The Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Viet Thanh Nguyen is also a nonfiction writer whose essays frequently have a heavy helping of identity politics. Here he is in a piece from The New York Times in 2017 claiming that the standard “show don’t tell” wisdom of the typical American writing workshop reveals its white male supremacist DNA.
Nguyen makes this claim not just on behalf of himself, but rather a significant part of the planet. Here is just part of the paragraph:
We come from the Communist countries America bombed during the Cold War, or where it sponsored counter-Communist efforts. We come from the lands America occupied, invaded or colonized. We come as refugees and immigrants, documented and undocumented. We come from the ghettos, barrios, reservations and borders of America where there are no workshops. We come from the bedrooms and the kitchens of the American home, where we were supposed to stay, and stay silent. We come speaking languages other than English. We come from the margins, where English is broken. We come with financial aid and loans and families that do not understand what “creative writing” is.
Nguyen appears to want to speak for basically every American except those who are the blood descendants of the people who sailed on the Mayflower.
I found this rather sweeping claim especially curious in light of a more recent essay that Nguyen published in the Times. In the process of explaining how he came to embrace his Vietnamese name, Viet, rather than adopting a "more American" name like Joe or Troy, he writes, “My fellow Vietnamese refugees in San Jose, Calif., of the 1980s -- who never called themselves Americans -- would describe me as completely Americanized. A whitewash. A banana, yellow on the outside, white on the inside.”
I think there is an interesting tension here. After all, Nguyen claims in that first essay that he doesn’t want to just write pieces to sell to white audiences. Well, who does he think is reading the essays he writes for the Times -- the Vietnamese community who considers him a whitewashed American, or the liberal white people he purports to disdain? (What does it say about those liberal white people, who happily publish and read those writings?)
An obvious question: Why does Mr. Nguyen feel so confident speaking for an ethnic community that views him, by his own confession, as having defected to a different culture?
There is a part of this dynamic that I understand, and a part that I consider troubling.
The part I understand: white, male norms are no doubt encoded into all kinds of processes in American life, from the temperature that air-conditioned buildings are set at to the way that business school classrooms operate. Every society has dominant groups that, either overtly or unconsciously, organizes the patterns of life around their preferences. Everyone else is, to some degree, decentered.
The part that I consider troubling: claiming to represent the views of entire identity communities without explicit license or approval from a significant number of people in those communities.
Frankly, I think our current intellectual environment all but invites this way of speaking. Saying, “As a member of such-and-such group …” grants you virtually unquestioned credibility in diversity progressive circles. And when you speak as an Asian American, it is very, very easy to make as if you are speaking for Asian Americans.
And there are points to be gained by this manner of speaking. Certainly the liberal white people who are likely your audience (either the other members of writing workshops or the editors of The New York Times) are more likely to nod piously along, grateful that you expended the energy to keep them woke, rather than ask a rigorous question, something along the lines of “Are you sure that the view you just expressed is shared by a significant number of people in the minority group you claim to represent?”
Actually, it turns out that at least sometimes the extremely progressive views of activists and intellectuals of color are not in fact shared by their respective minority communities. Consider the case of Ralph Northam, the Virginia governor who was accused of wearing blackface. Many of those on the forefront of the Northam-should-resign movement were activists of color. The political activist Quentin James, for example, told Vox, “People of color around him would be advising him to resign. We need more people of color in leadership and around our leaders.”
But, as this recent piece in the Times highlights, survey data shows the opposite. Most black people actually wanted Northam to remain in office despite the controversy, whereas a slight majority of white people wanted him to resign.
Eric Kaufmann, the author of the op-ed, makes the provocative claim that liberal whites are “setting the tone” on the politics of race in America, not minorities. I don’t think that’s quite right. I think it is generally activists or intellectuals of color who are setting the tone, I just think that they are often better at convincing liberal white people of their diversity progressive viewpoints rather than actual people of color. This would not be a problem except that these activists of color, seemingly as a way to enhance their own credibility, often claim to be representing the views of people in minority communities. In many cases, this is simply not true.
It is also a dangerous game to play. At some point the environment of activist-dominated discourse is sure to grow tiresome and scenarios like the following will begin to happen with frequency: an activist will find him or herself in a classroom or at a conference using the well-worn formulation, “People of color feel …” Perhaps a group of well-meaning liberal white people will lean in to listen more closely. But this time some person of color in the audience will decide that she has had enough. She will interrupt the activist who is claiming to speak for her and say, “Please don’t pretend that what you are about to say represents me. I am perfectly capable of forming my own thoughts and representing myself.”
That will raise all sorts of interesting questions about what it means to be a white ally.