“A startling piece of work” – Minor Feelings by Cathy Park Hong

Cathy Park Hong describes the title of her book, Minor Feelings, like this:

“the racialised range of emotions that are negative, dysphoric, and therefore untelegenic, built from the sediments of every day racial experience and the irritant of having one’s perception of reality constantly questioned or dismissed. Minor feelings arise, for instance, upon hearing a slight, knowing it’s racial, and being told, Oh, that’s all in your head…Minor feelings are the emotions we are accused of when we decide to be difficult – in other words, when we decide to be honest.”

While Hong might be talking specifically about the Asian American experience in this instance, it is something that immediately strikes a chord. Those minor feelings exist here, too. When you tell a friend that you’re worried because you can’t see any other brown faces in the town you’re visiting on holiday and they tell you that you’re imagining it. When someone asks you what the best dish is on the menu at the Indian even though you’ve never been there before and have no way of knowing. When someone you’re close to tells you that you’re obsessed with the idea of being brown, but you’re pretty much white because of where you grew up and who you’re friends with. And when you question any of those things; that’s when Hong’s little phrase makes sense. When people who are in no way malicious and in many ways share your beliefs, when they look at you with dismissal in their eyes because of feelings and beliefs that are so ingrained in their own lived experiences. They aren’t racist, so there’s no way the thing you find offensive can be valid. That is when the minor feelings kick in, leaving you feeling that any further challenge will leave the other, whiter, person with hurt feelings. So you bury it.

I had never heard the term ‘minor feelings’ before picking this book up, but it immediately made sense to me. And it was a joy to read someone writing about it. If you look back through my Bookmunch review history you’ll see that racial politics and identity are big interests of mine, but in the majority of books that I have read on the subject the focus has been on the ‘bigger’, more obvious, and more identifiable forms of racism that exist in America and the UK. The divide, mainly, between black and white.

Hong does an amazing job of showing how these structures work and how, in focusing so much of racial-focused art and literature on the most apparent problems, a whole host of more ‘minor’ injustices are ignored. When focusing on the divide between black and white, how much is lost and forgotten in the middle?

While I could relate to the idea of ‘minor feelings’ from some of my own experiences, there was a lot in this collection of linked essays that shocked and surprised me. The statistics, for example. Having read so much about the ways in which structural racism keeps black people in their place in America, I myself was pretty convinced that Asian Americans had it a lot better than African Americans. And they do have it better. But with her research and her statistics, Hong shows just how great the divide between Asian American and White American still is. And she also shows how racism is at work when people tell Asian Americans that they are ‘next in line to be white’ or that ‘you shouldn’t complain, you have it better than black people.’ The techniques used to keep Asian Americans in ‘their place’ may be different, but they are still being firmly kept in ‘their place.’

As well as shining a light on these inequalities that she has long felt like she shouldn’t be shining a light on, Hong also uses the memoir format to show the affects of this on her own life and the lives of other Korean Americans like her. She looks at the effects it had at college. She looks at how it creates an environment in which all art, poetry, and writing by people who share her heritage is expected to focus on the experience of that heritage rather than, say, whatever the hell its creator wants it to focus on. In a particularly affecting chapter, she even looks at how it effects how the truth of someone’s death is reported and how those deaths are investigated by the authorities.

Any Cop?: Without a doubt, this is one of the most powerful pieces of literature I have read in quite some time. I am still struggling to determine how Hong pitches it so perfectly. To recognise and acknowledge those who may have a harder time that yourself in some respects, but still make a staggering case for how your life is affected by the structures that surround you, is a real feat. She writes with a subtle power – at times seeming to play along with the expectations that minor feelings have placed upon her, before bursting out into paragraphs of gentle anger that thrum with injustice. It is one of those books that should be read by everybody. It will definitely be dismissed by many, but will come out seeming all the more honest because of that. A startling piece of work.


Fran Slater

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