An Asian American Poet on Refusing to Take Up ‘Apologetic Space’

The writer and poet Cathy Park Hong discusses Asian outrage and why she’s seeking power, not assimilation.,

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An Asian American Poet on Refusing to Take Up ‘Apologetic Space’

The writer and poet Cathy Park Hong discusses Asian outrage and why she’s seeking power, not assimilation.

Thursday, April 1st, 2021

archived recording

(SINGING) When you walk in the room, do you have sway?

kara swisher

I’m Kara Swisher, and you’re listening to “Sway.” This week, yet another video went viral — a terrible one. It showed a man brutally knocking a Filipino woman to the ground and then stomping on her. This happened in broad daylight in the middle of Manhattan, and no one intervened. It’s become the latest in a wave of rising crimes against the Asian-American community. And it comes just a few weeks after six Asian women were killed in shootings in the Atlanta area. So I wanted to talk to someone about the roots of anti-Asian racism and how the myth of the “model minority” has delayed this national conversation. Cathy Park Hong is a writer and poet. She’s been capturing the Asian-American experience for years, first in her poetry, and most recently, in a collection of essays called “Minor Feelings: An Asian-American Reckoning.” It’s part memoir and part critique. But above all, “Minor Feelings” is a question. What does it mean culturally and politically to be Asian-American? I wanted to understand Hong’s approach to this question and why, as a poet, she chose to tackle it in essay form.

Cathy Park Hong, welcome to the show.

cathy park hong

Thank you. Thank you for having me.

kara swisher

So you were in poetry. And it’s different than what you did in your book of essays, “Minor Feelings.” Talk about the shift from poetry, which is a lot more economical, in a lot of ways, to essays.

cathy park hong

I felt that as I was kind of getting older, the lyric medium just seemed too small, like a shirt size too small for all the stories that I wanted to tell and the arguments that I wanted to make. I was starting to feel that discomfort more and more. And also, you know, I talk — in the book, I talk about being inspired by Richard Pryor. And I really wanted to kind of directly, in a very confrontational manner, confront the question of race as an Asian-American. And I realized that poetry was not a suitable medium for that. It wasn’t a capacious enough form for me. And part of the reason why was because I wanted to make an argument and wanted to ask questions that would lead to more questions. And it’s hard to do that with poetry.

kara swisher

Can you talk more about how Richard Pryor’s stand-up routines helped you hone this idea of “minor feelings”?

cathy park hong

It was in 2011. I was very depressed at the time. I was feeling very frustrated being a poet. And my husband turned on “Live in Concert.” And I started watching it. I watched bits of Pryor before. I’ve seen some of his movies, the bad ones, like “The Toy.”

kara swisher

Yeah, there’s some bad ones.

cathy park hong

Yeah, or “Superman III.” And it was the first time I’ve seen his routine in its full length. And I was just blown away. I had this sort of shock of recognition, as I say in the book. And I think after that, I was trying to understand why I had that shock of recognition. What was Richard Pryor doing that even someone I, who is not Black or a man or had the kind of tragic history that he did, felt this kind of connection to him. And part of it was his brutal honesty, his rawness, just his brilliant way of cutting through the bullshit and telling it like it is. And I was like, why haven’t I read this or seen this for Asian-Americans? Why hasn’t there been an Asian-American story like this or an Asian-American poem or a film like this and so forth, where there was this sort of brute honesty that really kind of got under my skin? And I was really attracted to this idea of stand-up comedy used as a kind of Trojan horse or as a kind of trap door to these truths about America that people wouldn’t necessarily want to face.

kara swisher

If you’d done this book as a stand-up routine, what would it have looked like? What would you open with?

cathy park hong

I would open with a therapist.

kara swisher

This is the opening of the book where you try to convince a Korean-American therapist to take you on as a patient.

cathy park hong

Yeah, I would probably open with the therapist section. And then, I mean, I think especially with the first essay, “United,” I was thinking more — you know I probably was unconsciously thinking of the stand-up structure, just thinking of these sort of absurd moments that kind of ruptures whatever kind of Asian-American tropes that we’re used to or tropes about therapy or finding healing or catharsis or redemption.

kara swisher

I think the Playboy shirt story would be devastating to people.

cathy park hong

Yeah. [LAUGHS] Yeah, and it’s an example that I use often when people ask me what “Minor Feelings” is. I was, like, seven or eight. And for whatever reason, we had a T-shirt that had the Playboy emblem, the bunny rabbit. It didn’t say “Playboy.” It was just a bunny rabbit. It was red, and the bunny rabbit was white. My mom, she didn’t know it was a Playboy shirt because she was a recent immigrant. And so she thought it was a kid’s shirt. She put me in that shirt. And the next day, I went to school wearing a Playboy T-shirt. And I don’t remember any teacher approaching me or saying that was inappropriate. But when I was at recess, I do remember an older kid coming up to me and saying, “Do you know what your shirt means?” And I said no. And she didn’t tell me. She ran off. And I saw her talking to her friends. And they were probably pointing or laughing at me. And I just had this very distinct, visceral sensation of feeling targeted, like I was stranded. I just felt very exposed. And the way I wrote it was I was trying to kind of allude to the scarlet letter where I felt like Hester Prynne with the letter “A.” But I didn’t know what it meant. I had no understanding of what was wrong with me. I just knew that there was something wrong with me. But I didn’t know what was wrong with me.

kara swisher

So you write a lot about shame and indignity, the markers of how you experienced racism as an Asian-American. But you note that it’s political shame, not necessarily a cultural one. Jia Tolentino, in reviewing your book, which I thought was quite interesting — “to be Asian-American,” she suggests, “is to be tasked with making an injury inaccessible to the body that has been injured. It is to be pissed on at regular intervals while dutifully minimizing the odor of piss.” I don’t know if you agree with her. But I think this is well said. Can you talk about this idea of minimization and sort of swallowing the indignity?

cathy park hong

Yeah, of course. First of all, I do think it was perfectly apt what Jia Tolentino said, the way she was able to kind of break that metaphor of the urinal puck. I think this is particular to racism that Asian-Americans face, is that we have also been victims to systemic racism throughout history. But we have been conditioned to pretend that it doesn’t exist, to minimize it, to —

kara swisher

Or you don’t have it as bad. You called it a “vague purgatorial status.”

cathy park hong

Yeah, it’s a purga — we don’t have it as bad. And what I often say is that I think probably also because of the way social media is and everything, we kind of look at race as oppression Olympics, right? Where Black people are the most oppressed, white people are the least oppressed, and everyone else is somewhere in the middle. And so it’s this kind of totem pole. And Asian-Americans are basically in the bottom of that totem pole right above white Americans. So we’ve sort of internalized that. I mean, I think that came from the white supremacist system that we live in. But I think a lot of Asians also internalize that, that what we went through wasn’t that bad. Claire Jean Kim is a scholar who talks about this a lot. The way race works in America is not oppression Olympics, or it’s not necessarily we all have our own oppressions. But it’s very much interlinked in that it’s sort of triangulated, where Asian-Americans have been used — Basically, we’re used as a minority who’s used as proof that American exceptionalism works or that American capitalism works. Because we are immigrating to this country, and look, we’re all doctors, or we’re going to Harvard, we’re going to Yale. And Black and brown Americans are compared unfavorably to Asian-Americans. So what that does is that it isolates us from forming any kind of bond or bridge with other people of color.

kara swisher

Or allyship.

cathy park hong

Or any kind of allyship or coalition building. But also, that kind of model minority myth is completely conditional, too, right? As we’re seeing now. It’s like what Asian-Americans live under is this kind of contract where as long as we behave and keep quiet and so forth, we’re fine. The benefits of assimilation is that you’re left alone. However, it’s not the same as having any kind of power.

kara swisher

Right, and you talk about complicity, but one of the things I thought was more powerful was this apologetic space, that you live in this apologetic space as a group.

cathy park hong

Mm-hmm. This goes back to immigration policy, right, with the Chinese Exclusion Act, where we were not allowed into the country until, really, 1965, is that we’ve always been treated as guests. Imagine inviting a dinner guest over. They’re treated well. They’re tolerated. You’re invited for a specific amount of time.

kara swisher

To do a specific thing.

cathy park hong

To do a specific thing, and then you leave. But if you start getting drunk and acting boorishly, then you are unwelcome. And that’s sort of always been the experience of being Asian-American in this country, is that we were always treated as guests and that we have to act accordingly. And also, a lot of the kind of grievances that we did experience were minimized by this country. But also, I think we internalized a lot of that minimization. And I think when you first come to a country, right? Like, my parents came to this country. And as a guest, you’re probably a bit more inhibited about expressing your rage.

kara swisher

Keep quiet. Be visible and invisible at the same time.

cathy park hong

Yeah, it’s also sort of the survivor’s mentality. Like for instance, my mother, with all the anti-Asian hate that’s happening, and when she discovered that I was doing interviews, she’s like, “Oh, don’t talk about the racism.” And I said, “Why?” And she’s like, well, you might be a target. People might try to hurt you in some way. And I’m like, well, I’m already getting trolled, so that’s too late about that. But I think that’s also kind of — it’s not just like her being Asian-American model minority or whatever, whatever. It’s also just her experiencing what she had and trying to just sort of get through her day and get through her life. But someone who’s born here, someone who’s been here for three, four generations, and if they’re still considered second class citizens, you’re not going to want to keep quiet.

kara swisher

Right. So now seems an especially pressing time to understand minor feelings, because that’s what that is you’re talking about, this idea of pretending major feelings are minor feelings. So let’s talk about the shootings in Atlanta which happened on March 16. The gunman went to three different spas and fatally shot eight people, six of whom were Asian women. Where were you when the news about Atlanta came out, and what was going through your mind?

cathy park hong

I actually had my vaccination shot. I had side effects. So I was actually feeling quite depleted. And I was also very burnt out by the pandemic and child care, you know.

kara swisher

Mm-hmm, yes, I have several children. Yes, I know.

cathy park hong

Yeah, and my paperback came out. And I was just so overwhelmed and burnt out and angry. And really, actually, my first reaction was to look away. I didn’t want to face it because I knew how it was going to be spun, how people were going to react, how mainstream media was going to summarize the massacre. When the first reports of the massacre was that a police officer, who said that the killer was just having a bad day. It was just basically what I expected.

kara swisher

Because the shooter insisted it wasn’t. And so they just took his denial.

cathy park hong

And this is the problem, of course, with the way Americans look at race and racial discrimination, is that it has to be explicitly outlined for them to consider racism when a lot of racial acts are also unconscious bias. And I just feel like I was like kind of unconsciously sort of predicting the script of what was going to happen. It was not going to be a hate crime. Media, being ambulance chasers, would pay attention to the massacre for, like, 42 hours and then move on to the next.

kara swisher

And then when the other shooting happened in Boulder, Colorado, less than a week after, it was highlighted a difference in the coverage on Instagram from both the “Times” and “The Washington Post” included bios of the Boulder victims. The victims in Atlanta were only listed by their names, no accompanying descriptions. Can you talk a little bit more about why this script seems to go out and the denial of the racial elements here? Which is absurd as far as I’m concerned, at least.

cathy park hong

It’s absurd, and I think there were a lot — there was a huge pushback by a lot of activists, organizers, attorneys, Asian-American attorneys. And there has been a groundswell of support from other allies. But look, the first reports were not national media, national news. It was Korean language newspaper. It was “Chosun Ilbo” and all these Asian language news reporters who actually went and talked to the witnesses, the families of the victims. So that’s one. There’s a language barrier, the cultural sensitivity barrier. But I think it’s also — I think everyone has been very enraged about the fact that in the beginning — or really not — all throughout, the stories of the victims were not centered at all. And instead, it was, like a lot of gun shootings, it was sensationalized.

kara swisher

What would you have liked to see?

cathy park hong

I wish that there was a really sustained investigation. I would like to know more about the labor practices that are happening in those massage parlors and Asian-American low-wage workers, and also more advocacy to support these women. I would like to see more stories about the intersections of gender, sex violence, and Asian-American. People — I think a lot of Americans barely grasp the basic building blocks of race. As Kimberle Crenshaw put it, racist experience is within the intersections of gender and class. And that’s what we are seeing with the Atlanta massacre. And we need to have that made legible for the American public, right? And talk about how Asian-American women have been oppressed, exploited, fetishized in various ways. And also, I would like to know more about that community and the stories of this women. I think the greatest tragedy of this is that — this is not — the onus is not entirely on national news — but I don’t think we’ll ever get their stories, you know, except in the most superficial way.

kara swisher

Or we put the links together. I think historical is very important to bring into it, as we just don’t do that in this country.

cathy park hong

We don’t do it because when he murdered those women and when I found out it was a massage, these were massage parlors, I immediately thought of camp towns during the Korean War. You have to remember that because of these immigration policies, there are very few women. It was actually Chinese women were excluded from coming to America because they were considered prostitutes. So when America started occupying these Asian countries, their exposure to Asian women were these sex workers who worked in these camp towns. And their perception of Asian women as fetishized, compliant, submissive, dragon lady, exotic, whatever, was imported to this country.

kara swisher

Which Hollywood also underscored.

cathy park hong

Hollywood definitely replicated, perpetuated those stereotypes, the obvious iconic example of Stanley Kubrick’s “Full Metal Jacket,” where there’s a Vietnamese prostitute says, “Ah, me so horny.” Everyone knows that. Everyone knows that quote.

kara swisher

And everyone just laughing about it.

cathy park hong

Yeah.

kara swisher

So the Atlanta shootings haven’t officially been designated as hate crimes. This is just one of the many recent attacks against Asian-Americans that’s in a definition limbo for some reason. But the data shows there’s been a rise in Asian hate crimes across the country, which is related to racist rhetoric around the pandemic. In New York City, for example, the number of NYPD classified hate crimes rose from three in 2019 to 28 in 2020. So what are your thoughts on this increase?

cathy park hong

I think the Atlanta massacre was a different angle into the kind of discrimination that Asians face that’s brought in issues of gender violence, the vulnerability of sex workers, as opposed to what is perhaps happening in Oakland, California, or Chinatown, New York, or Koreatown, Los Angeles, which is happening in these urban environments. I would say that what connects all of them is that they’re mostly happening to women. 70 percent of the victims so far are women. I think that we need to get some more coherent data of what’s happening about these anti-Asian incidents. It’s very spotty at this point. And they’re doing that. I think it’s really happening right now. I mean, what has made me kind of hopeful about what’s happening now is that it’s really galvanized the Asian-American community in a way that I personally haven’t witnessed before in my lifetime, or I haven’t noticed. And there’s just this complete outpouring of rage and grief. And Asian-Americans are really kind of standing up to this racism. And you see it a number of ways. You see, yes, there’s the hashtag activism, but then there’s also people on the streets, these organizations like Red Canary Song and CAAV and a lot of these organizations who are on the ground, raising money, raising awareness, bringing medical care to these vulnerable communities. And among leftists, there’s this real attempt to kind of bridge alliance ships with Black Americans and Latinx and so forth. So I think there is this kind of — it’s happening right now in real-time, where I believe that there is this mobilization happening. And Asian-Americans are trying to find a way to define themselves as a coalition, as a kind of political alliance, as a way to kind of really finally assert themselves in this sort of Black-white dialectic in this country. And that doesn’t necessarily mean crying out and saying, oh, we are victims, too. Pay attention to us. It’s not that. It’s more, how are we also complicit in this white supremacist and capitalist structure? How do we also eradicate anti-Blackness in our culture as well? And how can we work as allies to bring social justice?

kara swisher

So one of the things you talked about, this idea of allyship, we’re approaching the 30th anniversary of the L.A. riots. And those dynamics of that relationship were quite tense at the time. And then a Hmong-American officer, Tou Thao, is facing charges of aiding and abetting the second-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter charge in the death of George Floyd. There’s been a lot of discussion about anti-Blackness in the Asian-American community, something you wrote about, too. How do you get to real change in how people are talking about the issue? And do you see real change in that discussion?

cathy park hong

I don’t see real change yet. I think people don’t know how to talk about interracial conflicts and misunderstandings or misperceptions. We haven’t quite developed a vocabulary for it. I tried — I mean, I think partly another reason why I came up with the term “minor feelings” was that it’s not a structure, a feeling that’s limited to Asian-Americans, I think. Anyone who comes from a marginalized community understand this kind of cognitive dissonance you feel when you’re stuck, when you are not able to lift yourself up by the good bootstrap, and when you cannot have — attain that good life, no matter how hard you work, and where your perception as reality is drowned out by the dominant culture’s reality. I mean, Prageeta Sharma, amazing poet — I also quote her in the way that Americans perceive race, which is that, like grief, at some point, they expect you to get over it. It’s done. And I think that’s what’s going to happen with the Atlanta massacre, and it maybe already has, where people are like, O.K., let’s move on to the next. And this is what happened during the L.A. riots, right? L.A. riots was a collision of many deep-rooted problems in this country, the kind of economic dispossession and segregation of Black Americans, police brutality, and also Korean immigrants, most of them who are very poor, setting up shop in Black neighborhoods and the interracial violence and conflicts that came from there and the misunderstandings, the anti-Blackness in Korean communities, all of that. It was just a collision of all of these different problems. And there was an uprising. I mean, a lot of activists call it an uprising rather than a riot. And afterwards, there were some attempts at rebuilding and attempt at healing because of what happened. But those attempts to rebuild were completely abandoned, right? Which is, part of it was this campaign to kind of funnel resources into South Central, where you would have built hospitals, schools, after-school programs — never happened. And the Black population in L.A. just ended up shrinking to something like 8 percent. Korean immigrants whose stores were looted or who were out of jobs and so forth, it was never fixed. And there was attempts at interracial community building. That also never happened. So that was forgotten. That wasn’t actually addressed. That was not confronted. And now we’re seeing it again. So there’s still a lot of anger, a lot of distrust. And I think we need to work on this because the majority of Asian-Americans, majority — I say this confidently — the majority of Asian-Americans want the same things that Black Americans want. They want affirmative action. It is a misperception that Asian-Americans don’t want affirmative action. They want affirmative actions. They want criminal justice reform. They want racial equity. But we need to build coalitions. [MUSIC PLAYING]

kara swisher

We’ll be back in a minute. If you like this interview and want to hear others, follow us on your favorite podcast app. You’ll be able to catch up on “Sway” episodes you may have missed, like my conversation with journalist and historian Isabel Wilkerson. And you’ll get new ones delivered directly to you. More with Cathy Park Hong after the break.

You said that your daughter catalyzed your writing about race. How have you talked with her about these anti-Asian hate crimes? There have been reports of Asian-American kids being bullied in class with classmates over the past year related to COVID and discussions of having to deal with racism at a young age. Is that something you’ve been dealing with a lot? Can you talk about that?

cathy park hong

She’s six years old, so she’s a little — at this point, she’s still protected, I think, from being exposed to a lot of the anti-Asian discrimination.

kara swisher

Well, there’s a Richard Pryor line about that. I was eight —

cathy park hong

Yeah, I was —

kara swisher

Yeah. What was that line?

cathy park hong

I was a child until I was eight. Then I became a Negro. She personally hasn’t witnessed it. I haven’t really been talking about the actual specific incidents because she’s so young, right?

kara swisher

Right, but it catalyzed your wanting to write about it.

cathy park hong

Yeah, I mean, for me, it’s like showing her positive role models, Black, Asian, Latinx, constantly. But yeah, I think that’s also another reason why I wrote this book and wrote prose instead of poetry. Just as a mother, I became a bit of a pragmatist. And I didn’t want my daughter to grow up the same way that I did. I wanted her to grow up in a different world, a different kind of paradigm, where she didn’t take up apologetic space, where she didn’t feel uncomfortable in the skin that she was in, where she felt that everything was within her reach, and also for her to be sensitive to the struggles of others. So that was why I wrote this book, to kind of cut through all of the bullshit that I had to deal with when I was a kid. And my heart really goes out to all the Asian kids who are being bullied because maybe it was naive of me, but I don’t know. I thought the bullying would — I was bullied when I was a kid for being Asian. I know plenty of — everyone else, any other Asian kid that I know was also bullied when they were a kid for being Asian. They faced explicit, not microaggressions, explicit racist bullying. And I’m seeing it again now. And it definitely is deeply wounding, but I think the difference between back then and now is that there is a galvanizing movement, this uproar, right, from Asian-Americans.

kara swisher

Well, it’s taking space and being angry and —

cathy park hong

Yeah, taking up space. And I think more space must be taken.

kara swisher

One of the things that’s taken a lot of space is misinformation. And you wrote an op-ed in the “Times” about how it’s a growing problem in the Asian and Latino immigrant communities where right-wing messages and conspiracy theories like QAnon are spreading. So you wrote about it, your mom. My mom was also subject to this in a different way, more “Fox News” than anything else. But talk about what made you notice this issue. Because one of the things you talked about is how dangerous it is in terms of radicalizing groups of immigrants more towards these ideas.

cathy park hong

Well, this is the problems of sort of aggregating groups into ethnicities. Because there are real fractures in the Asian-American community, as there are fractures and in the Latinx community as well. I first noticed it before Biden was elected, actually late summer, where my mom, who is totally apolitical, she never really cared who was — she was not a Republican, not a Democrat. And suddenly, she started talking about how Biden was soft on China, and how Trump was better at confronting China. Because they’re worried — a lot of older Asian immigrant communities are worried about Xi Jinping’s expansionist policies, especially Taiwan. But all of them, a lot of countries, and it’s not just East Asian countries. It’s also Thailand, India, and so forth. And so my mom started telling me all of this, and I’m like, where are you getting this news from, mom? Because my mom doesn’t look — she looks at Korean news. She doesn’t look at “Fox.” And she’s just, oh, this is what friends tell me. And then I also understood that she was getting it from YouTube. And I discovered that right-wing talking points have been infiltrating ethnic language media, so —

kara swisher

And also the social media tools — WeChat, WhatsApp, KakaoTalk.

cathy park hong

Oh, WeChat, WhatsApp, Facebook, all these closed groups. Kakao was another one. It’s everywhere in social media. Disinformation was just growing like weeds, you know? And it was like a whack-a-mole carnival game. And it was really shocking, because I thought the huge problem with the Democratic Party — I don’t know what they’re doing now to fix it — was that they just pretty much completely neglected the Asian-American immigrants and Latinx immigrants. They just didn’t bother with them at all because they were like, there’s a language barrier. They’re on our side. We don’t have to care about them. So in that vacuum, the right-wing kind of went in there and infiltrated these ethnic media sites and social media sites. And it just kept getting worse, where my mother was — even after Trump lost, she was saying, oh, I heard that Biden is stealing votes. And at that point, she was just getting it from everyone, all the other different immigrants. And they were being radicalized in a way that I found is absolutely maddening and really troubling. So I mean, I always forget to call my mom, but I was calling her three times a week, just arguing with her. And she voted for Biden. And I got her to stop listening to her friends and everyone else. But this disinformation is a huge problem not just among white Americans.

kara swisher

What makes combating misinformation in Asia and Latinx communities even more challenging than my mother and “Fox News” on constantly? What is the unique challenges here?

cathy park hong

Well, first of all, it’s a language barrier, right? I mean, you have to basically embed yourself in these communities to try to kind of clear up a lot of disinformation. And it’s also happening — it’s happening everywhere. It’s hard to know what the source is. So you could say, there’s one Falun Gong-funded media site and Steve Bannon. But then there’s also —

kara swisher

“Epoch Times.”

cathy park hong

Yeah, “Epoch Times.” So at this point, it’s become global. And a lot of that is also, I believe — not only have we not really dealt with the roots of racism, we haven’t dealt with the repercussions and consequences of the Cold War. And a lot of the immigrants who ended up coming to America are very anti-communist. And the right-wing has weaponized that, used that fear of communism to turn them against their own interests. And this is an issue that Democrats really — and leftists — have to really address and confront.

kara swisher

So how?

cathy park hong

[LAUGHS] How? I am not an activist. I am not an organizer or a politician so I can’t really — I don’t really exactly know what the solutions are. But I will say that there has to be more of a grassroots effort. I think Atlanta is a good example of the organizations that really mobilized a lot of voters. But I think there needs to be a real grassroots effort to kind of communicate with a lot of these immigrant groups and also have other ethnic media news sites that tell the truth about what’s happening. But I think it really involves people kind of talking to the community in their language.

kara swisher

It certainly can’t just involve people calling their mothers and yelling at them every week.

cathy park hong

No.

kara swisher

Which is what I did for months to begin with.

cathy park hong

I know. I know.

kara swisher

It’s exhausting. It’s also exhausting.

cathy park hong

It is exhausting. I mean, it can’t be the family members. It has to be — well, it has to be macro and micro. It has to be from — it has to be policies that the Biden administration will manage and orchestrate. And it’s also a lot of these organizations who are already doing a lot of the labor anyways.

kara swisher

So what are the stakes for addressing political misinformation? Why does it matter?

cathy park hong

Well, I think it’s like what happened with the white working class, right? Where they got radicalized. And they’ve completely become brainwashed by the right-wing. And they’re constantly voting against their own economic interests because there’s this manufactured fear that immigrants and Black people are taking away jobs, right? So right now, if you are a G.O.P., you’re going to understand that your base is shrinking. And you know that this country is diversifying and that the minorities will be the majority in 20 years. So what are you going to do? Part of it, as we’re seeing now, is voter disenfranchisement, where they’re trying to prevent people from voting, Black people from voting, and so forth. But there are also — I’m assuming they’re going to try recruiting these immigrants, using anti-communist and anti-Black rhetoric, using fear, basically, as a weapon to get them to vote against their own interests. And I’m afraid of that. I’m scared of that. I’m also worried about — I mean, this whole — there’s also an anti-Chinese xenophobia is also really complicated by the fact that this is going to become a bigger and bigger issue, I think, because I believe the Biden administration is going to be more hawkish against China. And there’s still going to be that kind of anti-Chinese rhetoric coming from the White House. A lot of Americans will probably misinterpret that, and that’s going to probably breed more hate crimes. But also, there are also Asians who support those hawkish policies. So —

kara swisher

Well, it’s complex, and you can’t have complexity.

cathy park hong

It’s very complicated. That’s the thing. It’s like, it’s so complex. It’s so complicated. And it’s this kind of mosaic of intersecting interests that you cannot say Asians are Republican or Asians are Democrat, Asians are leftists, or Asians are anti-Black. We’re just too — there are too many of us.

kara swisher

Right. Well, this idea of one is sort of ridiculous on many levels. So is your mom still calling you with fake news? Has she moved along?

cathy park hong

No, she’s fine. I mean, she’s —

occasionally, she’ll say, I don’t know. Biden just looks really weak.

kara swisher

Oh, yeah.

cathy park hong

That’s the most she’ll say about Biden.

kara swisher

Yeah, my mom’s keeping it up, though. Don’t worry. You can start calling my mom if you like.

cathy park hong

Oh, OK.

kara swisher

So last question, “Minor Feelings” was released at the beginning of the pandemic, which must be a joy for any writer.

cathy park hong

Mm-hmm.

kara swisher

How does being in the lockdown affected your creativity? And what are you doing next? Comedy act?

cathy park hong

[LAUGHS] There are some people that are like, well, she was a poet, a standup comedian. I was like, I was never a standup comedian. I just had tried —

kara swisher

Well, you’re young.

cathy park hong

I’m not young, no. [LAUGHS] Middle-aged, but the pandemic has not — I have not written “King Lear.” I haven’t produced prodigious amounts of work while under — because I’ve been trying to take care of a daughter and teach and all that. But I think I want to work on another book. I hesitate to say what genre it is, but I think with “Minor Feelings,” I really kind of touched upon a lot of issues that I could have gone deeper into. It was just the tip of the iceberg, one of which is my mother. I think about this question that this poet Bhanu Kapil talked about, “Who is responsible for the suffering of your mother?” Which is a very heavy question. But I was thinking about my own mother and other peoples — And I’ve been interviewing other people and their relationships with their mothers. And also I’m thinking about their personal lives, but also structurally what has caused the suffering of my own mother. And I think that it’ll be a book about also colonialism and the American occupation in Korea. So, yeah.

kara swisher

I hope you continue to write, but I would love to see you do come — stand-up, excuse me.

cathy park hong

[LAUGHS] I’m not that much of a masochist, but.

kara swisher

I would like to be pulled out of my skin in a — that’s why I love comedy. Because that’s the best comedy that happens.

cathy park hong

I know. I love comedy for that reason, too.

kara swisher

Yep. Anyway, thank you so much. I really appreciate it. This has been a wonderful conversation. It’s a wonderful book you’ve written. And I really appreciate you taking so much time to talk to me.

cathy park hong

Thank you. Thank you so much, Kara. [MUSIC PLAYING]

kara swisher

“Sway” is a production of New York Times Opinion. It’s produced by Nayeema Raza, Blakeney Schick, Heba Elorbany, Matt Kwong, and Daphne Chen; edited by Nayeema Raza and Paula Szuchman; with music by Isaac Jones; mixing by Erick Gomez; and fact-checking by Kate Sinclair. Special thanks to Shannon Busta and Liriel Higa.

If you’re in a podcast app already, you know how to get your podcasts, so follow this one. But first, call your mother. If you’re listening on The Times website and want to get each new episode of “Sway” delivered to you, download any podcast app and then search for “Sway” and follow the show. We release every Monday and Thursday.

An Asian American Poet on Refusing to Take Up ‘Apologetic Space’

The writer and poet Cathy Park Hong discusses Asian outrage and why she’s seeking power, not assimilation.

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transcript

An Asian American Poet on Refusing to Take Up ‘Apologetic Space’

The writer and poet Cathy Park Hong discusses Asian outrage and why she’s seeking power, not assimilation.

Thursday, April 1st, 2021

archived recording

(SINGING) When you walk in the room, do you have sway?

kara swisher

I’m Kara Swisher, and you’re listening to “Sway.” This week, yet another video went viral — a terrible one. It showed a man brutally knocking a Filipino woman to the ground and then stomping on her. This happened in broad daylight in the middle of Manhattan, and no one intervened. It’s become the latest in a wave of rising crimes against the Asian-American community. And it comes just a few weeks after six Asian women were killed in shootings in the Atlanta area. So I wanted to talk to someone about the roots of anti-Asian racism and how the myth of the “model minority” has delayed this national conversation. Cathy Park Hong is a writer and poet. She’s been capturing the Asian-American experience for years, first in her poetry, and most recently, in a collection of essays called “Minor Feelings: An Asian-American Reckoning.” It’s part memoir and part critique. But above all, “Minor Feelings” is a question. What does it mean culturally and politically to be Asian-American? I wanted to understand Hong’s approach to this question and why, as a poet, she chose to tackle it in essay form.

Cathy Park Hong, welcome to the show.

cathy park hong

Thank you. Thank you for having me.

kara swisher

So you were in poetry. And it’s different than what you did in your book of essays, “Minor Feelings.” Talk about the shift from poetry, which is a lot more economical, in a lot of ways, to essays.

cathy park hong

I felt that as I was kind of getting older, the lyric medium just seemed too small, like a shirt size too small for all the stories that I wanted to tell and the arguments that I wanted to make. I was starting to feel that discomfort more and more. And also, you know, I talk — in the book, I talk about being inspired by Richard Pryor. And I really wanted to kind of directly, in a very confrontational manner, confront the question of race as an Asian-American. And I realized that poetry was not a suitable medium for that. It wasn’t a capacious enough form for me. And part of the reason why was because I wanted to make an argument and wanted to ask questions that would lead to more questions. And it’s hard to do that with poetry.

kara swisher

Can you talk more about how Richard Pryor’s stand-up routines helped you hone this idea of “minor feelings”?

cathy park hong

It was in 2011. I was very depressed at the time. I was feeling very frustrated being a poet. And my husband turned on “Live in Concert.” And I started watching it. I watched bits of Pryor before. I’ve seen some of his movies, the bad ones, like “The Toy.”

kara swisher

Yeah, there’s some bad ones.

cathy park hong

Yeah, or “Superman III.” And it was the first time I’ve seen his routine in its full length. And I was just blown away. I had this sort of shock of recognition, as I say in the book. And I think after that, I was trying to understand why I had that shock of recognition. What was Richard Pryor doing that even someone I, who is not Black or a man or had the kind of tragic history that he did, felt this kind of connection to him. And part of it was his brutal honesty, his rawness, just his brilliant way of cutting through the bullshit and telling it like it is. And I was like, why haven’t I read this or seen this for Asian-Americans? Why hasn’t there been an Asian-American story like this or an Asian-American poem or a film like this and so forth, where there was this sort of brute honesty that really kind of got under my skin? And I was really attracted to this idea of stand-up comedy used as a kind of Trojan horse or as a kind of trap door to these truths about America that people wouldn’t necessarily want to face.

kara swisher

If you’d done this book as a stand-up routine, what would it have looked like? What would you open with?

cathy park hong

I would open with a therapist.

kara swisher

This is the opening of the book where you try to convince a Korean-American therapist to take you on as a patient.

cathy park hong

Yeah, I would probably open with the therapist section. And then, I mean, I think especially with the first essay, “United,” I was thinking more — you know I probably was unconsciously thinking of the stand-up structure, just thinking of these sort of absurd moments that kind of ruptures whatever kind of Asian-American tropes that we’re used to or tropes about therapy or finding healing or catharsis or redemption.

kara swisher

I think the Playboy shirt story would be devastating to people.

cathy park hong

Yeah. [LAUGHS] Yeah, and it’s an example that I use often when people ask me what “Minor Feelings” is. I was, like, seven or eight. And for whatever reason, we had a T-shirt that had the Playboy emblem, the bunny rabbit. It didn’t say “Playboy.” It was just a bunny rabbit. It was red, and the bunny rabbit was white. My mom, she didn’t know it was a Playboy shirt because she was a recent immigrant. And so she thought it was a kid’s shirt. She put me in that shirt. And the next day, I went to school wearing a Playboy T-shirt. And I don’t remember any teacher approaching me or saying that was inappropriate. But when I was at recess, I do remember an older kid coming up to me and saying, “Do you know what your shirt means?” And I said no. And she didn’t tell me. She ran off. And I saw her talking to her friends. And they were probably pointing or laughing at me. And I just had this very distinct, visceral sensation of feeling targeted, like I was stranded. I just felt very exposed. And the way I wrote it was I was trying to kind of allude to the scarlet letter where I felt like Hester Prynne with the letter “A.” But I didn’t know what it meant. I had no understanding of what was wrong with me. I just knew that there was something wrong with me. But I didn’t know what was wrong with me.

kara swisher

So you write a lot about shame and indignity, the markers of how you experienced racism as an Asian-American. But you note that it’s political shame, not necessarily a cultural one. Jia Tolentino, in reviewing your book, which I thought was quite interesting — “to be Asian-American,” she suggests, “is to be tasked with making an injury inaccessible to the body that has been injured. It is to be pissed on at regular intervals while dutifully minimizing the odor of piss.” I don’t know if you agree with her. But I think this is well said. Can you talk about this idea of minimization and sort of swallowing the indignity?

cathy park hong

Yeah, of course. First of all, I do think it was perfectly apt what Jia Tolentino said, the way she was able to kind of break that metaphor of the urinal puck. I think this is particular to racism that Asian-Americans face, is that we have also been victims to systemic racism throughout history. But we have been conditioned to pretend that it doesn’t exist, to minimize it, to —

kara swisher

Or you don’t have it as bad. You called it a “vague purgatorial status.”

cathy park hong

Yeah, it’s a purga — we don’t have it as bad. And what I often say is that I think probably also because of the way social media is and everything, we kind of look at race as oppression Olympics, right? Where Black people are the most oppressed, white people are the least oppressed, and everyone else is somewhere in the middle. And so it’s this kind of totem pole. And Asian-Americans are basically in the bottom of that totem pole right above white Americans. So we’ve sort of internalized that. I mean, I think that came from the white supremacist system that we live in. But I think a lot of Asians also internalize that, that what we went through wasn’t that bad. Claire Jean Kim is a scholar who talks about this a lot. The way race works in America is not oppression Olympics, or it’s not necessarily we all have our own oppressions. But it’s very much interlinked in that it’s sort of triangulated, where Asian-Americans have been used — Basically, we’re used as a minority who’s used as proof that American exceptionalism works or that American capitalism works. Because we are immigrating to this country, and look, we’re all doctors, or we’re going to Harvard, we’re going to Yale. And Black and brown Americans are compared unfavorably to Asian-Americans. So what that does is that it isolates us from forming any kind of bond or bridge with other people of color.

kara swisher

Or allyship.

cathy park hong

Or any kind of allyship or coalition building. But also, that kind of model minority myth is completely conditional, too, right? As we’re seeing now. It’s like what Asian-Americans live under is this kind of contract where as long as we behave and keep quiet and so forth, we’re fine. The benefits of assimilation is that you’re left alone. However, it’s not the same as having any kind of power.

kara swisher

Right, and you talk about complicity, but one of the things I thought was more powerful was this apologetic space, that you live in this apologetic space as a group.

cathy park hong

Mm-hmm. This goes back to immigration policy, right, with the Chinese Exclusion Act, where we were not allowed into the country until, really, 1965, is that we’ve always been treated as guests. Imagine inviting a dinner guest over. They’re treated well. They’re tolerated. You’re invited for a specific amount of time.

kara swisher

To do a specific thing.

cathy park hong

To do a specific thing, and then you leave. But if you start getting drunk and acting boorishly, then you are unwelcome. And that’s sort of always been the experience of being Asian-American in this country, is that we were always treated as guests and that we have to act accordingly. And also, a lot of the kind of grievances that we did experience were minimized by this country. But also, I think we internalized a lot of that minimization. And I think when you first come to a country, right? Like, my parents came to this country. And as a guest, you’re probably a bit more inhibited about expressing your rage.

kara swisher

Keep quiet. Be visible and invisible at the same time.

cathy park hong

Yeah, it’s also sort of the survivor’s mentality. Like for instance, my mother, with all the anti-Asian hate that’s happening, and when she discovered that I was doing interviews, she’s like, “Oh, don’t talk about the racism.” And I said, “Why?” And she’s like, well, you might be a target. People might try to hurt you in some way. And I’m like, well, I’m already getting trolled, so that’s too late about that. But I think that’s also kind of — it’s not just like her being Asian-American model minority or whatever, whatever. It’s also just her experiencing what she had and trying to just sort of get through her day and get through her life. But someone who’s born here, someone who’s been here for three, four generations, and if they’re still considered second class citizens, you’re not going to want to keep quiet.

kara swisher

Right. So now seems an especially pressing time to understand minor feelings, because that’s what that is you’re talking about, this idea of pretending major feelings are minor feelings. So let’s talk about the shootings in Atlanta which happened on March 16. The gunman went to three different spas and fatally shot eight people, six of whom were Asian women. Where were you when the news about Atlanta came out, and what was going through your mind?

cathy park hong

I actually had my vaccination shot. I had side effects. So I was actually feeling quite depleted. And I was also very burnt out by the pandemic and child care, you know.

kara swisher

Mm-hmm, yes, I have several children. Yes, I know.

cathy park hong

Yeah, and my paperback came out. And I was just so overwhelmed and burnt out and angry. And really, actually, my first reaction was to look away. I didn’t want to face it because I knew how it was going to be spun, how people were going to react, how mainstream media was going to summarize the massacre. When the first reports of the massacre was that a police officer, who said that the killer was just having a bad day. It was just basically what I expected.

kara swisher

Because the shooter insisted it wasn’t. And so they just took his denial.

cathy park hong

And this is the problem, of course, with the way Americans look at race and racial discrimination, is that it has to be explicitly outlined for them to consider racism when a lot of racial acts are also unconscious bias. And I just feel like I was like kind of unconsciously sort of predicting the script of what was going to happen. It was not going to be a hate crime. Media, being ambulance chasers, would pay attention to the massacre for, like, 42 hours and then move on to the next.

kara swisher

And then when the other shooting happened in Boulder, Colorado, less than a week after, it was highlighted a difference in the coverage on Instagram from both the “Times” and “The Washington Post” included bios of the Boulder victims. The victims in Atlanta were only listed by their names, no accompanying descriptions. Can you talk a little bit more about why this script seems to go out and the denial of the racial elements here? Which is absurd as far as I’m concerned, at least.

cathy park hong

It’s absurd, and I think there were a lot — there was a huge pushback by a lot of activists, organizers, attorneys, Asian-American attorneys. And there has been a groundswell of support from other allies. But look, the first reports were not national media, national news. It was Korean language newspaper. It was “Chosun Ilbo” and all these Asian language news reporters who actually went and talked to the witnesses, the families of the victims. So that’s one. There’s a language barrier, the cultural sensitivity barrier. But I think it’s also — I think everyone has been very enraged about the fact that in the beginning — or really not — all throughout, the stories of the victims were not centered at all. And instead, it was, like a lot of gun shootings, it was sensationalized.

kara swisher

What would you have liked to see?

cathy park hong

I wish that there was a really sustained investigation. I would like to know more about the labor practices that are happening in those massage parlors and Asian-American low-wage workers, and also more advocacy to support these women. I would like to see more stories about the intersections of gender, sex violence, and Asian-American. People — I think a lot of Americans barely grasp the basic building blocks of race. As Kimberle Crenshaw put it, racist experience is within the intersections of gender and class. And that’s what we are seeing with the Atlanta massacre. And we need to have that made legible for the American public, right? And talk about how Asian-American women have been oppressed, exploited, fetishized in various ways. And also, I would like to know more about that community and the stories of this women. I think the greatest tragedy of this is that — this is not — the onus is not entirely on national news — but I don’t think we’ll ever get their stories, you know, except in the most superficial way.

kara swisher

Or we put the links together. I think historical is very important to bring into it, as we just don’t do that in this country.

cathy park hong

We don’t do it because when he murdered those women and when I found out it was a massage, these were massage parlors, I immediately thought of camp towns during the Korean War. You have to remember that because of these immigration policies, there are very few women. It was actually Chinese women were excluded from coming to America because they were considered prostitutes. So when America started occupying these Asian countries, their exposure to Asian women were these sex workers who worked in these camp towns. And their perception of Asian women as fetishized, compliant, submissive, dragon lady, exotic, whatever, was imported to this country.

kara swisher

Which Hollywood also underscored.

cathy park hong

Hollywood definitely replicated, perpetuated those stereotypes, the obvious iconic example of Stanley Kubrick’s “Full Metal Jacket,” where there’s a Vietnamese prostitute says, “Ah, me so horny.” Everyone knows that. Everyone knows that quote.

kara swisher

And everyone just laughing about it.

cathy park hong

Yeah.

kara swisher

So the Atlanta shootings haven’t officially been designated as hate crimes. This is just one of the many recent attacks against Asian-Americans that’s in a definition limbo for some reason. But the data shows there’s been a rise in Asian hate crimes across the country, which is related to racist rhetoric around the pandemic. In New York City, for example, the number of NYPD classified hate crimes rose from three in 2019 to 28 in 2020. So what are your thoughts on this increase?

cathy park hong

I think the Atlanta massacre was a different angle into the kind of discrimination that Asians face that’s brought in issues of gender violence, the vulnerability of sex workers, as opposed to what is perhaps happening in Oakland, California, or Chinatown, New York, or Koreatown, Los Angeles, which is happening in these urban environments. I would say that what connects all of them is that they’re mostly happening to women. 70 percent of the victims so far are women. I think that we need to get some more coherent data of what’s happening about these anti-Asian incidents. It’s very spotty at this point. And they’re doing that. I think it’s really happening right now. I mean, what has made me kind of hopeful about what’s happening now is that it’s really galvanized the Asian-American community in a way that I personally haven’t witnessed before in my lifetime, or I haven’t noticed. And there’s just this complete outpouring of rage and grief. And Asian-Americans are really kind of standing up to this racism. And you see it a number of ways. You see, yes, there’s the hashtag activism, but then there’s also people on the streets, these organizations like Red Canary Song and CAAV and a lot of these organizations who are on the ground, raising money, raising awareness, bringing medical care to these vulnerable communities. And among leftists, there’s this real attempt to kind of bridge alliance ships with Black Americans and Latinx and so forth. So I think there is this kind of — it’s happening right now in real-time, where I believe that there is this mobilization happening. And Asian-Americans are trying to find a way to define themselves as a coalition, as a kind of political alliance, as a way to kind of really finally assert themselves in this sort of Black-white dialectic in this country. And that doesn’t necessarily mean crying out and saying, oh, we are victims, too. Pay attention to us. It’s not that. It’s more, how are we also complicit in this white supremacist and capitalist structure? How do we also eradicate anti-Blackness in our culture as well? And how can we work as allies to bring social justice?

kara swisher

So one of the things you talked about, this idea of allyship, we’re approaching the 30th anniversary of the L.A. riots. And those dynamics of that relationship were quite tense at the time. And then a Hmong-American officer, Tou Thao, is facing charges of aiding and abetting the second-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter charge in the death of George Floyd. There’s been a lot of discussion about anti-Blackness in the Asian-American community, something you wrote about, too. How do you get to real change in how people are talking about the issue? And do you see real change in that discussion?

cathy park hong

I don’t see real change yet. I think people don’t know how to talk about interracial conflicts and misunderstandings or misperceptions. We haven’t quite developed a vocabulary for it. I tried — I mean, I think partly another reason why I came up with the term “minor feelings” was that it’s not a structure, a feeling that’s limited to Asian-Americans, I think. Anyone who comes from a marginalized community understand this kind of cognitive dissonance you feel when you’re stuck, when you are not able to lift yourself up by the good bootstrap, and when you cannot have — attain that good life, no matter how hard you work, and where your perception as reality is drowned out by the dominant culture’s reality. I mean, Prageeta Sharma, amazing poet — I also quote her in the way that Americans perceive race, which is that, like grief, at some point, they expect you to get over it. It’s done. And I think that’s what’s going to happen with the Atlanta massacre, and it maybe already has, where people are like, O.K., let’s move on to the next. And this is what happened during the L.A. riots, right? L.A. riots was a collision of many deep-rooted problems in this country, the kind of economic dispossession and segregation of Black Americans, police brutality, and also Korean immigrants, most of them who are very poor, setting up shop in Black neighborhoods and the interracial violence and conflicts that came from there and the misunderstandings, the anti-Blackness in Korean communities, all of that. It was just a collision of all of these different problems. And there was an uprising. I mean, a lot of activists call it an uprising rather than a riot. And afterwards, there were some attempts at rebuilding and attempt at healing because of what happened. But those attempts to rebuild were completely abandoned, right? Which is, part of it was this campaign to kind of funnel resources into South Central, where you would have built hospitals, schools, after-school programs — never happened. And the Black population in L.A. just ended up shrinking to something like 8 percent. Korean immigrants whose stores were looted or who were out of jobs and so forth, it was never fixed. And there was attempts at interracial community building. That also never happened. So that was forgotten. That wasn’t actually addressed. That was not confronted. And now we’re seeing it again. So there’s still a lot of anger, a lot of distrust. And I think we need to work on this because the majority of Asian-Americans, majority — I say this confidently — the majority of Asian-Americans want the same things that Black Americans want. They want affirmative action. It is a misperception that Asian-Americans don’t want affirmative action. They want affirmative actions. They want criminal justice reform. They want racial equity. But we need to build coalitions. [MUSIC PLAYING]

kara swisher

We’ll be back in a minute. If you like this interview and want to hear others, follow us on your favorite podcast app. You’ll be able to catch up on “Sway” episodes you may have missed, like my conversation with journalist and historian Isabel Wilkerson. And you’ll get new ones delivered directly to you. More with Cathy Park Hong after the break.

You said that your daughter catalyzed your writing about race. How have you talked with her about these anti-Asian hate crimes? There have been reports of Asian-American kids being bullied in class with classmates over the past year related to COVID and discussions of having to deal with racism at a young age. Is that something you’ve been dealing with a lot? Can you talk about that?

cathy park hong

She’s six years old, so she’s a little — at this point, she’s still protected, I think, from being exposed to a lot of the anti-Asian discrimination.

kara swisher

Well, there’s a Richard Pryor line about that. I was eight —

cathy park hong

Yeah, I was —

kara swisher

Yeah. What was that line?

cathy park hong

I was a child until I was eight. Then I became a Negro. She personally hasn’t witnessed it. I haven’t really been talking about the actual specific incidents because she’s so young, right?

kara swisher

Right, but it catalyzed your wanting to write about it.

cathy park hong

Yeah, I mean, for me, it’s like showing her positive role models, Black, Asian, Latinx, constantly. But yeah, I think that’s also another reason why I wrote this book and wrote prose instead of poetry. Just as a mother, I became a bit of a pragmatist. And I didn’t want my daughter to grow up the same way that I did. I wanted her to grow up in a different world, a different kind of paradigm, where she didn’t take up apologetic space, where she didn’t feel uncomfortable in the skin that she was in, where she felt that everything was within her reach, and also for her to be sensitive to the struggles of others. So that was why I wrote this book, to kind of cut through all of the bullshit that I had to deal with when I was a kid. And my heart really goes out to all the Asian kids who are being bullied because maybe it was naive of me, but I don’t know. I thought the bullying would — I was bullied when I was a kid for being Asian. I know plenty of — everyone else, any other Asian kid that I know was also bullied when they were a kid for being Asian. They faced explicit, not microaggressions, explicit racist bullying. And I’m seeing it again now. And it definitely is deeply wounding, but I think the difference between back then and now is that there is a galvanizing movement, this uproar, right, from Asian-Americans.

kara swisher

Well, it’s taking space and being angry and —

cathy park hong

Yeah, taking up space. And I think more space must be taken.

kara swisher

One of the things that’s taken a lot of space is misinformation. And you wrote an op-ed in the “Times” about how it’s a growing problem in the Asian and Latino immigrant communities where right-wing messages and conspiracy theories like QAnon are spreading. So you wrote about it, your mom. My mom was also subject to this in a different way, more “Fox News” than anything else. But talk about what made you notice this issue. Because one of the things you talked about is how dangerous it is in terms of radicalizing groups of immigrants more towards these ideas.

cathy park hong

Well, this is the problems of sort of aggregating groups into ethnicities. Because there are real fractures in the Asian-American community, as there are fractures and in the Latinx community as well. I first noticed it before Biden was elected, actually late summer, where my mom, who is totally apolitical, she never really cared who was — she was not a Republican, not a Democrat. And suddenly, she started talking about how Biden was soft on China, and how Trump was better at confronting China. Because they’re worried — a lot of older Asian immigrant communities are worried about Xi Jinping’s expansionist policies, especially Taiwan. But all of them, a lot of countries, and it’s not just East Asian countries. It’s also Thailand, India, and so forth. And so my mom started telling me all of this, and I’m like, where are you getting this news from, mom? Because my mom doesn’t look — she looks at Korean news. She doesn’t look at “Fox.” And she’s just, oh, this is what friends tell me. And then I also understood that she was getting it from YouTube. And I discovered that right-wing talking points have been infiltrating ethnic language media, so —

kara swisher

And also the social media tools — WeChat, WhatsApp, KakaoTalk.

cathy park hong

Oh, WeChat, WhatsApp, Facebook, all these closed groups. Kakao was another one. It’s everywhere in social media. Disinformation was just growing like weeds, you know? And it was like a whack-a-mole carnival game. And it was really shocking, because I thought the huge problem with the Democratic Party — I don’t know what they’re doing now to fix it — was that they just pretty much completely neglected the Asian-American immigrants and Latinx immigrants. They just didn’t bother with them at all because they were like, there’s a language barrier. They’re on our side. We don’t have to care about them. So in that vacuum, the right-wing kind of went in there and infiltrated these ethnic media sites and social media sites. And it just kept getting worse, where my mother was — even after Trump lost, she was saying, oh, I heard that Biden is stealing votes. And at that point, she was just getting it from everyone, all the other different immigrants. And they were being radicalized in a way that I found is absolutely maddening and really troubling. So I mean, I always forget to call my mom, but I was calling her three times a week, just arguing with her. And she voted for Biden. And I got her to stop listening to her friends and everyone else. But this disinformation is a huge problem not just among white Americans.

kara swisher

What makes combating misinformation in Asia and Latinx communities even more challenging than my mother and “Fox News” on constantly? What is the unique challenges here?

cathy park hong

Well, first of all, it’s a language barrier, right? I mean, you have to basically embed yourself in these communities to try to kind of clear up a lot of disinformation. And it’s also happening — it’s happening everywhere. It’s hard to know what the source is. So you could say, there’s one Falun Gong-funded media site and Steve Bannon. But then there’s also —

kara swisher

“Epoch Times.”

cathy park hong

Yeah, “Epoch Times.” So at this point, it’s become global. And a lot of that is also, I believe — not only have we not really dealt with the roots of racism, we haven’t dealt with the repercussions and consequences of the Cold War. And a lot of the immigrants who ended up coming to America are very anti-communist. And the right-wing has weaponized that, used that fear of communism to turn them against their own interests. And this is an issue that Democrats really — and leftists — have to really address and confront.

kara swisher

So how?

cathy park hong

[LAUGHS] How? I am not an activist. I am not an organizer or a politician so I can’t really — I don’t really exactly know what the solutions are. But I will say that there has to be more of a grassroots effort. I think Atlanta is a good example of the organizations that really mobilized a lot of voters. But I think there needs to be a real grassroots effort to kind of communicate with a lot of these immigrant groups and also have other ethnic media news sites that tell the truth about what’s happening. But I think it really involves people kind of talking to the community in their language.

kara swisher

It certainly can’t just involve people calling their mothers and yelling at them every week.

cathy park hong

No.

kara swisher

Which is what I did for months to begin with.

cathy park hong

I know. I know.

kara swisher

It’s exhausting. It’s also exhausting.

cathy park hong

It is exhausting. I mean, it can’t be the family members. It has to be — well, it has to be macro and micro. It has to be from — it has to be policies that the Biden administration will manage and orchestrate. And it’s also a lot of these organizations who are already doing a lot of the labor anyways.

kara swisher

So what are the stakes for addressing political misinformation? Why does it matter?

cathy park hong

Well, I think it’s like what happened with the white working class, right? Where they got radicalized. And they’ve completely become brainwashed by the right-wing. And they’re constantly voting against their own economic interests because there’s this manufactured fear that immigrants and Black people are taking away jobs, right? So right now, if you are a G.O.P., you’re going to understand that your base is shrinking. And you know that this country is diversifying and that the minorities will be the majority in 20 years. So what are you going to do? Part of it, as we’re seeing now, is voter disenfranchisement, where they’re trying to prevent people from voting, Black people from voting, and so forth. But there are also — I’m assuming they’re going to try recruiting these immigrants, using anti-communist and anti-Black rhetoric, using fear, basically, as a weapon to get them to vote against their own interests. And I’m afraid of that. I’m scared of that. I’m also worried about — I mean, this whole — there’s also an anti-Chinese xenophobia is also really complicated by the fact that this is going to become a bigger and bigger issue, I think, because I believe the Biden administration is going to be more hawkish against China. And there’s still going to be that kind of anti-Chinese rhetoric coming from the White House. A lot of Americans will probably misinterpret that, and that’s going to probably breed more hate crimes. But also, there are also Asians who support those hawkish policies. So —

kara swisher

Well, it’s complex, and you can’t have complexity.

cathy park hong

It’s very complicated. That’s the thing. It’s like, it’s so complex. It’s so complicated. And it’s this kind of mosaic of intersecting interests that you cannot say Asians are Republican or Asians are Democrat, Asians are leftists, or Asians are anti-Black. We’re just too — there are too many of us.

kara swisher

Right. Well, this idea of one is sort of ridiculous on many levels. So is your mom still calling you with fake news? Has she moved along?

cathy park hong

No, she’s fine. I mean, she’s —

occasionally, she’ll say, I don’t know. Biden just looks really weak.

kara swisher

Oh, yeah.

cathy park hong

That’s the most she’ll say about Biden.

kara swisher

Yeah, my mom’s keeping it up, though. Don’t worry. You can start calling my mom if you like.

cathy park hong

Oh, OK.

kara swisher

So last question, “Minor Feelings” was released at the beginning of the pandemic, which must be a joy for any writer.

cathy park hong

Mm-hmm.

kara swisher

How does being in the lockdown affected your creativity? And what are you doing next? Comedy act?

cathy park hong

[LAUGHS] There are some people that are like, well, she was a poet, a standup comedian. I was like, I was never a standup comedian. I just had tried —

kara swisher

Well, you’re young.

cathy park hong

I’m not young, no. [LAUGHS] Middle-aged, but the pandemic has not — I have not written “King Lear.” I haven’t produced prodigious amounts of work while under — because I’ve been trying to take care of a daughter and teach and all that. But I think I want to work on another book. I hesitate to say what genre it is, but I think with “Minor Feelings,” I really kind of touched upon a lot of issues that I could have gone deeper into. It was just the tip of the iceberg, one of which is my mother. I think about this question that this poet Bhanu Kapil talked about, “Who is responsible for the suffering of your mother?” Which is a very heavy question. But I was thinking about my own mother and other peoples — And I’ve been interviewing other people and their relationships with their mothers. And also I’m thinking about their personal lives, but also structurally what has caused the suffering of my own mother. And I think that it’ll be a book about also colonialism and the American occupation in Korea. So, yeah.

kara swisher

I hope you continue to write, but I would love to see you do come — stand-up, excuse me.

cathy park hong

[LAUGHS] I’m not that much of a masochist, but.

kara swisher

I would like to be pulled out of my skin in a — that’s why I love comedy. Because that’s the best comedy that happens.

cathy park hong

I know. I love comedy for that reason, too.

kara swisher

Yep. Anyway, thank you so much. I really appreciate it. This has been a wonderful conversation. It’s a wonderful book you’ve written. And I really appreciate you taking so much time to talk to me.

cathy park hong

Thank you. Thank you so much, Kara. [MUSIC PLAYING]

kara swisher

“Sway” is a production of New York Times Opinion. It’s produced by Nayeema Raza, Blakeney Schick, Heba Elorbany, Matt Kwong, and Daphne Chen; edited by Nayeema Raza and Paula Szuchman; with music by Isaac Jones; mixing by Erick Gomez; and fact-checking by Kate Sinclair. Special thanks to Shannon Busta and Liriel Higa.

If you’re in a podcast app already, you know how to get your podcasts, so follow this one. But first, call your mother. If you’re listening on The Times website and want to get each new episode of “Sway” delivered to you, download any podcast app and then search for “Sway” and follow the show. We release every Monday and Thursday.

April 1, 2021

Produced by ‘Sway’

This week, a Filipino woman was attacked in Midtown Manhattan during broad daylight. This assault came on the heels of the Atlanta-area shooting in which six women of Asian descent were killed and amid reports of rising crime against Asians. One group, Stop AAPI Hate, received nearly 3,800 accounts of incidents nationally between March 19, 2020, and Feb. 28.

The poet and author Cathy Park Hong notes that these events have set off outrage in the Asian-American community. Her essay collection “Minor Feelings: An Asian-American Reckoning” wrestles with how discrimination against Asians is often left out in conversations about race in the United States. “We have also been victims to systemic racism throughout history,” Ms. Hong says, “but we have been conditioned to pretend that it doesn’t exist, to minimize it.”

On this episode of “Sway,” Kara Swisher and Ms. Hong talk about the “model minority” myth, the Atlanta-area shootings and why the response from Asian-Americans is different this time. They also discuss WeChat, KakaoTalk and why global social media sites like Facebook have done little to curb misinformation in immigrant communities.

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Credit…Illustration by The New York Times; photograph by Beowulf Sheehan

Thoughts? Email us at sway@nytimes.com. Transcripts of each episode are available midday.

Special thanks to Shannon Busta and Liriel Higa.

“Sway” is produced by Nayeema Raza, Blakeney Schick, Heba Elorbany, Matt Kwong and Daphne Chen, and edited by Nayeema Raza and Paula Szuchman; fact-checking by Kate Sinclair; music and sound design by Isaac Jones; mixing by Erick Gomez.

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