When "Representation" Goes Wrong

Andrew Yang and the Failure of Identity Politics

My father pointed at the TV. It was tuned to a Taiwanese news station, and the bright, eager face of Andrew Yang stared back at us. It was early 2018, and like many Asian Americans, my father’s usually lukewarm interest in American politics had been stimulated by Yang’s ascent to the national stage. For him, someone that simply looked like us—a child of Taiwanese immigrants, no less—was reason enough to pay attention. His character, at least, was compelling.

“He’s running for president,” my father mused. “Seems like a pretty cool guy.”

If there’s anything remarkable about Andrew Yang’s political career, it’s how wildly the scales have tipped against him among Asian American youth. On April 1st, 2020, to bookend his presidential run, Yang penned an op-ed in the Washington Post calling for Asian Americans to “demonstrate that we are part of the solution [to COVID-19]...to be part of the cure.” This piece triggered a surge of backlash among young Asian Americans, accusing Yang of pro-assimilationism and appeasement to the wave of racism that had been—and still is—sweeping the nation. It wasn’t the first time we had seen this side of Yang, but it was the first hint that the Asian American community that had rallied behind him in 2018 was quickly becoming more critical of his statements and policies.

The same people that had enthusiastically backed the “Yang Gang” during his presidential run are now quickly reversing course as they begin to see him for who he truly is—a moderate allied more with the interests of capital than with those of Asian Americans. Yang’s bid for New York Mayor has revealed his duplicity: despite being best known for advocating for Universal Basic Income (UBI), a markedly progressive policy, Yang relies on private-sector interests to run his campaign, most of which are intolerant of truly progressive change for New York. The advocacy group Asian and Pacific Islander New Yorkers Against Yang also strongly highlights this deficiency: Yang is pro-policing as well as pro-segregationist testing, positions that betray the capitalist nature of his campaign. Yang wears progressivism like a mask; it endears him to the political left while the moderate face underneath allies with regressive policies and makes promises he cannot possibly keep.

Yang’s progressive mask is much like the Asian American veneer that once drew us to him in the first place. Though Yang often emphasizes his Asian American identity, we get a sense that he is not truly connected to it; his recent interview with comedian and writer Ziwe revealed as much.

When asked the question “What is your favorite racial stereotype?”—admittedly, a question completely out of left field, but also an incredibly keen one—Yang’s response was not to reject the idea of racial stereotypes outright, but to begin listing Asian stereotypes he actually believed were true. Among the stereotypes he listed were that Asian Americans “all love bubble tea—for the most part” and that we “love/live in fear of our parents.” The veracity, or lack thereof, of these stereotypes should not be the issue here; rather, the problem is Yang’s willingness to tokenize the community he claims to represent into a form easily digestible by whiteness. The obedient Asian has been a negative stereotype used to tokenize our community for time immemorial, and his answer to Ziwe’s question echoes the same disregard for the Asian American community that we saw in his earlier op-ed. Andrew Yang is Asian, but his attitude towards our community reveals what we have known all along: that he is also fundamentally white.

How did it get this far? Our initial ecstasy at Yang’s rise has transformed into an anxiety over the impact he has on our representation. This feeling, coined by comedian Jenny Yang, is called “rep sweats”—a distinct discomfort with how a minority group is portrayed on TV and in media combined with a belief that this representation must be good for us in the long run. Rep sweats result from the instinctive idea that we see so little of ourselves in popular media, after all, that all representation has to be good representation. But that central premise—that representation must be good, no matter what the form—reveals a greater problem that our community has with the more insidious side of identity politics.

The liberal trap of identity politics is the belief that representation is the end-all, be-all of resistance. Individuals and groups fall into this trap believing that as long as, for example, a television cast is diverse, that oppression is being ameliorated. But the reality of racism in the United States is far removed from the liberal hyper-fixation on representation and diversity; it occurs in our institutions and our prisons, affected by material considerations and real, physical power that representation cannot combat. Our initial ecstasy towards Yang was a direct result of this representation trap. We failed to critically evaluate his policies and attitudes in favor of foregrounding his identity, and we are paying the price as he uses his newfound popularity to rise to the top of the mayoral race. Yang is not dangerous, per se, and his becoming the mayor of New York would not be an all-out disaster. But he has time and time again disavowed the Asian American community despite our unfounded belief that he would represent our interests simply because he looks like us.

This is not to say that representation is pointless; rather, it is to say that identity politics is at worst an incredibly dangerous game and at best a poor rallying point for political activism. Gayatri Spivak, who I was lucky enough to hear speak at Columbia, underlines that “identity politics lays waste the democratic possibility of achieving flexibility of the imagination toward others.” Of course, the American expression of identity politics is not yet the extreme identitarianism of ethnic cleansing that Spivak critiques, but they still subscribe to the same basic identity-first logic. More than this, the reduction of complex material conditions to questions of representation obscures the fact that reality is not “as seen on TV”; racial equality is often paid for with blood. Our misguided devotion to identity politics expresses itself through blind faith in problematic figureheads that do not and cannot better race relations.

Yang’s fall from grace reveals that as long as Asian Americans continue to place faith in these figureheads solely on the basis of their skin color rather than on the merit of their ideas, we will be continually forced into disappointments of our own making. There is nobody that can fight for us while we stay at home hoping that conditions will better themselves; similarly, more Asians in movies and TV shows will not be the ultimate solution to our problems. We must be receptive to the idea that equality may not come through some Asian messiah, but rather, through a collective refusal to tokenize and assimilate.