"Q: How do you feel when your own experiences are consistently dismissed by a white world that doesn't recognise your reality? A: You may experience shame, suspicion and melancholy, otherwise known as minor feelings."
In Minor Feelings: A Reckoning on Race and the Asian Condition, poet Cathy Park Hong unravels what it's like to believe the lies you're told about your own racial identity. Shared from her own perspective as a daughter of Korean immigrants raised in America, the book offers a brilliantly honest and shrewd account of her version of 'the Asian condition' – because the world still needs reminding that one Asian narrative really does not fit all.
For such emotionally complex material, Hong's essays are wry and unapologetically direct, challenging how we think, how we communicate and what we too quickly assume to understand. Minor Feelings is a sharp and urgent exploration of those hard-to-name sensations that govern racial consciousness. This extract is taken from a chapter called "The End Of White Innocence" and lends a frustrating but important snapshot of her experience of 'white tears'.
Warning: The following contains racially derogatory language that some readers may find offensive.
Another time, my younger sister was nine and I was thirteen when we were leaving the mall. A white couple opened the glass doors to enter as we were leaving. I assumed the man was opening the door for us, so we scurried out as he reluctantly held the door wide. Before the door shut behind him, he bellowed, "I don’t open doors for chinks!"
My sister burst into tears. She couldn’t understand why he was so mean. "That’s never happened to me before," she cried.
I wanted to run back into the mall and kill him. I had failed to protect my younger sister and I was helpless in my murderous rage against a grown man so hateful he was incapable of recognising us as kids.
I only bring up the latter incident to compare it to an experience I had later in life. I was in my early twenties, living in Brooklyn. It was one of those unbearably hot July days that brought out the asshole in all New Yorkers. My friend, her boyfriend, and I walked into the Second Avenue subway station. As I walked down the stairs to the subway platform, a man passed us, and while looking at me, he singsonged, "Ching chong ding dong." He was a neckless white guy wearing a baseball cap. He looked like a typical Staten Island jock. But then I noticed he was with his black wife and his biracial toddler.
My friends, who were white, didn’t know what to say. I didn’t want to make them uncomfortable, so I dismissed it. We boarded the F train and I realised he was in the same car as us. As the train trundled along stop after stop, I became increasingly enraged staring at him. How many times have I let situations like this go? I thought.
"I’m going to say something to him," I told my friends, and they encouraged me to confront him. I wended my way past everyone in the crowded car until I stood over him. I quietly told him off. I not only called him a racist but I also hissed that he was setting a horrible example for his baby. When I returned to my friends, my head throbbing, I looked back and saw that he had stood up and was walking toward us. As he approached us, he pointed to my roommate’s boyfriend and threatened, "He’s lucky that he’s not your boyfriend, because if he was your boyfriend, I’d beat the shit out of him." Then he walked back and sat down. I was stunned and relieved that it didn’t end in violence or more racial slurs. My roommate’s boyfriend kept saying, "I wish I said something." Then it was our stop. As we were getting off, the guy shouted at me across the crowded car, "Fucking chink!"
"White trash motherfucker!" I yelled back.
When we were on the platform, my friend, who had failed to say much during the train ride, burst into tears.
"That’s never happened to me before," she wailed.
And just like that, I was shoved aside. I was about to comfort her and then I stopped myself from the absurdity of that impulse. All of my anger and hurt transferred to her, and even now, as I’m writing this, I’m more upset with her than that guy. We walked silently back to our apartment while she cried.
Minor Feelings: A Reckoning on Race and the Asian Condition by Cathy Park Hong is published by Profile Books on 5th March 2020