Minor Feelings – A Critique
What is a True Asian-American Reckoning?
What are ‘minor feelings,’ and why do they matter? Poet and scholar Cathy Park Hong’s recent book Minor Feelings: An Asian American Reckoning has been hailed as ‘Formidable’ by the New Yorker, ‘A major reckoning’ by NPR, and features as one of the ‘best books of the year’ in a whole swathe of publications ranging from the New York Times to Elle magazine. The book is part memoir, part socio-anthropological analysis, a mish-mash of personal experiences, quotes, and theory that come together as themed essays where episodes of Hong’s life act as metaphors for the ‘problem’ with being Asian-American.
As an (albeit adopted) Asian-American, this book felt like absolutely essential reading. The tantalizing promise of being told exactly what our ‘problem’ was, in words that would be recognizable not only amongst ourselves but to white people, was enough in itself to have me reaching for my credit card. And in that element at least, Minor Feelings does not disappoint. In the second of the seven essays in the books, Hong pins down exactly what ‘minor feelings’ are.
“Minor feelings occur when American optimism is enforced upon you, which contradicts your own racialized reality, thereby creating a static of cognitive dissonance. You are told ‘Things are so much better’ while you think things are the same. You are told ‘Asian-Americans are so successful’ while you feel like a failure.”
This feeling of constant gaslighting, being perpetually undercut by a racist reality that you know is there but are always being told is in your head rings achingly true. While I would be hesitant to ascribe this experience solely to Asian-Americans, and feel that it has resonance to many other marginalized groups, the ways in which sly, sleight-of-hand racism is perpetuated by the myth of the ‘model minority’ rings out as a clear, unequivocal truth that in itself justifies the presence of this book. Hong’s use of the racist-denying rebuttal ‘but you’re next in line to be white’ perfectly encapsulates the dismissive way that many white people (and indeed, People of Color too at times) treat anti-Asian-American racism – implying that there is no racism, if there is a problem, it must be with you personally, because look at all these other successful Asian-Americans! The disparity between our experience of what we know to be racism and the refusal to acknowledge the existence of that racism creates a huge chasm of insecurity that holds us back, makes us second-guess ourselves and mentally self-flagellate – is it really my fault? Am I really just not good enough? I felt this to my core, and could not think of a more appropriate unmasking on which to center a parable on Asian-American racism.
The disparity between our experience of what we know to be racism and the refusal to acknowledge the existence of that racism creates a huge chasm of insecurity that holds us back, makes us second-guess ourselves and mentally self-flagellate – is it really my fault? Am I really just not good enough?
And yet, much of this book is indeed a parable. We are taken on meandering journeys through pockets of Hong’s life, as she pulls out examples of ‘the Asian-American experience’ from her memory and the experiences of family, friends and colleagues. While there is nothing inherently wrong or bad about this, and Hong writes with a clean yet lyrical persuasion, there is, to me something inherently flawed with the concept of an ‘Asian-American Reckoning’ that is based on the selected highlights of one person’s experiences, whoever that person may be. The stories in this slim volume are, for the most part, snappy, precise and relevant to a discussion on Asian-American racism and the Asian-American experience, but I have to wonder at the sheer lack of imagination, the frustrating yet typical amount of assumption, that went into commissioning this book. This is a book about an Asian-American experience, not the Asian-American experience. Yet, the way that it has and continues to be talked up by the (mostly white) press presents it as the solution to ‘problem’ of understanding Asian-Americans, a prescription for addressing Asian-American racism. This it is not.
Asian-Americans are not a homogenous mass, and it would be impossible for one tome to offer reflection and guidance on the entire Asian-American experience and the many different guises of Asian-American racism and how to dismantle them. This problem is inherent in the very term ‘Asian,’ whose homogenizing limitations I have previously analyzed at length, and are no less applicable to the equally reductive ‘Asian-American’. Positing this book as a one-size-fits-all, read-it-and-be-an-expert-on-Asian-Americans is as infuriating as it is eye-rollingly predictable. Kind of like when everyone came out of watching Dances With Wolves and thought they knew everything about Indigenous Americans. Yet even moving on from the obvious fact that this book, one book, is simply not able to do or say all this book is advertised as doing and saying, there are other, more specific issues with Minor Feelings, and its claim to be an ‘Asian-American Reckoning’.
Hong’s wealth and education, the world that she inhabits as a highly successful poet and academic, teaching at an Ivy League school with numerous accolades to her name, are markers of a privilege unknown to most Asian-Americans. This privilege has enabled Hong to live outside the worst of the very behaviors that she describes as critical to the Asian-American experience. It is, undoubtedly, why she was chosen to author this book. In order the hold the ear of white people as you criticize them, you must already have succeeded on their terms and in their world.
Although she is mindful of acknowledging her economic privilege, Hong seems almost unaware of her privilege in having grown up in a close family where her artistic aspirations were supported, and where she regularly visited her family in South Korea and was able to connect to her cultural heritage, not to mention going through her formative years with close friends of the same ethnic background with whom she shared a safe space where she wasn’t forced to apologies for or gloss over her Asianness. While I have no doubt that she has experienced at least some of the prejudice and racism she highlights in the book, at no point does she mention ever experiencing this alone, without means to recourse or support from family and/or friends of South Korean heritage. It is also clear that she has not personally experienced the soul-destroying internal gaslighting that comes from being raised in an environment where white people, whiteness and assimilation are venerated, where you are raised and trained to behave as whitely as possible and are denied access to your own cultural heritage, which you are taught to consider inferior, leaving you unable to defend your own brownness and with a huge empty space inside you where your own identity should be. This is the reality for the many Asian-Americans who do not live in Asian-American communities, who may in fact be the only Asian-Americans in their town, grappling with their identities when facing a sea of whiteness.
When Hong tells stories of the pain, loss, confusion and repression that racism has caused, they are rarely her own, which makes it difficult to feel that she has been anything other than an observer to other people’s stories, other people’s miseries. Hong mentions being depressed for a year, struggling to be productive, giving up poetry and transcribing all of Richard Pryor’s work instead. Yes, her points about the incisiveness of Pryor’s racial commentary are on-point, but at no time does she acknowledge the privilege that allowed her to spend a year neglecting her work and transcribing his. Similarly, Hong’s search for a therapist of South Korean heritage offers useful and interesting insights into her thoughts around the issue of relatability and the need to communicate with others of the same or similar backgrounds, but the way she completely takes for granted her ability, not just to seek therapy, but to seek out a therapist of her precise choosing, money be damned, feels callous.
Similarly, in the lengthy chapter describing her time at Oberlin, significantly the longest chapter in the book, it is difficult to see what exact points she is making about an ‘Asian-American reckoning’. The entire 40 pages feel full of self-congratulatory reminiscing about the joyful artistic dynamism shared between herself and her close friends, also of South Korean heritage. Aside from a tiny nod to white male privilege in the art world, and a brief mention of white space-claiming, Hong uses this chapter to revel in her memories of rich, fulfilling female friendships, passionate study and academic success. While this clearly was Hong’s experience, which is great for her, it is agonizing to imagine all the white people reading this book and thinking that attending a prestigious, white-dominated college was a mighty fine time for Asian women 20 years ago. For me, this was absolutely not the case, and while my own experience is, of course, no more universal than Hong’s, this rose-tinted picture is a gift to the very same racism-deniers Hong purports to be calling out.
The chapter on Bad English is also problematic. While Hong analyses the way that learning English as a second language has enabled her poetry, giving her mental space to play with words and ideas from an external perspective, she neglects to acknowledge that not everyone is able to pick up a second language with such ease, and for many immigrants, including those of Asian descent, the essentialness of being proficient in English may hold them back academically and in the workplace. Having the time, the space and the encouragement to use the space between languages to create poetry is something the majority of immigrants will never experience. I hope white readers will remember this, but I doubt it.
Many other reviewers of this book, including those of Asian heritage, like myself, have been quick to praise Hong’s precise, descriptive language and willingness to articulate the complex and challenging under-the-skin impacts of racism and racialized stereotyping affecting Asian-Americans. They have emphasized the essential nature of Hong’s work, her cleverness, her insight. They discuss how she uses her experiences to create a universal Asian-American voice. It seems to escape their attention that, as reviewers for, say, the New Yorker, they may have slightly more in common with Cathy Park Hong that many other Asian-Americans. These reviewers do not seem to find the absence of other experiences, other voices problematic in a book that purports to be an ‘Asian-American Reckoning’. For them, a voice like Hong’s whom they can relate to is enough. Whether or to what extent she has personally been affected by the issues that she raises appears to be of less interest.
In contrast, Beer and Racism by Nathaniel G. Chapman and David L. Brunsma, released last year by Bristol University Press, came under fire for being written by two white men as opposed to academics of Color. Yet the authors sourced content from 15 interviewees of Color, using their testimonies to support their arguments with concrete experiences and multiple examples to highlight the ubiquity of the structural prejudices facing People of Color in the beer industry. Furthermore, despite being based on thorough academic research, the book and its authors do not posit themselves as sole custodians of the experience of racism in beer. The combination of academic scholarship and multi-vocal experiential examples make Beer and Racism a powerful and incisive piece of analysis, and one that offers strong practical solutions for the institutionalized racism it illuminates. While there are undoubtedly questions to be raised as to why white academics, rather than academics of Color, were contracted to write this book, and why it was necessary for them to take it to a publisher in the UK rather than the US, the weight and validity of the testimonies included in the book from individuals who were directly affected by the structural racism the book addresses is unarguable. There is a difference between having your life and career directly affected by prejudice and experiencing prejudice in a way that is more observational than restrictive. And if you (or your publisher) are claiming to offer a definitive work on that prejudice, the absence of that first-hand lived experience feels problematic, as is the reliance on a single narrator.
Furthermore, despite being based on thorough academic research, the book and its authors do not posit themselves as sole custodians of the experience of racism in beer.
Reading about Hong’s life and her experiences is frustrating because this one singular Asian-American story is being sold as the ultimate white person’s guide to the ‘Asian-American experience’. Hong is an articulate and creative writer who makes some incisive and relevant points, but she is not the collective voice of the nearly 19 million people of Asian heritage living in America. We neither want nor expect to be represented by a single 203-page paperback, yet the white-dominated publishing industry has decided that this is the space they are prepared to allot to our purported ‘reckoning’. Worse, they are congratulating themselves on their perceived generosity, willfully oblivious to the obvious fact that if the author were white, this would be just another literary memoir.
For those of Asian heritage who grew up in the West, we have painfully few storytellers of our own to look up to. This lack of representation is made even more infuriating by the idea that a white reader can read one book by an Asian author and feel that they now understand the ‘Asian-American experience,’ speak about Asianness with confidence and promptly go back to reading white authors. This ‘reckoning,’ as it stands, feels half-present, pacified, cleansed, and polished to be palatable and understandable to a white audience. Authentic enough not to be fake but with so many pieces missing you may consider just binning what’s left of the jigsaw.
The only way to reach a true ‘Asian-American Reckoning’ is to seek out, publish, and publicize many different understandings of what it is the be Asian in the West, what it is to be Asian at all, and allow Asians and Asianness the same multi-faceted existence as whiteness. Instead of being restricted to one ubiquitous ‘reckoning’ we need layer upon layer of individual reckonings in order to be truly represented, allowing us to better understand ourselves and each other, and finally overturn the idea that there is just one Asian interiority.