Hopefully the latest liberal versus conservative dustup over Sarah Jeong’s #CancelWhitePeople tweets will quickly fade away, as it did with James Gunn and Roseanne Barr before her. Hopefully, everyone forgets that a young Asian American woman provided damning receipts to the conservative right’s longstanding claim of a pernicious double standard in public rhetoric, which regardless of one’s politics has become the fulcrum of white racial aggression. Hopefully, nobody walks away with the impression that Jeong is a fast-tracked herald of an Asian American political movement. Like those other scandals of the Twitter age, cheaply manufactured for consumption by the 24-hour news cycle, Jeong’s tweets are just as uninteresting and disposable. But here’s a summary anyway.
After the New York Times announced it had hired the 30-year old Jeong to its esteemed Editorial Board, a series of her tweets from 2014 were publicized on social media. The tweets (easily found on Google) appeared to express a deep disdain for white people, and at least when read without the context of their accompanying threads, were quite terrible. By her own admission, the tweets were at best poorly executed satire. At worst, they were openly racist. It depends on who you ask. But, as an example, she said it was “kind of sick how much joy [she] gets out of being cruel to old white men.”
Her new employer, the New York Times, stated that Jeong regretted the tweets, and that they “did not condone it.” Jeong herself said she would not do it again. Both offered responsible but mealy-mouthed responses. But the liberal media’s defense of Jeong grows in intensity the further away they are from Jeong’s employment situation. In Zach Beauchamp’s defense of Jeong for Vox, he offers a frustratingly twisted explanation that Jeong’s use of “white people” must be read as part of the specialized parlance of the social justice left, and that it doesn’t mean “white people” but rather is shorthand for the cluelessness of white people about their own white privilege. I’m at a loss to understand Beauchamp’s point, as the noun forms don’t match up. But the point here is that the conservative attacks are simple in their outrage — one tweet simply switches “white” with “black” and asks why it’s suddenly unacceptable — whereas the liberal defense spirals into complexity, as well as plain tone-deafness.
The problem this situation presents for Asian Americans is that our pent up anger and frustration over very real problems of racism, institutional bias, and marginalization, is being enlisted by a broader liberal cause: that of defending a young Asian American woman who they claim as one of their own. The stakes here are higher than usual for Asian Americans, because this isn’t just about our issues, but a highly visible battle in the ongoing cultural war between a starkly polarized American society. Conservative bullies with big platforms like Ann Coulter are claiming that in America, “even Asians” are allowed to bash white people and suffer no consequences.
In the complexity of Trump’s America, I fear that liberal activists are assuming Asian Americans will by default back Jeong on all counts. Such an assumption makes intuitive sense, as we are by and large politically progressive and protective of Asian public figures. But there is a danger we will be goaded into fighting someone else’s battle, this time for a liberal social justice complex which often uses tactics that we may or may not be comfortable with. Jeong and her employer have already disavowed the tweets, but our own Asian American activist media are claiming that Jeong is broadly representative of Asian American sentiment. Jessica Prois of Huffington Post’s Asian Voices, for example, claimed that the New York Times’ statement reeked of condescension, and the backlash against Jeong was “ginned up outrage” over what was a justified outpouring of Asian American anger.
It’s worth asking if Jeong even considers herself a representative of Asian American interests. Inkoo Kang of Slate wrote that Jeong’s tweets were really representative of “forged communities” of writers of color on social media, who communicate amongst themselves in direct language that would be misinterpreted by the larger world. These niche communities, she says, are in danger from anti-journalist attacks, and Kang fears that Jeong’s apology means she will no longer participate. In other words, Jeong was not then speaking as an Asian American, but as a member of a small, tight-knit group of writers with acceptable liberal social justice causes, and those who aspire to join them.
Reihan Salam writes in The Atlantic that Jeong’s anti-white bashing is a behavior typical of upwardly mobile elites in predominantly white spaces. He notes that highly-educated and affluent Asian Americans are often prone to mimic this white-bashing attitude and suspects that “embracing the culture of upper-white self-flagellation” can win them credibility within elite white circles.
A more disturbing account by the Chinese technology blogger and YouTuber Naomi Wu suggests that Jeong used her social media and professional standing to bully and suppress Wu, at a time that Wu was seeking redress from Jason Koebler of Vice Media for a perceived violation of… well it’s complicated, but the entire story is here. Indeed it seems that Jeong was supporting the reputation of white male colleagues, and perhaps leveraging her own Asian female identity as a shield against the claims of another Asian woman, an alarming tactic that Wu seems particularly aggrieved about.
I’m not willing to say whether Jeong was wrong or not, or whether or not Asian Americans should support her (or even care). But too often we see an Asian American gain a prominent activist voice, only to realize that Asian American interests are not at the core of their activism. When Jeong poked the hornet’s nest of white racism back in 2014 as a social credibility exercise, she didn’t imagine that it would come back to haunt her in 2018. Jeong’s response was to retreat into the protection of the New York Times, leaving Asian American activists without such institutional protection to assume her consequences.
To be clear, we should be heartened to see Asian Americans standing up for progressive causes and entering the fight against racism and xenophobia. But we should do so on our own terms. Regular working Asian Americans are essentially left on the sidelines of mainstream liberal activism, only to be called upon when our support is convenient at a particular point in time, for a particular battle, which was not even instigated with our interests at heart.