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The Real White-Adjacent Asians
Ivory-tower Asians are getting a PhD in projection.
Who wants to be white these days?
It depends on what being white even means. For example, very few Americans would view Jews as anything other than white. Yet American Jews are increasingly refusing to identify as white.1 Considering that most Americans stereotype Jewish and Asian Americans in the same way (high on efficiency and low on warmth, “competent yet cold”), it’s not a stretch to say the way Jews are viewed is a good proxy for how Asians are viewed. Yet at the same time many Jews are fleeing the label, why are some Asian Americans calling themselves white-adjacent?
“White” is nowadays becoming less of an identity marker to mean “people of European stock with a melanin deficiency”, and more as a shorthand for a set of behaviors and implied privileges. In social justice parlance, a white feminist is defined not as a feminist who is white, but rather used as a pejorative to mean a feminist who is not sufficiently attuned to intersectional principles. One does not have to be white to be a white feminist, and white people who are feminists are not necessarily white feminists. “Whiteness” thus is severed from skin tone and applied onto behaviors and beliefs.
The allegation that Asian Americans are “white-adjacent”, or that Asian Americans are actually “white”, does not mean that people think Asians and whites are the same race. Rather, it means that they believe Asian Americans enjoy a set of privileges that allow them access to structural hegemonic power.
This essay is an example of an Asian American academic who framed the deaths of six Asian women in a mass shooting in Atlanta, and the ensuing #StopAsianHate movement that followed, as “proof” of Asian white-adjacency. She chastises Asian Americans for wanting to prevent anti-Asian violence. She tosses a word salad by saying
[T]he structural convergences of Asian Imperial entitlement to White Life reproduces gendered antiblackness as the foundational racial logic of the settler colonial republic that fuels and sustains systemic violence against all communities of color.
Nowhere in the essay does she ever express grief over the Asians murdered, but rather mocks Asians for not caring about other causes enough. It’s saying, “Yeah, you suffered, but some people suffer more, so get over it. Victim blaming is fine as long as the victims deserved it in some way.”
How could someone write an essay like that? Why are some Asian Americans obsessed with promoting the idea that they are white-adjacent?
The truth is, some Asians really do believe they are in fact white, based on their own definition of whiteness. Asian Americans swell the ranks of highly selective colleges, the breeding grounds for the ideology of the liberal elite, the class that dominates the media and the academy. The Asian who goes to Bowdoin or Brown sees that displays of white guilt are in vogue, and apes white liberal guilt, creating a twisted “Asian guilt”.
In the same way that the white gentry distance themselves from working-class whites, the Asian professional class asserts their superiority over working-class Asians by shaming them for their alleged sins. Asian elites would rather chide working-class Asians for alleged anti-blackness, alleged proximity to whiteness, alleged colorism, alleged homophobia and transphobia, and other alleged sins, than actually try and promote the needs of the Asian American working class. They look with disdain upon the Asian working class, the same way ivory-tower whites sneer at the working-class rural whites that cling on to their God, their guns, and their grits.
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But why would these elite Asian Americans see themselves as oppressors, rather than the oppressed? Why are they saying “Asians are white-adjacent” rather than “Asians are marginalized in America”? This is because their upbringings make them far divorced from the realities of many Asian Americans. They are usually adopted or come from upper-middle-class backgrounds. They believe that their experiences are the definitive Asian American experience. And if being “white” means being socioeconomically privileged and bestowed with cultural capital, then it’s easy to see how they may view themselves as white-adjacent.
Who’s more white-adjacent: the Ivy Leaguer with the Asian American Studies degree with pronouns in their bio and Audre Lorde on their shelf, or the Chinese-takeout delivery driver who is too busy working a grueling manual-labor job to care about “doing the work” of critically examining structures of power? Not that working class Asians even have the cultural capital to have a say in America’s ever-shifting culture wars.
Young Asian college graduates control almost all the discourse that is spread through mainstream American media. It’s them who get jobs in media, in publishing, in journalism, in academia, and thus get dictate their version of Asian America to the world. They are partly why many people think Asians are privileged and have no real problems: because these journalists are usually from middle-to-upper class families and educated at America’s most elite institutions. Just reading their opinions, one would think that the biggest struggle Asians face is someone asking “where are you really from” or a white woman publishing a cookbook on noodles. They don’t know or perhaps they don’t care about Asians being attacked every day on the street, because they live in places where the threat of physical violence is near nonexistent.
There is a vast amount of Asian American poverty out there. Many people don’t know that Asian Americans number among the poorest demographics in NYC, that many Asians struggle to put food on the table. But the Asian educated elite would rather chastise poor Asians for daring to support supposedly conservative policies, when in reality, working-class immigrant Asians aren’t even thinking of this as a conservative vs. liberal issue, but a matter of survival vs. death.
The Asian chattering class cannot comprehend that working-class Asians support tougher criminal justice policies, not because of pro-police attitudes, but because working class Asians simply don’t want to be attacked, and they believe a more punitive justice system can help with that. There is no culture of obsessing over the “thin blue line” like conservative whites may have. Asian Americans are not watching Dick Wolf’s many Law and Order shows and spinoffs.
In fact, American police have shown their willingness to kill Asians and get away with it. Tommy Le was a young student shot multiple times in the back and killed by a trigger-happy cop who claimed Le had a knife, when Le had nothing at all on him. Christian Hall was a teenager shot dead by police with his hands up while in a mental-health crisis. Angelo Quinto was an elderly man who suffocated to death when a cop knelt on his neck for five minutes, similar to that of George Floyd. No officers were ever convicted of anything for any of these killings.
Yet Asian PMCs didn’t say a word about police brutality and violence against these working-class Asian Americans. They know they themselves are too insulated in their bubble to ever have to fear being shot dead by cops. And yet they act like all Asians are somehow immune to police brutality.
So when working-class Asians ask for increased policing, that is not out of some pro-police “back the blue” sentiment, but rather because they cannot envision a different way to reduce the number of anti-Asian attacks. Police are more of a “we don’t see any other option” choice than some inherent cop worship. But who knows? Perhaps the restorative justice policies and abolitionist principles the Ivy-educated professional-managerial snobs love espousing would in fact prevent violence, transform harm, uplift communities, and help working class folks. We’ll never know though, because many ivory-towerheads care more about feeling morally superior to the unwashed masses (and for whites on the tower, to fulfill their white savior fantasies à la Atticus Finch) than actually trying to help people. And besides, it’s not like they actually live in the neighborhoods most impacted by crime, so what would they know about reducing it? Where’s their lived experience?
And working-class Asians oppose affirmative action because… they want their kids to go to good schools. That’s it. They’re not even thinking about other minorities. They just don’t want Asians to be discriminated against. Are parents not even allowed to want their kids to succeed anymore?
This Asian pathology can be found in other communities. Very few working-class Latinos would use the term Latinx. Most regard it as a bastardization of the Spanish language. Yet the Latinos at the highest rungs of academia and public policy use the term to display their intellectual and cultural superiority, under the guise of “inclusion”.
The Asians that support “conservative” criminal justice policies and oppose affirmative action aren’t doing so because they want to be white-adjacent. They do so because they want life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, just like anyone else. They live mostly in Asian enclaves, far away from white people or any other race. On the other hand, the Asians in academia and the media… you know the rest.
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I am aware that Jews can be any race, but for the majority of Americans, and the majority of Jewish people themselves, the term “Jew” evokes images of white Ashkenazi Jews, and white Ashkenazi Jews are in fact the majority of the American Jewish population.