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‘The Souls of Yellow Folk’ and lovability under American capitalism

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If you read Wesley Yang’s essay collection “The Souls of Yellow Folk,” named after W.E.B Du Bois’s essay collection “The Souls of Black Folk,” expecting a cohesive definition or even a comprehensive exploration of what it means to be “yellow,” you will be sorely disappointed. Contrary to what the title or the opening essays suggest, “The Souls of Yellow Folk” is not as much a collection about yellow folks as it is a collection that opens the possibility for fruitful discussion and growth, yet it never follows through on its potential. 

The collection begins with an introduction where Yang contemplates the implications of being asked to write about Seung-Hui Cho, the executor of the worst school shooting in American history. Yang, after initially feeling resentful, notices that they both carried “the peculiar burden of nonrecognition, of invisibility, that is a condition of being an Asian man in America.” In the following essay “The face of Seung-Hui Cho,” Yang recalls an intimate revulsion at seeing the shooter’s photo. “[H]e looks like me,” Yang thought. “Here is what I sometimes suspect my face signifies to other Americans: an invisible person, barely distinguishable from a mass of faces that resemble it… An icon of so much that the culture pretends to honor but that it in fact patronizes and exploits.” 

In the three essays that follow, Yang explores how the curse of being unrecognized follows Asian Americans in the professional, personal and entertainment worlds, examining topics such as tiger parenting, college admissions and the bamboo ceiling through profiles of Asian American figures such as Eddie Huang and Amy Chua.

However, from here, Yang’s collection ironically loses its recognition of the people he claims are unrecognizable. Though it could be argued that his following 10 essays loosely tie back to the Asian American condition, the connections, if they are really there, are rarely made explicit. Instead, it seems like he uses the Asian American experience to explore a larger issue of who is desirable in our capitalist context, rather than the other way around, not centering Asians in a book that, based on its title, is supposedly about them.

Yang’s discussion of Seung-Hui Cho and being unrecognized quickly shifts into a discussion about the motives of the shooting, which Yang notices are not about race for Cho, but about being invisible and unlovable. The world to him was not composed of racial groups or identity politics, but of “a system of social competition that renders some people absolutely immiserated while others grow obscenely rich.” The conversation shifts to the concept of desirability in America as a whole, which race sometimes factors into and sometimes doesn’t. 

Yang expands on the topic of being desired in the dating world, asking the reader if they would ever consider dating one of “those short, brown-toned South American immigrants that pick your fruit, slaughter your meat, and bus your tables.” He contrasts these stories with that of a 6-foot-4 white man who made $150,000 a year who received 6,000 Match.com responses in one night. To Yang, in today’s dating world, there are those who shut out the losers and the losers who get shut out. The ones who are shut out compensate for their lack of love with things like therapy, pornography, New Age Medicine and pets, just to name a few. It’s the deprived souls of these same people that are “so conducive to the creation of new markets that it is itself the indispensable product of our culture and our time, at once its precondition and its goal.” 

The topics of dating, sex and “the winner takes all” system carry out into other essays as well. In “The Sex Diaries,” Yang summarizes 800 pages worth of sex stories unique to the age we live in where desires for love and sex are simultaneously so easy, yet difficult to gratify. In both “Paper Tigers” and “The Game,” being desired in the American landscape is made as teachable and mechanical as a game of checkers one must learn to win. JT Tran, who also goes by the name Asian Playboy, charges Asian males $1,450 for classes on how to “undo” their upbringings through several seminars and a supervised night out when his students are forced to approach women. Before each final night out, JT Tran asks his students what is good in life, to which they respond, “To crush my enemies, see them driven before me, and to hear the lamentation of their women — in my bed!” Love in our present context is transactional, scientific, primal and, therefore, hackable.

Many of Yang’s essays only vaguely connect, and they can oftentimes feel like arbitrary isolated profiles. He profiles an internet activist and Stanford dropout; Tony Judt, ALS patient and historian; terrorism consultant Evan Kohlmann and political scientist Francis Fukuyama. However, the common thread is that they all profile men who confront a world where ideals must constantly be questioned or compromised. Fukuyama, for example, confronts the growing oligarchy in America and Judt examines “the uninterrogated assumptions of liberalism.”

In fact, Yang himself questions the ability of popular activism to confront the challenges he lays out in the rest of the essay collection — namely those of equality, visibility and desirability. In the introduction of the collection, Yang makes a possibly very controversial, yet important connection between present-day social justice and the erasure of Asians from the American racial landscape. Yang criticizes the “party of white male resentment” that he believes creates a dichotomy that contributes to the non-recognition of the Asian male who is seen as a “nominal minority whose claim to be a ‘person of color’ is taken seriously by no one.” In later essays, he analyzes the limits and dangers of the dependence on language and the focus on microaggressions to enforce anti-racism, stating that instead of using scholarship or debate to prove their points, activists now use “the subornation of administrative and disciplinary power to delegitimize, stigmatize, disqualify, surveil, forbid, shame, and punish holders of contrary views.” 

However, although Yang does offer several poignant points about the limits of present day activism and desirability, he does not give justice to the full scope of these problems. In order to confront racism against Asian Americans, Yang suggests that they act more defiantly, unapologetically and that they “dare to be interesting,” as if anti-racism could be a more personal and independent endeavor. He does not acknowledge the long history of Asian American activists who have worked with each other and beside activists of other races in order to confront structural racism. Additionally, for a book that is supposedly meant to confront the problems of desirability and recognition in our world, it barely recognizes anyone who is not a man. Apart from brief mentions of how women interact with men in sexual contexts and a profile of Amy Chua, there are no worthy discussions of how they confront the problems he focuses on. 

But despite the shortcomings and misrepresentations in “The Souls of Yellow Folk,” it asks the important question of whether desirability or anti-racism can truly be imposed through the monitoring of language or any other restrictive rule. What is enough? Is barring racial slurs from one’s vocabulary enough? Is learning critical race theory through books and the classroom enough? Is titling a collection of essays after a people your book only sometimes focuses on enough? In the age of social media activism and the constant introduction of new words, pronouns and acronyms, we must remember that our responsibility cannot only be linguistic or performative — it must be personal as well. As Yang puts it, “while you can prohibit the use of racial slurs through rules and norms, no administration or law can force someone to befriend you, or to love you, or to see you as a person who matters, or to notice you at all.” 

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