As a child, Hong admired her white friends’ calm, orderly home lives. In contrast, her family was chaotic and full of conflict; her only fond childhood memories are from visiting her grandparents in Seoul. Now, she has a daughter of her own, so her childhood memories often unexpectedly come back to her—but none are good. Hong’s parents simply wanted their children to have food, education, and medical care, which were never guaranteed in Korea. When she remembers childhood, Hong feels like she’s looking sideways—not backward. She envied white children, who got to be the norm.
Hong uses her own experience as a basis for explaining the vast divide between the way the children of Asian immigrants growing up in the United States view childhood and the way that the children of white Americans do. (However, she doesn’t claim to speak for everyone in each of these two groups.) As immigrant children face racism, feel out of place at school, and witness their parents juggling the stresses of adapting to life in the U.S., their childhoods are often defined by the “minor feelings” that Hong described in the last chapter.
Hong’s teachers expected her to identify with stories like Catcher in the Rye—but she didn’t. Unlike the novel’s protagonist, Holden Caulfield, who cherished childhood, Hong couldn’t wait for hers to end. In fact, humans haven’t always viewed childhood as a time of purity and innocence—this idea is an American invention that started with 19th-century poets like William Wordsworth. It continues today with movies like Wes Anderson’s Moonrise Kingdom, which chronicles two white children falling in love and running away to live in the wilderness in 1965. That year, between the civil rights movement and new immigration policies, the U.S. was consumed by racial conflict. But this history is invisible in Anderson’s movie, which—like so much of U.S. popular culture—portrays an era of violent racial hostility as a nostalgic past when white people were safe and protected.
In short, Hong’s argument is that the traditional American association between childhood, innocence, and nostalgia is a racist idea. Specifically, it’s part of the longstanding racist effort to define the history and identity of white Americans as those of the entire country. The innocence of childhood is a privilege often denied to immigrant and nonwhite Americans, whose experience is written out of the nation’s self-image. The Catcher in the Rye involves a fantasy of rebellion that would have only been available to white people, while Moonrise Kingdom involves a fantasy of white children seceding from society and living in a protective bubble.
In U.S. popular culture, white children have long been portrayed as innocent, while Black children have been defined as wicked, inhuman, and unfeeling. Innocence also fosters the “sheltered unknowingness” of white privilege: it enables white people to grow up completely ignorant about the social hierarchies that they have created and benefited from. In contrast, Americans of color grow up with shame—the opposite of innocence—because they recognize how the power dynamics of race affect all social interactions.
Childhood can be a time of innocence and belonging for white American children only because they live in a society that systematically places them at the top of every social hierarchy. But nonwhite American children do not have the same luxury, because they face these hierarchies—and therefore learn about them—from a very early age. For Hong, many white adults’ ignorance about racism is an extension of the same process: because they have never experienced it firsthand, they can easily pretend that it simply doesn’t exist.
Hong remembers how her mother once unknowingly sent her to school in a shirt with the Playboy bunny on it—her classmates mocked her, but never told her what it meant. She felt the same way learning English in school. Shame taught her to see herself in the same way as her white peers saw her. Meanwhile, white adults would condescendingly treat her parents like children, which was humiliating. These experiences are the source of Hong’s shame—and yet the U.S. still blames Asian Americans’ shame on their supposedly repressed, defective cultures. White Americans may see extreme cases of racial violence in the media, but they never see the stress, terror, and shame that people of color feel living in a thoroughly racist society.
Hong catalogues the experiences that prevented her from having the kind of carefree, innocent upbringing that is viewed as a norm for white children. At every turn, the people surrounding Hong taught her that she and her family did not fit in, and this message sunk in—just like most of the lessons to which people are repeatedly exposed in childhood. Through this example, Hong encourages her white readers to shift the way they conceptualize racism. Rather than thinking of it as an evil force that pops up unpredictably once in a while to attack people of color, they should view it as a kind of force field that is constantly present and influences all decisions, relationships, and social interactions in the U.S. Because it’s everywhere, all the time, it fundamentally conditions the way people of color react to the world. This is why Hong argues that minor feelings like shame are a cultural norm for Asian Americans.
When Hong was little, her grandmother—a tough former refugee who crossed from North Korea to South Korea on foot, carrying Hong’s mother on her back—came to the U.S. One day, while she was walking through the neighborhood with Hong, a group of white kids mocked her accent, and one girl kicked her to the ground. Hong’s father yelled at the girl, but Hong was terrified that the neighbors would retaliate. Five years later, a man yelled a racial slur at the family at the mall; Hong felt enraged, but helpless. Something similar happened in Hong’s 20s: a white man yelled “ching chong ding dong” at her in the New York subway. She confronted himonHHH, and he threatened her with violence. Afterward, Hong’s white roommate broke out in tears. Hong had to fight off the impulse to comfort her.
Hong’s anecdote about her grandmother reveals how American racism is both deeply humiliating and profoundly ignorant. Specifically, the U.S. racial hierarchy elevates white American children above virtuous Korean refugee grandmothers. Indeed, Hong’s family is afraid of the white girl—who probably knows next to nothing about Korea or their lives—because they know that they will lose out in any conflict with her. Hong’s confrontation in the subway points to another troubling fact: the U.S. values protecting white people’s innocence about race above actually stopping racism. By breaking out into tears when the conflict didn’t even involve her, Hong’s roommate made the situation about herself and completely overlooked Hong’s needs. Hong implies that her roommate’s astonishment is the logical result of a system in which white people learn to view their own perspective as the authoritative, unquestionable truth without ever having to consider anyone else’s perspective.
In 2016, “White Tears” became a nationwide meme: it refers to white people’s defensiveness and sensitivity in the face of racial issues that nonwhite Americans face every day. Social scientists have found that white people see other groups’ progress as their own loss; in aggregate, they even see anti-white prejudice as a worse problem than anti-Black prejudice, even though white people dominate every dimension of U.S. society and the racial wealth gap between Black and white Americans is actually getting worse.
“White tears” reflect how, in mainstream U.S. culture, prejudice holds more sway than reality. In other words, white perspectives enjoy unquestioned dominance. White people have virtually no knowledge about how people of color experience race, even as people of color are forced to internalize white people’s prejudices about them in order to get by in day-to-day life. Indeed, the research that Hong cites here suggests that white Americans are so used to having power over other racial groups that they literally cannot see the difference between racial equality and what they think is some sort of anti-white oppression. This is why many contemporary writers argue that mainstream U.S. culture has white supremacist undercurrents: even if they do not realize it, many white Americans are deeply invested in a political system that places them at the top of a strict racial hierarchy, and they strongly resist any attempts to make this system more equal.
In 2018, Hong visited an art exhibit by Carmen Winant, who covered the walls of the Museum of Modern Art with every photo she could find of women giving birth—2,000 in all, almost all white. White reviewers celebrated Winant’s work as “universal,” but Hong clearly saw that this didn’t include her. Hong admits that she sees whiteness everywhere, but she argues that she has to because Asian Americans still haven’t collectively understood their place in the U.S. racial hierarchy. Because “[immigrant] survivor instincts align with [the U.S.’s] neoliberal ethos,” too many Asian Americans simply worry about working hard, retreat into their family bubbles, and pretend that race doesn’t matter.
Hong’s discordant experience at Winant’s exhibit again reminds her that she lives in American culture’s blind spot. Being “universal” doesn’t mean including all sorts of different people equally, but rather depicting the world from a white perspective. Put differently, “universal” is a code word for “white”—art by white people is “universal” all on its own, while art by Asian people is either forgotten or treated as a curious, exotic exception to the norm. Of course, this speaks to art and literature’s power in informing the public consciousness. After all, Hong’s goal as a writer is to help make the default American perspective a pluralistic, diverse one by challenging white artists’ claim to “universality.”
Since 2016, thanks to demographic, economic, and media changes, white Americans have started feeling “marked” and ashamed for being white. Some have processed this shame by examining their privilege and learning about U.S. racial history, but others have done so by lashing out, so they can remain innocent and ignorant. Most white Americans live in all-white environments, so they often feel threatened whenever they encounter nonwhite people. This explains how, for instance, airport security could detain a five-year old Iranian boy—and U.S. citizen—in 2017.
When white people feel “marked” by their race, they experience a slight taste of what Americans of color have endured for centuries (though not nearly to the same extent). They then feel shame, confusion, and resentment about being born into a specific racial hierarchy at a particular point in time, through no fault of their own. In other words, they feel their own version of minor feelings. And they can cope with these minor feelings by either critically examining the racial hierarchy or simply accepting and internalizing it. Hong suggests that Asian Americans have the same options: they can either look critically at the racism they face, or they can internalize ideas like the model minority myth and dedicate their lives to achieving the narrow capitalist definition of success.
Western imperialist countries like the U.S. have plundered much of the world, including most immigrants’ homelands. This history is what fundamentally unites Americans of color, and it should be part of the core American story. Hong wants to help the U.S. put such perspectives at the center of its national consciousness.
Throughout this book, Hong highlights how Asian Americans’ diversity often prevents them from forming any truly shared cultural, artistic, or political identity. But here, she offers a vision of such an identity—and shows how it could expand to include other Americans of color, too. Indeed, she proposes an alternative to the default assumption that only white-centric perspectives count as “universal” or classically American.