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Criticism 43.4 (2001) 468-473
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The Melancholy of Race:
Psychoanalysis, Assimilation, and Hidden Grief
The Melancholy of Race: Psychoanalysis, Assimilation, and Hidden Grief by Anne Anlin Cheng. New York: Oxford University Press, Inc., 2001. Pp. ix + 271. $29.95.
The Melancholy of Race should be read both for its acumen and for its politics. The book's discussion of "racial melancholia" clarifies the psychological terms organizing the dynamics of race and what politics can be voiced based on those dynamics. In other words, Anne Anlin Cheng's book provides vocabulary for understanding the invisible aspects of race, particularly racial subjection, which tends to be ignored by the conventional politics of claiming grievances against racial injustice. Cheng wants us to pause on the important psychoanalytic distinction between grievance and grief and in so doing allow for the rethinking or retheorizing of the terms through which race is represented as well as experienced.
One might criticize Cheng for narrowing her discussion to two race categories—Asian American and African American—even while she mentions Native American and Latino as sidebars, but I see her choice as "strategic." With reference to Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak's notion of "strategic essentialism," Cheng is quite wary of facile race categories, selecting Asian American and African American for their historically situated positions in hegemonic conceptualizations of the American nation, especially in current dialogues on race. The black-white dyad dominates American talk on race domestically; when attention turns international, Asians versus whites dominate:
With black and white as the dominant racial categories, historical memory tends to overlook the fierce contestation over the shades, as it were, in between—conflicts that involve not just ideological differences but economic and social privileges. Indeed, the formulation of the government's sovereign power to exclude is historically tied to the definitions of aliens and citizens. Well before Brown, there was a series of key rulings in school segregation, in addition to the well-known Plessy v. Ferguson, that involved the problem of racializing Asians in this country. . . . [In fact,] during the Brown litigations, the constitutionality of racialization-as-segregation in the form of Japanese internment (Korematsu v. U.S.) was relegitimated on the grounds [End Page 468] that "national security" was at stake . . . the history of virulent racism against Asians and Asian Americans has been at once consistently upheld and denied. Shuttling between "black" and "white"—the Scylla and Charybdis between which all American immigrants have to "pass"—Asian Americans occupy a truly ghostly position in the story of American racialization. (22-23)
The ghostly characterization is apt for a racial category that tends to be obscured by black and white grievances against each other's racial positions. However, Asians and Asian Americans are not merely obscured; they are also used to discipline other racialized groups, especially blacks. Through the "model minority" figure, Asian Americans are used to deny black loss and sorrow by accusing blacks of not assimilating as successfully as Asian counterparts. Asian Americans are thus made to embody both "praises of the American way" and the failure of African Americans to succeed as citizens. To move beyond the superficiality of who suffered more or who succeeds more, Cheng invites consideration of the psychological processes through which subjects deal with nationally imposed contradictory categories of race and citizenship.
In other words, Cheng helps reiterate what many race theorists including Spivak know to be illusory about racial categories while turning attention from causes of subjection (e.g., interpellation—or being hailed as an object of racial injustice—by collective memories of slavery, the holocaust, internment) to the effects of subjection on the racialized individual as he or she imagines a group identity with relation to the nation. The strategic value of Cheng's focus becomes clear as she explains the failure of grievance to exact racial healing. Grievance only is the guise of political action (173) that, as has been charged by white opposition, often sounds like whining or vengeful retribution. Cheng recognizes, exhibiting rare compassion, that "public grievance is a social forum and luxury to which the racially melancholic minorities have little...