Above a video of the Olympic figure skater Mirai Nagasu landing a triple axel, New York Times opinion editor and writer (and former Tablet editor) Bari Weiss appended a tag line referencing Hamilton and sent the message out on Twitter: “Immigrants: They get the job done.” A social media pile-on ensued. Weiss stood accused of committing a hateful micro-aggression against the Olympian by referring to her as an immigrant when in fact she had been born in the United States. Her protestations that her intention had been to celebrate the accomplishments of immigrants were for naught. Minority co-workers at the Times joined in the condemnation on the paper of record’s internal discussion platform. The Slack chats were in turn leaked to the Huffington Post. One complainant compared Weiss’ tweet with the internment of American citizens of Japanese ancestry during the World War II.
We owe a debt to the leaker and the Huffington Post for delivering news that all of us can use. In the past 18 months, I’ve had many debates with friends about whether the fractiousness and hyperbole about identity that has long been endemic to academia and the activist left would intrude into the wider world. We now know the answer: L’affaire Weiss was just about the clearest possible demonstration of a premise stated by Andrew Sullivan in a recent column in New York magazine declaring “We All Live on Campus Now.” A close reading of the text, subtext, and context of the Bari Weiss pile-on is therefore in order. It presages what will soon sweep through every institution in America.
There were two categories of people attacking Weiss online: those operating with the desperate sincerity that people leading hate-mobs on Twitter bring to positions held in obvious bad faith, and actual bearers of the identity microaggressed-against. Most of the former group were white people (typically women, but a growing number of men) appropriating the resentments of nonwhite people as weapons with which to anathematize and harm other white rivals for power and precedence, at once immunizing themselves (so they believe) from a similar fate, and recasting their own indulgence of malicious personal impulses as politically righteous ally-ship. That the woman who hit the actual triple axel did not perceive herself as being a victim is, of course, irrelevant to those ostensibly offended on her behalf. Nagasu herself told a press conference quoted in Bleacher Report, “I think that tweet that got a lot of attention was just a quote from Hamilton, so I took it for what it was, a joke … I knew that it was a quote from that, so I didn’t take any offense.” This is indicative of a rule governing social media mobs: No one has the standing to moderate mob rage at those it deems to be wrongdoers: not Margaret Atwood, not Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, and not even the actual “victim” of an ostensible microaggression.
The latter group, which included those self-identified Asian employees of the Times who voiced their opinions on Slack, centered on the incapacity of Asians to make white people bend their knee to specifically Asian grievances in the way that white people reflexively will do so for the grievances of black people. “Asians don’t matter,” was the repeated sardonic refrain for one of the Slack chatters, naming a thought that nearly all Asians who think about the racially-inflected micropolitics of daily life have had: that on the inverted hierarchy of intersectional grievance, their own concerns count for next to nothing. I’ve said as much myself in other contexts, and have been thinking about the meaning of this curious fact. I’ve come to believe that it is charged with much greater significance than anyone suspects, calling for sustained reflection on our present system of thinking and talking about race. Let me begin this process by taking an apparent detour before resolving the issue in subsequent columns.
A few years ago I attended a weeklong executive-training session for Asian-American corporate leaders. The most striking presentation I witnessed was one given by a black partner at a major consulting firm. The man had recalibrated the charismatic oratory he had learned growing up in the black church for the cooler atmosphere of the corporate boardroom and married it to an avowedly Machiavellian worldview. It seemed likely that he was the most formidable man in any setting in which he found himself.
The job of an ambitious nonwhite person climbing a corporate ladder necessarily entailed making oneself appealing to old white men, he explained: Deal with it. It meant earning the trust of those who might at first regard him as someone to fear: not as a physical threat, but as someone who might cause them to feel social discomfort. His job was to defuse that anticipatory discomfort before it hardened into aversion, and turn it into a compound of gratitude and friendliness. This was a skill that could be mastered, he assured his audience of a few dozen Asian-Americans. He had himself mastered it. He retained his Southern drawl, his preacherly cadence. He used it to powerful effect. Why hadn’t more of the people in the room done likewise? he demanded to know.
He singled out for particular contempt the sensitivity that some Asian-Americans exhibited about being asked where they were from. What could be more pedestrian and self-defeating than cultivating a thin skin about the possible implications of a question as innocuous as “Where are you from?” “That’s an opportunity to talk about yourself and connect with people!” he exhorted. “And you’re missing it!”
He himself never failed to seize such opportunities to talk about his own familial origins in the Deep South. It was precisely those kinds of stories that inspired affection and respect in his old white interlocutors. That he was born in Memphis a year after Brown v. Board of Education, that his sisters recall visiting the local amusement park on Wednesdays, the only day that black people were allowed in, was a point of emotional leverage that he had over all other competitors. Bringing that authentic part of his story into the conversation in a way that showed he was there to share his experience rather than blackmail anyone into acquiescence to whatever he demanded increased rather than reduced trust and emotional connection—and laid the groundwork for him getting whatever he wanted. He made sure to exploit it. Why were others with their own stories of migration and hardship failing to make the most of their own stories? Why weren’t they using them to connect with people rather than to close themselves off? Why, for God’s sake, were they instead adopting gratuitous offense-taking at the alleged implicit assumptions embedded in a question as innocuous as “Where are you from?”
The argument was compelling in its pragmatism. It was a pragmatism of individual agency shaped by the professional workplace in which the consultant had himself emerged: one in which nearly everyone was white, and bending to the norms and expectations of a culture in which nearly everyone was white was mandatory, and therefore a key to success. The ethos of the executive program as a whole was shaped by this experience, which was shared by all the Asian executives who had made it to the top of their fields and sought to convey what they knew to those following in their wake. “There’s no racism,” I recall one of the Asian-American leaders exhorting. “We have to get better.”
The message had already begun to feel a bit archaic, even then. The country was becoming more diverse. Workforces were becoming more diverse. White Americans, who had long ago ceased to reproduce at a level that would replace their numbers, had already lost their majority in the younger age cohorts. They had become disproportionately old. In 2002, the journalists John B. Judis and Ruy Teixeira had adumbrated a vision of an “Emerging Democratic Majority” consisting of a coalition of college-educated white liberals and non-white Americans. In 2008, America elected its first black president, seeming to bring to completion Judis and Teixeira’s project roughly a decade before it was due. The prospect that the book seemed to embrace was one in which the ambitious person of color would no longer have to make powerful old white men comfortable anymore, but rather one in which the sheer weight of numbers would cause the dynamic to reverse.
No one had ever asked me, “No, where are you really from?” after the age of 15, at least. In all instances when they had asked it, they were not implying that I was not a “real American” but rather expressing actual curiosity about my ancestry, in a manner that was at worst slightly awkward, and certainly never ill-intended. To assume otherwise would have been indicative of a degree of insecurity about my place in America, and a degree of suspicion of the motives of others, that I simply did not experience or possess. No one had ever, for instance, complimented me on speaking English well, as if it were a great surprise that anyone bearing my features could do so. I am more articulate in the English language than all but a handful of white Americans, most of whom are famous for being articulate in the English language. No one was in a position to patronize me for how well I spoke it. No one ever did.
On the other hand, I really was the child of two immigrants, and nearly everyone I knew of Asian descent either was an immigrant or a child of immigrants. It might feel differently. What if I was part of the Japanese-American community that had been here for four generations, endured dispossession and internment during WWII, persevered and rebuilt their lives without complaint, intermarried at a rate such that there were more mixed-race children of Japanese descent then there were children of “pure” Japanese ancestry—and yet was still asked, by those who might well have a shorter ancestral history in America, “Where are you really from?”
Yes, that might indeed be aggravating. The implicit premise there, of course, was that America was a white country and Americans were white and that the child of Ukrainian peasants born in the United States was ahead of you on the path to full existential comfort in their adopted country and would get there before your own grandchildren would. But there were fewer than a million Asians in America in 1960, with almost all of the 20 million Asians arriving in America after 1965. The percentage of Americans of Asian descent with multigenerational histories in the United States is vanishingly small. It is my experience, and that those who come to share the anxieties and resentments of prior cohorts largely do so not on the basis of systematic ill-treatment but rather on the basis of a conscious effort by ethnic and Asian-American studies programs and by the activist left to inculcate them into resentments they would not otherwise feel.
While this process of inculcation of group history is casually assumed to be therapeutic, because it contributes to “knowing your identity,” I am skeptical of its virtues in practice, as well as its claims to historical-functional truth. What innate connection, historical or functional, does the experience of my Korean immigrant family have with the experiences of Japanese Americans who were interned in California during WWII by an overtly racist American government that was at war with Japan? Isn’t there something very wrong in assuming the real suffering of other people’s parents and grandparents as somehow my own, based on a U.S. census category that defines us all as “Asians”? Why adopt anger that you would never have considered feeling on your own about what happened in the past in anticipation of a future that may not arise at all? And most importantly, what role will the anticipatory adoption of such resentments play in the shaping of that future?
I do not mean to say that I did not suffer from neuroses and insecurities that pertained to being racially other, or that some of the other bullet points on the enumerated list of Asian-American grievances weren’t instantly recognizable to me. They were in their own subtle way a pervasive influence on my own life. And these grievances are plainly linked to a broader history structured by settler colonialism and white nationalism.
Was there a relationship between the fact that policies intended to preserve the racial character of the United States in the late 19th century essentially barred Chinese women immigrants from the United States, making urban Chinatowns into weird, squalid bachelor communities in which the male-to-female ratio in 1943 was 9 to 1—and the dearth of replies I received on online dating sites? How could there not be?
History, especially the undigested and unexpiated, largely unknown and unacknowledged kind, has a way of exerting its influence far into the future. I realize that there is an inherent tension in the impulse to refuse historical resentments, as I did a few paragraphs back, while also acknowledging the continued relevance through time of history’s exactions: Let the tension persist without being too hasty to resolve it, for therein lies the conundrum that will determine the future of the American experiment in the 21st century.
This is the first of three Meme Wars columns on the racial future of the United States.
Wesley Yang is the author of The Souls of Yellow Folk.