April really is the cruelest month especially if you're an Asian American poet. First there was octogenarian literary insider Calvin Trillin's poem “Have They Run Out of Provinces Yet?” making light of Chinese food in The New Yorker.
Then, less than two weeks later, the prize-winning poet, professor, and poetry gatekeeper Mark Doty posted a photo of a Chinese takeout menu on his Facebook page and made light of its “broken English.” Both events catalyzed similar patterns of response: outcry followed by backlash.
The flood of outraged responses to the Trillin incident, much of which has been collected at the Asian American Writers’ Workshop, amply demonstrates the problematic discourses embedded in the poem. To date, The New Yorker's poetry editor Paul Muldoon has not deigned to comment and when The Guardian asked Trillin himself what he thought about the whole brouhaha, he defended his poem, saying: “Some years ago, a similar poem could have been written about food snobs who looked down on red-sauce Italian cooking because they had discovered the cuisine of Tuscany.”
Similarly, when Doty was called out for the insensitivity of his Facebook post, he was far more engaged in defending himself than addressing the concerns of his critics. His justifications, he claimed, were based on his general love of language, his predilection for poking fun at all ESL puns (Czech ones included!), and his absence of ill intent.
Before deleting the post altogether, Doty in fact blocked a number of those critics, many of whom are young up and coming Asian American writers who risked their budding careers to speak out, for being “uncivil.”
The cultural discourses that underlie, normalize, and enable so much casual racism against Asians include everything from The Exclusion Act to Japanese Internment to Yellow Face to the back-breaking soul-killing labor performed by countless Asian immigrants to the playground ching-chong taunts that most Asian Americans have encountered as children. These are the discourses that underlie, normalize, and enable the casual racism exhibited (consciously or unconsciously) by Trillin and Doty. And this is what underlies Asian American rage when micro-aggressions happen.
Both Trillin and Doty are known in the business as nice guys. Both, no doubt, feel as if they’ve been raked over the coals enough, and maybe they have. What remains important, though, is how these two incidents demonstrate a number of common issues and areas of confusion around racial micro-aggressions. More often than not, when micro-aggressions occur, what becomes even more problematic than the initial acts is the backlash against those who call them out. In the backlashes, we often see a wide range of defensive behaviors including minimization, deflection of responsibility, denial, silencing, and what might be called racial gaslighting.
To begin with, there seems to be some serious confusion about what racism actually is and is not. In Critical Race Theory, racism is defined as prejudice plus power, the combination of which creates a system that privileges whiteness and by extension, native speakers of English in the United States. This is why “reverse racism” simply doesn’t exist, because even in situations of discrimination against whites by people of color, prejudice without power doesn’t constitute racism. Likewise, intention and consciousness are irrelevant in the assessment of whether or not something is racist.
"The true focus of revolutionary change," says Audre Lorde, "is never really the oppressive situations that we seek to escape, but that piece of the oppressor which is planted deep within each of us." The fact is, we are all colonized. We are all living our lives within the confines of systems of power that are so deeply entrenched, we don't even realize when we're reproducing them.
It’s easy to see how overtly racist acts are harmful, but when racism is unconscious, it tends to fly under the radar and make itself invisible. The knee jerk reaction of “I’m not a racist! I love people of color!” doesn’t absolve anyone of racism because even non-racists can say and do racist things. Racism is not about hurt feelings or the intention to do harm. Focusing on intention is a huge red herring. It deflects responsibility for unconscious racism, using ignorance as an excuse and recentering the conversation on the feelings of the perpetrator while putting the burdens of proof and education on the victim.
If someone is gaslighting you, when you tell them that they’ve harmed you, they use denial, shame, deflection, and silencing to distract from what they did and to reposition you as the aggressor. You wind up explaining and explaining, only to end up wondering if you’re going crazy and maybe nothing really happened after all. Racial gaslighting works in exactly the same way.
When racial gaslighting happens in situations where micro-aggressions have been called out, people of color are routinely asked to swallow their own emotions and calmly explain the harm done to them in a way that is palatable to the perpetrator and, in public settings, to his or her defenders. This is how, as with all gaslighting, the victim gets put on trial. Not only what they say, but how they say it gets judged.
In the range of comments defending Trillin and Doty, plenty of overt racism came out of the woodwork, but one of the more subtly troubling aspects of the commentary from self-professed liberals was the way in which they praised certain Asian American commenters and dismissed others. The ones they dismissed were characterized as "angry" or "full of jargon" whereas the ones they praised were invariably “humble,” “heartfelt,” and emotionally vulnerable personal stories about the struggles of their own immigrant families.
There are several things happening here. Not only is privileging certain narratives over others divisive, but it invalidates the feelings of people who don’t express themselves in ways that feel comfortable to white listeners. It hijacks the conversation, taking it away from racism or any meaningful discussion of the situation at hand, and refocuses it on how to best cater to the feelings of the wrongdoer and his/her defenders. When someone tells you that you have harmed them, is it fair to demand that they make themselves even more vulnerable? Maybe some people are comfortable doing so, but many, myself included, are not.
This scenario forces people of color to prove not only that wrong was done to them but that they are also likable and sympathetic. Personal stories are sympathetic. Anger, on the other hand, is not. And neither is jargon. Both are overtly confrontational and jargon carries with it a form of cultural capital that comes from education, rational thinking, and righteous indignation. Jargon is uppity. And that makes people uncomfortable.
Why does someone have to be sympathetic and non-threatening to be listened to? Stating a preference for personal narratives is indirect, anti-intellectual, and sets up a situation where any subsequent argument will be dismissed. It de-centers the feelings of the person of color and places the emotional spotlight back on the feelings of the white person. And, as in gaslighting, it enables the wrongdoer to dodge responsibility and shift blame back onto the person lodging the complaint.
If we were to substitute women for Asian Americans in this scenario, we’d see how much it resembles the way that women are divided and pitted against one another in narratives that punish “angry feminists” and praise “nice girls.” The analogy makes sense because, like racism, sexism is another form of systemic bias that works on the basis of prejudice plus power. Just as racism privileges whiteness, sexism privileges men.
In the opening episode of the third season of Comedy Central’s “Broad City,” there’s a scene where Ilana is doing accents on command to amuse her friend Abby at brunch. She mocks a series of accents, speaking gibberish in Italian, German, Spanish, and Australian until Abby finally suggests Chinese. Ilana says with shock written all over her face, “Are you kidding? Nooo. It’s 2016, dude. No.” If Abby and Ilana can get it right, surely the rest of us can do better.