A Form of Hesitation



What happens when the lost object speaks; when, given these material and psychic limitations, we do try to express our malaise? What forms exist to communicate and grapple with Asian Americans’ public and private racial grief and outrage?



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Over the past year I have repeatedly begun, and each time abandoned, writing down my emotional and cognitive responses to surging anti-Asian racism. I haven’t faltered because the writing is too painful, or because I can’t find the perfect words; although both of those things are true, inadequacy and turmoil are precisely why my impulse is to pick up a pen. Rather, I hesitate because the motivation to reflect and write about myself in the wake of media reports of brutal attacks on others — people bearing the Asian or Asian American label more vulnerable than me — seems entirely self-centered.

I worry that giving my feelings a written form will formalize them, and myself, within a problem that has little to do with me, taking up discursive space needed for the stories and lives that, barring spectacular violence, are often ignored. My Ivy League, upper-middle class, male angst seems trivial, and writing about it disrespectful, to physical and verbal assaults on elders in Chinatowns across the country; the murder of Soon Chung Park, Hyun Jung Grant, Suncha Kim, Yong Ae Yue, Xiaojie Tan, and Daoyou Feng in Atlanta this past March; the structural hierarchies squeezing and endangering the lives of so many Asian migrants in the United States.

That hesitation begins in private — even a journal entry dedicated to my distress would indulge and enact my narcissism. Whereas if I don’t write them down, perhaps the thoughts never existed at all.

A public essay would be worse, betraying a clear desire for readers to recognize and validate my pain, to salve my shameful privilege. Especially to write only after the Atlanta shootings, about myself or anything at all, when I’ve not done so before suggests my priorities regarding the violence are egotistic. And the public arena, where there is finite time and space for nonwhite stories, only magnifies the risk of watering down or drowning out overlooked voices with my own. This essay, then, is a contradiction — why have I written it?

That question, “Why am I writing?”, has been the endpoint of every cautious foray into inking my angst. And upon concluding my motivations are selfish, I stop. But on the most recent attempt, I realized the question I’d really been asking all along is distinct: “What function does my writing serve?” The difference is that, while “Why am I writing?” is more fundamental (and perhaps unanswerable), pondering not what I write for but why write, full-stop, the question “What function does my writing serve?” asks what particular role words play toward a concrete end.

Which then leads me to ask, why is my impulse amidst this surge in anti-Asian violence not only to set my responses to writing, but to think of that writing in terms of function and, finding the function unsatisfactory and self-centered, to abandon the project? And why do I locate function in a zero-sum calculus of legibility and recognition?

***

Obviously, I have a major case of what Cathy Park Hong names her acclaimed essay collection after, Minor Feelings: the dysphoria of being Asian in America, with the endless gaslighting of that racialized experience by white institutions and people that script you as a successful, well-behaved “model minority.” Hong writes that, “when minor feelings are finally externalized, they are interpreted as hostile, ungrateful, jealous, depressing, and belligerent, affects ascribed to racialized behavior that whites consider out of line.”

Indeed, prior to this writing I’d not actually “externalized” anything. The gaslighting is internal, telling myself that these affects are out of line and resigning myself to the position of white ally in the reductio ad absurdum of the model minority myth. To borrow from Hong, “because we know we won’t be believed, we don’t quite believe it ourselves.”

And even if I can begin moving beyond this preemptive doubt and self-censorship, and manage to write something, I’m just as concerned about what might happen if the white mainstream does, somehow, recognize my externalized minor feelings.

In the wake of the Atlanta shootings, it seems the country has awarded some small portion of “Asian America” a provisional medal in the oppression olympics. Yes, the recent outpour of statements and legislation and commitments is simplistic, largely pathetic, and already slowing to a trickle. But such gestures at all are rare (this is an essay about feelings, and they at least feel significant), and their fleeting existence is all the more reason to muzzle my privileged voice and center stories that usually go untold in the hope that we are on the cusp of achieving something substantive: protections for migrant workers, gun control, economic programs geared toward specific populations deemed Asian American.

This concern is itself presumptuous, assuming other people will take the time to read my rambling. But it is also empirically sound: The Harvard affirmative action lawsuit, Hollywood representation, and boba take up an outsized portion, dare I say majority, of the space given to Asian Americans in mainstream news, social media, and other public forums. It is reasonable to expect that the outcry over anti-Asian violence will translate into increased attention to privileged perspectives, to my minor feelings.

But arriving at that conclusion returns me to the beginning of this spiral, a belief my feelings are “out of line” — not just because the people and institutions running the oppression olympics say so, but because in the pursuit of racial justice, I do. I seem unable to imagine a form to grapple with this messy malaise that does not direct itself toward the material and quantifiable, those conditions we can diagnose and treat.

***

In her groundbreaking book, “The Melancholy of Race,” Anne Anlin Cheng writes that the United States is a nation comfortable with grievance — an impulse to articulate racial injury as specific social claims of static identity groups, which can be quickly addressed and relegated to the past — but not with “the more immaterial, unquantifiable repository of public and private grief,” those messier, irresolvable affects and entanglements that come with being raced in the U.S.

Even after Black Lives Matter protests shook the nation last summer, it was only minutes before the guilty verdict in Derek Chauvin’s trial that police in Columbus, Ohio killed Ma’Khia Bryant, a 16-year-old Black girl. Less than 24 hours later, police in North Carolina fatally shot Andrew Brown, Jr., a 42-year-old Black man, in the back of the head. A grievance was partially resolved; grief and rage and racism, denied, proliferate.

The tendency toward grievance, rather than grappling with structural racism and the grief it generates, is a national condition Cheng diagnoses as racial melancholia. The term “melancholia” derives from Freud, who used it to describe a pathology in which patients who cannot fully mourn or overcome a loss come to hate the lost object for its absence. The melancholic patient copes by psychically internalizing that which was lost to be closer to it — which means that they also internalize and consume their hatred and exclusion of the object, and then direct that hatred inward. As Cheng writes, “The history of the ego is thus the history of its losses.”

The American pattern, “racial melancholia,” is to partially include a racial minority in service of denying, and thus reinforcing, underlying exclusion and racism — contradicting the egalitarian ideals supposedly at the nation’s core: If the Chauvin verdict constitutes “justice,” then punishment and policing and the carceral state become “just.” Asian Americans are particular objects of this national melancholia, held up as evidence of a functioning meritocracy to repress more complex identities and entrench historical and ongoing inequities.

Yet Cheng also notes how lost or excluded objects of racial melancholia — people of color — are themselves melancholic subjects, with our own act of retention-rejection: aspiring toward mainstream inclusion even as we reject the white ideal as unattainable. Perhaps I, and many Asian Americans, have internalized this melancholic calculus of racism, prone to converting our grief into grievances and subconsciously conceiving of writing as only toward specific ends. Despite being excluded from and resenting the white ideal and its recognition, some part of me still craves it — hoping a big or clear or precise enough grievance, such as the murders in Atlanta, will finally lead to transformative change while knowing and witnessing that such change may well never come.

And so, what happens when the lost object speaks; when, given these material and psychic limitations, we do try to express our malaise? What forms exist to communicate and grapple with Asian Americans’ public and private racial grief and outrage?

***

In the white mainstream, none. Anti-Asian violence is not new, but it took the spectacle of a mass shooting to bring sustained attention to it. Even then, media headlines parroted the absurd defense of Robert Aaron Long’s murders, a so-called “sex addiction,” as a possibly legitimate excuse for days; A1 and landing-page web headlines in The New York Times read “Sex, Porn, and Guilt: The Life of the Suspect in the Georgia Killings” or an abbreviated version of that, as if one of the country’s premier newspapers sought to offer a psychological profile or advertise a thrilling erotic film, rather than report on the killing of eight people, six of them Asian women. The recent bill to prosecute anti-Asian “hate crimes,” which passed both houses of Congress with largely bipartisan support, is literally a mechanism to turn grief into grievances, equating progress with the carceral state and ignoring messy questions about the intersections of anti-Blackness, capital, and xenophobia. And only a week after the Senate approved the bill, President Biden kindled anti-Asian racism in his triumphant 100th day address to Congress, saying, “America is moving — moving forward — but we can’t stop now. We’re in competition with China and other countries to win the 21st Century.” To quote Hong again, who wrote in her essay collection a year earlier, “You are told, ‘Things are so much better,’ while you think, Things are the same.”

Harvard, a supposed beacon of American elitism and excellence, is no better. University President Lawrence Bacow’s response to the Atlanta shootings was to deploy the reductive language of particular grievance, to blame bad “actors… those who perpetrate [hate]” and suggest calling the University police if one feels unsafe — despite the fact that Harvard’s police force faces intense criticisms of racism and sexism, making many feel manifestly unsafe. Meanwhile, Harvard’s Counseling and Mental Health Services told Asian Americans struggling with Covid-19-related racism that “you may wish that you weren’t Asian, but to remember that your ancestors” went through worse, advising us to be resilient by making “positive” art and trying to “return” to “safety, predictability,” normalcy. Those blatantly offensive words were even more painful because, as University of California, Santa Barbara Asian American Studies professor erin Khuê Ninh observes, they read like “an inside job.” That is, Harvard’s “advice” described thoughts and emotions I’d been having without any prompting: quantifying my grief to compare it to what my grandparents suffered; telling myself to keep my head down and thoughts positive; seeking to “return” to a white norm that I could never attain in the first place. These are the stunted forms Harvard offers, and the only forms I can offer myself, to process racial melancholia.

(This harmful language was on the CAMHS website’s AAPI Resources page for several months before outrage on social media led Harvard to change the webpage and issue an apology. That nobody flagged this advice as racist for so long suggests zero people seeking advice on Asian American mental health went to CAMHS for help in that span; that nobody who saw the page was shocked enough by this racist “advice” — it’s expected behavior from Harvard — to call it out; or the voice of anybody who did call it out was ignored. Harvard’s apology, from late March, states “More information will be coming soon” — as of publication, we are still waiting.)

For Asian Americans, one place for our grief might be public writing: the essay, polemic, meditation. Yet such articles written in the past year often bend toward grievance, with a formal requirement (like the line endings of a sestina) being some version of the oversimplified history proving “Asian America” is coherent and worth the (white) reader’s time: 1882, 1941, 1965, 1968, 1982, 2021. Another acceptable form is to rehash an explanation of the radical political origins and present contradictions of the Asian American category, generally framed in terms of calculable social claims: Asian America does not cohere because some Asian immigrant or refugee struggles outweigh or do not compare to those of others. Such essays are, of course, important. Yet we expend so much getting the conversation in the door — twisting our words into the same, tired forms — that there’s little room left for nuance, let alone grief. That is not to say we should avoid history or material analysis or specifics, but to question why so much of that analysis takes the form of adding up particular grievances to then probe or outline a (“clear”) political path for Asian Americans, “people of color,” or the nation as a whole.

One might instead turn to efforts to collect data on anti-Asian racism, quantitative and qualitative and necessary, but by nature collapsing back into grievance. And there is social media, subjected to the structure of a 280-character Tweet or the Facebook feed algorithm, writing stuck in a particular chamber of followers and almost instantaneously superseded by the next post or cute cat, which makes substantive, communal dialogue near impossible.

There are also poems and stories and open letters and essays and more, beautiful and heart-wrenching, that do reckon with grief and minor feelings; that provide room to breathe and have no resolution and make a mess of history and don’t rely on providing one way forward; that do not strive to clearly delimit what they rage at or mourn for, and are not afraid to simply rage and grieve.

But I sometimes worry those forms don’t have any reach — in other words, that they aren’t functional. A friend and mentor, after I emailed her one such piece that moved me, told me she was trying to share this sort of writing with non-Asians, and particularly white people; to influence those that might not otherwise consider such perspectives and avoid preaching to the choir. My inclination, for several months, was to agree. As Hong wrote over a year before Atlanta, “If a prostitute died alone without anyone as witness, did she ever exist?”

A similar dilemma plagues my journal: The justification for writing in private is that, because I am my only audience, such writing has no material impact. And that implies that I do not count as “anyone,” do not exist.

***

As I try to list existing forms for Asian American grief and their limits, I see a common thread in my concerns — the assumption of needing to reach a white mainstream audience, presumably those with power. And I see myself again slipping into the languages of grievance, legibility, recognition. I’m left asking why, when only other Asian Americans and people of color seem to read and respond to a piece of writing, I think of it as preaching to the choir; but when we try to communicate with white people it so often feels like shouting into the void.

I question who, exactly, constitutes “anyone”, who sets those terms, and why having such a witness is important — asking not only why write, but also who do I feel the need to write for? My answers to those questions have uncannily paralleled the U.S. Supreme Court decision in People v. Hall (1854), which ruled that Chinese immigrants, along with Black people and American Indians, could not testify against white people in court. At the heart of not wanting to “preach to the choir,” I now realize, is a desire to communicate grievance rather than irresolvable grief, to be legible to white people.

Refracted through the prism of the nation’s and my own racial melancholia, the inclusion-exclusion of Asian Americans and my retention-rejection of that (white) national ideal — then further filtered by some combination of rising anti-Asian racism, the Atlanta shootings and their aftermath, and the available publishing, political, and legal apparatus — my thinking and writing in response to a tangle of hierarchies and unquantifiable racial pain transform into the language of neat identity categories and delimited, redressable social claims. And yet those claims, the particular physical and psychic racial injuries, seem to linger, and then multiply; I have felt the need for mostly white power structures to recognize my grief even as they are incapable of addressing a single grievance. Maybe whiteness is a void.

(It’s no coincidence that the formal requirements for Asian American writing on racial pain, to either cohere or question “Asian America,” occurs especially in mainstream, hallowed institutions of journalism like The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Atlantic, and so on — the same publications that published awful, insensitive coverage of the Atlanta shootings.)

The greatest paradox of Freudian melancholia, Cheng notes, is that the melancholic subject doesn’t want the lost object to return: “exclusion, rather than loss, is the real stake of melancholic retention.” Having internalized what was lost, the melancholic subject is now closer to it than they ever were in reality; were the lost object to return, the ego that at once retains and rejects that object, that hates the very thing it wants to possess, would destroy itself. And so melancholic loss necessitates an act of exclusion.

I wonder if the same is true of the United States — that if, were we to actually and publicly grapple with racism and racial grief, were the excluded objects of racial melancholia to return, the country as we know it would collapse, or undergo so much change as to make it unrecognizable. Cheng’s book makes affective and aesthetic arguments, not prescriptions about material change. But perhaps dwelling in those messy affects is what we need to do; perhaps the binary between politics and aesthetics, concrete and affective, is itself an attempt to convert grief into grievance when the two are inseparable.

By “we,” I mean not just Asian Americans or people of color, but everyone touched by and living within this empire called America, white people included. I’m not suggesting wholesale rejection of white audiences, but rather questioning the power we invest in those audiences even as we hate that they wield such power; that is, to interrogate our, and not just the nation’s, racial melancholia. Even writing this paragraph, I am already telling myself that temporary change is worthwhile and necessary, and that it is naive to just imagine away or ignore that whiteness is a locus of structural authority — but if even in our journals and essays and art we can’t begin to imagine otherwise, then how will we ever build, let alone inhabit, such a world?

So why do I write, and why did I write this? I’ve not resolved concerns over taking up narrative space, my privilege, or my narcissism, and I’m still hesitant to make this essay public. But in questioning why and how those doubts persist, and who they are responding to, I’ve realized I write not in spite but because of that hesitation; not to resolve paradoxes but to lean into them; not to be heard across the void but to inhabit it.

I wrote for an audience, a “we,” that is perpetually coming into existence; not to arrive at a neat form for these messy affects, but to dwell in the spaces created when we falter.

— Matteo N. Wong is the Magazine Chair of the 148th Guard. He can be reached at matteo.wong@thecrimson.com. Follow him on twitter @matteo_wong.