Words Unspoken

Grace M. Cho on anti-Asian violence, mental health, and the livingness of trauma

Theresa Hak Kyung Cha, Chronology (detail) 1977, color photocopies mounted on board, eighteen sheets, dimensions variable. Courtesy BAMPFA, gift of the Theresa Hak Kyung Cha Memorial Foundation. Photo: Benjamin Blackwell.

Grace M. Cho is the author of Haunting the Korean Diaspora: Shame, Secrecy, and the Forgotten War (University of Minnesota Press, 2008). Inscribed within its history of Korean women’s sexual labor for US servicemen during the Korean War are cracks between social, personal, and political memory that shed light on how the repeated disavowal of unprocessed material leaves traumatic residues. Published this month with Feminist Press, Cho’s second book, Tastes Like War, recounts the breakdown of her mother’s mental health and its roots in war, immigration, and racial, gendered abuse. Below, we discuss the pathologization of trauma, racial and sexual “deviance,” and movements to decolonize mental-health care.

Hiji Nam: Grounding this conversation in the news-cycle topicality of “violence against Asian Americans” is interesting because your work has been addressing this “issue” through the lens of structural, gendered, colonial, racial violence for decades. We first spoke three years ago about so-called yellow fever and racial sexual fetishes. Part of what makes these conversations difficult is that when people talk about “whiteness” or “Asian Americanness” or “violence,” they project their own definitions of and assumptions about them. Conceptions of race are never stagnant, yet these terms are so often framed as static and understandable. Racial hatred, violence, and fantasy are all undeniable, but so rarely addressed through colonial history and US military violence, or through the confusing mix of desires and aggressions within each of us.  

Grace M. Cho: I actually question the notion that racial hatred and violence against Asian Americans are undeniable. I’ve heard the denials over and over from people who have bought into the model-minority myth, and I continue to hear them through this latest surge of violence against us. They wonder: “How can this be true when Asians are so successful?” They see the attacks as isolated incidents, and they’re unaware that Asian Americans have been scapegoated throughout American history, and that there’s a large segment of the Asian American population that lives in precarity, and that this precarity is the result of structural violence. They dismiss the attacks as the actions of “crazy people.” The NYPD, for example, cited mental illness as a main factor in the recent attacks here in New York City, but this is another kind of scapegoating that makes us blind to the larger history of American racism. It makes us unable to see the structural violence that has both put Asian Americans at risk and created the “crazy person on the street,” a figure that, in New York City, is usually imagined to be a Black man. Instead, we need to ask why we live in a society that has increasingly taken resources away from education and mental-health care from communities of color and put them into policing and prisons in what has amounted to a massive theft of public goods by the carceral state.

On the flip side of the carceral state is the US military empire that has trained generations of young Americans to see Asians either as enemies or as a servile people in need of, and forever indebted to, American benevolence. Both are subhuman caricatures that have facilitated the killing of Asian people in American imperial wars. If you’re the enemy, you’re supposed to be killed, and if you’re a civilian, then your death is still justified because it’s for the greater good of bringing “freedom” to your people.

HN: Thinking about the Atlanta shootings, it seems like some people were calling the victims sex workers while others were not. Either way, I found myself returning to this line about your mother in your book, which is just one part of many in which you illustrate how sexual and racial “deviance” and transgression are interwoven with racial capitalism: “She took nothing except the jobs that other people didn’t want, working subminimum wage or in the middle of the night. Even after the immigrant-haters came face-to-face with her, they still couldn’t see her, and so she became their flesh-and-bones straw woman.”  

GMC: My immediate reaction to the Atlanta sheriff’s claiming that the shooter hadn’t committed a hate crime was to question why killing a group of women presumed to be sex workers would be considered anything other than a hate crime. The debate about whether to call the victims sex workers gets complicated because, on one hand, there’s often this conflation of all Asian women with sex workers or with objects of the white-male gaze, and I understand the urge to resist that. But, on the other hand, the avoidance of naming sex work is wrapped up in shame and stigma and the fear that acknowledging a person’s status as a sex worker will deny them their victimhood. But the question of whether the women were sex workers is less relevant than the question of why sex workers are treated as disposable. The fact is that sex work is work, and many women across races engage in it to support themselves. That is not to say that it isn’t also an expression of racial capitalism because it most certainly is. In the example that I’ve focused on in my work—state-sponsored sex work for US troops in Korea—it takes place within the context of a colonial history and a neocolonial present. Before we can decolonize sex work, we need to destigmatize it. How can we talk about justice if the very conversation forces sex workers into the shadows?

By the way, the line about working in the middle of the night was a reference to my mother’s job working a graveyard shift in a juvenile-detention center, a job that was tremendously psychologically violent. We don’t talk about how working in the carceral system damages one’s mental health, yet we make assumptions that sex work is a priori traumatic.

HN: I’m curious to hear your thoughts and feelings on the topicality of racial sexual violence, which is so often supported by a scaffold of liberal antiracism.

GMC: We live in an era when demands for social justice take the form of hashtags, which is automatically a kind of reductive politics. We talked about this before with #MeToo, and we can think about #StopAsianHate in the same way. If we’re having debates over whether an Asian woman has been killed because of race or gender or sexuality, as if they were discrete categories, then that’s a signal that multiple histories have been obscured, such as the ones you’ve mentioned—the history of US imperial wars in Asia and the history of America’s immigration policies. However, this moment has given rise to a proliferation of public dialogue about those histories. Every news outlet that I pay attention to ran articles linking the Atlanta shootings to US military occupation of South Korea and the sex industry surrounding it or to the Page Act of 1875, which was driven by white people’s fear of the “immoral” Asians on the West Coast because among them were female sex workers. We have to ask if it’s possible to adequately address racial sexual violence without interrogating why so many immigrant women and women of color have jobs that put them at greater risk of sexual violence. I’m not just talking about jobs that are overtly sexualized, like massage-parlor work, but also domestic work and food industry work.

HN: Your new book addresses your mother’s mental illness and your attempts to secure care for her, whether through cooking and your own nurturing of her or through the state. I’m curious to know more about your experiences with psychoanalysis and mental-health care. Your approach to sociology, anthropology, and history is quite psychoanalytic in the ways you investigate the silences, traumas, and corruptions of memory, language, and subjectivity. Also, the divergence in cultural understandings around “mental illness” raises questions of whom a society considers worthy of care. What do you think are the economic, social, and ideological conditions producing such a politics of abandonment? 

GMC: I studied sociology through a psychoanalytic lens with my dear teacher Patricia Clough, who helped me become attentive to the unspoken and invisible. While most sociologists focus on the collective, she taught me to also look at the “subindividual,” such as energy or affect that circulates among bodies and minds. It was a radical departure from traditional sociology, but it allowed me to think about hauntings, how large-scale violences such as war and genocide have multiple and multiplying afterlives that long outlast the original traumatic event, or the person who first experienced or witnessed that event. These afterlives can manifest in all kinds of places that are typically the realm of the psychoanalyst—dreams, desires, neuroses, fears—and they can wreak havoc on communities in ways that empower those who are invested in maintaining systems of oppression. They’ll say, “Look at the violence these people commit against each other.”

Capitalism is deeply invested in mental illness. It creates tremendous value for the pharmaceutical industry and the prison–industrial complex. The three biggest “mental-health-care providers” in the US today are urban jails—Rikers, Cooks County, and L.A. County. In 1986, I was told by a mental-health-care professional that the only way I could help my mother was by turning her over to the police. So if the state considers “mental-health care” being pumped full of Haldol while you’re sitting in Rikers, then the question is not just which populations are worthy of care, but which populations are worthy of freedom? Which populations are worthy of dignity?

I started to ask these kinds of questions at the age of fifteen, when I first tried to find help for my mother. I discovered that the mental-health-care system had nothing to offer; it basically said that she was a lost cause. It felt like a huge betrayal at the time, but it also planted a seed of critical consciousness. While we must try to hold the state accountable, we also have to look beyond the state for care because the state is not going to save us.

HN: In Tastes Like War, you write of your father: “He also didn’t understand that racial domination doesn’t just take the form of the white terrorist burning a cross in your front yard. It can also look like the man you live with, the man you love. The man who defends your birth country, the place where he found his wife.” This linking of violence and aggression with those we love and care for seems essential and so often unaddressed.

GMC: We tend to talk about this link in the context of intimate-partner violence or child abuse but rarely in terms of race. The conversation about race often falls into a binary of inside and outside, such as a community of color and its outsiders, but we don’t often talk about the ways white privilege and racism operate within mixed-race families. It can be very subtle, even illegible, as racism. Frequently, when I talk about my white father, I hear white people express this disbelief that this man could have been racist because marrying my Korean mother, and raising and supporting Asian children, was somehow proof that he wasn’t. But they’re not seeing that Korea was colonized and my father occupied a position of power vis-à-vis the Korean women like my mother who worked in the service industry for the American military. His personality was pretty mild-mannered; he didn’t conform to stereotypes of violent white supremacists. His version of white supremacy was the saviorist, rather than the terrorist, kind. He believed that white people’s contributions to culture and society were superior, and that we Asians who became American through US military intervention ought to be forever grateful. While my relationship with my father was incredibly complicated because of that dynamic, I loved him, and I would say to others who are in similar family situations that we need to give ourselves permission to live within that kind of contradiction. As a culture, we need to acknowledge that complexity.

HN: Also relevant, I think, is the proliferation of trauma studies, as well as the ways our everyday vernacular is steeped in psychological and analytical language (“narcissism,” “dissociation,” “projection,” “neurosis,” etc.). You’ve been critical of how trauma is theorized within the academy.

GMC: It’s highly problematic to think of trauma primarily as a pathology that belongs to the individual and is tied to a single past event because that takes the wounding out of its social context. As Lara Sheehi and I recently discussed, the concept of trauma is most useful when we think of it as a historical residue that has a livingness, that is always present through our current structures of violence and oppression.

HN: One of the ideas you address in the book is the social nature of schizophrenia, in contrast to the biomedical model that followed the dominant psychoanalytic mode of the early-twentieth century. Do you see a shift back toward a more social model of mental illness, either currently or in the near future? I’m thinking about younger generations from populations that have been historically pathologized who are moving into mental-health-care work, and the potentially exciting transformations that could happen along with that, though perhaps this is overly optimistic. 

GMC: We’re already moving toward thinking about the impact of the social on the kinds of experiences that Western psychiatry calls schizophrenia, but not in the 1960s psychoanalytic way, which blamed the “schizophrenogenic mother.” For example, I think about the self-advocacy work of the Hearing Voices Network in England and new kinds of therapies that engage the voices rather than simply try to suppress them with medication. There have been movements to decolonize mental-health care in the US and elsewhere, but we still have such a long way to go. The pharmaceutical industry is so dominant in the way we think about treating psychic pain, and the industry has seen a huge boom during the pandemic. We have to break the grip of the biomedical model on the way we imagine mental health. It’s not that drugs aren’t helpful; in some cases, they’re tremendously helpful—but not always. If we remain stuck in thinking that people who hear voices simply have broken brains that can be fixed by the right drug cocktail, then we miss opportunities to work toward collective healing.

HN: What are you working on now, or next?  

GMC: I’m coediting a book called Children of the People: Writings by and About CUNY Students on Race and Social Justice with Rose M. Kim and Robin McGinty, which is coming out at the end of this year. Besides that, I’ve been toying with the idea of writing a children’s book or a YA novel based on some of the experiences I wrote about in Tastes Like War. Sometimes I think back to my adolescence and how I felt so alone in trying to make sense of what was happening to my mother, and I wonder what it would have been like to connect with others who shared a similar experience. If I had had a vocabulary to talk about it back then, maybe I wouldn’t have experienced the same degree of pain during my teens and twenties. I’d like to be of service to young people who are going through that kind of struggle.