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“We’re both the comfortable and the afflicted”: What gets overlooked when we talk about anti-Asian racism

Cathy Park Hong on unlearning internalized racism and the resurgence of Asian American activism.

Demonstrators take part in a “Love Our Communities: Build Collective Power” rally on March 13, 2021, outside the Japanese American National Museum in Little Tokyo, Los Angeles, to raise awareness of anti-Asian violence.
Ringo Chiu/AFP via Getty Images

Minor Feelings: An Asian American Reckoning is exactly what its subtitle suggests. Weaving together personal accounts and political history, it’s an illuminating examination of Asian people’s subordinate status in American society.

But its title is a different story. Approaching the book, the feelings I had were major fear and trepidation. Not because I wasn’t expecting to like it — reviews from critics and friends alike have been stellar — but because I was afraid that Hong’s unflinching analysis would lay bare an uncomfortable truth about myself.

As an East Asian American with a college-educated, upper-middle-class upbringing, I worried that Minor Feelings would confirm what I privately always feared: that, like a tree whose roots wend around rocks and intrusions in the soil, I have contorted my identity to fit into white people’s expectations of Asian women. That racism isn’t just a structural reality that I participate in, but the foundation on which I’ve built my own ambitions, desires, and interpersonal relationships.

Minor Feelings did force me to sit with these anxieties, but in a way that was both cathartic and illuminating. Hong confronts head-on how internalized racism functions for many Asian people, and explicitly outlines Asians’ “vague purgatorial status” as victims and perpetrators of America’s racial hierarchy. “Racial self-hatred is seeing yourself the way the whites see you, which turns you into your own worst enemy,” Hong writes in one essay. “You hate that there are so many Asians in the room. ‘Who let in all the Asians?’ you rant in your head.”

Her prose is searing but empathetic, and since reading Minor Feelings I’ve found myself returning again and again to the book to contextualize my lived experiences. On one hand, Hong stresses the impossibility of summarizing Asian American experiences in a single tidy package; Asian people aren’t a monolith, after all, and the term “Asian American” encompasses more than 30 different ethnic groups alone. On the other, she’s quick to extract the common threads of exclusion, othering, and racist gaslighting that cast a shadow over most Asians living in America.

As violence against Asian Americans gained national attention in recent months, I spoke with Hong to understand the long history of anti-Asian racism that predates this latest surge in attacks, and how normalizing the racial trauma of Asian people brews toxic consequences for all Americans. A transcript of our conversation, lightly edited for length and clarity, follows.

Alexa Lee

Could you explain what it means to experience “minor feelings”?

Cathy Park Hong

Minor feelings aren’t exclusive to Asian Americans. Anyone who’s marginalized can feel this, where basically your perception of reality is always denied by the dominant culture. In the case of America, it’s usually people of color.

But to me, it’s very particular to growing up Asian in America, where I felt a range of aspects that were not mirrored back to me by the larger society. I use a funny example of this in the book: When I was a child, my mother gave me a Playboy T-shirt to wear. It just had the bunny icon, and she didn’t know what it meant. She just gave it to me because she thought it was a kid’s shirt. I don’t know why we had it.

So I wore the T-shirt to school and I remember standing at recess as an older kid came up to me and asked me if I knew what my shirt meant. And I said no. And she just laughed and then ran back. And I could see her huddling with her friends and pointing at me. And that’s one example of minor feelings — that feeling of being targeted and ashamed, but not knowing why and not having it be explained to you.

Alexa Lee

Your book frequently emphasizes that racial trauma can be an ordinary, everyday experience, which can make it difficult for some people to identify their minor feelings even as they’re being victimized by racism. What do you think is the biggest misconception people have regarding the concept of minor feelings?

Cathy Park Hong

Minor feelings is a flexible term that I came up with as a way to better understand my own interior consciousness. I don’t want to limit the definition of what minor feelings is, but I would say that one misconception is that it’s the equivalent of a microaggression. It can be a microaggression where you perceive a racial slight and the person denies it, but minor feelings can be huge.

My parents, for instance, experienced the Korean War where 20 percent of the peninsula died. But then you come to this country and no one remembers it. No one cares about it. No one has any understanding of it. It’s that same idea of your reality or your history being just completely unacknowledged.

Alexa Lee

Jia Tolentino wrote that Minor Feelings “bled a dormant discomfort out of me with surgical precision.” Anecdotally, when I talk to friends, they often use phrases like “intense,” “disturbingly accurate,” and even “excruciating” to describe how your book made them feel. I’m fascinated by this reaction from readers, especially readers of color, who simultaneously adore and are made uncomfortable by your recounting of Asian American experiences. Why do you think your book makes so many readers uncomfortable?

Cathy Park Hong

I wanted to make myself uncomfortable writing this book. There’s that quote that I mentioned in the book, which says that one reason to write is to afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted. And that’s what I aimed to do with the book.

But the catch to that is that as an Asian American and someone of a certain tax bracket, I — and many other Asian Americans — are both. We’re both the comfortable and the afflicted.

It’s so much easier to write a narrative where you’re the victim. To write a narrative where you’re also complicit, and where you’re also either guilty by association or by your actions, it becomes much more uncomfortable. But none of us are purely predators, and none of us are purely the prey. We’re all sort of somewhere in the spectrum.

Minor Feelings author and poet Cathy Park Hong.
Beowulf Sheehan

Alexa Lee

Something that resonated with me about Minor Feelings was how open you were about not being “done” working through your own internalized racism. Was this perspective something you were trying to be intentional about when writing this essay collection?

Cathy Park Hong

We’re always learning. I’m still learning, and I still have that internalized racism that I’m constantly vigilant of checking and rechecking myself.

When I was growing up, America was an unapologetic white society, and a lot of racism was left unchecked. And that’s just it. You just soak in those impressions, and it takes a long time to learn and unlearn and relearn what your reality is and really trust yourself. And I wouldn’t say I’m there yet.

Alexa Lee

I read an older interview of yours where you describe a type of Asian American who’s “close to power, who [doesn’t] consider where they’re coming from.” I was wondering how you navigate conversations with people who are in nascent stages of reckoning with how race has shaped their identity, or who perhaps even blatantly aspire to whiteness.

Cathy Park Hong

I haven’t had too many conversations like that since the book came out [in February 2020]. It’s partly because of the pandemic. [Laughs]

Some months before the pandemic, I was having a conversation with this woman who was an Asian American studies professor, and when I told her what the subject of my book was, she said, “I want to read it, but it seems a little old-fashioned.” She said that it seems like Asians are “past that.” It was almost like she was saying that we’re not a minority anymore. And this is coming from an Asian American studies professor! That was disappointing to hear.

But that’s partly why I wrote the book, to wake those Asians up, because there are a lot of them. I worry a little about saying this, but I do think that Asian Americans are just beginning to come together as a community and think about their place in this country and really speak out. There’s been a lot of work that’s been done this year because of the hate crimes, but also because of Asian Americans wanting to be allies for Black Lives Matter.

That’s not to discount the Asian activism in the ’60s and ’70s, but it’s a different kind of mentality when you’re second- or third-generation Asian American. I think right now, more people feel that they have more permission to question their racial standing in this country. Many of us are no longer settling for what white people say about us — which is that we’re doing fine, we’re successful and racism doesn’t exist for us, that we come from nuclear families, and all of us are scientists, and so forth.

Alexa Lee

With the recent rise in anti-Asian violence in the US, I couldn’t help but recall your essay focusing on the Rodney King riots, and how news coverage from that period really flattened the riots into a story of Black-Asian animosity. Has America’s approach to understanding systemic racism changed since then? Are there things you think are missing or being misinterpreted in current conversations about anti-Asian violence?

Cathy Park Hong

I do think there are more Asian Americans speaking up. I don’t know if I necessarily believe that there’s been a huge spike in violence. I think that it’s been going on for a long time. I don’t know how much I trust the statistics. Is it because there are more people reporting it, whereas people weren’t reporting it before? Those are the kind of questions that I have.

There’s always been anti-Asian American racism, but its forms are dependent on the tax bracket you’re in. If you’re old, living in Chinatown, and working class, you’re going to be spat on or pushed. It’s more in your face. Whereas if you’re more corporate, then it’s probably more insidious and unspoken.

In terms of the older Asians being targeted, I think they’re targeted in a sense because they’re the easiest targets, but they’re also the least assimilated-looking. Especially in times of economic scarcity, when other people see someone different, they want to destroy them because they’re enraged and they want a scapegoat.

I also think maybe some people are handling this with kid gloves because there are a lot of incidents of interracial violence, so it’s harder to talk about. It makes me think about how Americans still don’t know how to live together, and unfortunately, we don’t have a language to work through interracial violence. That was the case during the LA riots; I think it’s the case now, too.

This country is only going to get more diverse. In 15, 20 years, the majority is going to be minorities. This needs to be addressed. What Black and Asian and brown people know about each other is what white people have said about us, and this is why the real problem is still white supremacy, even if the perpetrators aren’t white. It’s similar to what we saw with the LA riots, so part of what we can do now is look at what happened then and what people tried to do to fix it, and what worked and what failed, and then learn from history.