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Facts are important. But they can be inconvenient. Despite the stream of “think” pieces about “hookup culture” over the past decade there is no evidence that young people today are more promiscuous than in the past. In fact, on the contrary. Young people today are by most measures less promiscuous than past post-WW2 generations, in particular, Baby Boomers. Those articles ultimately are not about the behavior of young people, but the fears, dreams, and nightmares, of a declining Baby Boomer cohort which refuses to go into the sunset quietly. I’m not a Boomer, so I won’t psychoanalyze their motives, but like literature the facts proffered in these essays are a means toward probing deeper issues and questions about the human condition, their generation’s condition and preoccupations, as opposed to being literally true (some of the more recent articles will even admit that the statistical evidence falsifies their premise, but then proceed to suggest there are anecdotal data that lend credence to their premise!).
This applies to other things. Today Quartz put up a piece, If Asian Americans saw white Americans the way white Americans see black Americans, which is not really about Asian Americans at all, but simply uses them as a prop, often in a mendacious manner. First, it gives a nod to the Asian American “Model Minority Myth,” stating that there is “perception that they are high achievers relative to other American ethnic groups.” Get it? There’s a perception. There’s a myth in some scholarly and political quarters that the model minority idea is a myth, founded mostly on assertion (e.g., just stating that it’s a false myth) and slicing and dicing the statistics to emphasize ways in which Asian Americans are disadvantaged in relation to non-Hispanic whites. For example, there is often a focus on the diversity among Asian Americans, ranging from affluent Indian Americans, to groups with more conventional socioeconomic profiles like Filipinos, and finally, those which are somewhat disadvantaged such the Hmong. This is to show that Asian Americans are not a model minority…some of them are struggling. But the logic is not applied to whites! Those who purport to debunk the myth of the model minority would not accede to debunking the idea of white privilege by pointing to the state of Appalachia, and rural white America more generally. Group averages for we, but not thee?
And yet the Quartz piece engages in some interesting jujitsu by actually reporting the statistics of Asian American advantage vis-a-vis white Americans in the service of a broader agenda of putting whites in their place in relation to their critiques of black Americans. In particular it quotes Anil Dash as saying “If Asian Americans talked about white Americans the way whites talk about black folks, they’d bring back the Exclusion Act.”
This to me is really bizarre, and why I term the piece mendacious: Asian Americans do talk about white Americans the way whites talk about black folks. This sort of thing was a clear subtext of Amy Chua’s Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother. Many (most?) Asian American kids who grew up with immigrant parents were barraged with assertions about the disreputable character of their “American” (white) friends, and how it was important to keep on the straight & narrow. Immigrants from Asia often perceive white Americans to be sexually obsessed, lazy, and prone to a general amorality and fixation on short term hedonic interests. These are polite ways to condense the sort of attitude many Asian immigrants have toward the white American mainstream, which they worry will absorb and corrupt their children. Dash must know this, as he probably had immigrant parents, or was friends with people from immigrant backgrounds. Most white Americans don’t know this, partly because most white Americans don’t have non-white friends. But anyone from an Asian American background would be aware of the stereotypes and perceptions.
The tacit misrepresentation of Asian Americans here, not acknowledging that they do engage in the exact sort of behavior you are hypothetically positing they might engage in and so alienate white people, is not surprising. Asian Americans are often simply bit characters in a drama involving broader social and political streams which dominate the political landscape. For many decades conservatives asserted that Asian Americans were “natural Republicans,” and expressed confusion as to why more were not voting for their party. But this was an empty talking point; over the past generation the Republican party has become the de facto white Christian party, and many Asian Americans are not Christian, and all are not white. Some conservative Christian Asian Americans can identify with Republicans because of their religious ties, but socially conservative Indian Americans, to give one example, naturally have a difficult time identifying with a party which wears evangelical Protestantism on its sleeve as modern Republicans often do. This isn’t rocket science.
On the flip side of this, many liberals erase Asian Americans from the landscape of our culture if it does not serve their framework of white privilege uber alles. When it came out many people pointed me to The New York Times infographic, Money, Race and Success: How Your School District Compares. The only mention of Asians is this: “Reliable estimates were not available for Asian-Americans.” But my wife pointed out to me that within the chart itself you still had Asian Americans tabulated! If you check the bubble plots at the top right , you see schools like Cupertino Union. It’s 73% Asian American. If you read this blog you know that it irritates me that Asian Americans are routinely elided out of these stories. It’s too regular to be due to a lack of data. It’s because it doesn’t fit the narrative of white privilege and domination. So Asian Americans are skipped over to make the picture neat and tidy.
Instead of taking reality as it is, in all its complexity and nuance, people attempt to fit the data into a narrative straightjacket. Complexity is a talking point only when confronted with a hypothesis you disagree with. When the data does not cooperate in a simple fashion with your own model, the data conveniently goes unmentioned. In a putatively multicultural America the dominant narrative on the Left side of the cultural and political spectrum is that of a dichotomy between whites, who have privilege, and non-whites, who are oppressed.
The black American template, unique, and rooted deeply in the soil of this country, is injected into strange and inappropriate contexts when it comes to people whose ancestors are from Latin America and Asia. White liberals and minorities are assumed to naturally form an alliance against the majority white rump; white liberals because of their moral virtue, and minorities because of their interests. The injustices experienced by someone with a name like Raheem Washington, who grew up in the inner city, are rather easy to enumerate. Raheem Washington begins life with some disadvantages. But there is a particular mainstream narrative where someone with a name like Deepa Iyer (Update: When I wrote this post I actually didn’t know who “Deepa Iyer” was, I just thought up a plausible name! Turns out there really is a Deepa Iyer of some prominence!!!), who might have elite educations, affluent parents, and a good secure career, has more common with Raheem Washington than their white colleagues at the university that they might work at. And of course, there is the further aspect that often goes unmentioned that someone with the name Iyer is from the top echelons of South Asia’s caste system, and so benefits from thousands of years of privilege! And yet it is common among Indian Americans for literal Brahmins to style themselves PoC tribunes of the plebs, oppressed by white America.
A genuine multiculturalism would actually acknowledge the real empirical texture of this nation’s changing demographics. And, a genuine multiculturalism rooted in fact, rather than vacuous critical theory, would dig deep into the richness of human history, rather than outlining broad sketches where white privilege reigns supreme from Sumer to America. As it is, often liberal multiculturalism is simply an inversion of white supremacist theory. That’s unfortunate, because there are real political debates and values divergences which we can grapple with and debate as a society, but the water is immediately muddied and when the facts are subordinate to an ideological narrative. No side really wishes to live in the reality we are given, instead of their imagining.
* Many of the things I said above can be generalized to the American Right as well, though the particularities will differ.
** I shouldn’t have to say this, but any racist comment isn’t going to be published. That’s not going to stop some of you, but I thought I’d give you fair warning.