So first off: the massacre in Atlanta is a travesty — a travesty inextricably intertwined with racism and misogyny. The massacre follows a long and violent tradition of Asian women being viewed under the white supremacist male gaze not as human beings but as hypersexualized objects for use by the white male subject.
The mainstream discourse surrounding the massacre provides further proof that the massacre is inextricably intertwined with racism and misogyny. In a press conference about the massacre, Police Captain Jay Barker described the killer as merely “having a bad day,” revealing that in his ideological worldview he views the killer as human, deserving of empathy — while failing to acknowledge the loss of eight human lives. Like the killer — and congruent with this country’s hegemonic social order — Barker doesn’t think to grieve them, for he too views these slain women as objects.
Upon hearing the story of the massacre, all this was immediately apparent to me — as I’m sure it was to most of my left-politically-minded friends. But as I processed this story, I began to feel a deep sense of unease — unease not only of the racist and misogynistic discourse that I was sure would soon follow, but also of an intuition about a nuanced shift regarding AAPI identity within the neoliberal capitalist order.
I know. What the hell “an intuition about a nuanced shift regarding AAPI identity within the neoliberal capitalist order” means is just as cloudy to me too. For the last week, I’ve been mulling over abstractions and wanting to write an essay to clarify my thoughts to myself. And frankly, I’ve been postponing writing this since (1) although I am an Asian American, I am a man with all the privileges therein, and (2) I do think there needs to be some space after a tragedy before any nuanced discussion becomes appropriate.
But alas, a week has past. I’m hoping that inasmuch as I’m able to clarify my thoughts to myself, I might also be able to illuminate some nuances for others — or at the very least make some compelling points to a few of my Facebook friends.
So where to start? Well…
The most jarring and immediately obvious thing about the recent discourse around AAPI identity is that… well, that it’s happening at all. There are more than 18 million AAPI people in the United States. Yet for as long as I’ve been alive, AAPI issues have, both within the mainstream discourse and within social justice spaces, rarely been discussed. Within mainstream discourse, AAPI people have always been even more Other than “other.” Yes, black and Latino people are indeed different and foreign and inferior (so goes the white supremacist social order), but the United States is a “beautiful social experiment” in which minorities are to be assimilated into a giant “melting pot.” But AAPI people are a problem for this social order — as I said, more Other than even the “other,” incalculable and not easily fit into the narrative, and so are often forgotten. Unable to be integrated: a “Big Other,” you might say. Even within social justice spaces, AAPI issues are disproportionately underrepresented — a minority even to minorities.
Here’s how one Leftist friend described what’s happening in an FB post: “I’ve always felt that racism against Asian Americans in the U.S. was one of the last forms of ‘socially acceptable’ racism. It doesn’t matter who you’re talking to, people of all backgrounds have always seemed to feel comfortable making off-color jokes about Asian drivers, about how people talk, how people pronounce their names, and overall just ‘othering’ Asian folk.”
I think this description is accurate. And there is indeed a part of me, in a very human way, that welcomes all the recent discourse — it is clearly better when people attempt to understand and care for one another.
Yet, there is another part of me that has enjoyed being a Big Other. Among all the discourse I’ve seen so far is an underlying assumption that the U.S. capitalist order is a good one — and to be subsumed into its social systems and social order is a good thing. I think a big source of my unease is the question I see no one asking and that pertains to my relationship between my identity and my country: is being subsumed into the U.S. social order something I even want?
‘Of course,’ a part of me says. ‘Hate crimes are on the rise for AAPI people. AAPI people and issues are getting attention.’
And yet, I think this is exactly how U.S. capitalist social hegemony works. We may acknowledge sentiments in the culture like, ‘Oh, of course Black Lives Matter,’ and feel good about ourselves that we have done our duty. Corporations — corporations that underpay and exploit their POC workers and further decimate “third-world” countries — will even make public statements in support of racial justice. And so in this capitalist society, we are taught to believe that social change is one of idealism (i.e., articulated ideas) and not one of material change, acknowledging issues not to fix them but precisely in order to maintain the material structures that create them.
Put in psychoanalytic terms, we engage in the neoliberal discourse to pay due diligence to the super-ego. “Oh yes, I’ve done my part.” And now we are even destroying the symbolic Big Other, destroying that which could destroy — with no alternative.
Perhaps one could even argue that the most racist discourse is precisely this neoliberal so-called “anti-racist discourse.”
Here’s one of the examples my friend uses in the above-quoted post to show how the U.S. has always been historically racist against AAPI people: “In the early 80’s, during the decline of the automotive industry in Detroit, many U.S. auto workers blamed Japanese manufacturers such as Toyota. Plants actually verbalized that layoffs, and closures were due to the influx of the Japanese manufactured vehicles, and a Toyota vehicle was destroyed in front of a Chrysler plant by laid off employees.”
This logic as an example of AAPI hate is, to me, as angering as it is unfortunately widespread right now. See the attached image that’s been going viral among most of my Leftist friends.
The reality is that China is a totalitarian state. It is genocidal, having murdered more than a million Uyghur people. Union organizers in China are regularly murdered — dissenters of all sorts disappeared by the State. And somehow the Communist Party of China have found themselves to be better, more successful managers of capitalism than Western capitalists — far more exploitative to their workers en masse than U.S. capitalists are to workers here, and increasingly able to force their workers to be even more productive.
That China represents a threat to the global working class is just a reality that Leftists need to be talking about far more often.
That so many of my Leftist friends are conflating criticism of the nation of China with being ethnically Chinese is a sort of racism that is so beyond dangerous as it is ironic.
And that even Leftists have been thus far unable to imagine articulations of material economics in its discourse around racism, at least within this recent discourse, is a surrender of our anti-capitalism in the most weak and pernicious of ways.
I’ve seen many of my friends argue that China’s economic systems are a direct result and function of White capitalist powers. This is not only historically wrong but also deeply ironic in that this analysis erases the agency of Chinese elites. I get the impulse, though. The impulse, of course, is to defend an identity politics in a time when AAPI people are under attack in the United States.
But I am much more interested in a politics that unites us to change the material economic conditions which cause the human alienation which causes the hate in the first place — whether that is in the U.S. or in China.
We need a radical anti-capitalist politics. And that means being wary of neoliberal forms of social justice. And that means being honest and straight-forward in our discourse about the material realities which cause alienation.