on Minor Feelings: An Asian American Reckoning by Cathy Park Hong

In February 2020, the same month Cathy Park Hong’s Minor Feelings: An Asian American Reckoning was released, I attended a teach-in organized by Tsuru for Solidarity in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Tsuru for Solidarity is a national project led by Japanese Americans working to end detention sites, supporting front-line immigrant and refugee communities, and challenging racist, inhumane immigration policies. The event I attended was a call to action to end the imprisonment and abuse of migrants crossing the U.S./Mexican border. Panelists, some of whom were imprisoned as children by the U.S. government during World War II for being of Japanese ancestry, drew connections between the political moment of the 1940s and the current situation. During the question-and-answer period, a tall white man in his sixties stood up. He rattled off statistics about how few immigrants Japan allows across its borders, and how many more immigrants the United States lets in. I can’t remember his exact question, but it was along the lines of: What right did the panelists have to criticize the United States when “their” country was worse? His question refused to recognize, of course, that every single person who spoke—and probably 99 percent of the people in the audience—was an American citizen. It was the perfect illustration of how we as Asian Americans are perpetual foreigners, never belonging here in the United States, never allowed to claim the space of citizen, and particularly not the space of dissenting citizen. “Even if we’ve been here for four generations, our status here remains conditional,” writes Cathy Park Hong as she begins to conclude her book of essays on race in the United States from an Asian American perspective. 

This was just weeks before most of the country went into lockdown in an attempt to curb the spread of COVID-19. It was, without a doubt, terrible timing for a book release. But as the forty-fifth president substituted anti-Asian racist rhetoric for leadership and action around the pandemic, fueling an alarming spike in hate crimes against Asian Americans, the subject matter of Minor Feelings became more relevant than ever. And just a few months later, when the uprisings in defense of Black lives around the country demanded further investigation of the state of race in the United States, Hong’s book became a resource for people grappling with the history and reality of race relations and white supremacy. It landed on many “understanding racism in America” reading lists, along with titles such as Ibram X. Kendi’s How to Be an Antiracist and Angela Davis’s Freedom is a Constant Struggle. In most of these lists Hong’s book was one of the few, if not the only, book by an Asian American about the experience of race in this country—pointing at once to the continued invisibility of Asian Americans as well as to the importance of Hong’s approach to reckoning with American racism. A little less than a year later, the mass shooting in Georgia that targeted Asian women suddenly brought the issue of anti-Asian and Asian American hatred and discrimination to the fore, catapulting Hong’s work even further into the national spotlight. 

Hong comes at her subject matter as a poet and a feminist who grew up in the Los Angeles area in the 1980s and 1990s as a child of Korean immigrants. The seven essays in Minor Feelings deftly hone in on Hong’s intimate experiences and zoom out to broader explorations of racism. She employs the first-person modular essay, offering facts, vignettes, observations, and reflections in short, relatively disconnected sections that layer and build upon each other, making space for insight and revelations in the gaps between the sections—possibly a prose form as close to poetry as you can get. It allows Hong to refuse tidy conclusions and juxtapose ideas for surprising and immediate revelations that evoke, and distort, cover, and uncover her subject matter. In this space of discomfort, Hong carries the conversation not only beyond the binary of Black and white, but also beyond the false monolith of “Asian America.” Throughout, Hong also teases out the intersections of racism and capitalism, specifically but not solely as they relate to Asian Americans, to more deeply understand where we are and how we might move forward.

The early essays of the book force the reader into reckoning with anti–Asian American racism within the context of the white supremacist culture of the United States. While Hong mentions the overt and brutal acts of racism against Asian Americans in this country—from the anti-Chinese violence in the 1800s to the attacks on Muslims, or Asians who were assumed to be Muslims, in the years and decades following 9/11—much of the focus is on the particularly slippery nature of anti-Asian racism. In snippets and unfinished stories, Hong teases out how anti-Asian racism operates via gaslighting and erases a sense of selfhood, often through the employment of the model minority myth. This myth promotes the lie that racism and discrimination don’t exist in America, that one only needs to work hard, be quiet and obedient to be accepted and to succeed. It was popularized, Hong points out, “to promote capitalism and undermine the credibility of black civil rights.” 

Not only does this myth pit Asian Americans against Black and other brown people, it also serves to invalidate the micro and macro aggressions that Asian Americans experience. Hong describes being the target of a blog post that promoted the idea of genocide against “mediocre minority poets.” Her reaction was not outrage, but hurt and shame. “A part of me even believed him,” she writes. Then, there was the treatment of poet Prageeta Sharma, who took a job as the director of the creative writing program at a university in Montana and was humiliated and undermined at every turn—with no one admitting that her treatment was based on her race and gender. Under white supremacy, Asian Americans, like all other people of color in this country, are not supposed to have power, credibility, or authority. The model minority myth and the potent, false promise of assimilation is a particular way Asian Americans are kept in check—to the point of disappearance, Hong argues. “This country insists that our racial identity is beside the point, that it has nothing to do with being bullied, or passed over for promotion, or cut off every time we talk. . . . It’s like being ghosted, I suppose.”

Shame—the feeling that arose for Hong in reading the genocidal blog post—is a key ingredient in this kind of erasure. In the essay “White Innocence,” she begins with a reading of Wes Anderson’s movie Moonrise Kingdom, with its nostalgia and all-white cast, set in 1965. Hong then startlingly leaps to a description of what was actually happening in the United States in 1965: progress in the civil rights movement and the brutal violence meted out by white people on protestors and organizers. She goes on to explore how white supremacy is structured to keep white people as innocent as the charming characters in Moonrise Kingdom, while Black children and other children of color are never allowed to be innocent. And the flip side of white innocence, she argues, is the shame experienced by people of color. But it is a particular kind of shame: “My shame is not cultural but political. It is being painfully aware of the power dynamic that pulls at the levers of social interactions and the cringing indignity of where I am in that order either as the afflicted—or as the afflicter. I am a dog cone of shame. I am a urinal cake of shame. This feeling eats away at my identity until my body is hollowed out and I am nothing but pure incinerating shame.”

The modular essay not only creates the kinds of brilliant juxtapositions described above, but it also allows Hong multiple entries into the question of Asian American identity. The identity of “Asian American” was created in the 1960s by scholars and activists of East Asian descent, inspired by the Black Power movement and designed to bring together groups of people that had not, until then, necessarily seen their political positions as linked. It cannot, however, adequately encompass the vast range of racialized experiences of those of us lumped under the term. What are the similarities between the experiences of a fourth-generation East Asian, say, with the experience of a Southeast Asian refugee, a transnational adoptee, or an Indigenous person from a Pacific Island? Hong wrestles with this question. “Who is us? What is us?” she asks early in the book, and returns to it again and again. One way that she works it out is by employing the concept of “speaking nearby,” developed by documentary filmmaker Trinh T. Minh-ha. Hong writes, “I am only capable of ‘speaking nearby’ the Asian American condition, which is so involuted that I can’t stretch myself across it.” She juxtaposes vignettes from her own life with readings of popular culture, historical accounts, and news stories. In so doing, she creates a mosaic-like structure that forces readers to make leaps—enacting the impossibility of fully embodying an identity that began as a political strategy and has morphed into a vague and murky term at once resisted and embraced by many.

But even as Hong circles around the question of Asian American identity, invisibility, conditionality, and the racial hierarchy of this country, she ferrets out an underlying thread: the intersection of racism, capitalism, and imperialism. She identifies that racial capitalism seeks to subsume and exploit Asian Americans through the false enticement of supremacy. “Asians are next in line to disappear . . . We will not be the power but become absorbed by power, not share the power of whites but be stooges to a white ideology that exploited our ancestors.” 

In fact, the term “minor feelings” comes from Hong’s reading of Sianne Ngai, who wrote of “ugly feelings” as “symptomatic of today’s late-capitalist gig economy.” Minor feelings, writes Hong, are “the racialized range of emotions that are negative, dysphoric, and therefore untelegenic, built from the sediments of everyday racial experience and the irritant of having one’s perception of reality constantly questioned or dismissed.” Like ugly feelings, they are not cathartic, and they cannot be resolved on an individual level. They arise from structural inequity, from the economic and racialized systems of oppression, and so their resolution can only come from structural change. 

And it is this recognition, this writing into the history of U.S. and European imperialism in our countries of origin that allows Hong, in the end, to write confidently into the “we”—not just of the broad and messy category of Asian America but of all people of color—against the clearly defined “you” of white supremacy: “My ancestral country is just one small example of the millions of lives and resources you have sucked from the Philippines, Cambodia, Honduras, Mexico, Iraq, Afghanistan, Nigeria, El Salvador, and many, many other nations through your forever wars and transnational capitalism that have mostly enriched shareholders in the States.” 

She follows in the footsteps of feminists of color in the 1970s and ’80s who united under the term “Third World feminism.” Though their terminology was different, these feminists had a global analysis of how racism in the United States and colonialism and imperialism globally harm Black, Indigenous, Latinx, and Asian women in different and similar ways. In the wake of the 2020 uprisings for Black lives, similar solidarity movements are arising, like the collaborations between the Asian American Feminist Collective and Black Women Radicals. While Hong does not cite the Third World feminist movement, the final essay in the book invokes one of the great Asian American organizers, Yuri Kochiyama. As a young person, Kochiyama was imprisoned by the American government during World War II along with 120,000 other Japanese Americans. After the war, she found herself in Harlem, where she became intimately involved with the Black liberation movement in the 1960s and befriended Malcolm X. Later, she fought for the release of political prisoners in the United States until the end of her life. It is in this examination of solidarity and action that Hong ends the book: “At a time when identities can be walled off, it’s essential to lift up the life of Kochiyama, whose sense of we was porous and large, whose mission was to amplify the voices of others while also amplifying hers.” 

Many more organizers like Kochiyama operate within this large and porous sense of we. Since the teach-in I attended in 2020, the organizers behind Tsuru for Solidarity have led multiple actions at detainment centers, supported the #FreeThemAll campaign calling for the release of prisoners during the pandemic, showed up in protests for Black lives, and organized study groups, gatherings, and actions centering reparations and the abolition of the prison-industrial complex. And when deadly assaults on Asians and Asian Americans led to a call for more policing from some members of the community, many others raised their voices to insist on ways to keep each other safe that didn’t invoke state violence against Black people. At a time when more than seventy million people voted to keep white supremacy in the White House, finding our way into a larger we as demonstrated by Kochiyama, Tsuru for Solidarity, and many other organizers of color feels more critical than ever. 

Cathy Park Hong’s honest and rigorous articulation of minor feelings is one step into an examination of what it will take to truly inhabit such a we—messy and imperfect as it will always be. She models ways to grapple with, fail, and grapple again with the difficulties of looking at racism clearly, and stumble forward as best we can. And in this way, she’s written a text that is playing a pivotal role in shaping the understanding of race in the United States today. 

 

Tamiko Beyer is the author of Last Days (2021) and We Come Elemental (2013), both from Alice James Books. Her poetry and articles have appeared in places such as Denver Quarterly, Idaho Review, DUSIE, Black Warrior Review, Lit Hub, and The Rumpus. She has received awards, fellowships, and residencies from PEN America, Kundiman, Hedgebrook, VONA, and the Astraea Lesbian Writers Fund, among others. She is a queer, mixed race (Japanese and white), cisgender woman and femme, living on Massachusett, Wampanoag, and Pawtucket land. A social justice communications writer and strategist, she spends her days writing truth to power.