In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

  • A Success Worse Than Failure
  • Minh-Ha T. Pham (bio)

I already had failure on my mind when Timothy Yu’s blog post “Has Asian American Studies Failed?” appeared on my Facebook news feed. That was around the same time I bought and began reading J. Jack Halberstam’s The Queer Art of Failure after listening to a podcast of Halberstam on The Critical Lede. To paraphrase Halberstam, failure is a counterintuitive mode of knowing and doing that refuses the normalizing models of success that often have the effect of disciplining us into heterosexist capitalist structures of knowledge, feelings, and ideas about the world and ourselves. Understood in this way, failure potentially offers a unique set of rewards including “escape [from] the punishing norms that discipline behavior and manage human development,” the preservation of “some of the wondrous anarchy of childhood,” and an “opportunity to . . . poke holes in the toxic positivity of contemporary life” in which promises of happiness and success function paradoxically as implicit threats of personal misery and failure.3

Reading beyond Yu’s blog post title, I soon realized that I had misread failure. Yes, I had failed at “failure.” Yu’s “failure” is a diagnosis of the state of Asian American studies rather than a narrative of Asian Americanist practices. Still, I think my initial misreading of Yu’s title may not be all bad. It might be one of those times in which, in Trinh T. Minh-ha’s words, “the accidental becomes essential.”4 This unintentional misreading, I suggest, begins a long overdue discussion about failure that reaches beyond evaluation toward a more speculative and suggestive inquiry about Asian Americans’ historically fraught relationship to “failure” and “success.”

As readers of this journal are no doubt aware, Asians in the United States have long been perceived as failures. In the imperializing logic of nineteenth-century Orientalism, it was the “failure” of Asian cultural and political structures to survive or thrive in the modern age that served as a rationale for the legacy of informal and institutionalized discrimination and exclusion brought to bear on all Asian groups in complex and uneven ways. Such Oriental failures gave rise to an array of other failures: Asians’ failure to assimilate, their failure to learn English, and their failure to achieve the trappings of white American middle-class life including a nuclear family.

By the mid-twentieth century, of course, the general perception of Asian Americans had dramatically shifted. Splashy media stories hailed Asian Americans not as failures but as quintessential American success stories. Well-known articles published in 1966 trumpeted Japanese Americans as “better than any other group in our society, including native-born whites” (New York Times Magazine)5 and Chinese Americans as “a model of self-respect and achievement” (US News & World [End Page 330] Report).6 Asian Americans’ putative family values, work ethic, and thriftiness were cited as explanations for their success. By the 1980s, the Asian American model minority stereotype, or what Fortune magazine called “America’s Super Minority,”7 was well established in the popular discourse about U.S. race relations. It served as a liberal alibi for the unequal distribution of resources, opportunities, and political power among whites and nonwhites and, in the process, pitted Asian Americans against other racialized minorities. Thus, even “Asian American success” is a kind of failure—what Frank Wu aptly describes as “a race relations failure.”8

The success/failure apparatus of Asian difference operates differently for different Asian ethnic groups. The “success story” of South Asian Americans, for example, is articulated through the construction of the model minority as ideal worker. Vijay Prashad explains in Karma of Brown Folk that the desi model worker stereotype is a double-edged sword that is wielded against South Asian Americans who, as a racial “solution” to a labor problem, must accept that “we are only wanted here for our labor and not . . . our lives” and against African Americans who are blamed for their “inability to rise of their own volition.”9 For Southeast Asian Americans, “success” is bound up with the trauma and disillusionment of the failures of the wars in Southeast Asia and their identity as war’s “losers...


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pp. 330-334
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
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