Looking at the Invisible Minority

In a new book, English Professor David L. Eng and psychotherapist Shinhee Han illuminate the lives and struggles of Asian American students over a 20-year period.

Thursday, June 6, 2019

By Susan Ahlborn

“Asian Americans are seen as model minorities, a stereotype suggesting that they're all good at school, hardworking, rich, and compliant,” says David L. Eng, Richard L. Fisher Professor of English. “Race relations are still profoundly seen as a white and black phenomenon in the United States, and Asian Americans are liminal to that dynamic.”

Eng points out that Asian Americans are included in diversity statistics at universities but not in affirmative action programs. They’re the poorest racial group in New York City but also the most stratified by wealth. Once repudiated and degraded (immigrants from Asian countries were banned from entering or naturalizing in the U.S. from the late 1800s until 1943), Asian Americans are now extolled—but, Eng believes, at a high cost. “In order to be seen, to be accepted by a dominant society, you are racialized as colorblind and socialized to be invisible.”

In their new book, Racial Melancholia, Racial Dissociation: On the Social and Psychic Lives of Asian Americans, Eng and coauthor Shinhee Han, a psychotherapist practicing in New York City, draw on more than 20 years of experience working with Asian and Asian American students. “The classroom for me and the clinic for Shinhee have been social barometers of the changing patterns of immigration, assimilation, and racialization, from Generation X to Y,” he says.

Eng and Han first met at Columbia University in the late 1990s, during a series of suicides by Asian American students. Eng was in his first teaching position and Han was in counseling and psychological services, and both were interested in Freudian theory and analysis. Both were also the only Asian Americans in their units. They wrote an essay, “A Dialogue on Racial Melancholia,” that appeared in the clinical journal Psychoanalytic Dialogues and is still one of the most circulated essays on the topic online.

They have continued to write case histories and commentaries together. In that time, Eng and Han have observed the emergence of two major psychic mechanisms by which their Asian and Asian American students and patients process problems of discrimination, exclusion, and loss. They roughly associate the first with Generation X, to which they both belong, and the second with Generation Y, their students and patients today.

Eng and Han call the mechanism affecting their generation “racial melancholia,” with losses condensed into a forfeited object whose significance must be deciphered. Eng quotes Freud about the melancholic who “knows whom he has lost but not what he has lost in him.” Eng notes, “When I was in college, it was the tail-end of the Civil Rights movement. If you were an Asian kid, you were typically a second-generation student. You tended to connect your pain with racism, and psychological issues often took the form of depression.”

With Generation Y, the authors witness a different paradigm. This group includes the first of what Eng and Han term “parachute kids.” Because of wealth accumulation in Asia, especially China, South Korea, and India, families send children to the U.S. for their education starting as young as elementary school. He identifies many reasons for this: a second chance for education (the acceptance rate to Beijing University is one-tenth of one percent), irresponsible parents, or young people who are gay and are sent away or want to leave.

These first-generation students, say Eng and Han, often suffer from “racial dissociation.” Their histories of racial loss are dispersed rather than condensed, so that their origins and implications remain diffuse and obscure, especially difficult to decipher in a colorblind age. “We’re also in this moment of millennials immersed in technology, where you’re continuously dispersed across time and space,” Eng says. “Inside, outside, private, public—it’s all scrambled.”

These students don’t connect their pain directly to racism, and many react with anxiety, panic attacks, and a “false self” personality. “We all have different sides of ourselves that we reveal in different social situations,” says Eng, “but in racial dissociation, it is difficult to unite them, because the way you see yourself and the way other people see you are incompatible.”

Their students and patients also include Asian transnational adoptees who use the language of coming out, stigma, and shame to discuss their adoption. “They’re dealing not just with two mothers, but with two motherlands,” says Eng.

Racism has been formally removed from legal structures in the U.S., but Eng says colorblindness doesn’t mean an absence of discrimination: “Colorblindess is precisely the form in which racism appears today. Under neoliberalism, racism as well as homophobia have been privatized as individual choice.” It is observable in dating websites, for example, he says, where people can choose a potential partner down to height, weight, religion, color, income, politics, and education. “No one would ever say that's racist or homophobic. They just say that that's your preference.”

“Racism, in a sense, has gone underground, it’s deeply unconscious. And in that sense, psychoanalysis is one of the few discourses that allows us to read this generational shift symptomatically. It gives you lots of conceptual tools to think about the history of the racial subject in relation to the subject of racial history,” says Eng, who was elected an honorary member of the Institute for Psychoanalytic Training and Research in 2016.

Eng and Han hope the book is a beginning of a way to give Asian American students, and anyone who is interested in race and racism, a vocabulary to understand their social and psychic experiences.

“This book is not only academic but also a social justice project to give what is one-quarter of the student population at Penn some critical attention to the real issues that they face,” says Eng, “and so that they can develop a better understanding of how they came to be, how the emotions they’re feeling are not just about their own individual pain, but rather that these feelings underscore a pattern that’s attached to different histories of immigration and discrimination that are very real.”