How ‘Wokism’ Got Asian Americans So Wrong, and Why We Can’t Ignore That 

Editor’s Note: The opinions expressed in this piece are solely those of the author.

It began with the tedious contrivances of blaming “kung flu” or “Chinese virus.” Surely, “woke” critics thought, this was what accelerated the spike in COVID-19 anti-Asian hate incidents. Then soon came the invectives against “white supremacy” and “white nationalism.” 

Critic after critic, in their unpropitious efforts to explain the anti-Asian attacks, made it painfully clear that they could no longer account for human agency on the part of perpetrators. Nor could they keep from eliding anti-Asian racism as they cowed Asian American outcry into silence. Nor could they and their epigones reconcile the apparent contradictions of the attacks that were too disquieting and too wildly unrepresentative of the narrative at large. Even their go-to expositions of Asian-American “model minority” status and “white adjacency” or “proximity to whiteness,” were themselves oracular non-answers. For this is what their “woke” discourse was—a pseudo-intellectualism that was as confusing as it was infuriating and untenable. 

There were other writers, too, for whom this moment became a racial imperative for power-seeking opportunism. Some answered this anti-Asian zeitgeist with bitterly antagonizing non-sequiturs. Their point was simply outrageous: that because Asians are so racist there can be no solidarity independent of Black “political muleship,” and perversely, no Asian-American allyship independent of presumed anti-Black racism and Black “death.” This thinly veiled anti-Asian fantasia was maddeningly cruel, yet it was something, strangely enough, many justified. 

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Their diatribes rested on presumptions of our Asian foreignness. All conjectured to defuse the gravity of anti-Asian violence. All accusations designed as the go-to dominant motifs to punish dissent and deflect. All to twist our world into a racial Machiavellianism of one against all. In the end, this “woke” casuistry will have led us further down the path towards a crude racial tribalism.

There is no doubt that we Asian Americans are at an inflection point. These last few weeks, we have voiced our outrage. We have taken solace in a tentative optimism. But it remains to be seen if the anti-Asianism that appeared this time with such hideousness in Atlanta, Georgia, will finally give the world pause.

The writing’s on the wall — that invocation of the social-justice ménage à trois of race, class and gender/sexuality served only to short-shrift Asian Americans. And it achieved this through a violent monopoly of voice that only ever spoke of Asian Americans in a flat and nakedly instrumental way.

Are we shocked that the repudiation of Asian Americans was a thing conjoined in conformity across political alliances? No. And are we shocked that, when it came to addressing anti-Asian racism, all that could be said was perfunctory? Again, no. 

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After a long, cruel year, we are still met with so much indifference. Asian Americans continue to be ignominiously assailed and killed. Not only do we “deserve” this anti-Asian ethos because of COVID-19, the worst of our critics claim, but we Asians are far too racist and too complicit in “systemic racism” to be spared. Claims still circulated so widely that the attribution of racism has been blithely appended to Asian-American identity. 

The concoctions of fundamentalist “woke” dogma certainly proliferated everywhere, spurred by something as trivial as boba tea. Yes, even boba tea was a pretext to victimizing Asian Americans. This beguiling “wokism” is sometimes so absurd that it becomes self-parodic. 

USC Professor Greg Patton committed a similar offense when he lectured his class on the Chinese-Mandarin “pause-filler” word (neì ge or nà ge/那个), meaning “um” or “like.” (那个 is a homophone, not a “synonym,” of an Anglo-American hate moniker.) Perhaps unbeknownst to Patton, but by the class’s end, the damage was done; his students availed themselves of their well-meaning “wokism” and took him to task. 

“The way we heard it in class was indicative of a much more hurtful word (…),” wrote Patton’s aggrieved Black-identified students. “There are over 10,000 characters in the Chinese written language and to use this phrase, a clear synonym with this derogatory N-Word term, is hurtful and unacceptable (…).” 

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In an attempt to quell this public relations crisis, a statement was sent to students and the university announced that Patton would be placed on a forced leave of absence. What a bold incursion on the use of Chinese-Mandarin! Yet another canceling this time of the non-Anglophonic world. 

Chief among the perpetrators of this, whatever you call it, cognitive burden or dissonance of “wokism,” was an NBC article. Its author cautions, at the outset, against the conflation of “violence against people who are Asian American with hate crimes.” The trend of attacks of the last year, the author argues, fails to “show signs of being racially motivated”—hence, “why ‘hate crime’ should be used carefully.” 

Michael Eric Dyson was quoted saying that the charge of hate crime “can have a negative impact on either side, on reinforcing the vicious stereotype of the natural Black inclinations for crime.” Second, he added, it would send “a false signal that there is a nonexistent attempt on the part of some Black communities to target Asian brothers and sisters.” (Emphasis is my own.) 

To be sure, we don’t need more reckless convictions by an already racially punitive criminal justice system. But “a nonexistent attempt?” The “bull’s-eye” that anti-Asianism placed on our backs is hardly nonexistent. This unspoken but widely held premise, at its core, is a reinforcement of Black-Asian incommensurability. An “oppression Olympics,” if you will, between this “brief moment‘s” anti-Asian hate and the cumulative injuries suffered by Black Americans. And so it presents the solution of hewing to the belief that Asian-American deference to non-Asian others is to be maintained at all costs. As if our “privileged,” “model-minority” Asian American voice, if heard, meant nothing but our defection from the racial-justice project. 

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Such a premise begs the very question of what this garbled morality is that convinces everyone to partake in a “zero-sum game in which everyone loses.” Why must the brazen anti-Asian attacks be made into a racial non-issue? What makes anti-Asian racism so “difficult to describe” that it becomes…“nonexistent?” Why are we only now able to call out the gender element on which this anti-Asian ethos has long rested? How are we only now realizing that Covid-19-intensified anti-Asianism was always an analogue to geopolitics and the violent histories of the unequal global division of gendered and sexual labor? And why are the mass deportations of Asian immigrants, most of whom are Southeast Asian, so frequently elided in our national discourse? That the violence of anti-Asianism today cannot be proven as “hate crimes” makes it no less a force that threatens our safety and dignity. Is enough enough yet?

We Asian Americans have been fighting two pandemics. One against COVID-19, the other against the anti-Asian racism many were “committed to ignoring.” We were seen as a vector for diseases because of Covid-19 and because of our sexual improprieties. We were too privileged and too apolitical, and thus deemed superannuated and not in “need of any money.” We deserved the violence that was returned tit-for-tat because of the caprices of our overseas despots, and because of our Asian racism. Indeed we were turned into that against which we could not defend ourselves — a fallible, invidious thing, neither immune to hate nor freed from censure. 

Conversations about Asian America always unilaterally amount to this unconstrained, violent exercise of our perpetual exclusion and misrecognition. It has taken the spectacularized violence of armed white supremacy and the lives of six Asian women (and two others) to make us finally begin to be seen. It was as Noel Quintana said: “I shouted for help, but nobody helped me.” 

For too long our indignities and wounds have been laughed at, “never acknowledged” and sidelined. No more. What we are saying now could not have been said a year ago or two or more. It would’ve been unspeakable. It wouldn’t have been heard. It wouldn’t have been understood. It would have been shrugged off, as I have said, as a “harmless joke.” 

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So when we speak from a place where our pain and anger and the demand for our recognition can be assimilated into a viable set of politics, it’s not enough that we only “shout.” We must scream, scream until we are heard because we know now no one was ever really listening before.

About the Author: Bee Vang is a Hmong-American actor, artist, writer and activist. The Brown University alumni got his big break in acting starring in 2008’s Gran Torino directed by Clint Eastwood and more recently is involved with humanitarian work in war-torn countries with the War Legacies Project.

Feature Image Courtesy of Bee Vang (left), Getty Images (right)

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