If you’d asked me last year, one of the last things I would’ve expected to end up doing this year would be planning a speaking tour with Suey Park. Park’s claim to Internet fame was, after all, being chased into obscurity after the #CancelColbert debacle, and I, personally, have crossed swords with her more than once. She was, at one point, being paraded around among Asian-American activists and writers as an example of what not to do, and I was part of the cadre of writers dogpiling her and trying to distance myself from the “extremism” she represented.
But a lot’s happened since then. From one perspective I’ve “radicalized” a lot since I started writing last year, or at least grown a lot more impatient with the search for the objective view-from-nowhere that characterized who I was in college. And Park has herself grappled with the fallout of her own social media career and spoken critically of so-called “SJW” extremism. It might be fair to say that we’ve ended up meeting vaguely in the middle.
I’ve had a lot of conversations with Suey through social media that eventually led to the idea of publicly touring together to talk about our experiences and what we’ve both worked through in the past couple years. I pitched her the idea of putting one of our dialogues up for publication as a snapshot of where she and I are coming from when we talk about our time in the “hashtag wars” and how arguing with people on the Internet has changed us.
This is less a traditional interview and more a freeform conversation. Many people I know were hesitant about my reaching out to Suey and I’m sure she had people in her circles with similar reservations about me. Even so, we ended up having a great talk that I hope leads to more talks in the future. Speaking for myself, I hope our interaction serves as an example of something all too rare in our world: people moving forward productively from past disagreements to try to make things better.
Arthur Chu: Well, I guess the initial reason I wanted to interview you was that tweet you made a long time ago about how I’d taken your place in the public discourse and your “spirit was free to pick berries“. It’s weird to think both of us have been “famous” for a very short time — you broke out, IIRC, with #NotYourAsianSidekick in 2013 — and we’ve already both worn a lot of different identities in the public space.
What do you think about that role of the “angry Asian” we’ve both seen ourselves slotted into?
Suey Park: I have to be honest, Arthur. Initially I was annoyed because I felt you criticized me for being unreasonable and overly attached to identify politics, only to later change positions. I think changed positions aren’t bad. It shows people do the best they can with what they have or what they know and ultimately come to new conclusions with time. I like that sort of flexibility in myself and others. However, watching you get dragged through the mud by gamergate and trolls disappears any annoyance I once had towards you. It reminds me of there are consequences to speaking up. From people who look like you and people who don’t.
The “Angry Asian” has always existed in the western imagination. Lela Lee (Angry Little Asian Girl) and Phil Yu (Angry Asian Man) helped subvert its negative connotation years ago, but I do think anger has been weaponized within Asian America now. I feel our greatest issue in Asian-American activism isn’t how white people view us but how we view each other.
AC: What do you mean by that?
SP: I mean that there’s a certain level of groupthink and forced teaming that happens in every well-meaning group. We tend to think of people who are “mainstream” or “right-wing” as having rigid codes of conduct, but in my experience, there has been plenty of pressure in even the most progressive of spaces to conform, especially when being “Asian-American” or “radical” or “feminist” have all been commodified. There’s a particular economy anyone doing this kind of work understands. Have you experienced this, too?
AC: Sure, absolutely. I’ve apologized before about joining the pileon about #CancelColbert and I’ll apologize here again. But that was literally the first Daily Beast piece I ever wrote and I think there was a ton of pressure on Asians in general to “take a side” on that issue, with the sense that taking the “wrong” side meant making an enemy of Stephen Colbert and all his fans forever.
What I tried to say then — and what I’d definitely say differently now — is that we’ve got to have room in any community for different approaches and different personalities and for some people to play “bad cop”, and I think Asian-Americans, as a relatively demographically small group with a ton of model minority expectations placed on us, have a particularly hard time with that. I’ve especially been thinking about the drama around Eddie Huang, Fresh Off the Boat and now Dr. Ken, where if you’re an Asian who writes about culture you immediately start raising concerns about “solidarity” whichever direction you go.
I remember ironically feeling like I had to call out Eddie Huang for the way he treated Black women and thinking “This would be Suey Park’s job if she were here.”
SP: I criticized Eddie’s show after I saw the trailer. I had just moments or days earlier congratulated him on the show, which, regardless of how you feel about the show, is a huge deal for Asian-American representation. He immediately unfollowed me on Twitter and shared screenshots of my congratulatory direct messages, showing others how inconsistent I could be. But the thing is… he later came to make all the exact same criticisms of his own show. He couldn’t see that I was both happy about the progress Asian-Americans were making, but also concerned about the politics of representation. He couldn’t see that I was happy for him as an individual, but also, as a cultural critic… critical. I was sad that he was so quick to assume ill will, especially because as he criticized ABC, I could resonate with what he was going through so much. I wanted him to know heroes and villains don’t exist.
AC: I think one thing I’ve thought a lot about in the past year is the power words have, especially with technological amplification. I mean, people originally noticed me — back when I had 200 followers — for getting a lot of online hate and snarkily RTing all the haters, something that I now can’t do with 25k followers without being the asshole.
There’s a quote going around saying having a Twitter account is like “walking around with a loaded gun”. I do strongly believe a lot of good has come from social media – #BlackLivesMatter, Occupy, the viral fights over Prop 8 – but the potential for things to go negative has weighed heavily on all of those movements and GamerGate shows the bad guys can and have fully weaponized the same tools. How do you feel about how the Internet’s treated you?
SP: #CancelColbert was really interesting for me. I felt like people had issues with me from the start and it was an opportune moment to let it all out. There was a lot of “SUEY PARK DOESN’T REPRESENT ALL ASIAN AMERICANS” juxtaposed with “but we represent her!” Asian American men in particular were really quick to use my name and my work to further their own message, which ironically was my original point with #NotYourAsianSidekick–the anger of Asian women is always pathologized and corrected, whereas the anger of Asian men has long been applauded.
The thing is I was never even that mad about the joke used on The Colbert Report. I was angry at the backlash. This is a key distinction that seemingly nobody has figured out. Intentions are meaningless these days (and no, I don’t have “receipts”) but #CancelColbert was hyperbolic. My first tweet out was “As The Ching Chong Ding Dong Association for Hypersensitivity to Orientals…I say to #CancelColbert.” It was an allusion. It was intentionally extremist. I knew how to get reactions. #CancelColbert was not my point of origin nor was it my last hurrah, but if that’s the moment you chose to understand me by then I can see why people hate me.
AC: Well, that’s where a lot of “lay” people heard of you but those of us in the Asian-American thinkpiece clique — which I sort of was but only as an observer in 2013 — had heard about the conflict over #notyourasiansidekick and 18 Million Rising. You mentioned you felt under pressure because of that?
SP: Yes, which was really hard for me to go through. At that time, there were people in the non-Asian community who were rightly pointing out how there were anti-Black sentiments in the wider #notyourasiansidekick community.
First of all, it was Black Twitter that helped to trend the hashtag and inspired me to even utilize a hashtag for Asian-American experiences. Second, there were ideas such as “it’s time to go past the Black/White binary” that felt unnecessarily antagonistic to me as mass movements for Black lives arose. To focus solely on “What about us?” as Asian-Americans felt gross. So on my personal Facebook page, without naming 18 Million Rising or passing blame, I apologized on behalf of myself for the anti-Blackness I had been naive to. I apologized for not being able to see how the way I went about Asian-American activism was hurtful to some. A lot of people outside the Asian-American community accepted my apology. I was surprised to later see the press release from 18MR. It escalated the situation in a way I was not ready for and made me feel criminal, cast out, and used.
So when my connection to the Asian-American community weakened and I was seen as being too radical, too feminist, too focused on other people’s issues, I really internalized a victim narrative. At that time, I was unable to see how to patch things up. And worse, I began to lose faith in Asian-American activists as hurt and misunderstanding compounded.
I will say I have changed my mind about 18MR being anti-black though. They have gotten a lot better, which is something I wouldn’t take credit for since people don’t learn through public shaming. But in the same vein, I would hope 18MR and Asian-American activists don’t take credit for my growth, as I also could not and did not grow through exile and public shaming and isolation.
AC: I hear that. It sucks. It’s interesting to me that as the word “intersectionality” gets more popular it just shows how hard it is to put into practice. I’ve said I have a lot of regrets about that one response piece I did about Trayvon Martin and Mike Brown — I don’t know if I regret writing it as a whole but I regret collapsing the distinction between anti-Black and anti-Asian racism.
I’ve come to regret a lot of my own glibness as a beginner “Asian-American activist” over time; do you have similar regrets about the persona you adopted as an activist?
SP: I wouldn’t call it regret because who I was informs who I am and who I will be. I can accept past iterations of myself without letting embarrassment and shame eclipse me, but it wasn’t always like that. For a while I felt like I was living under the shadow of something I did when I was 22-23.
Learning as we go is scary enough without feeling like all your worst moments, all your worst fights, and all your worst fears remain alive forever on the internet. Of course I was never acting as my best self during the height of controversy around me. Who could? When you are so used to fighting you lose sight of why you’re doing it. I became an Asian-American activist to make room for my writing. And I found the only writing I did was in 140 character spurts. That I became too much of a cultural critic to be a culture maker.
AC: I’ve often felt like that, like our generation has been rewarded for speeding up our pace to match our tools. Tweets and hot takes and whatever has immediacy. Again, it’s surreal to think we’ve both had public “careers” less than three years and yet in the modern landscape that makes us comparative veterans.
SP: It’s fascinating. I try to stay in touch with a lot of the students who bring me to speak on campus. Over the last couple years I have seen a lot of their conflict within their student orgs escalate. Someone is being too radical. Someone is being a suck-up to administrators. Sometimes I feel a tinge of judgment when I read these open letters. I think, “You all are on the same campus… talk to each other!” and then I wonder if I’m becoming my own older critics.
Then I wonder if I helped create this sort of culture. Escalate, escalate, escalate. Everything is a public conversation, etc. But then I realize it’s not judgement, but concern. We all have a parasitic relationship with pop culture. We criticize it, we reflect it, and we create it. So I worry a lot about the kids growing up so entrenched in SJW culture. I wonder if they will see the world in categories.
AC: Right. I try to be reflective — but who doesn’t claim that about themselves? I’ve talked about how I had a past as the insistently “neutral” guy, the snarky outsider and “debater”, and how I turned my back on that because ultimately that comes from a place of fear to commit to a side — but of course there’s also the fear that makes you cling to one side or one community and be unwilling to see its flaws.
I know I’ve definitely “radicalized” my approach to politics and to discussion over time – and I’ve done so partly out of being in the fray so much, being exposed to all the negativity and toxicity out there and feeling the need to respond to it.
I don’t know if I know the correct answer — I know that I am still scared and upset by how alive outright racism and sexism and reactionary rage is in 2015 and I don’t think softpedaling it will do anything to stop it. But I also increasingly feel like being an “SJW” just invites people to, as you said, make a strawman out of you and ignore your message.
SP: I relate to your journey so much. For years, I tried to talk about race the “right” way and in doing so upset some of my more vocal peers. I was very much a teacher’s pet in that way. The difference is I no longer think there’s a “right” way to do anything because we all play by our own rules. The best thing we can do is to come up with a personal philosophy we can hold ourselves accountable to, regardless of our identities. I think trolls and SJWs set each other off, and then they use each other’s reactions to justify their own. They embody each other’s worst nightmares, yet they live in that constant back and forth. I think a productive future path is in the making. I feel a lot of people are realizing they can care about social justice without losing themselves. And I feel a lot of people are realizing you can care about social justice without holding your beliefs too rigidly.
My conversations with you helped me to believe that change starts right here. We can’t create larger interventions unless we first create interventions for ourselves. The Big Mean Internet is a myth, but we see it as absolute. It’s a way for us to avoid personal accountability in owning what we created.
Nobody is ever too far gone. And the internet is comprised of users. We forget there’s real people behind the computer screen. We are all capable of thinking, acting, and changing.
AC: Right. “It’s ‘the Internet'” as though it’s a force of nature, not something we shape through our choices.
SP: Right! The internet is not an avalanche.
AC: My own thinking is often that the Web has enabled us to “break down barriers” – speak directly to people, get in their faces, broadcast our discontent – but we don’t think about how some barriers – some boundaries – are there for a reason.
That the “living in public” that’s seemingly normalized in our generation is unhealthy.
SP: Yes! And I’ve been on both sides of this. It felt empowering to be leading the mob or to be part of the mob. You feel you’re larger than life and part of something bigger than yourself. But when the mob is coming after you, that’s when you learn empathy. A lot of people who are in social justice work have come to it from a place of pain. A lot of people have been marginalized. Are disadvantaged. Haven’t been treated kindly. That’s why these same people end up flexing their muscles online. They feel otherwise powerless and enjoy feeling powerful in this digital world where follower counts aren’t truly representative of what resources you have.
AC: Like the loaded gun metaphor. And like with any other kind of violence the problem is you can’t really control it.
SP: While we are talking metaphors, I’d liken it to a stampede. People are scared. Nobody wants to stampede anyone, but someone still gets stampeded.
AC: People don’t think about their actions as part of collective behavior. And so they don’t take responsibility because as individuals they contributed little to the outcome.
Honestly, if when you called me out back in the day I hadn’t seen Twitter “wars” at their worst through GamerGate, my instinctive response would’ve been to start a “war” and only bad things would’ve happened.
SP: And I’m sorry about that again. I hadn’t been paying attention and then was upset when you suddenly had very similar politics as me. I should have seen you as an ally and comrade rather than competition. And this is relevant to #CancelColbert, too. One person cannot trend a hashtag. And there were people before me who criticized the joke. It’s all about scapegoating.
AC: It makes sense, though. The Internet makes everything “extremely loud and incredibly close”. You can form very strong opinions about people you barely know. I mean, that’s how I went viral in the first place.
SP: Same! And then people decide if you’re a hero or a villain.
AC: Yeah. I can say that everyone is more complicated than that. GG showed me how quick people are to demonize or idolize people based on almost nothing. People who know nothing about me curse my name or sing my praises and both weird me out – I can’t help but feel like I’m bound to disappoint people. I certainly had a very one-dimensional idea of you that was contradicted just by our first conversation
SP: You really need a strong sense of self to do public work. If you let the public decide then you’ll either become a egomaniac or learn to hate yourself. So use yourself as a case study. I know I’m not a villain, despite how others might paint me *cough cough* so you can realize villains don’t exist. There are always more than two sides. There’s a third side, a fourth side, a fifth side. It’s up to us to choose those sides, to form our own opinions, and interrupt the cultural habit to talk in circles. It’s not interesting or new.