With the constant drumbeat of systemic racism and white privilege, it is s a reasonable question.
Is it OK to be white?” [Yang] asked in a column in Tablet magazine last November. “The question is at once disingenuous, facetious, satirical, and self-parodic. It is also one of the consequential questions being posed in earnest by the moral and political vanguards of our time.” He was referring to a then-ongoing alt-right campaign, conceived online by those same dispossessed male Internet denizens, to put up posters at universities and high schools that answered the question in the affirmative, and to the media furor that had followed. “The question invites the typical reader to resist its implications — to deny that the question is one that anyone would think to ask, or that people are asking. But people have thought to ask it, they are asking it. It is the sort of question that one doesn’t think to ask at all unless the answer is going to be no.”
Some 2,000 words later, after affirming that yes, it is okay to be white, Yang had covered a lot of ground. He explained the goal of the alt-right troll campaign (to invite “dissent that would delegitimize the dissenters”), pointed out the nature of the dissent (social-justice activists take whiteness and masculinity to be “forms of identity rooted in genocide, colonialism, and slavery that reproduce the violent conditions of their emergence everywhere they are treated as neutral”), and located its philosophical source (a shift from neutral liberalism to a post-structuralist Foucauldianism that has seeped into the academy, the media, and human-relations departments, and is coming to a screen near you). By the end of the column, Yang had managed to capture the essence of online social-justice activism in a single sentence: “This intricate system of racial casuistry, worthy of Jesuits, is a beguiling compound of insight, partial truths, circular reasoning, and dogmatism operating within a self-enclosed system of reference immunized against critique and optimized for virality.”
This trenchant essay appears toward the end of Yang’s debut book, The Souls of Yellow Folk. The title is an homage to W. E. B. Du Bois’s look at the souls of black folk at the start of the last century, and Yang’s volume is not really about the alt-right or digital political fights. It is a diffuse collection of previously published essays that coheres, albeit loosely, around the “centrality” of the Asian-American experience to contemporary American life. (Du Bois argued that the African-American experience was central to the larger national story, although later in life he lost that conviction and sadly dove into the murk of Stalinism and Afro-Liberation.) Yang is aware of the excesses of progressivism yet under no illusions about race’s continuing importance in the United States; his major observation is that Asian Americans, at once marginalized and successful, overlooked by whites yet rebuffed by other racial minorities, occupy a unique cultural space in our identity-obsessed country. Mostly, though, Yang’s book is a primer to the wider oeuvre of a perceptive writer with undeniably sharp insights into American life.