Updated: Jul 23, 2022
On rereading Marx and coming to Asian Americanness.
By Claire Shang
This past year, I heard the term ‘Asian American’ invoked more frequently than I ever had in my two decades existing as such. Asian Americans needed their history understood, their vote mobilized, their small businesses supported, their hate crimes tallied, their objectification undone; we had to be protected and walked across streets, or called out for anti-Black racism, or supported with tougher hate crime legislation. So much was said about what ought to be done with Asian America, while the identifier itself remained hollow, increasingly unable to hold the day-to-day of being Asian American. The term, I felt, became variably un- and inhabitable.
For that, I found myself turning to the podcast Time to Say Goodbye, created last April by historian Andrew Liu and journalists Jay Caspian Kang and E. Tammy Kim. Sitting in my bedroom, or on the subway, or in a vacant classroom, I learned—alone but with company—how to extricate myself from this cyclical pontification on identity.
In an early episode about appropriation, the hosts introduced and then debated the notion that “there’s no way to be an Asian American in public.” At one point, they speculated that being a young Asian American today must be corny. As is often true, they were right, both on that count and on the larger one—that it’s necessary to make fun of identity sometimes.
It’s tempting, especially growing up as a minoritized American, to view an identity group as a discrete object imbued with power and meaning by default. But the hosts have a deep interest in viewing it as permeable: global and historical and, to a large extent, fictional.
Andrew Liu is the podcast’s resident historian, and his two co-hosts often turn to him to concede a point or hear a historicized explanation of the topic at hand. After a year of listening to the podcast, I decided to take a nod from Kang and Kim and reach out to Liu myself.
Now an assistant professor of history at Villanova University, Liu graduated from Columbia College in 2005 and obtained his Ph.D. here in 2014. His 2020 book, Tea War: A History of Capitalism in China and India, traces the development of capitalism outside of the Western world and traditional conceptions of modernity. Over Zoom, we talked about Asia, America, and “that weird in-between space that we fit into.”
This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.
The Blue and White: You've described your book Tea War as, in part, a rereading of Marx that revises the assumption that capitalism is technologically progressive by nature. When I read this approach, I was thinking of the attitude of many Columbia students toward the Core as something antiquated, dominated by dead white men, and in need of fixing. I’d love for you to walk through your book’s approach of rereading.
Andrew Liu: That’s a great first question. Marx obviously is one of the Core readings in the Contemporary Civilizations class. Years later, I came to be reintroduced to Marx in graduate school, and became introduced to a way of reading him that a lot of scholars have taken certainly from the 1970s. … People are rereading Marx in a new way that is really shaped by new events. And, not insignificantly, a lot of these new scholars are themselves from places like India, Latin America, Asia—so they’re not just the dead white countries where these readings are coming from. They’re being inspired by what’s going on in the rest of the world.
So the specific argument I’m making is—I could talk about this all day—the old interpretation was very much about what happened in England. When you read Marx, it’s all about the English working class. Therefore, the old interpretation would say, “This world of capitalism that Marx is describing happened only in England and then maybe Western Europe and maybe the Northern United States, but the rest of the world was stuck in this world of pre-capitalism, pre-industrialization.”
The new reading is suggesting that England was Marx’s case study. But what he’s really describing is this process that is abstract and can take on many different forms throughout the world. In fact, lots of familiar histories of slavery in the South and slavery in the Caribbean, or indentured labor in the Caribbean, or more recently Asian sweatshops around the world, these are seen as barbaric and pre-modern and uncivilized, but they just as easily belong to this broad history of capitalism around the world as much as the classic story of the English working class does.
B&W: How did you arrive at this new reading in your education?
AL: My family’s from Taiwan and China. So there was a natural curiosity to at least learn about that part of the world and use my focus on history as a way to also understand where my family comes from. I was interested in India by total coincidence. I took a class on South Asian history with Anupama Rao at Barnard College that opened up all these interesting ideas about imperialism and power and colonialism.
I had also become interested in Marxist analysis of the present, of the contemporary world. I think there’s been a reignition of interest in Marx in the last few decades. The ’70s was one moment because there was a global economic depression. Naturally, there’s been another moment since 2008, where a lot of people—students, young people, graduate students, academics—after the ’08 financial crisis have not rediscovered Marx, but revisited Marx, and look for what is new, what is this saying, what is useful from Marx to understand the present. I’m certainly part of that generation.
B&W: I know China studies is, in particular, historically a very white-dominated field. Especially with the push for ethnic studies that seems to be revived every few decades, I’m wondering how important you think the relationship is between scholar and subject, or if from your experience there was, as an Asian American scholar studying Asia, some presumption of expertise.
AL: If you listen to the podcast, I probably mentioned before that in Asian American studies or ethnic studies, there’s lots of conversation about who is allowed to talk about this thing. It doesn’t seem like that’s really there in Chinese studies or area studies. I think that’s part of the institutional history, which is about governments or elites who are studying the whole world. At the very beginning, there was basically this assumption that these are all going to be people tied to the U.S. government who are studying China, and that’s probably going to be white people, white men.
I definitely think more conversation could be had among area studies scholars about the history of where ... people come from in order to study the rest of the world. What are the kinds of assumptions they have about why it’s important to study China? Most of the time, people study China because ... ‘China is the enemy and we want to contain China.’ Now it’s a little bit more about ‘China’s our trading partner, China is our friend,’ but it’s still kind of from this position of United States’ powerful interests.
Now there are, in the last few decades, as a natural result of migration patterns, more Chinese Americans—Asian Americans—studying Chinese history. When I was younger, I was more optimistic that there would be this natural shift, that the ideas and the assumptions within the field would naturally change as we would have more Asian Americans, or just in general greater diversity in the field. I am starting to wonder recently, though, if that’s the case. There’s almost this self-selection process where if you’re an Asian American with leftist politics, you might just do Asian American studies instead of Chinese studies, or you might do activism instead of academia. And the people who stay in academia, there’s a process where—how do I put this?—certain mainstream ideas get rewarded. Every generation looks for similar ideas in the next generation, over and over.
I do really think Chinese studies and international studies and area studies have a lot of great potential. But certainly talking to people in other fields, I’ve become more aware of area studies and Chinese studies’ particular history and its inability to talk about certain things.
B&W: You’ve mentioned on the podcast that as an undergrad you were very interested in the notion of culture and have since moved away from that. On that note, what do you think changes when we think of anti-Asian racism, especially now in Covid, as not cultural, but as economic or as historical?
AL: When I say that joke about culture, I’m being tongue-in-cheek because it’s not that I’m uninterested in that. Ultimately, I am always interested in that stuff.
But what I’m saying is as an undergraduate or in high school, you get so caught up with the way that power dynamics get reflected in easily digestible, identifiable forms—like, ‘This TV show is racist.’ Or, ‘This book of ideas, this famous writer, I disagree with their ideas. So let’s just have a debate about ideas.’ I think that’s the endpoint to where a lot of this stuff leads. But what was really eye-opening reading Marx later was that Marx himself was very much interested in ideas, but he famously says ideas don’t come from nowhere. They come from those real relationships between humans.
A lot of what I was studying in college, which gets called cultural studies, came out of a Marxist tradition. In the early 20th century, there were Marxists who were trying to say we shouldn’t just study money and property, we should study how that shapes our ideas about the world. There was a movement through much of the 20th century to foreground that cultural aspect of capitalism and modern life. By the time I came into college in the 2000s, cultural studies had gotten so far removed from its original point of departure, which was the relationship between economics and culture, that eventually, I realized: I need to step back and think about the total argument, which is that race and gender and anything you could think about that gets debated in the cultural wars have to be connected back to things like economic inequality and the history of labor and capital. So when I jokingly talked about getting over culture, I mean not just discarding it, but zooming back out.
And your initial question was anti-Asian racism. I don’t really have a grand unifying theory about anti-Asian racism these days. I do think that—and many people have said this—it’s not a coincidence that there’s a lot of antagonism towards Asian Americans that coincides with geopolitical antagonism between the United States and China, or U.S. companies and Chinese companies. There’s a tradition of this in recent history dating back to Japan in the ’70s and the ’80s.
I'm still wrestling with these questions because I think, on the one hand, there’s an easy story to tell that has a lot of truth to it: That a lot of the stuff is continuous for the last 200 years, dating back to the 19th century, Chinese exclusion, all that. There’s some truth to that. But I wonder sometimes if that is a little bit misleading, because it simplifies history into, like, ‘There’s this static unchanging racism that we can never overcome because it’s always there.’ I tend to think most of the things we identify as natural or continuous over long periods of time are actually dynamic and spontaneous and always reacting to the present moment. Obviously, the Covid racism is a reaction to, I would say, the last 10 or 20 years of U.S.-China tensions, and it’s led to a revival of many much older ideas. But we have to be careful not to collapse the difference and to see this as just one continuous story because there’s a lot of nuances to be missed.
B&W: This leads into a thought I was having about this use of history, calling upon history as almost capital-H History, as a signifier. This was prevalent after Atlanta on social media, or maybe social media just lends itself to this: a slideshow, a timeline of racism. As a historian, how do you interpret this return to what people are referring to as a historical approach?
AL: Historians themselves basically discuss—to be a little simplistic—two uses of history. The traditional conservative history is a history that confirms the way we look at the world today, so like a national history of how great the United States is, Manifest Destiny, and so on—that’s the original history. And then there's been a countermovement by activist-historians that try to use history to undermine our assumptions.
I do think that the post-Atlanta historical genealogies did serve an important purpose because I think most people do not know this broader history of 19th-century Chinese exclusion and colonial wars in Asia and so on.
I do think, though, underneath it, there is the potential that it reinforces nationalism, Asian American nationalism, or maybe just Asian nationalism, in a way that makes me uneasy. Because there’s a certain way that a Chinese nationalist or any government in Asia could actually appropriate a lot of these histories and talk about how our people are oppressed and they hate us and so on, in a way that is a little bit simplistic and, I think, in the end, encourages reactionary ideas about our group versus your group. At first, it looks very progressive because it’s about challenging power and hierarchies, but, in the end, it’s really about policing the boundaries of one group against other groups. And it makes it almost natural that, let’s say, white people in the U.S. naturally hate people in Asia. So it makes race seem more natural than it really is. That's one thing that makes me uneasy with a lot of those histories that reinforce the way we look at the world, rather than undermine it and make us think about things in a new way.
I do think that comparatively there is, as far as I can tell, a movement among academics and activists to talk about the Black U.S. experience in terms of this unchanging continuity of anti-Black racism, dating from, obviously, 1619 to the present. Again, there’s a lot of useful stuff in that, but I do think it’s a little simplistic. And I almost wonder if, after Atlanta, there was this subconscious attempt to construct a similar narrative for Asian Americans, starting with Chinese exclusion or famously the anti-Chinese politics in California in the 1870s.
B&W: Last summer, you wrote a piece for the podcast called “About those ‘letters to my Asian parents about anti-black racism.’” In response to BLM protests, a main and quick reaction by young Asian Americans, often at elite colleges, was to diagnose and call out Asian anti-Blackness through letters typically addressed to parents and grandparents. If you could speak to this personal responsibility model of racism and how it’s become so endemic—I think it’s what my generation sees as the rightful way to view racism—and then what a more historical understanding of racism looks like.
AL: One thing I was thinking about was what exactly was the function of these letters, in the sense that they’re often being published and written for audiences that are not their uncles and their aunts, and more for their classmates. It really did seem like it might be earnest and well-intentioned, but it was also kind of a performance—to say, “I am good, I’m a good liberal too” and emulat[e] the discourse of white fragility, white confession, white privilege. Asian Americans also wanted to confess their own privilege and their own internalized racism in their own families.
There’s two things about that. One is there’s a very well-documented criticism that racism used to be understood as this relationship or economic structure, social structure, like segregation or inequality. It’s not a thing that somebody has in their heart. It’s something that’s out there in the world, right? And at some point, there was a shift—I think people say the ’60s and ’70s—where racism began to be described in terms of a psychology or a mindset. So the way to fix racial inequalities is not to fund the welfare state or desegregate schools or any of this stuff; it’s more to just attend more seminars where you change the racism in your minds and hearts. That’s obviously a big avoidance of the real issue, of the historical character of racism, or the material, economic character of racism. I would say that racism of the mind and of the hearts is inseparable from actual economic, social, political racism.
The second thing I would say is this worrying tendency to think of racism as completely divorced from history, in which anti-Blackness—this thing that just kind of exists in the world, almost like an element in the air—can float around and be seen as identical, whether it’s among white Southerners versus new first-generation Chinese immigrants. I don’t dispute that there is a strong, toxic anti-Black sentiment among Asian American families. But I would assume—I have to assume—that the historical origins and the historical dynamics are very different than it would be among people in the U.S. South or in South Africa.
At a practical level, it doesn't seem like a very effective anti-racist strategy to obliterate and ignore all the historical differences, because then you don’t get into the question of what ultimately gives rise to racism. What are its origins? How does it come about? If you just think it’s this bad thing we have to get rid of—I don't know, like Covid, you just got to vaccinate yourself against racism—then I don’t think that actually gets at the nature of what it is.
I think of racism as taking all of these dynamic inequalities that are constantly moving in the world and freezing them, or reifying them, or naturalizing them as natural characteristics of people. So anti-Black racism, anti-Asian racism, anti-Indigenous, anti-Latino, I think all of these have to do with the histories of those people in relationship to, usually, white people, and how those inequalities became naturalized and fixed as a national characteristic of people, rather than a history of slavery or a history of labor exploitation, or a history of colonial geopolitical policies and so on.
B&W: You mention in the piece white supremacy, also, is one of these abstractions; there’s this huge push for the media to call things white supremacy when that is, perhaps, not the most effective end.
AL: I think the most basic way to frame it—actually, Barbara Fields, in the History Department at Columbia, she is very good at this—is to say racism should not be the explanation for how the world works. Racism should be the thing that needs to be explained. If you start with racism as the starting point, then you assume it’s a natural element, like it’s oxygen. But if you say, “No, racism is the problem, and we have to probe how it came about and where it came from—and it’s not natural, it’s a product of human society,” then that produces a much different attitude.
It can be useful if you write a history of, like, ‘White people didn’t always used to hate Chinese people, then it came about that they eventually did by 1880.’ Then, white supremacy can be the conclusion to your story; that’s useful. But if it becomes ‘white people are always racist and because of white supremacy that’s in the DNA of this country,’ which is a very common phrase these days, I think that is not that useful to understand history or the world.
You mentioned earlier that your generation, not to put you in the interview, but do you feel like your generation’s mainstream approach is ‘white privilege, white supremacy is everything’ kind of worldview?
B&W: I think in ways it is, which is a bit confusing to me. I just think about those letters to my parents, which is people in my generation. Especially coming of age on these elite campuses, that seems to be the first instinct: to use this very diagnostic language and to think about how we can be agents and try to fix this problem actively. Also, for instance, boba liberalism, lunchbox politics—I think a lot of that has been the way that my generation has grown up, especially with debates on representation. We didn’t catch a lot of the stuff because I was born, obviously, after 1992, so my first experience with Asian America, and I think a lot of people in my generation, was representation.
AL: I think for my generation that’s also true. The things that we're talking about—you’re right, they are specific to your generation, but they’re also very old things that have been happening, probably, for a long time. Reading Marx was a revelation because he, in the 19th century, is having a lot of the same debates. Is it about individuals leaving society and having some utopia? Or is it about [how] society itself has to be changed and we have to look at capitalism as this big structure and so on?
B&W: We’ve alluded to how Asian America has morphed into a term for a very limited group of people: a professional, middle-class identity. Why has the term remained salient?
AL: I can understand how there’s frustration that it’s incoherent, that it doesn’t add up to more than the food we eat or affirmative action policies or whatever. I think being Asian American, it doesn’t have a positive content where you have a list of X, Y, Z things that all Asian Americans share. ‘Asian American,’ as a description, I think of as a relationship between the world’s largest continent on the one hand, and then the world's superpower on the other. For those of us—and there’s many of us—it kind of falls somewhere in the middle between that. Then, [the term] is just a way for us to negotiate that weird in-between space that we fit into.
Because ‘Asian American’ is referring to this thing that’s been geographically more expansive and temporally very uneven—there’s waves, there’s stoppages—you’re not going to have that one thing in common and you’re not going to really have the one political issue that binds everyone together. So when I use ‘Asian American,’ I don’t know if you feel the same way, I’m usually using it as a sort of reminder that I have a perspective on the world that might be different than the mainstream one represented, which is typically white or Black in this country. And it’s not to denigrate or to prioritize. It’s just to try to add some specificity to the way we talk about the world.
B&W: Yeah, I think I’ve come to this sort of affirmation of identity that is simply not an affirmation at all—it’s just a reminder.
AL: I do think ‘Asian American,’ the way that we tend to use it, is the byproduct of, basically, Asian shopping centers, which produce the opportunity for us to eat sundubu and boba—and that is the thing we share in common with Korean Americans, and Filipinos, and so on.
I think I became more comfortable thinking about this stuff when I learned more about China and Chinese American stuff. Then, I understood that when you go to these conversations about Asian Americans, it’s a bit artificial because we all know we’re talking about different groups but we’re not allowed to say it. A lot of other times, we basically know we’re talking about Chinese people and we’re not allowed to say it. I think people don’t want to say it because they don’t have the confidence to talk about what is specific to Korea, what is specific to the Chinese diaspora, or Taiwanese, and so on. That’s why I think learning more is actually useful in being more self-confident in terms of where you fit in.