The Art Writing Workshop is a partnership between The Andy Warhol Foundation Arts Writers Grant and AICA-USA. This program pairs ten emerging art writers with eminent voices in the field, facilitating deep critical engagement with art in regions across the US. 2020 Art Writing Workshop participants were invited to contribute a piece of writing that emerged from their work in the program for publication with AICA-USA's online magazine. What follows is one such contribution.
March 17, 2021 started like most days for me during “lockdown part two” in Toronto. Put the kettle on for tea, pop a slice of frozen sourdough into the toaster, fiddle with the digital timer because the toaster browns bread unevenly despite being newish and from a German brand. Check e-mail. Try to resist opening Instagram on either the phone or the computer. Open Instagram on the phone. Repost to Stories: 1) A very cool photo of Japanese avant-garde brand Kansai Yamamoto’s recent runway show at Shibuya Fashion week: a collection of multicolored outfits worn by models of what the fashion industry might call of “diverse” size. To this I add a GIF of a grooving rainbow frog (9:06 am); 2) A clip of the Céline Dion video for her song “All by Myself,” celebrating its 25-year anniversary. Make the bitchy comment, because I have to: “I feel like this cuts a BIT too close to home ATM, Céline.” Add a sticker of a cartoon, vaguely East Asian long-haired woman looking forlornly out of a window (9:13am, to Close Friends only). Realize I have fucked up the idiom right after posting. Decide to leave up.
Things then turn. I read the news. Having not looked at anything the previous evening, I learn only then of the mass shooting of eight people at three Atlanta-area massage parlors. Most of the victims were Asian women. But I knew that even before reading the details. While washing my breakfast dishes, I passively listen to the press conference, hearing the Georgia sheriff speak, and as if recounting a story about one of his bros who just had a really bad day and shot eight people to death to “eliminate” his temptation.
I shimmer with rage. I’ve always felt a radioactive anger too big for my body. For a long time, I could not name the object of this rage. I’ve been seething on the inside since forever, my red-hot fury pushed down again and again, liquifying at my molten core.
Throughout the day, I duck in and out of Instagram—telling people to read Andrea Long Chu’s Females—and news websites, all the while trying to laser focus on work. I feel the vibrations of the moment on social media; a handful of people are talking, what was initially merely a blip is building up into something. I’m smoldering and it’s containable for the time being. Friends check in, discuss the events and media reporting amongst other things. But my infernal rage grows as my desk slowly clears for the day and evening sets in. I begin by taking stock of all the instances of racism I’ve ever experienced and I’m building a heap of a garbage fire: a grade school friend regularly pressing on my nose because it’s flatter than hers; an elderly woman in an affluent part of Hamilton, Ontario telling her small dog: “Don’t look at them, they’ll eat you” when my sister and I were young; a ticket agent at Milano Centrale yelling racial epithets at my cousin and me, insisting (incorrectly) that the train time I was looking for didn’t exist before slamming down the window in our faces.
To my Asians: can we allow ourselves to remember all those weird little racist things and the Big Racist Things that have been happening to us since we were born? Like a dormant volcano of intergenerational trauma that has gone unchecked, fissures of which have largely gone unnoticed, something’s gonna blow.
That night, I read from Zadie Smith’s White Teeth and the following sentence strikes me, as if cannily timed to coincide with the moment: “[I]t makes an immigrant laugh to hear the fears of the nationalist, scared of infection, penetration, miscegenation, when this is small fry, peanuts, compared to what the immigrant fears—dissolution, disappearance.” (p. 327). What happened in Atlanta that night was the disappearing of Asian women. Despite remaining on the margins of society, these women very much so existed in high relief, loved by their family and friends. Their murders opened a deep well in the collective heart of the Asian diaspora, a dark silence now disturbed.
I’ve been thinking about the many forms silence can take. As a word, silence is rife with contradictions. It can both hold a space and take up no space. In its noun and verb forms, “silence” represents intentional opposing forces. Defined by solitude as a noun, silence refers to a state to be sought out, desired. Solitude heals. As a verb, silence takes on a malicious bent, an action imposed upon another to stifle dissent. To silence is to wound. But another, the silence of inaction, feigns indifference as if covering over rage. A few years ago, I was involved in a protracted real estate-financial dispute with an ex, the spirit of which was reminiscent of Rihanna’s 2015 hit “Bitch Better Have My Money.” At one particular impasse, my Dad sent the following e-mail to me, which I include unedited:
In chinese, Taoist.
1. Use no change to confront changes.
2. Use no motion to face Motions.
It is also other ways like, late start but get there first by quicker/faster/stronger motion; don't attack unless clearly being attacked; do nothing so that nothing to be undone etc.
Of course, all these are about Kung Fu. But you can find practical uses some time in real life.
This passive approach eventually worked in my favor, a function of an unspoken, Taoist non-resistance upheld by my family (and good legal advice). Born of the need to survive and persevere after escaping a totalitarian regime, self-imposed vows of silence kept my family members together psychologically for some time. As self-preservation and resilience, silence acts like a Band-Aid slapped on a lesion, which, left untreated, becomes deep intergenerational trauma. What’s more, the repetitive motions of wounded pride—holding one’s head up high by keeping it down to overcome adversity—feel like reverse whiplash, generating in turns an internal violence and a dissociated daze. This strength in silence, as oppositional to Western “white” culture (especially American-style extroversion) is incompatible with ways of life now increasingly the norm in Canada. Repressing our rage by saying nothing keeps us down and makes us sick, feeding an anxiety that in response breeds hypervigilance and immobilizing fear. As a result, we retreat. Our silence cannot ask for anything, cannot dissipate the pain.
Until last year, incidents of anti-Asian racism went largely unrecorded and unreported both in the Asian “community” and in mainstream media outlets. Similar to emotional forms of abuse that do not generate physical evidence, most violence against Asians has remained largely covert and unseen except by those immediately involved: the aggressors and the victims. In the past few months, a couple of features on pandemic-related anti-Asian hate by Asian-American writers have run in The New Yorker and The New York Times. In Canada, I’ve seen early pandemic coverage on CBC of acts of racial violence committed against persons of Asian descent in Vancouver, only now surfacing internationally in newspapers like The Guardian running the sensationalist headline “Attacks make Vancouver ‘anti-Asian hate crime capital of North America’.” Since the spa shootings in Atlanta, more writing from the Asian diaspora has garnered space on the front pages and covers of mainstream media, but now, so has the uptick in racist incidents. While this discourse galvanizes anti-Asian hate into existence, I also see tweets from a white US biologist employing the term “soft racist” in relation to a New York Times headline that implied a new Chinese COVID-19 vaccine is weird and unethical because it’s made from hamster ovary cells (the same methods are used globally). What then is “hard” racist? Let’s stop minimizing racial violence and get to the root of hate. Microaggressions blow air on hot embers; fanning the flames of daily indignities of “casual” racism. I explode inside, I constantly erupt with incandescent rage every time I’m disrespected because of my face. I’m further enraged because this disrespect is broader than my subjectivity. It represents a strike against any person ever marginalized for their difference.
How do you learn to use your voice when your silence has been encouraged by your family, your culture and by society at large? The word guai in Cantonese means “well-behaved” in English, an expression of praise heaped on children by aunties, uncles, family friends. I’ve always felt that si mun, Cantonese for “refined” or “polite” is its adult counterpart. In my family, this term is applied as a compliment to men, usually white ones who have been recently introduced into the family (and not to their faces). By extension, I think it also means “reserved” and therefore not loud or obnoxious. While it could be argued that parents are justified in wanting well-behaved children and that society is right to reward those who stay in their lane, this kind of praise morphs quickly into respectability politics, a conformity that unwittingly plays directly into the oppressor’s ideas of Chinese subjectivity. Used like pawns, Asians are made to play the role of scapegoat in the narcissistic family structure of white supremacist capitalist patriarchy, pitting us against our Black brothers and sisters. I’m not about to blame Asians for all the racism we’ve experienced, but it’s high time we speak up on having been duped hard. I too have benefitted from white supremacy’s view of my hyphenated raced and gendered selfhood: the idea that I will succeed if I behave and work my ass off more than any (white) man. Up to now, I have done all the “right” things. I did these things thinking that if I worked just a little harder, sucked it up a bit more, I could insulate myself from further harm in the cottony clouds of success. I could “show them” with my toughness. But this privilege affords no real protection, makes no promises, offers nothing in return. I’ve been golden handcuffed to the oppressor, coerced into complicity by “positive” racism, the model minority myth by another name.
I don’t dare speak for all Canadian-born Chinese, Cantonese, Chinese, East Asian, or Asian persons. But all acting the model minority really got me was more desperately unwanted attention from creepy white men and tokenism for hire. I wonder how much of my personality has been formulated and reformulated in response to white supremacy: refusing to inhabit the stereotype of the “dragon lady” or the “lotus blossom” but somehow playing both sides; hyping up my “diversity” to get a job; speaking up enough to be heard, but not too much as to come off as aggressive. I am exhausted from toggling between these worlds of types, between different facets of myself that I don’t even know are falsely constructed or not anymore.
Asians are neither here nor there on the spectrum of race in the United States. Fashion scholar Minh-ha T. Pham has ironically deemed Asians “honorary whites.” Privileged Canadians have been huffing the fumes of Pierre Trudeau’s lasting legacy of multiculti “tolerance,” regurgitating the party line that racism doesn’t exist here. So entrenched is this false narrative that it appears in the Oxford English Dictionary under the definition for the word “fabric” as “the basic structure for a society, culture, activity, etc.: the multicultural fabric of Canadian society.” Lies. In small town Ontario, my white elementary school teachers shilled the concept of a colorful cultural mosaic to me and my mostly white classmates over and over again, defining Canada as an idyll against southern neighbor’s practices of forced assimilation. I believed and rehearsed it myself in this echo chamber of a country for years until I left, first physically, later ideologically. This nationalistic propaganda denied us a way of talking frankly about race and racism in Canada. Along with not learning about the genocidal residential school system or Black slavery in Canada among many other racist atrocities in grade school, I didn’t learn about the Chinese laborers who built Western rail lines. I didn’t learn about internment camps of Japanese Canadians. I didn’t learn about the Chinese head tax and exclusion act. I didn’t learn. We’ve been written over in the history books and in real life. The moment we’re old enough to be socialized, we’re denied the possibility of seeing ourselves as equal. If we are not seen, how can we be heard?
Much of this amounts to the fear of a yellow planet, the second coming of the Yellow Peril. Resentment seeps in from all sides. In a 2010 article originally titled “Too Asian” in Macleans magazine, a former student of Toronto’s all-girls private school Havergal College said, “The only people from our school who went to U of T were Asian,” and that the University of Toronto had a “reputation of being Asian.” Earlier this year, three racist tweets written by the former Teen Vogue editor-in-waiting Alexi McCammond were unearthed, referencing three of the most pointed anti-Asian stereotypes with alarming precision: the model minority in “Outdone by Asian #whatsnew”; slanted, so-called hooded eye shapes in “now googling how to not wake up with swollen, asian [sic] eyes…”; and Asians as robots in “Give me a 2/10 on my chem problem, cross out all of my work and don’t explain what i did wrong..thanks a lot stupid asian T.A. you’re great. [sic]” What these statements prove is the longstanding fear of being subsumed by Asianness in a contemporary Blade Runner world that apes Asian cultures but reps almost zero actual Asians. If pop culture reveals the ugly truths of white supremacy, Asians aren’t cool enough for the white man, aren’t permitted to occupy real, meaningful space in Hollywood. Whiteness takes our food, our yoga, our Buddhism, our martial arts, our K-pop, washing over us to disappear our bodies. Domination through orientalism is nothing new. But why the fear? Because our bodies are a threat. It’s a numbers game. The total population of Asia alone accounts for over 60 percent of the world’s population, a figure which does not include the global Asian diaspora. While it might be tempting to turn inward to our communities and insulate ourselves from more trauma after generations upon generations of suffering, the solution to anti-Asian racism has always been in collective action that unites Black, Indigenous and persons of color everywhere. An earlier version of this piece was initially set to be published by an Asian-Canadian art collective and then was unceremoniously dumped on the grounds that I centered my personal experience instead of worldwide revolution. While this exchange shook me to the core and lead to some important questions and sad realizations—a version of Harlem Renaissance writer Zora Neale Hurston’s “All my skinfolk ain’t kinfolk”—it also shows how censorship and unhealed traumas exist within the very groups meant to support us. No space is safe. And yet, we must press on because racism doesn’t care if you ride a bike or drive a Benz. It doesn’t care if you have an eighth-grade education or three post-docs. It doesn’t care if you survive on food banks or get delivery every night.
How will we unite to dismantle the prison white people built? How will we overcome our own, sometimes microscopic difference? Let’s not distract ourselves from our common goal with petty disputes. We want the same thing, which is to fight anti-Asian racism in solidarity within broader anti-racist organizing.
I know what I will not do. I will not conform to white supremacist perceptions of who I can and cannot be. I will not be disrespected. What I will do is take up space. I will instrumentalize my anger as I have my silence. I will disobey. No radical change ever came of doing as you are told.
AICA supports art writers around the world through public programs and membership that includes free access to museums across the globe. Since its formation in 1950, AICA has been committed to elevating the values of art criticism as a discipline, and acting on behalf of the physical and moral defense of works of art.
AICA supports arts writers around the world through public programs and membership that offers free access to museums across the globe. AICA-USA represents the largest national section of AICA International with over 450 distinguished critics, curators, scholars, and art historians working throughout the United States. As part of the international organization, we benefit from a global reach in presence. AICA-USA is intent on international communication, elevating the values of art criticism as a discipline, and acting on behalf of the physical and moral defense of works of art.
AICA's membership card is recognized for entrance to museums around the world. Members are invited to attend the annual AICA International Congress, hosted each year by a different member nation, and the AICA-USA annual meeting, which is held every year in May.
Organized in collaboration with CUE Art Foundation, this program matches emerging critics with experienced AICA-USA members who guide them through the process of writing a catalogue essay.
A partnership between The Andy Warhol Foundation Arts Writers Grant and AICA-USA that gives art writers the opportunity to strengthen their work through one-on-one consultations with leading art critics.
Every fall, in cooperation with the New School's Vera List Center for Art and Politics, AICA-USA presents a Distinguished Critic Lecture.