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Asian Envy

Though envy is by consensus a bad thing -- one of the Seven Deadly Sins, after all -- it's also an underappreciated forum for cultural communication and transmission.
Jesse Berrett

Issue #13, April 1994

Almost four decades ago, in his notorious 'The White Negro,' Norman Mailer gazed in fascination at the black New York street hustlers gliding by — existential heroes living only for robbery and the next high, in his mind — and wanted to be one. Burning with a similar hunger, in the same year Jack Kerouac wandered through a black neighborhood at nightfall and wished that he could possess the grace and the elemental rhythm he believed he saw there. But behind these fantasies of escape from the physical and emotional confines of whiteness into the presumed freedom of blackness lurked a long history of violence and pain, an eternal tug-of-war between attraction and repulsion: black skin evoked not just desire, but loathing, anger, and horror in whites, and had done so for years.

Perhaps a better way of putting this is that the white appetite for blackness is fundamentally about envy. But though envy is by consensus a bad thing — one of the Seven Deadly Sins, after all — it's also an underappreciated forum for cultural communication and transmission. Granted, envy gave birth to minstrelsy, offered the KKK a horrible way to release the repressed sexual desires of an entire region, and legitimized hordes of white suburban gangstas; but it also promoted the spread of jazz, enriched the national literature, and produced what is today a genuinely multiracial teen culture. In sum, I'd like to offer a good word for envy — at least as a metaphor for a way to think ourselves through some of the present impasses within American culture.

If this sounds like a fancy container for basic racism, perhaps it is — though I'd also point out that since every meeting these days between those of different races is blanketed by a thick fog of bias and misinformation, self-consciousness of our own envy may make the contours of the ground we walk on somewhat clearer. By the same token, if this sounds like communitarianism, the newest method thinktanks have come up with to avoid sharing the wealth, or worse, somebody gearing up for a Senate race, all I can plead is that rhetoric suitable for group exhortation hasn't yet caught up to the complexities of postmodern identity. Nor have I. While we'd like to think of the pomo self as a nametag that says 'Hi, I'm...' and leaves you a blank space to fill in with whatever you like, I can't help noticing how solidly our exterior circumstances shape and contain us. You can toy with drag, camouflage or remake your body as cleverly as you want, but unless you're Madonna — i.e., rich — when you go out in the world others still react to the you they see there. (Just ask Venus Xtravaganza, or Vincent Chin.) So while I'd love to free everybody to plaster together whatever shards of self and otherness strike their fancy, I can't.

Think of the following as the latest installment in the long saga of white colonialist appropriation if you prefer, then...or label it magic realism, and remember that magic realism is probably the only admirable artistic movement excreted by totalitarian societies, which is to say that under the right circumstances fantasy means something too. In either case, I'd like to focus on a less well-known facet of American racethink: Asian envy. Where does Asianness fit into America's racial imagination? Scholars like Winthrop Jordan have pointed out that from the first this country has balanced itself atop not a bi-but a tri-racial structure of prejudice. Three hundred years ago Americans 'triangulated,' as Jordan puts it, between black, white, and red, but these days the Native American is out of sight and out of mind.

Instead, if the white is the ego and the black the id, today the Asian is the superego, the dutiful, obedient, functionary who does everything he (and everyone else) is supposed to do without making a fuss. As the superego, the Asian never gets endowed with much phallic force — unless it's pumped up by the irresistible power of capital. (The skyscraper in _Rising Sun_, a modern classic of racist demagoguery, is a perfect emblem of this monstrous corporate sexuality, conjoining the thrust of Japanese investment in LA's infrastructure with the 'unnatural' sexual appetites of the company's salarymen. For the perfect touch of hysteria, the tower is, of course, black.)

Just as white envy of blackness hasn't been wholly negative, though, there's something worthwhile envious whites can extract from Asian culture, and it's not Michael Crichton's dream of more efficient industrial policy. (Nor, for that matter, is it some patronizing 'model minority' stereotype of hard work, family togetherness, and kids who get into Berkeley and study engineering.) Rather, I want to connect with (appropriate? imagine? feel?) the suffering that underlies what is at root a typical immigrant drive for security. The bedrock of much Asian striving and succeeding in America, after all, is good old state terror. While we've been fed the Pacific Rim as capitalism's newest playground, a land where little dragons run free, produce, and accumulate, it's also a collection of peoples struggling to free themselves from the shackles of totalitarianism. And it's this aspect of Asianness I want to focus on. Indeed, I want whites to imagine themselves inhabiting these Asian bodies, owning these Asian memories, resonating with whatever they know of the Asian past — recognizing all the while that this will always at best walk the line between sympathy and repossession.

Of course, I can't really put myself inside another's skin, John Updike's latest novel to the contrary, but I can at least begin to make some connections through my own family's history. My grandfather, by all accounts a rather feckless small businessman, scampered back and forth through the Pale in the 1920s and 30s before finally settling in that paradise of equality, South Africa, in 1935. His more successful brothers chose to remain in Poland even as the signs of war grew clearer; all of them perished in the Holocaust. I mention this not in order to intone solemnly that I Too Have Known Suffering — my relatives' deaths feel scarily abstract, and Holocaust deniers don't make me nearly as angry as I suspect they should — nor to argue that my great-uncles' tragedy somehow allows me to claim I'm as much a victim as someone who escaped the Viet Cong in an open boat, but to point out that white people can (must) reimagine the pain in their own past if they're to help avert a 21st Century that looks suspiciously like a rerun of the 19th.

All that talk of mobile multinational capital, information superhighways, and the like should not obscure the fact that we're returning to a world where gigantic conglomerates led by charismatic political/economic figures do battle across the globe while the rest of us watch helplessly from the sidelines, or worse, get drawn in at the oligarch's whim. And just as expansionist 19th Century American governments exploited poor Chinese laborers to build the railroads, today's financial revolution breaks the backs of impoverished workers across Asia and Latin America in the maquiladoras that allow capital its fluidity. For that matter, think of the Internet, which is fast being colonized by corporate dollars. How much longer will easy access survive? In a very real sense, we are all in danger of being reduced to a state of well-equipped peasantry.

So what do I (we) do? Frankly, I don't know. My fiancee denounced this piece as glib and condescending, and she may well be right. But I remain convinced that feats of sympathetic imagination are (and will remain) crucial if *anyone* is to understand — not to mention change — what's truly involved in the ongoing process of global transformation of which the Pacific Rim is the leading example. Reading Amy Tan or Bharati Mukherjee won't do the trick. At this point white Americans need stereotypes; we need to consume them *as stereotypes* in order to learn what's behind them, but also in order to help ourselves and others avoid being suck(er)ed into yet another round of the consolidation of capital. In dreams begin responsibilities, and in racial fantasies lie both horror and hope.

Jesse Berrett is a graduate student in the History Department.

Copyright © 1994 by Jesse Berrett. All rights reserved.