An Asian Man Who Likes Math: Anti-Asian Misandry and Transformative Hospitality

When I first heard Andrew Yang say the word “lawyer,” I was watching one of his many longform interviews on YouTube. I can’t remember which one exactly, though I have seen all of them at least once. I would discover months later that there are several that are widely celebrated within the Yang Gang community. Perhaps it was his first interview with The Breakfast Club from March 2019, in which Charlamagne Tha God, backlit by Yang’s primary topic of technological automation, jokes throughout that Yang himself is a robot, lacking any self-awareness about his use of this anti-Asian racist trope.[1]

Anti-Asian racism is often like that, excused or unnoticed, even by other people of color. In any case, Yang was known truly to shine in this format, and it became clear to me that he was emerging as one of the most significant public intellectuals of our day. He was, in my estimation, also a groundbreaking, formidable presidential candidate, and I will return to this momentarily. What “Yanged” me first, though, is the way the word “lawyer” left his tongue, with the nearly dip-thong emphasis on the first syllable. He would say this when giving the biographical data in his stump speech, that he was an “unhappy corporate lawyer for five months” before quitting to become a start-up entrepreneur saddled with six-figure student loan debt from Columbia Law School. When I hear Yang speak, I hear many of my own cadences, the specifically Asian American phonemes and intonations from a warm baritone that have been calibrated across his forty-five years of perceiving white ears. When Yang describes his comically brief legal career, for instance, the way “lawyer” leaves his vocal folds is a dead ringer for how my brother, himself a white-shoe lawyer, announces his profession. Yang’s double consciousness is indubitably ours.

There is a way that East Asian Americans intonate and pronounce, unique to our ears and tongues regardless of birthplace, national origin, or ancestors’ national origin. Yang was born in Schenectady, New York, to Taiwanese immigrants, and he considers himself a product of the northeast, while my brother and I were born in Seoul and raised in North Carolina. That is to say, there is neither an inherent demographic nor cultural basis for our tongues to sound similar at all, for us to be able to recognize each other with no visual cues whatsoever. Such attendance to our voice, I contend, might subvert the way in which raciality persists as a matter of the visual, especially for Asian Americans, i.e., that raciality and faciality seem always to go hand in hand. When students have asked me about the matter of cultural representation regarding Yang’s candidacy, and thus the matter of our political convictions within the limited world of cultural representation, it has been tempting to tease this idea of the aural rather than the visual. (There is something to be said for Andrew Yang being the first YouTube presidential candidate, both in the sense that his longform interviews constitute, as I noted a moment ago, a sort of Yang Gang content canon, and in the sense that we might understand his racial figure, including this aural saturation, within the specific generational rise of Asian American cultural visibility via YouTube.) Yet there is no established public discourse or cultural idiom that I know of that recognizes our tongue as a marker of Asian American cultural distinctiveness.

Rather, what we are given in this current generation of Asian American popular thought is a relentless insistence on the notion that we don’t exist at all. Jay Caspian Kang, writing in the New York Times in August 2017, asserts that “‘Asian-­American’ is a mostly meaningless term. Nobody grows up speaking Asian-­American, nobody sits down to Asian-­American food with their Asian-­American parents and nobody goes on pilgrimages back to their motherland of Asian­ America.”[2] Wesley Yang, who admittedly is one of only two Asian American intellectuals to have written on Andrew Yang’s candidacy, declares in March 2018 in Tablet that “[t]here has always been something faintly ludicrous about the ‘Asian-American’ identity… All races are, to varying degrees, artificial constructs. The ‘Asian-American’ identity is an artificial construct that scarcely anyone claims.”[3]

Needless to say, it is easy to dismiss such prattle from the perspective of Asian American Studies and Ethnic Studies. Contra such assertions, “Asian American” is an identity that millions indeed currently claim, no less “artificial” than the monikers “Black” or “African American,” which, as Black Studies reminds us, have often served as liberatory political constructs. The push against the very notion of a pan-ethnic racial identity available to Asiatic peoples in the American empire is deeply disturbing for a variety of political reasons, least of which the fact that Kang and Wesley Yang are writing in a historical moment defined by the resurgence of white supremacist violence in general and xenophobic bigotry in particular. This millennial trend of Asian American intellectuals wiping out our identity fails to attend properly to the political movement that made “Asian American”—and thus our own voices at present—possible in the first place: the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965. That is, the historical moment in which the largest expansion of Asian immigration was made possible at all, as an offshoot of the Black Civil Rights Movement, is the exact same moment in which Yuji Ichioka—a Japanese American survivor of the Topaz concentration camp in Utah and the closest friend of Richard Aoki, the sole non-Black charter member of the Black Panther Party—coined this term, “Asian American.”

Against this cultural backdrop of willful and asserted self-erasure, Andrew Yang’s voice reminds the American public that he is “very proud to be the first Asian American man to be running for president as a Democrat.” How was this blunt assertion of Asian American identity heard through the media? The dominant response to the racial novelty of Yang’s candidacy was unsurprisingly one-dimensional, specifically directed through the trope of the “model minority.” Even the best-intentioned intellectuals could focus only on how Yang deploys the model minority stereotype, particularly from his campaign adage that he is “the opposite of Donald Trump: an Asian man who likes math!” For instance, Ellen Wu comments in a May 2019 New York Times article that “[p]eople who are math nerds—you can be proud of that… But in some ways, leaning in on those kinds of caricatures of Asian-Americans, we run the risk of reproducing the narrow characterizations that Asian-Americans encounter in mainstream culture.”[4] Notice how narrow the discussion regarding “model minority” was made, suggesting a feedback loop of ingroup betrayal and pathology and only that. That is, notice how Wu, who has written a definitive study of the concept, was never asked to interrogate the concept in the context of racialization writ large but rather only to thematize the accusation that Yang may be guilty of propagating stereotypes.[5]

In Asian American Studies, it is a commonplace notion that the term “model minority”—generated in the same 1960s era of social upheaval and political identity-crafting—was crafted to pit Asian Americans against the other racial groups that are implied to constitute the non-model minorities. Accelerated by the aforementioned immigration boom, this divisive and racist notion took shape in the post-1965 era into what David Eng and Shinhee Han, in their well-known treatise on the concept of “racial melancholia,” has called the model minority concept’s “compulsive restaging” of itself: “the model minority stereotype homogenizes widely disparate Asian and Asian American racial and ethnic groups by generalizing them all as economically or academically successful, with no personal or familial problems to speak of.”[6] While it may be true that Yang did not speak on the campaign trail with academic sophistication regarding his own relationship to this concept (not that he was ever, to my knowledge, asked to do so), it is revealing that his deployment of perhaps the dullest Asian stereotype was only ever interpreted as doing harm to a specific in-group of Asian Americans who already allegedly hold a vexed psychic relationship to math (of all things!).

What this has meant in terms of the media narrative is the appearance of a pathological denunciation of an elite, educated Asian American by other elite, educated Asian Americans. Our intellectual class was allowed only to speak of a psychic harm that purportedly affects only our class of Asian Americans, including Yang himself, rather than revealing the foundational political evil of the concept, which is the propagation of anti-Blackness. Thus, one clear lesson from Yang’s candidacy is that the appellation “model minority” has now become a reflexive anti-Asian smear against Asian Americans, casually uttered by people, usually themselves part of the educated elite and including some Asian Americans, who care neither for truly interrogating this white supremacist term nor for actually fighting racism and inequality. It has become a kind of epithet that abets the aforementioned self-erasure of Asian Americans in our present day.

Further still, it should be noted that such an epithetic charge against Yang has only extended the perpetual inattention to the rich history of collaboration and alliance between people of color, which, as I suggested earlier, is locatable in the term “Asian American” itself. In a longer version of this essay, I discuss the prospects of conceptualizing Yang as an AfroAsian figure. Let me briefly sketch this argument: those in power are committed to having us believe, by way of the model minority myth, that Asian Americans and African Americans are in perpetual and irresolvable conflict and that Asian Americans are somehow inherently coded as white-allied and anti-Black, even though our history at every turn has said otherwise. The post-1965 framing of Asian Americans as the model minority was perpetuated by the white elite in order 1) to inaugurate the notion that Black and brown and red Americans constitute the non-model minorities, and 2) to peg Asian Americans as a pathologically white-desiring outgroup. In this way, it became clear throughout 2019 that rather than reflecting Yang’s supposed inability or incapacity to discuss race, it was much more so the case that the media and much of the American electorate had no antiracist idiom to discuss an Asian American man as a presidential candidate.

Let me add three brief points of participant-observer detail that further illuminate the absurdity of calling Yang a “bad” Asian American for his supposed derogation of his own community. First, the campaign was funded, especially in its earliest stages, not by an established Democratic Party donor base but by Yang’s own Asian American social networks in New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Seattle, and his fundraising chair was the Asian American actor Brian Yang; that is to say, Andrew Yang represents an entire elite Asian American social world that most of the media simply had no idea existed at all and that possesses the pride, collegiality, political conviction, and discretionary income to propel a candidate, whom most of the electorate had never heard of before, all the way through the New Hampshire primary.

Second, it is clear that given the racial dynamics of the Democratic primary, it is highly unlikely that an Asian American would win the presidency through the currently available channels of previously held elected office, previously held celebrity, and/or previously held oligarchic wealth; that is, it would most likely be through an ideas-centered outsider candidate based on policy principles backed by, yes, the math of technocratic expertise and research, and this person will also be left to their own devices to navigate the anti-Asian racism of both the American electorate at large and the inner workings of the party’s establishment.      

Finally, though Yang did public appearances with Viet Thanh Nguyen and Jeff Yang, not a single Asian American intellectual of national stature became an endorser, revealing the general lack of a “we” within the Asian American intellectual class to rally around the first major viable Asian American candidate. (This left a very small-time untenured professor of African American literature of all things—in South Carolina of all places—as perhaps the most adamant Asian American professorial voice advocating for Yang.[7]) In light of this disunity, it looks especially silly in retrospect that the few times Asian American expertise was called upon with regard to Yang’s candidacy was, again, almost exclusively to step one self-hating toe into the deeper model minority conceptual morass and to leave it at that.

All of this attention to Yang’s alleged performance of a white supremacist stereotype also had the effect of occluding much more interesting connections between his candidacy and his racial self. For instance, it was under America’s nose the entire time of Yang’s candidacy that the concept of Universal Basic Income has a special cultural affinity with East Asian heritage. A variety of Asian American voices on Yang Gang Twitter made the point that the suite of cultural notions embedded within the concept of Universal Basic Income—of money’s symbolism, societal holism, redistributive collectivism, and transformative hospitality—rang true to them in and by way of their community formations.

Thus, to many Asian Americans, it was politically novel yet not culturally shocking that the first viable Asian American presidential candidate was also the first Universal Basic Income candidate. Ronny Chieng, in an excerpt from his recent Netflix special, jokes that “you think rappers love money? Yo, we love money more than anyone! Chinese people love money so much that we have a god of money! We pray to him… for more money!”[8] More directly still, MC Jin, in explicit reference to Yang’s candidacy, cracks the (maybe too-obvious) joke that UBI is Lunar New Year money.[9] Needless to say, these Asian Americans are making light of a cultural difference in ways that could be said to border on racial stereotype. On the other hand, it is revealing that no essay or interview from any academic or political figure has appeared that broaches this obvious compatibility of Asiatic cultural beliefs regarding care and hospitality and Universal Basic Income as a federal policy. In the spirit of Chieng’s invocation of the Taoist god of money, Cáishén, I contend that this compatibility points to the ontological totality to which Asian Americans share privileged access, even here in the western hemisphere, and that the whiteness-saturated notions of individuated subject, agent, citizen, and consumer simply do not.

Given the depths of anti-Asian racism, perhaps it should surprise no one that the white left has not seen and engaged this ontological difference, despite the fact that their own political tradition often coalesces around notions of collectivism and holism as well. Consider, for instance, how Yang’s attempt to make this cultural emphasis on redistributive money apparent to the American electorate was first to focus on the neoliberal savagery of the last 45 years, with a special emphasis on the economic exploitation of the white underclass. In his campaign book, The War On Normal People, Yang describes the political problem of white perceptions of diminishment, scarcity, and resentment: “The group I worry about most is poor whites. Even now, people of color report higher levels of optimism than poor whites, despite worse economic circumstances. It’s difficult to go from feeling like the pillar of one’s society to feeling like an afterthought or failure.”[10]

Yet in March 2019, his campaign’s explicit empathy for the Trump-deceived white underclass was quickly transformed into accusations of Yang being an alt-right sympathizer. Even though the most prescient intellects on race and class of the twentieth century—such as W. E. B. Du Bois, Carter G. Woodson, Cedric Robinson, and Angela Davis—argued that the causes of anti-Black racism are largely based on false white perceptions of economic scarcity, competition, and unworthiness, it was beyond the pale for an Asian American in the twenty-first century to make a similar case, i.e., that in this current iteration of fascism, the majority of Trump sympathizers are simply desperate within neoliberalism and deceived by the extant neoliberal arrangement of power. Yang’s diagnosis of the state of the economic arrangements in our country was similar to that of fellow candidates Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, with an emphasis on rising inequality framed historically both by the American economy “since the 1970s” and as a more specific crisis of the last ten years:

Today, inequality has surged to historic levels, with benefits flowing increasingly to the top 1 percent and 20 percent of earners due to an aggregation of capital at the top and increased winter-take-all economics. The top 1 percent have accrued 52 percent of the real income growth in American since 2009.[11]

Yet most followers of both white progressive senators could not hear Yang’s Asian American-voiced prognosis, Universal Basic Income, which immediately before Yang’s candidacy had been enjoying a wave of white-leftist resuscitation by national figures such as Annie Lowrey, Robert Reich, and David Graeber.

What did you do on your Midsommar vacation?

I would further contend that calling a proudly Asian American man a white-supremacist sympathizer may also constitute a new epithetic form of anti-Asian racism. This one, however, was abetted not by fellow Asian American elites but more so by progressives. Not a single progressive politician came to Yang’s defense on this front. Rather, in November 2019, the most popular progressive national figure this side of Sanders, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, routinely dismissed Yang’s proposal of UBI as “a Trojan horse,” thereby evoking, whether unconsciously or not, anti-Asian stereotypes from the nineteenth century of a sneaky, suspicious Asiatic presence.

Here the intersectional positioning of Yang as a racialized male has tremendous consequence. The bigotry that fueled the Chinese Exclusion Act was not only a xenophobic codification of anti-Asian racism but a form of racialized misandry.[12] Though it remains an under-theorized concept, anti-Asian misandry is at the heart of anti-Asian discourse altogether. If one considers the still-circulating anti-Asian racial epithets that find their origins in the 1880s—and that Yang describes being used against him as a boy in Schenectady in the 1980s—one quickly realizes that these words are both raced and sexed, particularly targeting Asian males. The 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act, whose effects on immigration were not redressed until the aforementioned 1965 legislation, kept Asian men for our labor but barred women and children, thus constituting a social formation that Fred Ho describes as “tantamount to genocide.”[13]

This was, in no uncertain terms, a genocide by white supremacist misandry. Furthermore, the subsequent fin-de-siècle western mania of the “yellow peril” that persists to right now, especially in light of COVID-19, finds its footing in the American imaginary through the faceless yet sexed hordes of yellow invaders that were reflexively raced as Asiatic and sexed as male. The psychosexual threat of the Asiatic male covertly invading and sneakily infiltrating western civilization has been the core of white supremacy’s racial-sexual abjection of Asian Americans. So for Ocasio-Cortez to graft the “Trojan horse” image to Yang’s candidacy redoubles this anti-Asian misandry into the third decade of the twenty-first century. The so-called future of P.O.C. progressivism could view the first Asian American man to make it to this reach of American politics only with suspicion.

From this smearing of Yang’s class-centered politics of empathy, another lesson emerges. Following Cornel West’s rebuke of Ta-Nehisi Coates two years ago, it is clear that the American left continues to make a huge neoliberalism-induced and neoliberalism-complicit error when they treat racism as its own object of fetish, i.e., in a vacuum without consideration to all manners of class exploitation.[14] As West would say, there has never been white supremacy without capitalist exploitation, and there is neither white supremacy nor capitalist exploitation without relentless and noble fightback to both. One especially beautiful trend of this fightback in West’s own Black tradition has been the recent insistence on how Black social life, despite the strictures that academics have placed upon it as “social death,” “bare life,” “racial melancholia,” or whatever else, is in fact constituted by a preference for life, joy, and plenitude. We are currently living through a splendid Black zeitgeist that speaks back to academic formulations of deprivation, lack, and social death toward notions of the otherwise possible. Yang’s diction against “a mindset of scarcity” happens to be the exact word—“abundance”—that Kiese Laymon deploys to describe Black phenomenology in his recent Heavy: An American Memoir. Thus, I would argue that when Yang speaks about a mindset of abundance rather than scarcity, he is riding the same cultural wave as Laymon and Tressie McMillian Cottom in their recent conceptualizations of Black plenitude.[15]

To this point, it is helpful to remember that the last man of color on the national stage who proposed Universal Basic Income was Martin Luther King, Jr.. Growing increasingly estranged from the mainstream Civil Rights Movement for his opposition to the Vietnam War, King explains in Where Do We Go From Here? Chaos Or Community that a guaranteed economic floor for all would orient the national consciousness toward what he himself calls “abundance.” He also writes that guaranteed income is necessary to provide dignity to all Americans and that economic justice is coextensive with racial justice. His proposal for Universal Basic Income in this book has been overshadowed by an even lovelier concept regarding the notion of the hospitable, which he introduces immediately thereafter: “The World House.” The most radical version of Dr. King’s voice, therefore, fought against American imperialism abroad and for transformative hospitality at home, in order to remake both the scale and texture of what home is. He calls this “a genuine revolution of values.” [16] It is possible that in the fifty intervening years between King’s voice and Yang’s, such a revolution remains precluded by the cognate triumphs of neoliberalism and white supremacy. It is clear that many Americans were not ready to hear King’s Black prophetic voice in 1967. It is possible, too, that many of us are simply not hearing Yang’s Asian American voice today.[17]

Seulghee Lee is Assistant Professor of African American Studies and English at the University of South Carolina.


[1] Breakfast Club 105.1 FM, “Andrew Yang Talks Universal Basic Income, Benefitting From Tech, His Run For President + More,” YouTube video, 45:31, March 8, 2019, https://youtu.be/87M2HwkZZcw.

[2] Jay Caspian Kang, “What a Fraternity Hazing Death Revealed About the Painful Search for an Asian-American Identity,” New York Times, August 9, 2017, https://www.nytimes.com/2017/08/09/magazine/what-a-fraternity-hazing-death-revealed-about-the-painful-search-for-an-asian-american-identity.html.

[3] Wesley Yang, “Asian-Americans Can Blow Up America’s Racial Quota System. Will They?” Tablet, March 18, 2018, https://www.tabletmag.com/jewish-news-and-politics/257250/asian-americans-racial-quota-system. See Wesley Yang, “What Andrew Yang means,” Washington Post, October 25, 2019, https://www.washingtonpost.com/outlook/2019/10/25/what-andrew-yang-means/?arc404=true.

[4] Matt Stevens, “At a Historic Moment for Asian-American Candidates, Andrew Yang Leans In,” New York Times, May 22, 2019, https://www.nytimes.com/2019/05/22/us/politics/andrew-yang-2020-asian-candidates.html.

[5] See Ellen D. Wu, The Color of Success: Asian Americans and the Origins of the Model Minority (Princeton: Princeton UP, 2013).

[6] David L. Eng and Shinhee Han, “A Dialogue on Racial Melancholia,” Psychoanalytic Dialogues 10, no. 4 (2000): 674.

[7] See Seulghee Lee, “What Andrew Yang means to me, an Asian American professor of Black Studies,” February 3, 2020, https://medium.com/@seulghee.lee/what-andrew-yang-means-to-me-an-asian-american-professor-of-black-studies-cccf90bf630d.

[8] Ronny Chieng, “Ronny Chieng Explains Why Chinese People Love Money,” YouTube video, 4:46, January 25, 2020, https://youtu.be/O_KpLrHCAx0.

[9] MC Jin, “#WhatATimeToBeAsian,” YouTube video, 54:09, November 28, 2019, https://youtu.be/frO-W0XVRfc.

[10] Andrew Yang, The War on Normal People: The Truth About America’s Disappearing Jobs and Why Universal Basic Income Is Our Future (New York: Hachette, 2018), 157.

[11] Ibid., 16, 15.

[12] Here I follow the recent work on anti-Black misandry by Tommy Curry in the nascent field of Black Male Studies. See Tommy J. Curry, The Man-Not: Race, Class, Genre, and the Dilemmas of Black Manhood (Philadelphia: Temple UP, 2017).

[13] Fred Ho, “Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen: The Roots to the Black-Asian Conflict,” in Afro Asia: Revolutionary Political and Cultural Connections between African Americans and Asian Americans, eds. Fred Ho and Bill Mullen (Durham: Duke UP, 2000), 24.

[14] Cornel West, “Ta-Nehisi Coates is the neoliberal face of the black freedom struggle,” Guardian, December 17, 2017, https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2017/dec/17/ta-nehisi-coates-neoliberal-black-struggle-cornel-west.

[15] See Kiese Laymon, Heavy: An American Memoir (New York: Scribner, 2018); Tressie McMillan Cottom, Thick: And Other Essays (New Press, 2019).

[16] Martin Luther King, Jr., Where Do We Go From Here? Chaos Or Community (Boston: Beacon Press, 2010), 201.

[17] I would like to thank Sunny Xiang and Rasheed Tazudeen for reading earlier versions of this essay with insight and generosity. I would also like to thank the Carolina Rhetoric Conference for including these remarks in their keynote panel on February 28, 2020.

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