210 Comments
Mar 14, 2022Liked by Freddie deBoer

Very few people out there in The Discourse know how to talk about Asians intelligently because their prevailing dogma & racial hierarchy instinctively recoils at nuance, and nuance is the only way to understand the Asian experience. I came to the US when my country of birth was still under rule by a military junta. My parents grew up with food insecurity. My father has a masters degree and is a top 10-15% earner. I am not white and that had an impact on me growing up. I am also, in my current circumstances, very privileged.

All these things are true at once, and the current rigidity in liberal thinking, which desperately wants me to be just one thing, fails over and over again to find language that can talk about me in a way that isn't inaccurate, insulting, patronizing, or stupid. That is why you see phrases like "white adjacent" - in the effort to coin a phrase this dumb you can see they're trying to acknowledge that there's some level of ambiguity and confusion in how to characterize me, but it just collapses into itself and just calls me "white." Which I am not. Idiotic.

Expand full comment

I work in government, specifically government programs to improve welfare and health. We have a DEI committee, and our department is heavily influenced by a local professional organization that is 110% woke. Our DEI committee recently created a worksheet, which we use in small workgroups and all be graded on, with the grading overseen by a peer who is on the committee and has be deemed an "equity champion." We fill out the form for any project we are work on, and part of that form requires a discussion ranking all the groups of people the project would serve, from most oppressed and deserving of support to least oppressed and deserving of support. I am absolutely horrified at the idea of literally ranking people's pain, having it documented, and having one of my brainwashed, very ambitious peers decided if I've done a good job or not. However, believe it or not folks, its not the white people that have a huge problem with this, surprise, surprise many of my Hispanic and Asian co-workers are livid.

What a way to build a coalition.

Expand full comment

This is such a great post. Over the weekend, I started reading Thomas Chatterton William’s book, Self-Portrait in Black and White: Unlearning Race, which makes similar arguments. He’s a mixed American living in France with a French wife and mixed kids, and the experience caused him to change his thinking on race. He now believes we should be working to move past race:

“a flawed paradigm cannot be re-imagined and shifted in the future simply because we are dealing with its practical consequences as they exist today… It is a mistake to reify something that is as demonstrably harmful as it is fictitious.”

It’s a good book, and you all would like it.

[Back to Freddie] “the more you tell people that they’re not a part of your tribe the more you ensure that they will mistreat you.”

This is a huge problem in social justice politics. There’s an expectation that white people must become hyper-conscious of being white, without any negative consequences like… being racist. But it’s delusional to think you can persuade all white people to adopt the Robin DiAngelo view that they should atone for existing. Some whites respond to woke politics by deciding “actually, white people are oppressed” and fighting for white rights. Which is not a great outcome.

The “white adjacent” thing strikes me as a power struggle between people of color in the social justice movement. Just like changing the acronym to BIPOC to make sure Asians and Latinos know they come second in the movement. It’s backfiring – Asians are starting to vote Republican in response to some of the efforts to prioritize other groups over them, especially efforts to reduce the Asian populations in elite schools. They’re inadvertently creating a coalition of white and Asian people who are sick of this shit.

Expand full comment

I agree with this column 100%. Freddie points out one of the contradictions of woke thought: If you treat a POC as a member of their race, you're othering and tokenizing them, which is bad; but if you treat them as an individual, you're invalidating their experience as a POC in a racist society, and that's equally bad. "Colorblindness is racist!"

And the idea of "white-adjacent" is just a No True Scotsman fallacy:

"No person of color can be successful in a white supremacist society!"

"But [Asian-American person] is wealthy and well-educated."

"Well then, [Asian-American person] is No True Person of Color! She's white-adjacent!"

Expand full comment

While I agree with everything that Freddie says in this piece, it obscures how the discourse of the "model minority" arose in the first place, without which you can't really understand the role it is playing in current arguments. The phrase arose as an ironic characterization of certain sorts of arguments about Blacks and racism, and only subsequently was it appropriated by its opponents.

As I understand it, the debate went something as follows (over-simplified, of course!):

Stage One: Liberals say, "Even though overtly racist laws have been repealed, racism is the reason blacks do badly in modern America, both because they began in a poor position because of racism, and because of the continuation of racist attitudes and practices."

Stage Two: Conservatives respond, "But Asians (Jews, other minority of choice) also started in a really bad position, and have suffered from racism, but they have succeeded within modern America. So the current poor position of Blacks must be due to something other than racism, something about the culture they grow up in (family breakdown, poor attitudes to education, over-dependence on welfare, you name it, some conservative has mentioned it in these contexts ...)"

Stage Three: Liberals respond: "You're just using Asians (Jews, other minority of choice) as a MODEL MINORITY. But this is based on a MYTH - that Asians (Jews, other minority) succeed because of their culture. The REAL reason Asians (Jews, other minority) have succeeded in modern America is because they have become WHITE ADJACENT, which means they benefit from racism rather than being harmed by it."

Stage Four: Conservatives respond: "This is nonsense. Asians (Jews, minority of choice) do suffer from racism even now - maybe more than Blacks in some left-wing circles. But they ARE a model minority, because of their culture that allows them to succeed (stable families, positive attitudes to education, self-reliance rather than depending on welfare, you name it)".

Stage Five: Liberal Asians (Jews, minority of choice) shout at conservatives (and sometimes at other liberals): "STOP TREATING US AS A UNIT!! Not all of us are successful, we struggle in all sorts of ways!".

Stage Six: Freddie writes the post above, pointing out that it makes a lot of sense in all sorts of contexts to average people out, and rather than complaining about the averaging, people would do well to question some of the underlying assumptions.

And, as I said, I agree with everything Freddie argues here! But the problem is that he is really only responding to what people are saying in Stage Five of the argument, without making it clear that Stage Five only makes sense in the context of stages one through four, where conservatives are using Asians en masse as a sort of political weapon to critique Black society, and liberals are seeking to respond to that by using Asians en masse as a political weapon of a different sort. I think that someone reading it without that context wouldn't really understand where the people he's arguing against are coming from.

Expand full comment

It's fundamentally illogical to believe that on one hand diversity is real and valuable and on the other to simultaneously argue that diversity won't lead to different outcomes in real world metrics like educational attainment, salary, and so on. It's hard not to shake the feeling that the woke set are comfortable with the idea of "diversity" as it applies to skin color but balk at the idea that it could affect individual perceptions and cultural values: for example, views on the proper role of women in society.

Expand full comment

It seems like so much social-critical writing is predicated on deliberately sloppy thinking, I suppose in the service of generating content (a word I hate) that will draw clicks. It is tremendously discouraging.

Expand full comment

"But what liberals are attempting in the 21st century is to relentlessly insist that we are not the same and that our identity group differences define us, while at the same time demanding that there be no discrimination between groups. And I just don’t think that’s possible."

Perhaps I'm being overly negative here, but as near as I can tell liberals of this vein are not at all demanding that there be no discrimination between groups. They are demanding discrimination between specific groups in specific ways. Charitably, they demand that we discriminate in favor of historically disadvantaged groups over historically advantaged groups as a form of justice. Said less charitably, they demand a racism that privileges a different group (or set of groups). Except they have defined the word "racism" in such a way that deliberate discrimination based on race is not always racism.

Expand full comment
Mar 14, 2022·edited Mar 14, 2022

Who comes up with words like 'white adjacent' and how/why they gain hold in current discourse is a subject worth discussing about. Who gets to define whom is matter of real power and therefore politics.

Expand full comment

"what liberals are attempting in the 21st century is to relentlessly insist that we are not the same and that our identity group differences define us"

Once again, you are mis-using the word "liberal" to mean something that it absolutely does not mean, nor has it ever meant.

Whatever you want to call people with these beliefs (I vote for "identitarians"), they are, by long-accepted and codified definition, NOT "liberals".

Expand full comment

Another great one, Freddie. Contemporary granular racial politics seems like something designed in a lab by billionaires to annihilate solidarity among the poor/working class. They’ll have us fighting over tiers of privilege from our cardboard box homes under the overpass.

Expand full comment

The liberal anxiety about this also revolves around another idea - that if the success of Asian-Americans is reliant on culture (education, parenting etc) then it becomes fair to blame the injustice faced by other groups (particularly African Americans) partly on group culture too. I don't think that assumption about other groups has to be a natural extension of honestly analysing the success of Asians Americans but either way, that's a place that liberals are terrified to tread.

Expand full comment

I live in a *lot* of diversity, and one thing that always amuses the hell out of me in these conversations is the assumption that painting asians as either white or non-white has societal implications for race relations.

First--as I imagine most people here know, "Asian" is a concept invented by an Asian activist b back in 1968 because Filipinos didn't like the term "yellow" and "Oriental" was too old school. And then the Indians (that is, south Asians) who wanted in on the SBA gimmees demanded they be included in "Asian".

So for "Asians" to talk about their mistreatment is, for most actual people from India to China, as absurd as the term "Latinx". Like "Asians were mistreated after 9/11" is bullshit because there isn't a single case of someone mistaking an East Asian American for an Arab, and today, no one's beating up Sikhs because they don't like Beijing's policies. But just like "Latinx" was invented by Hispanic liberal activists, so too was "Asian" invented by activists.

Next--it is literally impossible not to watch an East Asian of local vintage (1 or 1.5 gen here) complain about racism without laughing because East Asians are INSANELY racist, and something like 60% of Asians in the US are foreign borns. They despise blacks. Aren't too crazy about Hispanics, but value the cheap labor. Indians are somewhat racist but it's more of a class issue with them (unsurprisingly). THis is one reason why Indians and Pakistanis do much better in business in the US than East Asians (the ones who complain about the "bamboo ceiling")--not the only reason, but it's there. (Note: as a rule, I've seen that geographic regions that had thousands of years of homogeneity are more racist than those that got invaded all the time. So whites, Hispanics, and South Asians aren't terribly racist while blacks and East Asians are extremely racist.

You see this racism all the time in the wailing about ending merit based schools--which, since Americans (of all races) dont' like Asian (both south and east) academic culture (way too much cheating and far too much obsession with grades over ability) they tend to avoid. You'll hear an East Asian advocating for merit-base schools say all the time "I worked hard. Why should I have to lose out to someone lazy?" which is something no American and most South Asians would never say. (example here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZY5h0WlyAUQ&t=3308s)

Republicans don't understand this, because most Republican politicians don't live in large Asian communities. If they did, more Republicans would look for Vietnamese Republican to run in heavy Vietnamese areas, because Vietnamese are the one Asian group that's "naturally" Republicans. Republicans tend to mock whites who say they aren't crazy about Asian immigrant education culture, but that's because most whites who live around Asians are liberal, so it's safe. That might not always be the case.

I'm not sure this is fixable without my own pick of dramatically reducing immigration awhile to homogenize the US (Asian Americans in this country multiple generations don't have many of th3ese issues). But in the meantime, there should be more examination of Americans who live in large Asian immigrant communities (who will be largely white and Hispanic Americans) to get a sense of the stories the media misses about the conflicts in those communities so at least there'll be some idea of the political landmines--for example, taking "Asian" complaints about racism seriously.

Finally--the Asian "academic excellence" takes two parts. The first is test scores, where test prep is really, really beyond what most Americans of any race find appropriate. The second is grades. That's why switching from test scores to grades won't do as much as the affirmative action folks hope. In fact, the original switch from weighting test scores to weighting grades at UC had exactly the opposite impact of what the UC people expected, which is why they eliminated test scores all together. (Namely,they anticipated the "demographic footprint" of white test scores was higher than blacks, but never stopped to consider that the "demographic footprint" of Asian grades to whites would be such a huge factor. That's why they are eliminating test scores all together. Far less gradation if you only look at grades than test scores *and* grades.

By the way, I agree with Freddie's points. I'm just always distracted when people start talking about "Asians" complaining about "racism" so I go off on those issues. Which are really, really important and explain a lot more of why whites aren't bitching about reinstituting affirmative action.

Expand full comment

Excellent piece. If people could just grasp the idea that what's true of groups on average is not necessarily true of specific individuals but *both* remain true - without their pearl clutching pavolvian moral reflexes kicking in - we'd be in a much better place.

Expand full comment

Whenever I encounter this kind of argument, I just mentally refute it by thinking: "this distribution has a tail" does not contradict "this distribution has a mean". (Unfortunately, most people don't understand distributions.)

Expand full comment

Are any of you familiar with the Harvard economist Dr. Roland Fryer? While at Harvard, Dr. Fryer did analysis that whose results flew in the face of standard belief regarding race....and he had the research to back his claims.

Via Dr. Glenn Loury, Brown University economist, I found a 25-minute film detailing Fryer's journey at Harvard. "Journey" is a euphemism to what happened to him. Dr. Loury appears in the film. The film was released March, 2022. Thoughts?

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=m8xWOlk3WIw

Expand full comment