Asian or American?

John Huang, dual loyalty, and the myth of dual identity.

Asian-Americans, who so rarely appear in print or on television, can tell you that the media are no mirror of the nation’s complexion. But they understand that the media do reflect the nation’s psyche–and that is why the events of recent weeks have been so distressing. First, U.S. intelligence analyst Robert Kim was accused of spying for South Korea. Then, the John Huang/Lippo scandal broke, raising suspicions about Asian money in American politics. Suddenly, there was no shortage of Asian names in the news. Just as suddenly, a question was in the air: Do Asian-Americans have dual loyalties?

No one, to my knowledge, has framed the issue quite so explicitly. William Safire, for instance, has hyped the so-called “Asian connection” with dark mutterings about “favor-hungry foreigners,” “insidious networking,” and “penetration by Asian interests.” The pull quote in his Oct. 10 column–“Selling influence to rich aliens”–veers into The Protocols of the Elders of Zion territory. But even Safire felt compelled recently to throw in a “some-of-my-best-friends” paragraph of praise for hard-working Asian-Americans. The old Nixon hand knows well that innuendo is effective only if well calibrated.

Still, the unmistakable subtext of Safire’s columns and the press coverage of the Lippo affair is that Asians in America are just that–Asians in America, sojourners and foreigners. Thus, when we learned that Huang had raised over $5 million for the Democrats, little distinction was made–reportorially or morally–between contributions from abroad and contributions from Americans of Asian descent. Moreover, Huang’s activities, however unlawful, have now given rise to a presumption that “Asian-American political participation” is merely a cover for some sinister foreign agenda.

Of course, the notion that Asian-Americans are torn between an outward allegiance to this country and a hard-wired fealty to some Oriental motherland has a long and undistinguished pedigree. The indelible Chineseness of Chinese immigrants was the rationale for the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. The indelible Japaneseness of Japanese-American citizens justified their internment after Pearl Harbor. Small wonder that Asian-Americans have protested the tenor of the Lippo reportage and the portrayal of Asian-Americans as people with divided loyalties.

B ut the source of these stereotypes is not solely white racism, or even the more subtle prejudices of Safire and his ilk. It is also, to a lesser but still substantial degree, the racialist language of modern-day identity politics.

“One ever feels this twoness–an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideas in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder.” So wrote W.E.B. Du Bois in 1903, describing, in The Souls of Black Folk, a “double consciousness” that afflicted, yet graced, the coloreds of his day.

Nearly a century later, the metaphor of dual identity endures in our racial narratives. The notion that minorities are instrinsically alienated from themselves–and that the struggle is somehow ennobling–is a central tenet of multiculturalist ideology. We see it in ethnic-studies courses and academic talk of “racial destiny.” We see it in the deconstructions of O.J. Simpson’s blackness. We see it in the ghosts and doppelgängers who populate the melodramas of Amy Tan and her imitators.

This bifurcation is intuitively appealing because it makes concrete the ambivalence of assimilation, the gnawing sense among many people of color that membership in the mainstream comes at a high personal cost. The symbolism of split personalities and divided souls also has visceral power. And there is a certain romance to the imagery, adorning the ordinary lives of nonwhite folk with the dignity of redemptive suffering.

But there is too much that is flawed about this pose. For, what do we presume when we speak of the minority person’s “dual identity”? We presume that “racial identity” is foreordained and monolithic, and ever at odds with “national identity.” We presume also, as Stanley Crouch has dryly observed, that identity is never more complex than double.

Black nationalists, like their counterparts in “Asian America” or “Latino Nation,” believe that race is primordial, as organic as gender. But consider the Asian-American: Thirty years ago, there was no such creature. There were only Americans of Chinese descent, or Japanese, or Indian. But over the course of a generation, activists and bureaucrats have manufactured a single race out of a diverse mass of several million people whose origins can be traced to dozens of countries.

What has bound this Asian-American “race” together is not its biological badge–eyelid folds, hair color, pigmentation–but its cultural content. Through magazines and campus clubs and advocacy organizations, self-appointed race leaders have sought to create an “authentic” Asian-American consciousness by inventing something called “Asian-American culture.” The fact that they are succeeding tells us something about the magnetic appeal of racial fundamentalism. More importantly, it reminds us that “racial identity” is utterly malleable–and that “racial essence” is utterly artificial.

Yet, even if we did believe in the fixity of races, “double identity” is meaningless unless we also presume that American identity is immutably white. As the critic Albert Murray has long argued, that wasn’t even true in Du Bois’ time. It is even less true now–and not because America, in the classic pluralist formulation, is a “nation of nations,” a neutral holding pen for various diasporas; nor because America is some dehumanizing, single-mold “melting pot.”

What gives lie to anyone’s whitewashed vision of national identity–and what makes America exceptional–is the fact that American culture is more hybridized and mongrelized than anything humanity has ever before seen. When California Caucasians are practicing Feng Shui and Zen meditation, when suburban Asian teens are reciting gangsta rap lyrics, when salsa sales are surging past ketchup sales, how can we speak with a straight face about the ineffaceable whiteness of American life? And how then can we sustain the race-nation opposition central to “double consciousness”?

Ultimately, the weakness of the dual-identity myth is that it reduces humans into bits of binary code. It treats the American experience as a simple equation plotted along two axes, as if class or gender or birthplace or birth order or family structure mattered not–as if contingency never sculpted one’s sense of self. And, in the name of anti-racialism, it recommits the worst errors of racialism: Denying the minority individual his full, complex humanity; interpreting his voice as the mere expression of a greater Volksgeist.

In the milieu of contemporary multiculturalism, that sort of illogic can be affirming. So long as color is a proxy for entitlement, there will be many who find it useful to ostentatiously posit a conflict between their racial core and their assimilated shell. But the fallout from the John Huang debacle should remind Asian-Americans that claims of racial loyalty can cut both ways. And it should remind us all that flimsy notions of the minority’s eternally dual identity, whether tinged with xenophobia or candied with race pride, in the end amount to just so much double talk.