Andrew Yang’s lesson in performing Americanness

Ever since his weak performance in the first Democratic debate back in June, Andrew Yang’s reputation has taken hit after hit. When your tie (or lack thereof) is the biggest talking point of your whole debate performance, you start to fly under people’s radar. When he dropped out of primary in February, he popped back into my view as someone who would certainly endorse Bernie Sanders. Their views and goals were similar, and they both were known for having garnered support across parties. Though Buttigieg, Klobuchar and Harris’ endorsements of Joe Biden were frustrating, Yang’s endorsement was almost shocking. I guess I was swept up in the excitement of seeing the first major Chinese candidate, but I had really expected more from him. After presenting himself as an anti-establishment newcomer, his endorsement of the DNC’s seemingly senile prop feels like a blatant betrayal.

As if that wasn’t enough, Yang decided to out himself as a neoliberal even more. On Twitter, Yang openly stated that “It would indeed have been cool” for him to have endorsed Bernie. Um…come again? Did Yang really just expose himself for selling out and becoming an establishment tool? Yes. But he wasn’t nearly done yet! In the wake of COVID-19 and the rise of hate-crimes directed at Asian Americans, Yang decided to open his big mouth yet again, writing an op-ed for the Washington Post wherein he implores Asian Americans to “embrace and show our American-ness.”

This article is beyond ludicrous. The suggestion that it is on us to demonstrate our patriotism and, as Yang writes, “step up, help our neighbors, donate gear, vote, wear red white and blue, volunteer, fund aid organizations” is so incredibly misguided that I don’t even feel anger towards Yang so much as a general disbelief and confusion. He cites the Japanese Americans who volunteered for military duty in WWII as role models, urging Asian Americans to “demonstrate that we can be part of the solution.” Perhaps he is forgetting that sacrificing Japanese American lives overseas did not save over 100,000 Japanese Americans from internment camps.

Finding the solution to any act of violence should not be the responsibility of the victim. Suggesting that Asian Americans need to do more to prove their “Americanness,” as Yang did, is inherently racist and incredibly harmful. There is no justification for hate crimes, and to believe that wearing “red, white and blue” will make a difference is so remarkably stupid that I hesitate to even address it. Nevertheless, I believe Yang’s op-ed is worth discussing for two reasons. Firstly, we need to correct the racism and harm that comes from victim-blaming. “Respectability politics,” the idea that groups can change their treatment by changing their behavior, is among the greatest perpetuators of bigotry and violence in this country. The same rhetoric has been used to fault women for being victims of rape. We need to strike down this concept whenever we can; Yang’s article reinforces it.

Secondly, we can observe Yang’s behavior as a case study of the performance of identity in American politics. Compare Yang’s honest admission to being “self-conscious—even a bit ashamed—of being Asian” to Pete Buttigieg’s confession at a CNN Town Hall: “If there was a pill, a pill that I could take and not be gay anymore, then I would’ve jumped on it,” Buttigieg explained when discussing the “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” policy in place from 1994-2011. Though online it was taken out of context, the soundbyte garnered controversy because it carries a dangerous message. Similar to Andrew Yang’s op-ed, Buttigieg expressed shame about his identity. Pete’s admission was an honest reflection, and I have no doubt that he struggled to overcome internalized homophobia as he grappled with his sexuality. Unfortunately hearing those sentiments from a leader can be immensely damaging to people who share an identity with that leader. It’s hard to be a minority in America, and while testimony from Yang and Buttigieg may expose that fact, their statements ultimately do nothing but reaffirm the immense pressure to conform that so many already feel.

When your entire job is to win people over, that pressure multiplies. Politicians like Yang, Buttigieg, Harris and Obama must maintain a constant dual performance of both dominant and their minority identity. When Kamala Harris mentions that she was bused to a different school in times of desegregation, or when Obama busts out some “Amazing Grace,” or when Buttigieg gives his husband a chaste peck, they remind us of their identities—in an acceptable way. Then they endorse Joe Biden, a straight, white, male candidate who has a horrible track record when it comes to legislation that affects marginalized communities (eg. marriage equality or the “war on drugs”), and you remember that their status allows them to transcend those identities and remain unaffected and disconnected from the groups they supposedly represent. They are performing their melting pot personas, all the parts of your culture that you were allowed to keep as it was assimilated into the American stew: just enough so that you fill the diversity quotient, but not so much that you actually make lasting change to help the people who supposedly represent. If they’re going to get ahead, they’ve still got to be digestible to the mainstream (white) audience.

From the moment Andrew Yang started pushing his “MATH” slogan, we should have seen that he was an expert at perpetuating the model minority myth. Just like most of the things he tweets, his op-ed was simply honest. The advice he gives his fellow Asian Americans is exactly what he has done his entire career, which is learn how to appease white people in order to succeed in a white-dominated field. Reading his article filled me with both pity and anger; his experiences are depressingly honest, but his advice is damaging to everyone who reads it. For white people, it condones their treatment of minority groups, because it tells them that shame and racism work. For Asian Americans, it strengthens the divide between our dual identities, and tells us to work on our American “disguise” or else face the consequences. Yang reaffirms the dangerous misconception that having a nonwhite racial identity is an obstacle in one’s patriotism.

To this I say a resounding: NO THANKS. I reject your narrative, Andrew Yang. I refuse to sacrifice any part of my identity, and I urge you to remember your responsibility to the public. Using your platform to call for more assimilation only further punishest deviance and places more Asian Americans in danger. Maybe playing up some form of “Americanness” has worked for your career, but to suggest it as a solution to American hatred is itself hateful. I’m sorry that you feel shame about your racial identity, but do not pass that shame on to us.

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