This essay was written for an online symposium on Choi’s book through Syndicate.
I am currently writing a book called Yellow Christianity: An Intervention on Christian Anti-Racist Discourse [the published title of this book is Asian Americans and the Spirit of Racial Capitalism]. Since I spend a lot of time there developing an account of Asian American Christianity, I spend my time here initially highlighting, often citing verbatim, two really interesting things Professor Choi says in his book. Both are brilliant insights, critically important if not also controversial, importantly clear and powerfully articulated. My hope is that these insights are among the things people will take away from his book, which should advance a conversation that has become somewhat stagnant and sometimes decadent. I conclude with a question that arises when the two insights are combined.
The first really interesting thing is the problematic of Asian American life as Professor Choi understands it, basically that we Asian Americans are damned if we do and damned if we don’t, so buffeted are we on all sides by whiteness. Choi describes the fundamental problem thusly, “The desire to belong and the desire to be someone is befitting the situation that Asian Americans find themselves in. To some extent, that desire is the Asian American story. . . . Rather than inviting Asian Americans to occupy a space for the creative satiation of that desire, whiteness demands that Asian Americans occupy either the space of whiteness, to the extent that it is allowed, or the space of Asianness, as whiteness defines it.” This leads to the reality that, as Choi writes, “even Asian American ‘choices’ to be counter-cultural, that is, to stand at a distance from or . . . struggle against conceptions of Asianness expected of them by preceding parental generations, may not be acts of resistance after all. Instead, they merely amount to the following of a script that is not of their own making but one that succeeding generations of Asian Americans have simply assumed as counter cultural when in fact it is an inconspicuous form of being ‘American,’” that is, “belonging to whiteness.”
In light of this, Choi picks up from some Asian Americans the idea that, “if we are fundamentally dialogic creatures, then cultivating, enlivening, and securing autonomy in our conception of selfhood takes on renewed urgency. In other words, if our freedom is not zero, then we are not simply subsumed by or an epiphenomenon of our relationality but related to others in a way that does not threaten the integrity of our independence from them. . . . One critical way of maintaining the capacity to engage with one’s relations rather than being overdetermined by them is to advance autonomy, to recognize its intrinsic importance.”
But Choi finally finds these notions continuous, actually, with the internal logic of the problematic itself, because “without a clearer sense of what it means to be defiant or interesting” the claim of autonomy Asian Americans advocate through “self-love”
“is susceptible to emulating (or has no choice but to rely on and accept) prevailing notions of value or meaning, [opening itself] up to imitating forms of life that are patriarchal, misogynistic, and self-indulgent. And there is no reason to exclude racist from this list. . . . So long as self-love is advanced without a normative account of what [autonomy or self-love] mean and a standard by which such normativity is to be derived and defended, then there is little reason to think that such self-love can sufficiently avoid patterns of life that, while may “appear” interesting, ends up promoting, wittingly or not, the interest of white racism.”
Choi concludes his book with this grim view that without normative scripts, Asian Americans have no idea how to be good, yet all the normative scripts on offer proscribe Asian Americans to the normalizing powers of whiteness.
A second really interesting thing is the intervention Professor Choi stages on certain antiracist discourses, specifically the way those discourses can hurt not only the cause of Asian American liberation but, as such, all liberation. For example, Choi takes up Katie Walker Grimes’s argument that we ought to recast whiteness as explicitly anti-blackness. Summarizing the argument, he writes, “Grimes advocates for a black-nonblack framework for discussing race rather than a white-nonwhite dichotomy as a way of calling attention to the singularity of black experience formed by slavery . . . the black-nonblack framework sheds light on how not all persons of color occupy the same racial position. In fact, Grimes suggests, not only are the racial realities different, many non-black persons must be recognized as having social status at the expense of black violence and marginalization.” Grimes, Choi writes, “makes it abundantly clear that at least with reference to Asian Americans, they are not only different in their racial positioning from African Americans, but are in possession of a kind of social power and freedom that marks them as participating in anti-blackness.” This anti-black participation “frames the racial realities of Asian Americans, as a community immune from racial discrimination. Minimizing, but perhaps, more accurately, trivializing, the plight of Asian Americans of Southeast Asian descent, she notes, ‘Asian Americans end up in prison at lower rates than everyone else.’ To acknowledge the gains of nonblack persons of color such as Asian Americans sheds light on how ‘the relative affluence and educational success of Asian Americans’ contributes to or ‘partake[s] in the discourse that purports to unmask the inherent weaknesses of African Americans.’” To which Professor Choi responds,
“Black-Asian relations do not simply move in the direction of Asian Americans purportedly surpassing African Americans economically and, thus, participating in the suppression of black freedom; the dynamic also moves in the other direction. Grimes in only giving perfunctory gloss to Asian American social gains too easily ignores and, perhaps, absolves black insensitivity to and, thus, perpetuation of the stereotyping of Asian Americans. . . . Such oversight of, or maybe even refusal to acknowledge, the more nuanced and discomfiting character of inter-racial relations is part and parcel of the larger trivialization of the complicated political, economic, and social realities that Asian Americans confront.”
“Adjudicating who is more harmed or at a social disadvantage is not the primary point, nor should it be; it is ultimately fruitless, further pitting one community of color against another, jeopardizing racial solidarity. The more salient and consequential point is that Grimes fails to account for the complexity of Asian American social realities due to the insistence on the Manichean dichotomy of black versus nonblack. . . . To acknowledge the complicated social realities of Asian Americans is more than to simply call attention to the fact that Asian Americans are in a more economically, politically, and culturally precarious situation than is commonly recognized. More importantly, such insistence pertains to the notion that the very opacity of the complicated social realities of Asian Americans is itself a function of white racism working on both Asian Americans and African Americans alike. . . . That marginalization of Asian Americans in racial discourse, paradoxically, grants more power to whiteness since it obscures the fullness of the logic of white racism, that is, how white racism operates to further its colonizing reach. Such obscurity is inevitable when racial discourse is singularly focused on how white racism pivots, to borrow a description from Ta-Nehisi Coates, the plundering of black bodies. This is not to deny that black bodies have been subjugated and that they continue to be systemically threatened and harmed. But . . .”
and one really needs to hear this,
“the very fact that such a qualification or disclaimer must be made, by an Asian American, to indicate the veracity of white racial evil suggests how nonblack persons of color, especially Asian Americans, are only given the choice to arrive to the conversation on racism in an inherently different position, one that is secondary or minor at best, that is, as ancillary experiences to the true force of white racism. To the extent that anti-blackness, in its emphasis on the singular experience of black persons and how nonblack persons re-inscribe white freedom at the expense of black bodies, displaces Asian Americans from the center to the periphery of discussions on racism, the black-nonblack dichotomy ends up no more than perpetuating the black-white dichotomy that has traditionally framed how race is discussed in the U.S.”
With both of these insights on board, let me raise a question. Let me characterize Professor Choi’s first insight about the pervasiveness of whiteness as compelling if not entirely convincing. That is, I think we have reason to believe that whiteness dominates in the way Choi describes, and helpfully in terms of Asian Americans, but not as dominantly and as grimly as he describes. I’ll return to this in a moment. Next, let me characterize the second insight as getting at something problematic, but not surprisingly so. Recall that Choi discovers a problematic series of moves in Professor Walker Grimes’s argument, and he finds the problem there indicative of much anti-racism discourse. He delineates it this way: Walker Grimes first transitions whiteness to anti-blackness and then charges non-black ethnic minorities of whiteness as anti-blackness. Choi thinks Walker Grimes can only get away with the second move by trading in racial stereotypes beholden to the model minority myth. This all comes under the cover of a regnant white/black binary that reduces racism/antiracism to white people and black people, casting everyone else to the side, or as I will say, to the back row. I think Professor Choi is certainly right about all of this, and it is the brilliance and courage of his book to lay it out for us.
Here is where my question comes in. What if the way Choi describes whiteness as not only dominative but as completely dominant creates problematic moves of the kind we find in Walker Grimes? What if Choi’s first insight conceptually sets up the ground for the very problem his second insight uncovers? I mean this not simply as an issue of Choi’s work here, but for all analyses that begin with the presumption of whiteness as completely dominant. I take Choi’s two insights and the way they combine to be indicative of this larger pattern of thought now pervasive in antiracism thinking.
In that forthcoming book of mine, I have a chapter titled “On the Uses and Misuses of Whiteness Discourse.” There is no need here to get into the weeds I get into there, so let me summarize the argument. Whiteness discourse, which over the last few decades has exploded onto the antiracist scene, works as a combination of theories about, first, white identity, and second, non-white suffering. Those theories work as explanatory tools that can help us, when used properly, understand, respectively, why white social identity is so prized as to justify racist brutality for its attainment and maintenance, and how white racism unfurls as a material settlement of the cosmic privations Christians refer to as sin. Both of these theories work when attached to material analyses of racism. They work less well when uses of “whiteness” go off the rails from those material instantiations (say, historic and everyday racism and their capillary transmissions through proxy processes and commitments) toward transhistorical versions of “whiteness.” To be sure, it is an irresistible aspect of material analysis to straddle conceptual rails; only from the edge do we get the view from the edge. But falling off those rails is a tendency we must resist. When we don’t, abstractions take over and we tend toward the kinds of gnostic formulations that have long captivated Christian theorists. Here whiteness becomes that Manichean something-out-there on mission to destroy everything, including God. In “On the Uses and Misuses of Whiteness Discourse,” I argue that most uses of “whiteness” totter off the edge toward the immaterial. I also argue that this ambiguity is rhetorically expedient if not altogether purposeful. Talking about the material processes comprising white social identity and white racism with the glint of this transhistorical something-out-there makes of whiteness even more than it already is (and given what it already is, one wonders why more needs to be added). The ambiguity, I suggest, reveals some confusion about what the ambiguous uses want the concept to do, where the confusion issues from the unbearable conditions of white racism in all of its brutality. The ambiguity will also prove troublesome for future claims of racism, though I’m not sure whether much can be done about this since, as I argue, “whiteness” mirrors “post-racialism,” the former saying that racism is everywhere in order to check the latter saying racism is nowhere. I lastly say that the confusion and ambiguity are not entirely regrettable, since speech can be confused in an importantly substantive way, as aesthetically, ethically, and politically salient forms of rhetorical protest.
As for Professor Choi’s two insights, I think the first insight, the one where whiteness is given as totally dominant, leads to the problem uncovered by his second insight, the casting of Asian American life to the wrong side anti-blackness. Whiteness as a concept has a storied and impressive intellectual pedigree, counting W. E. B. Du Bois, Derrick Bell, Toni Morrison, and bell hooks among its progenitors. It also has a troubled history of reception among scholars who have questioned its methods and conclusions. I suspect that most uses of whiteness are cognizant neither of its legacy of development nor of its troubled history. Nor need they be. More likely whiteness as a popular concept of antiracism follows something like the genius of Frank Wilderson’s seductive account of the singularity of black suffering. Tied to these formulations and popularized by the aforementioned Ta-Nehisi Coates as our generation’s James Baldwin, a transhistorical whiteness as something-out-there ends up hogging the show with Asian Americans and non-black others sitting in the back row.
We need accounts of whiteness sophisticated enough to take into view its material possessions, and vulnerabilities. I am thinking of those able to take into account whiteness as a contingent material development, making whiteness hardly transhistorical but rather a real and present danger, not something-out-there but something somewhere, replete with biopolitical vulnerabilities in which the work of antiracism goes about its life.