Asians—too easily allows us to ignore the persistent force of white supremacy in modern life. I think, to some large extent, the language of diversity and inclusion that marks so much of how US college campuses tend to approach the issue of race falls into this trap. In a desire to respond to racism, what so many institutions have tended to do is to actually avoid talking about race by celebrating cultural difference.
Such outcomes, as Harvey rightly notes, gives whiteness some relief at least in terms of our acknowledgment of its actual force on the way we live with one another (or not), and the kind of communities we decide to form (or not). In other words, celebrating cultural difference easily slides into an avoidance or ignorance of white racism’s hold on society. This is not to say that a celebration of cultural differences is wholly devoid of positives (I do not want to be misunderstood). But when it is devoid of critical attention to the larger systemic racial forces at play in our lives, it is not too far removed from the way we appreciate our grocery stores for being stocked with all kinds of cereals, cookies, crackers, chips, etc. Who would prefer less choice than more choice? Life is so much more interesting and invigorating with difference! But never mind that so many of our choices of, say, boxed cereals are choices for iterations of the same thing or idea. What we do not end up asking more often or consistently is why there is so much soy and corn being produced in the first place, resulting in an oversupply of processed foods? Difference in this sense distracts us from seeing the things we need to see to live in a more just world. On a similar vein, it is when we are sharply attuned to the ways Asian Americans are disciplined by race that we are less likely to be lulled into multicultural sleepwalking, that is, a consumerist vision of cultural pluralism, or celebration of diversity. This is an important observation that Harvey teases out from my book.
To Harvey’s observations, I would only add that Asian Americans, if we avoid grappling with how we are deeply racialized, can end up being enablers or unwitting promoters of cheap multiculturalism and, to borrow from K. Anthony Appiah, its false anthropology, and, in fact, that is what we end up doing, I’m afraid. For instance, when recognition of Asian Americans in public life is anchored in the promotion of our diverse foodways and ancestral festivals and customs. Again, not to be misunderstood, I too love our food cultures, the innovations of Asian American chefs and artists, and a good lunar new year’s parade, and I want non-Asian Americans to appreciate the cultural kaleidoscope of Asian American life rather than not. But simply focusing on our cultural diversity or, more specifically, insisting on the need to recognize the value of our diverse cultural expressions, can communicate problematically that somehow there is such a thing as authentic or genuine Asian American culture and failure to recognize this devalues Asian Americans and what makes Asian American life unique. As I discuss extensively in chapter 2 of the book, there is no such thing as Asian American culture, but Asian American cultures. Even still, it is conceptually wrongheaded to think that Vietnamese Americans, Korean Americans, Chinese Americans, Bangladeshi Americans can be defined by, or at least lay claim to, a culture that is ancestrally particular. As I argue in the book, so much of what we as Asian Americans claim as our culture is appropriative and revisionist, which is to say that defining who we are as, say, Koreans or Filipino/a is always a selective process of what we think is important to our identity rather than an immersion into some set definition of it from ancestors we find authoritative.
One example that I think is particularly illustrative of this point is the case of a Filipino émigré to California who chooses to eat, more than he ever has, tuyo, a kind of dried fish, as a means of affirming his Filipino-ness against the tides of Americanization that he fears his fellow Filipinos are falling prey to. What is so interesting about this story is how eating tuyo was an unremarkable feature of life prior to living in the United States. It is only when he is in the United States that it becomes a defining part of his identity as Filipino. That story, I argue, underscores the extent to which particular social forces or dynamics underwrite the kind of culture that persons embody. Our cultures are deeply selective and appropriative, and I also see this so plainly in how some Asian American Christians, especially Korean Americans, struggle over how or where they should worship. As a Korean American, for instance, should I stick with perhaps my childhood immigrant Korean church or should I worship in a non-Korean church; is one more reflective of who I am as a Korean American? What are the forces at play that makes this question of where to worship a salient question? What does one choice over another signal about who I am as a Korean American (or who I want to be as an Asian American), assuming that being Christian is somehow critical to being Korean American, which is debatable given that not all Koreans are Christian and many Koreans would say that going to church is only tangentially related to being Korean. This example and many others underscore how being Asian American in some cultural sense is often a negotiation of the social forces or dynamics that are at play in one’s daily life (and, significantly, it is through cultural construction that we typically negotiate these dynamics).
I do not want to reduce culture to simply a function of social dynamics. However, I do want to underscore the reality that there is no good conceptual basis to argue for some objective account of cultural authenticity and the idea that somehow multiculturalism is about celebrating and respecting the inherent cultures of persons. (I think this is what Oberlin College students did not understand when, among other grievances, they criticized the sushi being served in their dining rooms to be culturally inauthentic and thus an affront to Asian Americans.) We should respect diverse cultural expressions, not because there are such things as authentic cultures, but because in doing so we are afforded the opportunity, in ways not available otherwise, to recognize the social positioning of persons relative to one another.
If multiculturalism is an attempt at fostering recognition of persons who have been historically unrecognized, it does so in a way that employs a false account of who those persons are. By reducing Asian Americans to our cultural base points—as those who eat really interesting and tasty food, speak “exotic” languages, who wear colorful and artful outfits, as those who have so much awesome culture!—masks what I argue are the harder, less “loveable” realities, in other words, those social forces that define, constrain, or discipline Asian American life, specially, that of white racism. Calling attention to how social dynamics shape the cultural lives of Asian Americans is to not only observe the postmodern truism that culture, generally speaking, is constructed, but it is, more importantly, about noticing the logic of our cultural constructions.
One question that I think we need to attend to more so than we have is how the force of white racism plays a role in crafting our cultural practices, the kind of cultural choices Asian Americans make. (How does race inform the ways in which, for instance, Asian Americans selectively appropriate ancestral customs?) In insisting on recognizing Asian Americans as disciplined by white racism, I do not simply mean microaggressions, stereotyping, or persistent suspicions of Asian Americans as foreigners, though I certainly do not want to be dismissive of those racial corrosives. In insisting on the racial disciplining of Asian Americans, I also mean the proposition that multiculturalism is a strategy that placates the desire for recognition but does so in a manner that is ultimately not to the benefit of persons of color. It subverts or circumvents a deeper kind of recognition, a recognition that, at least for Asian Americans, we are subjected to white racial hierarchies and ideologies and that, for example, the model minority myth, as well as the focus on Asian American as inherently a cultural rather than racialized identity, are parts of a larger whole, which is to say parts of a larger logic that aims to position Asian Americans to be either aligned (or adjacent to) whiteness or to be a certain kind of Asian immigrant. All of this raises questions about what kind of agency Asian Americans possess as Asian Americans, questions that emerge quite powerfully, I think, in contemporary Asian American fiction (a matter taken up in chapter 4). Rather than having agency of our own, I argue that we are disembodied, not unlike the ways in which Ta-Nehesi Coates describes the disembodiment of black lives (also a subject of chapter 4).
I have extensively mapped out this question of racial discipline and Asian American agency in the book, so I will not rehearse it in detail here. I do, however, want to underscore that Harvey’s point about the problematic allure of liberal multiculturalism is an important reminder for Asian Americans that we have good reasons to be careful in how we go about seeking recognition as Asian Americans. White racism is not an ancillary feature of Asian American life but a defining feature of what it means to be Asian American; when it comes to the issue of racial injustice, we, therefore, have more than the proverbial dog in this fight; to argue anything less is to obscure the fullness of white racism’s hold on our lives in the United States. The multiculturalism question that we should be pushing, therefore, is: how do we foster appreciation for our diverse cultural expressions in ways that do not glaze over the racial realities of Asian Americans?