Minor Feelings: An Asian American Reckoning

by Cathy Park Hong

When white people think of racism and discrimination, we often think first of the challenges African-Americans and Hispanics face in the United States and abroad. In many common narratives, Asians occupy a privileged position as a “model minority,” viewed as hard-working, intelligent, and sometimes even more advantaged than the average white person. Cathy Park Hong tears this story apart in a brutally honest and personal memoir that also highlights lesser-known historical facts about our country.   

An overwhelming theme is how out of place and unwanted Hong felt as a child growing up first in a poor Asian neighborhood in L.A. and then a wealthier white neighborhood. A poet, she did not fit the Asian stereotype; in fact, this stereotype stems from America’s own immigration laws, which granted visas only to the most educated and skilled Asians like doctors and engineers, not some inherent ability. In school, she was not taught about the 1871 lynching of 18 Chinese men and boys following a rumor that a Chinese man had killed a white policeman. Her studies also ignored the vicious names and assaults carried out against Asians following WWII, the Korean war, and Vietnam.

Hong also describes the “minor emotions” of Asians who don’t seem to have a place in their “home” country or America. These minor emotions result from the Asian experience of constant micro-aggressions and everyday racism, while they are also supposed to feel grateful for their gift of merely living here. In Korean, some of these emotions are described as han: a bitterness, shame, melancholy, and vengefulness that stems from years of brutal colonialism, war, and U.S.-supported dictatorships.

Hong also provides a brief commentary on the devaluing of Asian women, which she illustrates through the 1982 rape and murder of the popular poet Theresa Cha in Manhattan. This heinous crime was barely mentioned in the news, despite the fact it occurred in a wealthy Soho apartment building, and even her biographers tend to gloss over the brutality of her death. Hong attributes this to the fetishization of Asian women and tendency to overlook Asians as a race altogether.

She closes the book with a warning that Asians should resist being co-opted by whites in order to allow them to maintain their majority status over black people and other minorities. As the military continues its efforts to enhance diversity, equity, and inclusion within the force, it is critical that we study and learn from the sometimes ugly history of our country so we can better identify present day micro-aggressions and blatant acts of racism.

Follow Up:

  1. How do you educate people about the unsavory history of their country without making them feel like you are attacking them personally? What do you do if they don’t believe you?
  2. How can we avoid anti-Chinese racism in the military while we also prepare for war against a Chinese threat?

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