The Race Man

Why did Wesley Yang call his book The Souls of Yellow Folk when he’s unwilling to look at so many of us?

A crowd of Asian men with a solitary Asian woman standing at the center of the composition.
Doris Liou

In June, a lawsuit pried open Harvard’s records, revealing how the school consistently downrated Asian applicants’ “personality scores.” Admissions officers had decided that Asian American students just had less personality, across a whole index of human traits: integrity, likability, courage, kindness, being “widely respected” and an “attractive person to be with.” It’s hard to explain how it felt to read this. Now there was evidence for that silent unease that people around you—gatekeepers and teachers and supervisors, classmates, strangers at a party—looked straight at you and saw only a flat, effaced surface. Not registering a threat, as with other minorities, but a nonentity. Someone had spelled it out, entered it guiltlessly into the record. My first reaction wasn’t outrage, exactly. I thought: Finally. What I felt was relief.

That validation was like a photo negative of the feeling that surged in moviegoers in August, as they took in the confectionary fantasy of Crazy Rich Asians (flanked by Searching and To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before). The exultant reviews leaned on statements of importance that felt poignantly overleveraged—the first major Hollywood studio-backed feature film fronted by Asian Americans with an Asian male romantic lead and Asian ensemble cast since The Joy Luck Club! Those criteria seemed needlessly constricting: Media featuring Asian faces are widely available in the U.S. After Constance Wu took back Henry Golding, you could walk to the theater next door and catch the Hong Kong crime thriller L Storm. You could stream Korean dramas and Japanese reality shows at will. You could even see Asian heartthrobs on American network TV. All this press was actually registering something rarer: the heady sensation of being, momentarily, topical. This wasn’t just reflection; this was recognition.

It feels right that Wesley Yang’s The Souls of Yellow Folk would arrive just as the season has definitively turned. Those of us who’ve read this reporter and critic for years know he’s always run a little cool. His long and elegant sentences have tended to keep his subject at a lorgnette’s length. This includes himself: More than once he has described looking in the mirror and feeling estranged from what he sees. The stage seemed set for a critical text that would grapple with the deeper questions of what it means to be Asian American—an awkward (some would say artificial) label applied to 20 million people with roots in 20 countries and an uncertain stock of shared historical or cultural references. Yang, a contributing editor at Esquire and columnist at Tablet, is just about the last person you could imagine getting drafted into cheerleading for representational victories. You could, though, see him stepping up to channel the energy of the headlines into something more durable: relevance. In the past, he’s elegantly articulated his sense of alienation from his racial identity, an identity itself defined by alienation from the rest of the country. That distance could be an asset.

The book starts with some of his best-known work, a pair of polemics about America’s winners and losers. “Paper Tigers,” arriving on the heels of Amy Chua’s 2011 memoir, broods over the “bamboo ceiling” at work and cultural values like diligence and deference to authority. “The Face of Seung-Hui Cho” is a searing speculation about the Virginia Tech shooter and those who share a kinship with him—including Yang himself, who in high school was called a “misfit” by the jocks and “essentially unlovable” by a friend. Here, his ambivalence steeps into something darker and more like self-loathing. To move through the world with an Asian face, he suggests, is to carry a cultural code that “abashes, nullifies, and unmans you.”

Ten years after publishing “Face” in n+1, Yang deems some aspects of it “indefensible” but others worth revisiting—namely, the hypothesis that Cho was not some isolated head case but part of a wave of seething, disaffected young men. In the book’s introduction, riffing on W.E.B. Du Bois, Yang puts a new spin on his concept of double consciousness. Asian American men have a unique vantage point on the white male and “social justice warrior” perspectives, Yang argues, because they’re barred from full membership in any category. That the Asian man samples all of these grievances but enjoys precious few benefits is “perhaps the source of his claim to his centrality, indeed his universality.” The rest of the thought veers off obliquely—“That lies at the end of a cultural project that has scarcely even begun”—but even so, that thesis is electrifying. You want to see the corners that such a provocation might illuminate. Then the collection veers off into an array of profiles and, after that, some musings on modern courtship.

Yang is drawn to examining the reputations of polarizing figures (all men, and mostly white) who style themselves the only straight shooters in the room. What constellates his favorite characters, from Aaron Swartz to Tony Judt to the pickup artist Mystery, and for that matter Eddie Huang and Francis Fukuyama, is a defiant posture. They break from liberal politesse. They decode the operant logic underlying conventional wisdom. These self-styled iconoclasts call to Yang’s youthful aspiration to be someone “who is his own law,” as he puts it in “Paper Tigers”—an essay that in retrospect might be read as a fuck-you not just to his particular set of inherited values but to the whole concept of group identity. “I care, in the end, about expressing my obdurate singularity at any cost,” he declares.

That work from a decade ago had an impasto energy (“Let me summarize my feelings toward Asian values: Fuck filial piety. Fuck grade-grubbing. Fuck Ivy League mania.”). But in his more recent writings, much of it ’splaining the campus and online culture wars, he keeps himself above the fray, and sometimes you sense that he’s gone stiff trying to hold that position. His prose becomes calcified. (“This intricate system of racial casuistry, worthy of Jesuits, is a beguiling compound of insight, partial truths, circular reasoning, and dogmatism operating within a self-enclosed system of reference immunized against critique and optimized for virality.”) By the end of the book’s final quarter, which dissects leftist vocab concerning “whiteness,” we’ve been shanghaied into duller and more familiar territory than was promised.

Unlike Du Bois, Yang was never going to declare himself bone of the bone of his subject, flesh of the flesh of his audience. As a critic, he operates at a nail-paring distance. (Writing about a screening of Crazy Rich Asians, he duly reported that “many otherwise jaded and snarky social-media personages” confessed to crying—his own take fastidiously withheld.) And yet, however ambivalently, he seemed to be casting himself as an—even the— Asian public intellectual. He would step up as the race man who would interpret the day’s controversies and push the discourse past the shopworn clichés about lunchroom humiliations and the pre-med track. He would tell us how we fit in the American story.

That’s a pedestal that we might be better off leaving empty. But Yang also turns away from a simpler and more fundamental proposition: that Asian Americans might share a distinct psychological, intellectual, or existential condition, and that the warp and weft of this experience might warrant attention. The collection’s center of gravity isn’t yellowness, and it isn’t folk, a word conveying more easy, warm regard for humans in the plural than he can really muster. The female folk are conspicuously missing, to start with, a gap that goes unminded and unmentioned. Asian men are best understood in relation to white men, and never to the Asian women who might be their friends, comrades, and competitors. The figure of the tiger mother does stalk through, and at some point he interviews a female IBM employee about her workplace frustrations, but for the most part Asian women, like all women, are generic objects of thwarted hetero desire. He scarcely acknowledges that they might share in Asian men’s resentments or aspirations; he doesn’t at all consider that they might have one or two of their own.

With his title, Yang leaves an open contradiction almost trollishly unaddressed: If to be yellow is to be dismissed as inscrutable because no one’s bothered to look at you, why does his gaze also flick away? If he’s just not interested in the subject, why call this book The Souls of Yellow Folk? As a taunt? An ironic gambit? Brand consolidation?

Yang’s collection might simply have been overtaken by its moment. His best, most sustained thinking on the subject took place almost a decade ago. The Asians in America are less invisible than they used to be. They fill Hollywood billboards, the September issues of glossy magazines, and national op-ed pages, at least for now, and they claim they’re here to stay. The scuffles over their role in elite school admissions will drag out, roughing up our preconceived notions of equity and diversity and how other minorities might fit into a national narrative structured by anti-blackness and white supremacy. The future may afford more opportunities to think through this identity—occasions more complicated and more consequential than the handful of one-off celebrity encounters that Yang wrangled for magazine pieces in recent years. The Souls of Yellow Folk has all the weight of a 200-page calling card. But maybe—if it occurs to him to want to—he can get somewhere interesting with it.