Dec 5, 2016
The American Imagination: Untangling Eddie Huang, Claudia Rankine, and Racial Hierarchy
One June evening this year, as we left Claudia Rankine’s reading of Citizen: An American Lyric at Poet’s House, my ex and I talked about Eddie Huang. He had gone to the Berg’n book launch for Eddie’s second memoir, Double Cup Love, the week prior. “I can’t stand Eddie Huang,” he said. “He appropriates black culture. So I walked out.” I was baffled by this, but after listening to Rankine read Citizen, recounting the multitude of microaggressions and violence against black lives, who could deny that all Americans are daily implicated in the project of racism?
A relentless onslaught of police brutality appeared in headline after headline that spring and summer, affirming Rankine’s point. With each death, Rankine added another name to page 134 of Citizen, “In Memory Of,” opposite the verses, “Because white men/ Can’t police their imaginations,/ Black men are dying.” By June, two years after the book’s first printing, she’d run out of room.
Perhaps I did need to interrogate Eddie Huang’s relationship to blackness, to hip-hop, too. I was dogged by actress Amandla Stenberg’s question, “What would America be like if it loved black people as much as it loves black culture?” Still I instinctually protested my ex’s disavowal of Eddie. This was not the right target to take down. What would America’s cultural landscape be like without Eddie Huangs? And if Eddie shouldn’t borrow from black culture, where should he take from? White culture? Chinese culture? Who made this call? At the time I countered with a mention of Wu-Tang Clan, who draw on Chinese aesthetic, but he remained unmoved.
Eddie Huang burst into the mainstream scene in 2013. A restaurant, an ABC sitcom, a VICE food show, a memoir, and a profile in New York Times Magazine branded him as a success. I immediately got him: he reminded me of my dad (albeit in a past life), who immigrated as an eight-year-old from South Korea to South Bronx in 1971. Confrontational, angry, opinionated, Eddie defies the stereotype of the placid model minority and instead carries himself with the braggadocio of a hip-hop-head. His connection to the music is personal. As the weird Taiwanese kid in white-as-fuck Orlando, he had to dodge his father chasing him around the house with an AK-47. When bullies hit him, he hit back. In his raucous first memoir Fresh Off the Boat, a coming-of-age story, Eddie endlessly quotes Tupac, among dozens of other rappers, and maintains that connection to hip-hop in Double Cup Love.
In this second memoir, the question of appropriation crops up. A riff on Elizabeth Gilbert’s title Eat Pray Love, Double Cup Love tells the story of Eddie’s relationship with Dena, his white (Irish-Italian) girlfriend, as he journeys through the motherland China, pondering race relations and the Asian diaspora while cooking up a storm. He encounters hip-hop’s pull on “Rabbi,” a Chinese guy in Chengdu. When Emery, Eddie’s younger brother, argues, “Hip-hop is specific to the black experience,” Eddie protests: “Yes, it came from a very specific experience, but it’s transcendent just like Thoreau. You can’t tie culture down to anything, you have to let it mutate and adapt and evolve.” Beyond the question of appropriation, transcendent art or not, hip-hop culture clearly speaks to those far outside the African-American experience.
Recent debates about cultural appropriation center on questions of authenticity and power. Should someone, alien to our racial experience, represent our culture on the page, the plate, the stage? (Food, literature, and music are some of the most contested yet porous borders.) How many generations does it take for bodies to cross cultural borders? Discrimination based on melanin is literally insane, but it is easy and entrenched after 500 years of European and American colonialism and slavery. That’s what “white people” is shorthand for. So can a yellow-faced outsider use black cultural materials without reinforcing racial hierarchies? Who can?
Given the popular perception of Asian Americans as the model minority here, Eddie can embrace hip-hop and blackness without facing the same discrimination as black Americans. (Journalist Jeff Chang writes a fine essay on this subject “The In-Betweens: On Asian-Americans” in his new book We Gon’ Be Alright.) According to the myth of the model minority, we are the overeducated, hard-working, and uncomplaining types, who have little to say about racial grievance. Myths form around grains of truth: discounting several Asian American subgroups—South Asians, Southeast Asians, Pacific Islanders—East Asian-Americans fall just below whites and above other communities of color in all categories except income, educational attainment, and life expectancy—where we slightly surpass white people. So what, white America asks, do we have to complain about?
The myth maintains: Asian Americans are so near-white that occasionally white Americans will claim to be colorblind to our yellow skin. “There’s only black and white in America,” I’ve been told. Asians go white. Hispanics go black. (And what of indigenous people? Middle Eastern people?) Of course, examine this reductive winnowing again and, like most things about race, it falls apart. Even within an ethnicity or nationality, society treats a person of color differently based on the lightness (better) or darkness (worse) of skin color. Why? Again, the construction of white and black is central. White and black persist.
Claudia Rankine’s essay “The Racial Imaginary” is helpful here when considering this American binary: “the enduring American thing of seeing race as a white and black affair, the scene where the real race stuff goes down. Which is accompanied by the trope of the discount: the one that fails to extend to other people of color an authentic fullness of experience, a myopia that renders them in the terms of the ‘not really.’” This is where Eddie Huang fits in. Where Asian Americans fit in. Not really. Faced with the dilemma of “whiten or perish,” Eddie loudly refuses to whiten and be whitened. Forced to choose, Eddie sides with color, hip-hop, “civil disobedience shit” because when Asian Americans are whitened too much history is erased. The American amnesia that surrounds internment camps, nativist movements, exclusion acts, discriminatory immigration laws, and other racial grievances is so vast it’s breathtaking.
Given the racial binary outlined by Rankine, Eddie’s clear kinship with black experience is double-edged. As an Asian American, he is a person “not really,” so he uses black culture to stake out for himself the territory of in-betweenness. An authentic fullness of experience. Eddie recognized this position early in his success: “It’s a funny position being an Asian in America. You’re the dude who can cross the union line. Your community actually wants you to sell the fuck out and work in law, accounting or banking. But I realized then that I wasn’t going to cross the picket line.” Though Eddie worked briefly as a corporate lawyer, he “was down with the rotten bananas who want nothing to do with that.” Rotten bananas don’t do white collar work. Rotten bananas aren’t like the regular banana Asians, who are “white on the inside and yellow on the outside.” Code-switching, mixing and adapting elements of hip-hop culture into his posture and his work, Eddie achieves public success. But the system is rigged in his favor. East Asian-Americans are relatively “privileged”—granted better opportunities structurally and socially. Our home countries have achieved wealth and power on the global stage. In the United States, we’ve nice houses, good educations, and speak fluent English. Huang doesn’t get targeted by the police in the same way black men are.
From one angle: Eddie Huang, model minority member, takes from black culture to his advantage in a country of resegregation, police brutality, and white supremacy. From another: Eddie, antimodel minority, uses black culture to protest those very things.
Whatever your stance, to dismiss Eddie for cultural appropriation is to dismiss nuance. (Hate on him for his braggadocio, whatever. But don’t police a person for loving a culture that’s not theirs.) His love of hip-hop is authentic, and he gives extensive credit where credit is due throughout his memoirs. After a lengthy examination of Eddie’s work, writer Danielle Henderson concedes that “[Huang’s] connection to hip-hop is solid and very much a part of him… Hip-hop music helped Eddie Huang get a foot in the door of what it meant to be American, and what it meant to be different.” There are countless interviews where he discusses hip-hop as key to his America. It is his America.
Of course he’s not a poster boy of model behavior, but he called out white supremacy during this key year as I grew more alarmed by anti-blackness and more educated about how Asian Americans can and must combat racial injustice. (During this time, I hunted for more Afro-Asian history. Why should whiteness be central?) Say what you will about Eddie’s hypermasculinity, his missteps on Twitter (fighting with Black Girl Dangerous, for instance), he recognizes journalist Jeff Chang’s point: “The very idea of an immigrant or an Asian American is predicated upon the freedom struggle of African Americans.” Eddie reveals the possibility for American racial solidarity, not simply racial identity. Fresh Off the Boat and Double Cup Love were for me a very welcome and annoyingly rare public act of that racial imagination.
In Eddie, I see racial solidarity and imagination enacted. His heavily referential, rapid-fire language pushes the boundaries of Asian-American stereotypes and white monoculture. In the aftermath of the Akai Gurley shooting, Anne Cheng, professor of English Literature at Princeton, pointed out the limitations of simple, uncompromising stances: “We must go beyond our own passions to have a conversation, not about American racial identity, but about American racial entanglement.” Entanglement or solidarity is messy, magnificent work, and to silo off cultures from each other is not only foolish but supremely destructive. If every artistic act is appropriation, is there any hope for dismantling racial hierarchies? There must be. Look at how far we’ve come. To police cultural borders is not the answer. It guarantees the death of the modern—language, food, music. Racial imagination is deeply American, generative, and human.
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