Monday, September 17, 2012

"I Refuse to Ever Date an Asian Man": Racetrolling, Self-Sabotage, and How Not to Read Junot Diaz

A couple weeks ago, my Facebook feed blew up over a post called "I'm an Asian Woman and I Refuse to Ever Date an Asian Man." Eye-roll, please: there's nothing more likely to get Asian Americans riled up than the subject of interracial dating--except maybe the question of why some Asians don't find other Asians attractive. Self-loathing, betrayal, the emasculated Asian man--all wrapped up into one infuriating headline. And, most of us thought with a groan, it's all been said before.

But there was something weird about this one. On Facebook, Angry Asian Man called the piece "one of the more misguided and self-loathing things I've ever read," but added: "The confounding thing is, the author seems to be fully aware of that." (He declined to post a link to it on his main blog, but that didn't stop 160 FB commenters from chiming in.) The piece, authored by Jenny An for the blog xoJane, was peppered with inflammatory comments ("I'm a racist") and seemingly ignorant self-loathing ("Dating white men means acceptance into American culture"). But idiotic self-hating racists don't generally reference "white supremacy," "patriarchy," and "cultural sexism," while finishing off with a quote from Junot Diaz. 

It was a crazy jumble. It cited stereotypes of Asian American men ("geeky," "scrawny," "effeminate," "small penises"), but then An said she liked those things, and that she preferred white men anyway. It expressed hatred for the "model minority" stereotype, but then said that dating white men was a way of escaping (not reinforcing) that stereotype, and that it was also a fuck-you to "antiquated ideas of Asian unity" (kiss my ass, Asian American movement!). Whaaa? The piece left Asian Americans with heads spinning--but mostly mad.

The indefatigable Jeff Yang decided to get in touch with An and see what the hell she was up to. Yang, like many readers, assumed that the piece was a deliberate provocation, and An confirmed as much:
The notion that An came up with was to write from the perspective of someone whose ideals were shaped by “white supremacy,” showing its “impact on non-whites.” “Seriously — one of the pictures is of me holding a white elephant in a room,” she says. “And well, I figured nobody likes being told that they are racist, so I decided to use the first person. Plus, it's xoJane. That's their thing.”
Well, it's a pretty typical defense for a writer accused of racism: to say the whole thing was a persona, a fictional voice. It's a convenient move, since it allows the author to dodge responsibility for her statements while simultaneously ridiculing critics who are too unsophisticated to know a persona when they see it. (Poetry readers among you may find a echo of Tony Hoagland's debate with Claudia Rankine, in which Hoagland asserts, "Of course I am racist.") And, like all such explanations, it wasn't very plausible. Its seeming obliviousness to the piece's effect on readers seemed disingenuous. It reminded me, as it did many others, of Amy Chua's backpedaling in the wake of the Tiger Mother backlash, when she lamely claimed that her book was "self-parody"--which made me wonder if she'd read it.

Yang had a much better explanation. He rather brilliantly dubbed An's work "racetrolling": "putting outrageous, extreme and possibly offensive racial statements defiantly in plain view and waiting for reaction to roll in." Asian Americans, with their major online presence, are especially ripe for such trolling, and so An and xoJane found just the right triggers that would drive Asian Americans bonkers--especially when voiced by an Asian American.

So why bother with An? Why not just consign her post to the dustbin? Because I think Yang is right, and that we're seeing in her piece a new phenomenon.  Not just that someone's figured out that you can get a whole lot of page views by provoking Asian Americans.  But that An's piece is representative of a new mode of confusion and self-sabotage among Asian Americans--one also embodied, in very different ways, in another recent text An name-checked in her post: Wesley Yang's "Paper Tigers."

Here's how it basically goes: Jenny An is pretty smart. She attended some elite college that's a "bastion of liberal thought," where she learned enough to toss around terms like "patriarchy" and "white supremacy." She knows how Asian Americans are stereotyped and doesn't like it. She appreciates writers of color like Junot Diaz who call out racism. And despite all this, she has a concept of what it means to be Asian American that is so meager, so impoverished, that she can only be revolted by it. It's only an identity of elimination--what you are when you're not something else. So you've only got two choices: act out the stereotype, or withdraw into nihilism. One FB commenter cracked that it was like An had taken half of an Asian American studies class at some point. To which I responded, if she did, it was the wrong half.

Let's begin with An's claim that her post should be read as satire. As she puts it in a follow-up post:
Writers create characters. Call it first-person character, a writerly persona, performance art, whatever. Stir in some strong statements to make it more bloggable, call it a troll if you will. Or call it saying: I'd never, ever, ever do this, but it's just, yeah, I don't do it all that often.
Satire works, when it works, when an author has an exquisite degree of control over all those "whatevers" and "if you wills." If you want to use a persona to critique or satirize a position, there needs to be another position in which your reader can stand to see that persona and see the ways in which it's wrong. Or, if you're really clever, you can also satirize the reader himself by playing with his expectations, not giving him such a place to stand, by constantly showing him how his own position is just as benighted as any.

Unfortunately, An chose neither of these paths.
Nobody wants to be a racist. And by proclaiming my character as one, I thought I was stating that the position I was presenting was in the wrong. I didn't think I needed to unpack that one.
The basic idea here is that since no one would actually say, "I am racist," it should have been patently obvious that An was creating a fictional character.

Sorry, but that's just lazy. It would be nice if being racist, or admitting to it, automatically disqualified you from being an actual human being, but that's hardly the case. In fact, you might even say that it's become vaguely fashionable to be "honest" about your biases, to be "politically incorrect"--because hey, isn't everyone a little bit racist?
Anyway, An doesn't have much of a leg to stand on, since the whole point of her follow-up post is that she is, indeed, a racist, and that it is courageous of her to admit this:
Until I could say out loud that I was racist toward Asians, I couldn't accept my Asian-American self.
For god's sake, the piece itself is called "Recognizing My Internal 'Racism' as an Asian Woman Is the Only Way for Me to Fix It." So if An's goal was to create a fictional "racist" persona, she did a pretty lousy job of it.

How on earth could An have thought that was she was doing was not just insightful, but literary? One of the few things that caught my attention in her original post was her shout-out to Junot Diaz; I'm a big fan of Diaz's work, and I teach his novel The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao to my undergrads on a regular basis. Surely, I thought, someone who respectfully quotes Diaz cannot be as stupid as this article suggests.

In her conversation with Jeff Yang, An claimed to have been inspired by Diaz's depiction of "racial self-loathing" in Oscar Wao, "especially when it relates to romantic relationships." I wasn't the only Diaz fan to say: Huh?

What there is, indisputably, in Oscar Wao is an awareness of racial hierarchies. The elite private school that Oscar's mother attends in the Dominican Republic is a prime example: Oscar's mother is a dark-skinned outcast, while the rich boy she longs for is quite literally the fairest of them all. But even as he's showing us how his characters internalize racism, Diaz schools us in how those hierarchies come about, as his narration and footnotes sketch out the histories of colonialism and genocide that lie behind them.

Actually, Diaz has a short story that's right up An's alley: it's called "How to Date a Brown Girl (black girl, white girl, or halfie)." It's written as a how-to dating guide, broken down by race and class:
Don't panic. Say, Hey, no problem. Run a hand through your hair like the whiteboys do even though the only thing that runs easily through your hair is Africa. She will look good. The white ones are the ones you want the most, aren't they, but usually the out-of-towners are black, blackgirls who grew up with ballet and Girl Scouts, who have three cars in their driveways. If she's a halfie don't be surprised that her mother is white. Say, Hi. Her moms will say hi and you'll see that you don't scare her, not really.
Now I guess you could say, if you're An, that this is a study in "racial self-loathing"; the "you" prefers white girls to black ones, and tries to act like a "whiteboy" even though he isn't one. But that would hardly do justice to what's going on here. Diaz is offering up a painfully detailed analysis of race, class, gender, geography, acknowledging racial hierarchies (white girls as "the ones you want the most") while showing how the protagonist himself is shaped by them (trying to act like "the whiteboys do"). The protagonist doesn't just perpetuate these hierarchies; he's implicated in them, and so are we--a fact emphasized by the story's second-person address to "you." Diaz challenges us to confront our own racism, but he does so by showing how complex it is, how tied up it is with the texture of everyday experience and desire.

It's important to see that what's effective in Diaz's story is not its "honesty," its willingness to admit that racism exists. Instead, it's the story's objectivity, it's willingness to portray racism in all its nuances with an utterly cold eye--as the basis for a how-to guide. The result is powerful, but also chilling.

Maybe--just maybe--Jenny An thought she was trying to do something like this. She quotes Diaz from an Boston Review interview with Paula Moya (which if you haven't read, you should go read right now in all its brilliance) saying, "If a critique of white supremacy doesn’t first flow through you, doesn’t first implicate you, then you have missed the mark." But I guess An didn't read the rest of it, where Diaz goes to say:
But exposing our racisms, etc., accurately has never seemed to be enough; the problem with faithful representations is that they run the risk of being mere titillation or sensationalism. In my books, I try to show how these oppressive paradigms work together with the social reality of the characters to undermine the very dreams the characters have for themselves.
An does give us a few glimpses of the "social reality" that surrounds her confession. She cites statistics on outmarriage for Asian Americans (although she seems to think it's just a recent "trend"), references the model minority stereotype (although I'm not sure she actually understands what it is), and is creeped out by white men with Asian fetishes (until, I guess, she decides to date them). But the piece is so incoherent because An just simply has no idea how these social facts "work together" with an individual consciousness to make racism happen. The result, as Diaz warns, is titillation without insight.

Put simply: Jenny An thinks "I'm a racist" is a purely personal confession--as if it were a revelation of some embarrassing personal preference. (After all, this is in a feature called "It Happened to Me.") Everything that's cringeworthy in the piece--"what I'm looking for doesn't come in an Asian package," "it's because I can date non-Asian dudes," "my closet is filled with J. Crew," "it's the lifestyle I grew up with"--comes from this idea. But racism isn't just a preference--saying "I don't like Asians" isn't the same as saying "I don't like anchovies" or "I don't like football." Racism is a social phenomenon that affects individuals. Diaz gets this; An doesn't.

That's also why An's follow-up post about her own "internalized racism" is, if anything, even more painful. By claiming that her original post had theraputic value (for her), she shows that she's writing in an echo chamber, with no sense of her words' effects on others, and no sense of others who have gone through the same struggles, or the many who have already confronted and called out precisely the kinds of racism she finds in herself. I don't really care if An wants to "own her shit" or not. I do want to know if she realizes, at all, that there are other Asian Americans out there going through the same thing. When you don't realize that, all you've got is yourself and the stereotypes that surround you, which you can either accept or reject. And so self-consciousness becomes self-stereotyping.

It's here that I'm seeing a point of connection with the only other piece of Asian American writing referenced in An's piece: Wesley Yang's widely read essay "Paper Tigers." Now, there's little comparison between Yang's lengthy, extensively researched piece and An's tossed-off rant. But what An and Yang do have in common is that as much as both rage against the stereotypes that hobble Asian Americans' self-image, both ultimately accept those stereotypes, concluding that the only way to be free of them is to reject Asianness altogether.

Jenny An blames her aversion to Asian American men on her hatred of "the lifestyle I grew up with." Yang pretty much agrees; what makes the the Asian American man unattractive and weak is the shortcomings of the Asian culture he's been raised in:
What if you missed out on the lessons in masculinity taught in the gyms and locker rooms of America's high schools? What if life has failed to make you a socially dominant alpha male who runs the American boardroom and prevails in the American bedroom? What if no one ever taught you how to greet white people and make them comfortable?
Yang's essay, like An's, purports to be an indictment of racism, but ultimately it's an indictment of Asian Americans themselves, whose traditional upbringings leave them unequipped to make it in American culture. Self-loathing becomes the natural refuge: Yang's essay notoriously opens with a pitiless inventory of his own "slanted eyes," "pancake-flat" face, and "reptilian...impassivity." The only way out is by rejecting everything that could possibly be labeled "Asian":
Fuck filial piety. Fuck grade-grubbing. Fuck Ivy League mania. Fuck deference to authority. Fuck humility and hard work. Fuck harmonious relations. Fuck sacrificing for the future. Fuck earnest, striving middle-class servility.
Isn't this just the male version of "I'll never date an Asian man"? If being an Asian American man is nothing more than being a collection of these traits, than what can an Asian American man do but hate himself? And what can an Asian American woman do but refuse to have anything to do with him?

Yes, this is "internalized racism." But what An and Yang do is not to analyze that racism (as Diaz does), but to affirm its truth.

The saddest statement in An's follow-up post is this one:
I wish someone would have told me earlier that these feelings of otherness are normal, that you just have to recognize them and be truthful. That those feelings are internalized racism so you can resolve them to expunge yourself of it.
I wish that too, because then maybe An wouldn't think that the only way to deal with feeling different is to "expunge" that feeling, or to retreat into a fantasy of what she calls "self-race annihilation." Because although she references Diaz on white supremacy, she doesn't seem to have the slightest inkling that Asian American writers themselves have grappled with these very issues for generations. How about Frank Chin's 1972 essay "Confessions of a Chinatown Cowboy":
The stereotype of us being a race without manhood has been so thoroughly and subtly suffused throughout American culture for so long that it's become a comfortable part of the American subconscious...Our lack of manliness and all that manliness means in this culture--aggressiveness, creativity, individuality, just being taken seriously--is subtly but visibly confirmed in the movies and life imitating the dark art. Chinese America was rigged to be a race of males going extinct without women.
For all the extremity of his argument, Chin--unlike An or Yang--recognizes that stereotypes have a history, and that they have a function in suppressing the Asian American voice.

Or how about Maxine Hong Kingston's Woman Warrior, warning us against any assurance that we "know" what Asian culture is:
Chinese-Americans, when you try to understand what things in you are Chinese, how do you separate what is peculiar to childhood, to poverty, insanities, one family, your mother who marked your growing with stories, from what is Chinese? What is Chinese tradition and what is the movies?
Jenny An, for all her "honesty," knows less than these Asian American writers of the 1970s knew. White supremacy and the model minority are cliches to her, lines she learned in a classroom; racism is so obvious it doesn't need to be explained. And her piece shows the danger of this half-knowledge: she knows enough to know the stereotypes about Asian Americans, but not enough to know that these stereotypes are not facts. Nor does she know that Asian Americans have, for decades now, been struggling to define themselves in a way that goes beyond such cultural cliches--a struggle that depends on the idea of "unity" that she so casually dismisses. An's "confession" doesn't expose racism so much as it reinforces it. By presenting anti-Asian racism as a merely personal failing, rather than a social fact, she robs us--and herself--of the tools we need to understand how Asian Americans might see themselves, and each other, differently.