Like most Americans born after 1990, I spent too much time online starting at far too young an age. First came bulletin-board forums and anonymous chat rooms, then 4chan and SomethingAwful. Stay on these forums long enough and you become deeply familiar with a certain trope about the type of males who frequent them: young men, generally white or Asian, who struggle to meet and form meaningful relationships with women; who are unsatisfied at school or work; who feel increasingly desperate and blame broad classes of people for their failures. The trope is an abstraction, maybe even a lazy one, that is nonetheless called to the fore every time the digital culture wars bleed into the real world. The standard reactions of the chattering class at such moments — blaming capitalism, or a breakdown of traditional religion, or toxic male entitlement, or white supremacy, or progressivism — mostly serve to validate commentators’ preexisting assumptions in the identity games. There is little in the way of subtle, original commentary about the dispossessed young male.
The writing of Wesley Yang is an exception. “Is it OK to be white?” he asked in a column in Tablet magazine last November. “The question is at once disingenuous, facetious, satirical, and self-parodic. It is also one of the consequential questions being posed in earnest by the moral and political vanguards of our time.” He was referring to a then-ongoing alt-right campaign, conceived online by those same disposessed male Internet denizens, to put up posters at universities and high schools that answered the question in the affirmative, and to the media furor that had followed. “The question invites the typical reader to resist its implications — to deny that the question is one that anyone would think to ask, or that people are asking. But people have thought to ask it, they are asking it. It is the sort of question that one doesn’t think to ask at all unless the answer is going to be no.”
Some 2,000 words later, after affirming that yes, it is okay to be white, Yang had covered a lot of ground. He explained the goal of the alt-right troll campaign (to invite “dissent that would delegitimize the dissenters”), pointed out the nature of the dissent (social-justice activists take whiteness and masculinity to be “forms of identity rooted in genocide, colonialism, and slavery that reproduce the violent conditions of their emergence everywhere they are treated as neutral”), and located its philosophical source (a shift from neutral liberalism to a post-structuralist Foucauldianism that has seeped into the academy, the media, and human-relations departments, and is coming to a screen near you). By the end of the column, Yang had managed to capture the essence of online social-justice activism in a single sentence: “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.”
This trenchant essay appears toward the end of Yang’s debut book, The Souls of Yellow Folk. The title is an homage to W. E. B. Du Bois’s look at the souls of black folk at the start of the last century, and Yang’s volume is not really about the alt-right or digital political fights. It is a diffuse collection of previously published essays that coheres, albeit loosely, around the “centrality” of the Asian-American experience to contemporary American life. (Du Bois argued that the African-American experience was central to the larger national story, although later in life he lost that conviction and sadly dove into the murk of Stalinism and Afro-Liberation.) Yang is aware of the excesses of progressivism yet under no illusions about race’s continuing importance in the United States; his major observation is that Asian Americans, at once marginalized and successful, overlooked by whites yet rebuffed by other racial minorities, occupy a unique cultural space in our identity-obsessed country. Mostly, though, Yang’s book is a primer to the wider oeuvre of a perceptive writer with undeniably sharp insights into American life.
The book’s opening salvo, “The Face of Seung-Hui Cho,” is about the Virginia Tech shooter, who left a recording of his grievances before murdering 32 and wounding 17 in 2007. It is also about race, sex, and Wesley Yang. When Yang saw Cho’s face on the news, he thought, “He looks like me.” He felt he had an inescapable experience in common with the bearer of that face: “Both of you know what it’s like to have a cultural code superimposed atop your face, and if it’s a code that abashes, nullifies, and unmans you, then you confront every visible reflection of that code with a feeling of mingled curiosity and wariness.” Published in n+1 in 2008, the piece is a bracing reminder that dreams of a society in which race is irrelevant are hopelessly naïve.
The book’s second essay, “Paper Tigers,” was written in 2011 in response to the worries of Americans that harder-working Asians, raised by “tiger mothers” such as Amy Chua (whose book coined the term), were poised to claim the controlling cultural heights. In the essay, Yang rebels against the stereotypes of “filial piety” and “grade-grubbing” that attach to Asian Americans. A student he interviewed who had excelled academically and taken up the usual extracurriculars detected “another hierarchy behind the official one that explained why others were getting what he never had.” This secret set of qualifications, less transparent than a GPA or SAT score, helps to maintain a “bamboo ceiling” against Asian inclusion. Yang’s essays were written before the current court case that exposed how Harvard admissions officials downgraded academically successful Asian applicants on slippery grounds of “personality” or “charisma,” but it supports his suspicions, and he has written forcefully on the subject elsewhere. In a profile of entrepreneur, chef, and TV personality Eddie Huang, Yang suggests a potential solution: Develop yourself, like Huang, as an individual who defies any stereotypes.
Throughout, Yang’s account of the concept of “Asian American” is subtle. The term identifies not a unified people of shared heritage, but a people whose identity is created in part by their place in American racial hierarchies. People of Mongolian and Filipino heritage have little in common except for the cultural space accorded them in America, or so goes the argument. What’s more, Asian Americans are people of color with a history of being discriminated against, but they receive little in the way of sympathy from bureaucracies tasked with elevating “underrepresented minorities” — as Yang notes elsewhere, a suggestive phrase.
Yang’s prose veers between visceral testimony and dispassionate analysis, sometimes in the same sentence. “As the bearer of an Asian face in America,” Yang felt in 2008 that “you were by default unlovable and unloved, . . . mute and servile, . . . many laudable things that the world might respect and reward [but] fundamentally powerless to affect anyone in a way that would make you either loved or feared.” All this from a face? Yang senses the reader’s likely objection. “What was the epistemological status of such an extravagant assertion? It was a dogmatic statement at once unprovable and falsifiable. . . . It had no real truth value, except that under certain conditions, one felt it with every fiber of one’s being to be true.”
But there is little evidence that Cho, the Virginia Tech shooter, blamed race for his own plight. Rather, as Yang chronicles, yet as the national media oddly overlooked in the wake of the shooting, Cho took himself to be an avatar of losers everywhere. Cho was angry with what he saw as “a system of social competition that renders some people absolutely immiserated while others grow obscenely rich,” leading Yang to meditate on the “undernourished human soul” that he thinks plagues Americans.
Part 3 of the essay collection certainly marshals some evidence in his favor. In “Game Theory,” his 2011 review of Neil Strauss’s The Game, Yang writes about the pickup-artist (PUA) community, beholding soullessness taken to an extreme. Men who crave the self-confidence that they could use to attract women — or who just want to get laid — are drawn into the PUA community by oleaginous gurus who teach their customers to think of women as a code to crack, usually with the help of pricey e-books written by the gurus themselves. Intimacy is a matter of manipulation and planning; touch that girl on the arm at the right moment and she’ll be yours. These digital Cyranos did not invent the promise of teaching the awkward guy how to land the beautiful girl, but Yang clearly thinks their proliferation holds lessons about the distorted way Americans think about sex, arguing that their manifestos “disclosed with unusual clarity the nature of the larger game we all play.” Later, his review of 800 pages of New York magazine’s “sex diaries” section suggests that infinite choice and the prioritization of efficiency in all matters sexual — Homo economicus but in bed — have had grave social consequences.
Including fine but forgettable profiles of Francis Fukuyama and Evan Kohlmann, among others, the book rests its claim of forming a coherent whole on the fact that Yang wrote it all. Other already-published essays by him (his profile of Jordan Peterson for Esquire would have made an interesting complement to “Game Theory”) or more reflections on the assorted pieces would have strengthened the collection’s cohesion.
Perhaps aware of the book’s strong centrifugal force, however, Yang gives a clue in the introduction as to how he sees the essays in orbit together:
My interest has always been in the place where sex and race are both obscenely conspicuous and consciously suppressed, largely because of the liminal place that the Asian man occupies in the midst of it: an “honorary white” person who will always be denied the full perquisites of whiteness; an entitled man who will never quite be regarded or treated as a man; a nominal minority whose claim to be a “person of color” deserving of the special regard reserved for victims is taken seriously by no one. In an age characterized by the politics of resentment, the Asian man knows something of the resentment of the embattled white man . . . [and] of the rising social-justice warrior. . . . Tasting the frustrations of both, he is denied the entitlements of either.
Readers may not decide whether the Asian-American man’s “marginality” really makes him central to understanding the flux of modern American life. The fascination lies in watching Yang’s initial attempts to figure that out for himself. The answer, he says, “lies at the end of a cultural project that has scarcely begun.” In Souls of Yellow Folk, he has provided a much-detailed, frequently incisive, and generally convincing case that, at the very least, it will be worth reading the next books and columns Yang writes as he plunges ahead in his quest to find that answer.