A gate to Harvard UniversityBrian Snyder / Reuters

When I was a teenager, I occasionally affected a sort of absurdist faux-racial militancy, declaring myself the Generalissimo of the Most Serene Popular and Revolutionary Democratic Republic of Brooklyn, a breakaway statelet committed to Afro-Asian revolutionism. I asked my best friend—who was white, incidentally—to serve as minister without portfolio, and he happily obliged. Rest assured, this sounded just as silly then as it does now. But I shudder to think of what might have happened had Twitter been around back then. My playfulness would surely have been mistaken for something more sinister.

I thought of this when Sarah Jeong, a much-admired technology journalist with sterling credentials, became the center of one of our periodic micro-controversies for having written pointed missives about whites on Twitter. The tweets surfaced shortly after the New York Times announced that she would join its editorial board. Jeong insists that her remarks represented a satirical response to racist abuse she had received over the years, and I won’t presume to better understand her inner thoughts. The Times accepted her explanation, resisting calls, mostly from the political right, to fire her. Others, such as my National Review colleague David French, defended the decision not to fire her while stressing that anti-white rhetoric shouldn’t be lightly dismissed. I am sympathetic to French’s argument, which he makes with great care. What I want to do, though, is look beyond the particulars of Jeong’s remarks to better understand why anti-white rhetoric is, in some communities, so commonplace as to be banal.

To state the obvious, Jeong is hardly alone in colorfully expressing anti-white sentiment, and it is this broader phenomenon I find most interesting. Honestly, I’ve been around this sort of talk, most of it at least half-joking, for most of my life. (Years ago, I even affectionately parodied it.) The people I’ve heard archly denounce whites have for the most part been upwardly-mobile people who’ve proven pretty adept at navigating elite, predominantly white spaces. A lot of them have been whites who pride themselves on their diverse social circles and their enlightened views, and who indulge in their own half-ironic white-bashing to underscore that it is their achieved identity as intelligent, worldly people that counts most, not their ascribed identity as being of recognizably European descent.

One reason I’ve been disinclined to take this sort of talk seriously in the past is that it has so often smacked of intra-white status jockeying. It is almost as though we’re living through a strange sort of ethnogenesis, in which those who see themselves as (for lack of a better term) upper-whites are doing everything they can to disaffiliate themselves from those they’ve deemed lower-whites. Note that to be “upper” or “lower” isn’t just about class status, though of course that’s always hovering in the background. Rather, it is about the supposed nobility that flows from racial self-flagellation.  

But many of the white-bashers of my acquaintance have been highly-educated and affluent Asian American professionals. So why do they do it? What work is this usually (though not always) gentle and irony-steeped white-bashing actually performing?

Some of this is just obvious edgelord trolling: the most transgressive thing you can get away with saying without actually getting called out for it. In this sense, it’s a way of establishing solidarity: All of us in this space get it, and we have nothing but disdain for those who do not. And some may well be intended as a defiant retort to bigotry.

But that doesn’t exhaust the universe of possibilities. In some instances, white-bashing can actually serve as a means of ascent, especially for Asian Americans. Embracing the culture of upper-white self-flagellation can spur avowedly enlightened whites to eagerly cheer on their Asian American comrades who show (abstract, faceless, numberless) lower-white people what for. And, simultaneously, it allows Asian Americans who use the discourse to position themselves as ethnic outsiders, including those who are comfortably enmeshed in elite circles.

Think about what it takes to claw your way into America’s elite strata. Unless you were born into the upper-middle class, your surest route is to pursue an elite education. To do that, it pays to be exquisitely sensitive to the beliefs and prejudices of the people who hold the power to grant you access to the social and cultural capital you badly want. By setting the standards for what counts as praiseworthy, elite universities have a powerful effect on youthful go-getters. Their admissions decisions represent powerful “nudges” towards certain attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors, and I’ve known many first- and second-generation kids—I was one of them—who intuit this early on.

Consider the recent contretemps over Harvard’s undergraduate admissions policies. Critics argue that the university actively discriminates against high-achieving Asian American applicants by claiming that a disproportionately large number of them have lackluster personalities. One obvious reaction to this charge is to denounce Harvard for its supposed double standards. This reaction might be especially appealing to those who see themselves as the sort of people who’d be dismissed by Harvard’s suspect screening process, and who’d thus have every reason to resent it. Viewed through an elite-eye lens, though, this sort of reaction can seem a little gauche. You’re saying, in a sense, that you can’t hack it—you just can’t crack the code. To a successful code-cracker, that could seem more than a little pathetic.

So what if you’re an Asian American who has already made the cut? In that case, you might celebrate Harvard’s wisdom in judiciously balancing its student body, or warn that Harvard’s critics have a darker, more ominous agenda that can’t be trusted. This establishes you as an insider, who gets that Harvard is doing the right thing, while allowing you to distance yourself from less-enlightened, and less-elite, people of Asian origin: You’re all being duped by evil lower-whites who don’t grok racial justice.

And if you’re an Asian American aspiring to make the cut, even with the deck stacked against you, you might eschew complaining in favor of doing everything in your power to cultivate the personal qualities Harvard wants most, or at least to appear to have done so. One straightforward way to demonstrate that you are Harvard material might be to denounce Harvard as racist, provided you’re careful to do so in a way that flatters rather than offends those who run the university and are invested in its continued success. For example, you might reject the notion that affirmative action is the problem while arguing that Harvard shouldn’t endeavor to increase representation of rural and working-class whites, on the spurious grounds that all whites are privileged. That you’ll make these claims even though you yourself are hardly among the most downtrodden is immaterial: The important thing is to be interesting. What better way to demonstrate that you’re not a humdrum worker bee, afflicted with a lackluster personality, than to carefully and selectively express the right kind of righteous indignation?

I certainly don’t mean to single out Harvard. As the senior assistant director of admissions at Yale recently observed, “for those students who come to Yale, we expect them to be versed in issues of social justice. We encourage them to be vocal when they see an opportunity for change in our institution and in the world.” Picture yourself as an eager high schooler reading these words, and then jotting down notes. You absorb, assuming you hadn’t already, what it takes to make your way in contemporary elite America. And as you grow older, you lean into the rhetorical gambits that served you so well in the past. You might even build a worldview out of them.

Or, alternatively, this sort of rhetoric can be less a tool of assimilation than a method of alleviating what I’ll call the burden of representativeness. If you are an outsider who finds yourself in an elite space, you may well feel an obligation to represent the people for whom you are serving as a stand-in—working-class people, or the members of disadvantaged minority groups. This could be true even, or perhaps particularly, if you are decidedly unrepresentative of the others in the group. Because you are present in elite spaces, your authenticity will often be called into question. So white-bashing becomes a form of assuaging internal and external doubts, affirming that despite ascending into the elite, you are not entirely of it.

Whatever their purposes, such statements don’t exist in the abstract. They’re addressed to specific audiences and serve particular ends. It’s when they travel beyond the audiences for which they were crafted that they backfire—the carefully calculated transgression now goes too far, the intended signal is no longer received. But despite the outrage they generate, they’re unlikely to disappear; in a variety of ways, they’re too useful to those who employ them to abandon.

We want to hear what you think about this article. Submit a letter to the editor or write to letters@theatlantic.com.