The Danger of Asian American Conformity

The Asian American desire for harmony at all costs is not only subordination, but also makes confidence impossible.

5 years ago

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Harvard claims that it rejects academically qualified Asian Americans because of deficiencies in their personalities. I’m not sure which one is worse: if Harvard is lying and using the personality profile to launder anti-Asian discrimination, or if Harvard is accurately assessing something about us we have yet to confront. But these are not mutually exclusive. Both can be true.

Andrew Fung of the Fung Bros YouTube channel recently presented a video titled “Is Having a ‘No Asian Policy’ Messed Up When Dating?” He interviews various college students, both Asian and non-Asian, about their feelings and experiences with Asians who openly refuse to date other Asians. Nearly everyone he asks about the issue immediately recognizes the phenomenon, and seems to have existing opinions about it.

But there is a noticeable contrast between how the Asian students respond as compared to the white and black students. The Asian students do in fact meet the stereotype of being highly agreeable, less confident, and joking in manner — despite talking about a fairly serious racial issue which they concede personally affects them. They also seem reluctant to express strong opinions. They instead prefer contemplating possible reasons or justifications and then acknowledging them as unverifiable — and thus are unable to commit to any one opinion. The non-Asian students, by comparison, answer the question in a straightforward and more serious manner, exuding a confidence and self-assurance that seems lacking in the Asians. They also are able to give strong and potentially offensive opinions. One white student attributes it to self-directed racism, which is engendered by how society is structured. A black student attributes it to the same pervasive racism that subordinates black femininity to black masculinity.

This confidence to be controversial is missing even in the video itself. The Fung Bros adopt their usual Nickelodeon-like sensibility, belying the rather dark nature of the topic. It’s no different in tone than the more lighthearted fare that the Fung Bros were known for in the past, such as comparing New York City versus Los Angeles, or pondering what a Yappie is.

Screenshot of Andrew Fung on Youtube
Andrew Fung interviews college students about Asians who refuse to date other Asians

I fixated on this still frame in particular. In this exchange, the male student opens up about having pursued the young woman also in the frame, but that he feels her rejection of him was racial in nature. She had just admitted to having an inexplicable preference for “mostly white” men. He immediately covers up his admission with laughter and nervous gesticulation, and Fung follows suit, treating the admission as if it were a punchline to a joking diss.

I wonder if the Fung Bros intentionally inserted Pepe — universal symbol for alt-right incel culture — in this discrete moment of literal involuntary celibacy. It is flashed onscreen almost subliminally, and it seems to add the necessary dark shadow to a frame that’s simply too bright to depict what is actually happening.

The young woman later offers up a potential explanation for her tendency to go for white guys. She simply states that it’s a matter of confidence. It’s a simple answer which, when taken together with the distinct lack of confidence of the Asians, provides an understanding of how a non-racial preference can result in a racialized outcome. But unlike Harvard, which relies on the same explanation for its admissions outcomes, she is believable.

The solutions proffered by the Asian students simply exacerbate the problem. One guy suggests “taking more showers” so as not to smell as terribly as the stereotype suggests South Asian men do. Another (more outwardly confident) guy suggests avoiding the “Asian Guy Identity.” Where the Asians are reluctant to externalize blame for the phenomenon on outward factors such as racism, they are eager to internalize the blame for their own physical and hygienic shortcomings. It’s meant to come across as an attempt to project confidence and control by “owning up” to the problem, but appears instead as the very internalized racism the white student had pointed to.

Fung concludes that the phenomenon is both real and more prevalent in women than men —a consensus among the students — but that it happens “for a number of factors” (unspecified). It’s a conclusion consistent with those of the Asian students, who felt that it is too complicated a phenomenon to pass judgement on. But it is at odds with the non-Asian students — who were convinced it was an effect of racism in society.

The overall purpose of the video is in line with Asian American expectations: that things are above our heads, and we should thus learn to live in peace with it. It ends with a knuckle-rapping against those who harass Asian women for their dating choices. It’s an unprompted admonition which betrays the fact that they were addressing an issue that has a much darker and hidden side than was apparent in the video itself.

This will not work. Behind the grinning self-deprecation, and the awkward admissions of racialized sleights treated as jokes, is an anonymous online culture onto which the dark shadow is cast. The anger seems to come down to a basic question: why is that I suffer from racism, yet am forced to concede that it is unavoidable and without solution?

Asian Americans do in fact suffer from racism, that much everyone can agree. But the major difference for us isn’t the kind or magnitude of racism we receive, but in how acculturated we are in accepting and internalizing it. We go through life cautious and anxious on the subject of racism, avoiding it when we can, privately fuming over it when we’re alone and protected from the consequences of confronting it. We go down paths of thought and processing mostly alone, and thus are more likely to become lost, depressed, and even suicidal (as confirmed by real statistics).

What is missing? The answer is most definitely not the cheerful, personally responsible suggestions the Asians provide. It is not wearing contacts instead of glasses. It is not avoiding the scents that our food leaves with us. It is not avoiding the “Asian Guy Identity” as if it were the plague. The Asians simply have no answers beyond self blame.

The answer is to have the political identity that the non-Asian students displayed so naturally and admirably at such a young age. To have opinions requires first that we take ourselves seriously enough to not punctuate our injuries with the laughter of appeasement.

Society sets us up with a false dilemma between political identity and personal responsibility. It serves only those in power for us to believe that constantly absolving the world for its crimes against us is an act of “taking responsibility” for our own lives. This is conformity itself. It not only perpetuates our own subordination, it makes confidence impossible. And as one young black man said —to which one young Asian woman agreed — it all begins with confidence.

Having the confidence of a political identity boils down to something quite simple: having opinions about the world around us. It isn’t hard to see the reluctance of the Asian students to have an opinion about the world; they seem to perceive the world as a neutral entity, and that it is incumbent on them to match the world’s neutrality with personal equanimity. They yearn for a harmonious relationship with an inharmonious world. Having political identity means that our injuries and suffering should tell us more about the world than it does about ourselves. We need to flout the pervasive social pressure to internalize all of our anxieties. We should rather project ourselves into the world, instead of laughing our way back into safety.

Fung is of course correct about the danger of harassment. To blame Asian women is not political identity, but rather the occasional but unavoidable failure of the performative equanimity we’ve come to understand as the “Asian Guy Identity.” But how do we know that this doesn’t all just end up with blaming Asian women? What assurance can we have that taking these problems seriously doesn’t inexorably lead young Asian men to bitterness, anger, and total alienation?

It’s better to ask the other question: are we not yet convinced that our praxis of feigned yin-yang equanimity is exactly what led to the harassment and misogyny which pervades our shadow spaces? Do we not see that the black student who lays out gendered racism as plain fact, is unlikely to be hiding a seething resentment against women? Or that the white student who recognizes internalized racism, is unlikely to be hiding a budding hatred of Asian people?

Screenshot of Fung Bros interview on Youtube
Screenshot of Fung Bros interview on Youtube

Until we have the self-respect to form opinions and accept the risks that come with them, we have no alternative but to blame everything on ourselves. After all, when an Asian man blames an Asian woman, it still just comes down to Asians blaming other Asians. And that is a very convenient state of affairs for those people who have done us wrong.

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Published 5 years ago

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