Asian Woman Writes That She Refuses to Date Asian Men: Is She an Internet Troll or Agent Provocateur?
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On Friday, xoJane, the irreverent women’s blog founded by Jane Pratt, posted the latest in its “It Happened to Me” series, first-person confessionals on topics that are sometimes whimsical (“My Toilet Exploded. Again.”), sometimes dark (“This is the First Time I’ve Written About My Rape, and I’m Doing it For You, Todd Akin”), sometimes awkward (“I Tried to Have Sex With My Gay Best Friend”), but nearly always shocking. Shock is what xoJane does best — it is, after all, the publication whose former beauty editor, Cat Marnell, wrote an essay about using Plan B as her preferred form of contraception, and posted regularly about her spiraling drug addiction until the site fired her for refusing rehab.
Shock draws attention. Shock generates pageviews. And this installment, by freelance writer Jenny An, seems poised to blow all of its predecessors out of the water. It’s been tweeted and Facebooked thousands of times and is now the most commented-on “It Happened to Me” story ever. It may yet end up as the most discussed piece in xoJane history; the editors are savvy — they’ve since given the story prime positioning as the main feature on the site’s home page. Which seems odd, given that the story is seemingly about as insider-y an inside-baseball piece as you might possibly imagine: Titled "I’m an Asian Woman and I Refuse to Date an Asian Man," it’s an extended and somewhat bizarre diatribe in which An outlines the reasons why she finds dating someone of her own race to be anathema, and chooses to date white men instead.
“It has nothing to do with skin color,” the subtitle says. “It has everything to do with patriarchy.” An then goes on to write that she’s “one of those [Asian girls] that date lots and lots of (mostly, but not always) white guys. Why? It's simple: I'm a racist.”
Now, to proudly out yourself as a “racist” in the second line of a first-person confessional takes a nearly terminal excess of chutzpah, blissful ignorance or both. It also serves as a smoking gun that something was up in the piece’s narrative — that maybe it shouldn’t be taken entirely at face value. Especially when An goes on to state bluntly that her “pale, white-bread boyfriend jokes that I'm one of the whitest people he's ever met”; that “Dating white men means acceptance into American culture. White culture”; that she’s “drinking the same Kool-Aid as everyone else [of] white supremacy. The idea that white is still tops, SAT scores, corporate jobs and fancy degrees be damned” — all while simultaneously acknowledging that her “thinking is f*cked up.”
For me at least, it triggered the same instinctive reaction I had when I first encountered the now-infamous Wall Street Journal book excerpt, "Why Chinese Mothers Are Superior," by Yale law professor and mother of two Amy Chua, now better known by the sobriquet Tiger Mom: These are ideas and phrases that have been consciously engineered and carefully chosen to generate maximum backlash.
Which is why, when I posted An’s piece to my Facebook circle for comment, I did so with the following message: “Oh, boy. Girlfriend is so totally trolling. But...thoughts? And by thoughts, I mean thoughts that aren't a long string of expletives. Thank you.”
Trolling is the online term for — we’ll let Wikipedia chime in here — posting “inflammatory, extraneous or off-topic messages in an online community, such as a forum, chat room, or blog, with the primary intent of provoking readers into an emotional response.”
Trolling is often done merely to taunt or prank (especially as a kind of hazing to newcomers to an online community). With the rise of the clicks-for-cash business model in digital media, however, trolls have found a new place in the Internet ecosystem: As highly effective breadwinners for the sites in which they nest.
While there are plenty of hot-button issues that can serve as an effective means to generate clicks and comments (the last category is the single best metric for assessing whether a troll has been effective, since trolling ultimately is about generating response, even if that response is all heat and no light), what sites like xoJane have figured out is that there’s no surer path to pageviews today than putting outrageous, extreme and possibly offensive racial statements defiantly in plain view and waiting for reaction to roll in.
And increasingly, it has emerged that the ideal target on which to practice racetrolling is the Asian American community.
Ideal because Asian Americans are still relatively new to media spotlight; there’s still so little attention focused on us at all that when a headline-grabbing phenomenon happens with Asians at its center (Jeremy Lin! And now I’ve fulfilled my search-engine optimization quota for the week), it “pops” instantly, becoming the focus of extraordinarily intense attention.
Ideal because no group has anything close to Asian America’s level of online penetration (85 percent of Asian Americans have access to the Internet, versus 74 percent of U.S. households as a whole) and online consumption (according to Nielsen, Asian Americans consume more Internet content than any other group, viewing on average 3,600 web pages a month, 1,000 more than the U.S. norm).
And ideal because Asian America now has a massive enabling infrastructure to feed the trolls — high-profile blogs like Angry Asian Man and 8Asians that provide effective real-time response, which spreads like wildfire due to near-universal social media use among Asian American netizens. From Edison Research: 71 percent of Asian Americans online use Facebook at least once a week, the highest of any racial group.
Finally, there’s the small but growing number of Asian American journalists like me, who have both access to mainstream platforms and interest in Asian American issues. By writing about this piece, I’m raising its profile — taking the bait, so to speak. But then again, not writing about it means that many people will read it at face value, reposting it in anger, or even more problematically, admiration.
There are all sorts of flags to suggest, to a careful observer, that An is quite aware she’s yanking readers’ chains. The goofy, slackjawed photo she submitted as her author portrait, and the other equally odd images that illustrate the story (An holding a spread-eagled red panda; An lounging on a bed with a towel folded into a white elephant). The assertion that this "has nothing to do with skin color” followed, 25 words later, with a celebration of “getting on the white-boy bandwagon.”
Basically, there’s no way that someone could simultaneously be that naive and that cynical. Is there? I reached out to An to find out. She lives in Brooklyn, and we have mutual friends; it wasn’t hard to connect, and An was delighted to talk, on the condition, per xoJane, that I link back to her story (more clicks!).
“Clearly the piece is meant as a provocation,” she says, stating that her literary inspiration was Junot Diaz and how he depicted “racial self-loathing” in his Dominican characters in The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao — “especially when it relates to romantic relationships. And that struck me as an approach to understanding racism that's rarely discussed outside of literature. And so, I played with the idea and put it into a piece I hoped people would talk about.”
An was born in China and grew up in Ann Arbor, Michigan, “surrounded by about as many Asians as you get in the Midwest.” She says she has many Asian American male friends; has dated them and would date them again: “Just for the record, the piece doesn't reflect how I personally feel about Asians and Asian men.” But, pushed by her editor at xoJane, Mandy Stadtmiller, An wanted to write a piece that disrupted the way racism is discussed in mainstream media. “The nuances of misogyny, how women are framed in society and its subtle impacts, are finally being discussed,” she says. “And I think that sort of nuance doesn’t exist when it comes to the discussion of race….The race conversation is basically, is ‘XYZ’ racist or not, and racism works in much more subtle ways than that.”
The notion that An came up with was to write from the perspective of someone whose ideals were shaped by “white supremacy,” showing its “impact on non-whites.” “Seriously — one of the pictures is of me holding a white elephant in a room,” she says. “And well, I figured nobody likes being told that they are racist, so I decided to use the first person. Plus, it's xoJane. That's their thing.”
The bottom line is that An and her editor were entirely conscious of what they were trying to do, and it was something that reflected a weird mix of dewy-eyed innocence and calculating crassness.
“I totally now see that I was naive in thinking that by opening with ‘I'm a racist,’ I could draw out a different conversation,” she says. “I was disappointed by the reactions not because they were mostly angry, but because they were mostly negative in a ‘That's so racist!’ sort of way." On the other hand, she tweeted shortly after the piece went up that she wrote the piece “for the lulz.” And when asked whether xoJane had reservations about the angle she took, or suggested she take a more even-handed approach, An basically laughed: “I mean, it’s xoJane.”
Unfortunately, that pretty much sums up the accountability for racetrolling in this day and age — “Forget it, Jake; it’s the Internet.” So xoJane gets a firehose of traffic and burnishes its reputation for edgy parafeminism; An gets attention — a lot of it — albeit not all of it entirely pleasant. And the racial provocation machine will keep churning out the hits.
Indeed, given the burgeoning success of prior art like Amy Chua’s New York Times bestselling Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother and Wesley Yang’s subsequent "Paper Tigers” cover story for New York magazine (which led to Yang getting a healthy publishing contract of his own), racetrolling Asian America for fun and profit has probably just gotten started. The countdown for An’s own book deal begins now. Ten…nine…eight….
Jeff Yang writes the column "Tao Jones" for the Wall Street Journal online. He can be heard regularly on NPR, and is the Pop and Politics correspondent for WNYC's political blog It's a Free Country. His latest book, the graphic novel anthology SHATTERED, will be published by The New Press in November 2012.