A Journal of Rhetoric, Writing, and Culture

Asian American Literacies: A Review of Haivan Hoang’s Writing Against Racial Injury

Kate Firestone, Michigan State University

Review of Haivan Hoang’s Writing Against Racial Injury

(Published December 18, 2018)

In previous decades, scholars in the field of rhetoric and composition have addressed issues of race and ethnicity in a variety of ways. Most have critiqued and offered revisions to exclusionary institutional practices, especially those surrounding the teaching of writing in higher education (Royster; Villanueva; Lyons). Such critiques and revisions often contain arguments for diversity and inclusion and, as such, have been (rightfully) lauded as space-making endeavors. Indeed, making space for the articulation and valuing of a multiplicity of viewpoints, experiences, methods of composing, and being has been critical to making knowledge in the field more accessible to the students and communities we’re committed to working with. Yet, as we find ourselves, our students, and the communities we love in a national landscape whose politics continue to galvanize age-old divisions across social lines, our next steps forward seem to hinge on an important question posed by American studies scholar Carl Gutiérrez-Jones: What happens after inclusion (13)?

Fittingly, it is this very question that Haivan Hoang seeks to answer in her 2015 book Writing Against Racial Injury: The Politics of Asian American Student Rhetoric. Deftly juxtaposing historiography and ethnography, Hoang argues that we as educators have much to learn from racial minority student activists and the ways they create “alternative sites for reading, writing, and speaking: how their speaking and writing positions are informed by racial histories; why and how they speak and write; what conversations call on them to give voice to their concerns and rearticulate their subject positions” (17). Specifically, Hoang prompts us as scholars of composition and rhetoric to critically reflect on how these student(s’) practices might shift our own practices, expectations, and curricula as instructors of rhetoric and composition.

With its focus on the performative rhetorics of two oft-forgotten populations—Asian Americans and student organizations—Writing Against Racial Injury is an invaluable addition to the field and an essential read for those committed to teaching social justice through writing. As such, it joins a spectrum of critical works on literacy, including its accumulations (Brandt), its extracurricular character (Gere), and its raced, gendered, sexualized, and community-based dimensions as navigated by students (Kirkland & Jackson; Kinloch; Alexander; Medina). Hoang’s book also joins a spectrum of critical works on Asian American rhetorics that, when taken together, help us recognize and understand what it means to do Asian American rhetoric, particularly through the lens of literacy (Young; Mao; Canagarajah; Shimabukuro; Monberg). Part of that doing involves identifying racialized constructions of Asians and Asian Americans and uncovering their histories, a move Hoang is committed to in the first part of her book, especially in terms of language and literacy. 

Intended for a primary audience of language and literacy educators, historians of education, and Asian American studies scholars, Hoang’s work necessarily begins with a critical analysis of literacy as “a categorical public good in the formation of an American ethos” and “a site of racial injury” (5). To illustrate this point, she provides several examples of US laws, court cases, and popular media pieces from which Asian Americans have inherited a legacy of language and literacy education meant to assimilate them as students into racial, gendered, and class-based norms (8).  It is out of this legacy of language and literacy education—this legacy of racial injury—that the rhetorical work of student activist groups like the one Hoang studies takes place. 

In defining “racial injury,” Hoang draws on Gutiérrez-Jones’s “rhetoric of injury,” a term initially coined to describe how racialized discourses of multiculturalism, diversity, and colorblindness interpellate individuals into the rigid roles of victim, aggressor, and savior. Embedded in these discourses are the problematics of guilt, blame, and shame that adversely position students and teachers when it comes to participating in discussions and work on race. Moreover, the limited roles offered by a rhetoric of injury, Hoang argues, “can perpetuate the reification of racial categories, the dissipation of these categories into an ‘absent presence,’ and composition students’ ‘diversity fatigue’” (97). Thus, the first part of the book is a historiographic documentation on the ways Asian Americans have lobbied for equal rights and inclusion in the face of race-based legal and educational discrimination. The second part of the book uses ethnography to explore how a twenty-first-century Vietnamese American student group navigated diversity discourse meant to relegate them to subject positions defined by injury on campus and in the wider community.

In the first chapter, Hoang takes a critical look at a diverse array of legal, educational, and popular media texts surrounding the 1974 class action lawsuit Lau v. Nichols to illustrate how the rhetoric of these texts racialized Asian Americans in the national consciousness as a perpetually foreign “model minority.” Hoang’s analysis points out how “‘equal education’ was premised on a native speaker norm that excluded language minority students; ‘equal’ clearly did not have the same meaning for all groups” (47). Thus, even as the case afforded its plaintiffs the benefits of the bilingual school instruction they were previously denied, such benefits came conditionally and in ways that assumed “bilingual education programs were ‘compensatory’—compensating for language minority students’ ‘disabilities’” (44). In this way Hoang, herself Vietnamese American, practices Asian American rhetoric by engaging the historically transnational character of Asian American experiences. In particular, Hoang highlights how amendments to race-based exclusions in literacy education in the US have historically been interpreted and treated as “incursions against whiteness” (28). Such a critique necessarily engages transnationality because the need and request for bilingual education for Asian Americans stems from the cultural, geographic, and national negotiations their movements across space and time entail.

Beyond identifying the double bind of these racialized constructions and their histories, Hoang also focuses on three other components of doing Asian American rhetoric: writing, self-publishing, and circulation. In the second chapter, she specifically examines Gidra, a student newspaper created for and by Asian Americans in 1969. When UCLA administrators denied sponsorship of a community-oriented publication that would reflect and honor the rich complexity of Asian American communities, five Asian American students took it upon themselves to create and distribute a newspaper that would become known as Gidra. Of their efforts, Hoang notes, “[w]riting and publishing were vehicles for self-determination or authority over their education and representation” (65). 

Also contained within this chapter is one of Hoang’s most compelling arguments for field-wide consideration of Asian American rhetorics, specifically those composed and performed by students: student publications (like Gidra) “make visible the boundaries of university education and ask us to reenvision the purpose of writing education” (65). In other words, the study and valuing of rhetorical productions by Asian American student activists can illuminate how writing can act as a bridge between university life and community engagement. This is especially important to composition studies because, as Hoang notes, college students’ efforts to revise writing education in universities via exhibitions of self-sponsored writing, like those composed and performed by the Third World Liberation Front (TWLF) at San Francisco State University, were critical to disciplinary shifts in the 1970s that convinced compositionists to value engagement through writing in public forums. Yet, in spite of this, Hoang and others observe that disciplinary narratives “tend to gloss over the part played by actual students, particularly racial minority students” (60). If we as teachers of composition are committed to preparing students for civic participation via writing instruction, as we so often profess, then we cannot ignore Hoang’s argument to include the self-sponsored writings of students in our curricula and practices.

Furthermore, Hoang’s ethnographic work in 2002 with the Vietnamese American Coalition (VAC), an undergraduate minority student organization at a California university, demonstrates how self-sponsored writing by Asian American student activists proceeds from the legacies of racialization and resistance detailed in part one, and how students continue to negotiate contemporary modes of racial oppression through writing. In the third chapter, she describes her findings as a participant-observer in VAC, paying particular attention to the ways members rhetorically negotiated the pitfalls of a rhetoric of injury in regard to wider institutional and student government discourses of liberalism, colorblindness, and race neutrality. These negotiations almost always involved various forms of what is commonly considered “extracurricular” writing like newsletters, memos, letters, mission statements, and web texts, all of which are further elaborated upon in varying contexts in the remaining chapters.

In chapter four, Hoang details a particular VAC student’s efforts to coordinate community protests aimed at countering racialized constructions of the Vietnamese via the slur “gook,” as publicly articulated by Senator John McCain during his 2000 presidential campaign. In tracing the student’s labor toward this end, Hoang identifies the centrality of memory—remembering, recalling, rememorializing—to Asian American rhetoric as encompassing processes of rhetorical production and social engagement that are ultimately communal, partial, participatory, and instructive (129). Indeed, McCain’s use of the slur “gook” served to position the Vietnamese (and Vietnamese Americans, by proxy) as subhuman and anti-American. The VAC student thus sought to protest this construction of Vietnamese and Vietnamese Americans as transnational subjects (read: foreigners)—a construction that persists today and necessitates transnational engagement in Asian American rhetorics—by recalling cultural moments when similar slurs were used to predicate violence against Asian American bodies. As such, the recollection acts as a way to “attend to past Asian American realities as well as to challenge the persistent forgetting of the historical processes that have made Asian Americans a racial other” (115). Remembering, then, is generative: it is a means for critically revisiting, revising, and rewriting racialized histories and, when fostered in the context of community engagement, can serve to reframe oppressive representations in a plurality of ways.

In chapter five, Hoang presents and analyzes a collection of performative public texts composed and enacted by VAC members in 2002 that, taken together, suggest “race consciousness is not rigid and something already acquired but must be repeatedly performed” (132). The students’ poems, textual art pieces, plays, and fashions were constructed and performed at a student organized event called Culture Night and worked to, as Hoang argues, “interrupt limited iterations of their identity” via a performativity that “thereby enables marginalized people to exert agency over their identity and play a fundamental role in the ongoing repetitions, subversions, and reauthorizations of identities” (134). At the chapter’s close and in the reflective afterword that follows, Hoang concludes her own memory work as an Asian American, researcher and teacher of writing with a reiteration of her original argument: “In composing and performing public texts that reperform our identities, recollect cultural memories, and rearticulate Asian American subject position, Asian American activists call on educators to scrutinize more deeply the ways in which legacies of racism continue to haunt speakers and writers” (158).

Indeed, in light of our current political climate, Writing Against Racial Injury is an important text that comes to us at a critical time in the twenty-first century. Through Hoang’s and VAC’s performances of rhetorical memory—their performances of Asian American rhetoric—we might begin to ask ourselves as instructors of writing how we can adapt our pedagogies and curricula in ways that empower students to resist sedimented constructions of themselves and their communities that are raced, gendered, classed, ableist, and sexualized.  Some key questions that arise from Hoang’s work include: What can we as teachers and researchers learn from self-sponsored writing by student organizations at our own schools?  How, specifically, might we better engage and invite extracurricular writing into our classes at various levels, from preparatory classes to first-year writing to graduate writing classes? Furthermore, it suggests the possibility of future research that might take the form of collaborative projects that seek connections to and build relations with wider Asian American audiences like students and local communities, as well as non-Asian American audiences of all stripes. Overall, Writing Against Racial Injury is an illuminating read and an invaluable addition to the field of rhetoric and composition.

Kate Firestone’s video interview with Haivan Hoang, June 24, 2018.

In this video interview, Kate speaks with Hoang about her experiences composing Writing Against Racial Injury, specifically in terms of how the project came to be and what it meant for her to engage conflicting literacy histories for the purposes of the project.

Download Transcript https://drive.google.com/open?id=1HJqf4YZl7GOyGDSrChLR3kXFd3dZ72f- 

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