Phil Yu Of 'Angry Asian Man': 'Don't Let Anyone Else Tell Your Story'

The man behind the groundbreaking Asian American blog shares how he got started, reflects on the media and reveals what's most rewarding about being "Angry Asian Man."
鈥淲hen it comes to covering Asian Americans, most mainstream outlets are stumbling, tripping over themselves and not really getting it,鈥 says Phil Yu. 鈥淓veryone talks about this, but we鈥檙e not seeing it implemented as quickly as it needs to be.鈥
鈥淲hen it comes to covering Asian Americans, most mainstream outlets are stumbling, tripping over themselves and not really getting it,鈥 says Phil Yu. 鈥淓veryone talks about this, but we鈥檙e not seeing it implemented as quickly as it needs to be.鈥
Courtesy of Phil Yu

Phil Yu鈥檚 relaxed smile is practically audible throughout our conversation. His laid-back contentment permeates his sentences, immediately making anyone he talks to feel like they鈥檙e catching up with an old friend at brunch.

That鈥檚 what鈥檚 most amusing about the Bay Area native. Yu is a pioneer. An 鈥渁ngry鈥 one.

Over the course of almost two decades, Yu has built up a reputable brand as the blogger Angry Asian Man. Today, he鈥檚 considered one of the most powerful voices on social media, sounding the alarm when it comes to injustices affecting the Asian community.

The coexistence of Yu鈥檚 fire with his chilled-out attitude reflects the point he鈥檚 been making for years. It鈥檚 an idea that鈥檚 just assumed for white people, but not for individuals of color: that Asian Americans and other underrepresented are multidimensional, complex, unique individuals, even when they鈥檙e rarely portrayed that way.

鈥淭here is no one way to be Asian American. People try to put you in a box ... and unfortunately, the way that that plays out is a lot of us are silenced or made to feel that we need to shut up,鈥 he says.

鈥淚t鈥檚 OK to speak up and have a voice and say something, even when it goes against the grain and when people tell you to sit down and shut up,鈥 Yu adds. 鈥淭he other side of that is that you don鈥檛 have to wait for permission to tell your story, and don鈥檛 let anyone else tell your story.鈥

You don鈥檛 have to wait for permission to tell your story, and don鈥檛 let anyone else tell your story.

Phil Yu, blogger behind "Angry Asian Man"

Countless new blogs and outlets have sprouted from the seeds Yu, and the rare few like him, planted on the internet. While he鈥檚 frequently asked to speak to students or provide commentary on issues that disproportionately affect Asian Americans, his own authority and influence haven鈥檛 even hit him.

鈥淚t鈥檚 still weird,鈥 Yu says with a laugh. 鈥淚鈥檝e never been comfortable with the idea I鈥檓 representing or have the burden of speaking for our community. All I can say is I鈥檓 speaking from my little vantage point of running the site.鈥

But Yu鈥檚 impact on Asian American media is indisputable. Back before Twitter campaigns like #StarringJohnCho actually effected change, when Jackie Chan鈥檚 character in a comically wacky film like 鈥淩ush Hour 2鈥 colored the dominant American perception of Asians, Yu started to call shit out.

He looked to independent media as inspiration, drawing from Asian American film festivals or magazines like Asian American pop culture magazine Giant Robot and A. Magazine. And it was through those mediums, he says, that he learned it was possible and necessary to carve out his own space.

As sociologist Anthony Ocampo put it to HuffPost, Yu鈥檚 blog was 鈥渦ndoubtedly revolutionary,鈥 providing a take on everything from pop culture to politics to music to academia through an Asian American lens.

鈥淭his is so important because those respective industries don鈥檛 bother elevating Asian American perspectives on anything,鈥 Ocampo, an assistant professor of sociology at Cal Poly Pomona, told HuffPost.

Ocampo described the blog as a 鈥渃atalyst,鈥 emboldening other Asian Americans to be 鈥渦napologetic about centering themselves, to never get comfortable existing in the margins.鈥

Yu's blog emboldened other Asian Americans to be 'unapologetic about centering themselves, to never get comfortable existing in the margins.'

Anthony Ocampo, sociologist

Concluding his earliest posts with an authoritative 鈥淭hat鈥檚 racist!鈥 Yu鈥檚 blog told members of a group perceived as 鈥渜uiet, meek and subservient鈥 that they had the agency to be angry.

The blog was, surprisingly, born out of a time of confusion in 2001, he told HuffPost. Like many people in their early 20s, Yu wasn鈥檛 quite sure how to land on his feet, and 鈥渂logger鈥 wasn鈥檛 exactly on his list of career options. But the passion he felt for his Asian American identity, energized by what he had learned about the community during his undergraduate years at Northwestern University, ultimately overrode any desire to enter a conventional field.

鈥淭he weird thing about 鈥楢ngry Asian Man鈥 is that it was started during a time when I was like, 鈥榃hat am I going to do with my life?鈥欌 He told HuffPost. 鈥淚鈥檓 looking for a job, I don鈥檛 know exactly what I want to do but I know what I don鈥檛 want to do ... I just knew, 鈥楬ere are things I care about. Here are things that I like writing about. So let鈥檚 see what happens.鈥欌

As he grappled with his own future, Yu says, he noticed his following start to take off. And when he successfully mobilized people to take action against Abercrombie & Fitch back in 2002 (after the clothing company released T-shirts featuring racist caricatures of Asian people with slanted eyes and rice picker hats and text that said things like 鈥Wong Brothers Laundry Service 鈥 Two Wongs Can Make It White鈥), he felt the blog had a defined purpose.

鈥淏logs were talking about this way before any media outlets were covering this controversy. This sounds so cute, considering now you can just tweet at a brand with, 鈥楩uck you!鈥欌 Yu reflected. 鈥淏ut back then, being able to post Abercrombie & Fitch鈥檚 corporate contact information and direct people to write letters or call them and then people did it 鈥 that was a powerful illustration of what the blog could be or what my voice could be. It sort of changed the direction of the blog.鈥

As Yu tells it, he felt the blog took on a more productive function 鈥 now it wasn鈥檛 solely criticism; there were actions, follow-through.

Since then, the blog has helped propel social media campaigns, spotlight Asian Americans who are helping the community and uplift other forces in media by frequently highlighting some 鈥渕ust-reads.鈥 With the impact he鈥檚 made, Yu gets most excited about the idea that his blog has connected Asian readers who once felt isolated with a world they could actually relate to.

As time has gone on, other really wonderful, great voices, outlets and causes have jumped up and made this pool a lot wider and deeper ... It鈥檚 great.

Phil Yu

鈥淎fter doing this for a little while, I started meeting folks who said stuff like, 鈥業 found your blog when I was in junior high and it became a daily destination for me. I was the only Asian kid in my school, but it made me feel really connected to a larger community that was geographically closed off but I feel like it was part of something,鈥欌 he recalls. 鈥淭he realization that if you do this long enough, you鈥檒l have that kind of impact is kinda striking.鈥

The internet has evolved since the days Yu was still pondering his life鈥檚 direction. He鈥檚 dipped into different projects, with his current labor of love being the podcast 鈥淭hey Call Us Bruce,鈥 which he co-hosts with writer Jeff Yang. And he鈥檚 excited about the emergence of other Asian Americans who share the passion he has for the community. He says the burden of 鈥渏umping into every controversy鈥 is not so heavy.

鈥淎s time has gone on, other really wonderful, great voices, outlets and causes have jumped up and made this pool a lot wider and deeper ... It鈥檚 great,鈥 he says.

Yu鈥檚 work has influence beyond the blogosphere and interwebs. Mary Yu Danico, another professor of sociology at Cal Poly Pomona and director of the Asian American Transnational Research Initiative, told HuffPost that academics teach Yu鈥檚 work.

鈥淚 think Phil has inspired generations to think about what social justice means to them. I know that many began to think about public acts of disobedience, protesting on the streets, and challenging our political representatives to actually lead and represent,鈥 she said by email. 鈥淥thers thought about the way they framed their own narratives in acting, artwork, music, etc. To be our true complex selves is something that Phil sparked in all of us.鈥

Even though the chorus of voices speaking out in the Asian community has expanded, mainstream media has been slow to understand how to report on Asian Americans in a responsible way or even recognize the issues that are worthy of coverage. And that鈥檚 possibly why Yu鈥檚 remained a steadfast champion for the community online.

A study from the Knight Foundation found that while readers didn鈥檛 pinpoint specific news outlets as trustworthy in writing about Asian Americans, they looked toward specific journalists for responsible takes. The majority of study participants said they trusted people of Asian descent most to write accurate stories about Asians 鈥 and found pieces by non-Asians, specifically white reporters, to be the least accurate.

Just last year, The New York Times published a much-derided story titled 鈥淐anal Street Cleans Up Nice,鈥 celebrating Manhattan Chinatown鈥檚 鈥high-fashion makeover鈥 while ignoring how gentrification was pushing out Chinese people.

Diversify your newsrooms. Or else you鈥檙e just gonna have the same problems over and over again. You鈥檙e going to cover the same shit the wrong way.

Phil Yu

鈥淢ainstream journalism operates from a space that heavily defaults to white issues,鈥 one participant in the study said. 鈥淗ow do I trust this perspective when they don鈥檛 make the assumption that 鈥榩eople鈥 includes non-white people?鈥

Yu shares this frustration.

鈥淲hen it comes to covering Asian Americans, most mainstream outlets are stumbling, tripping over themselves and not really getting it,鈥 he says. 鈥淓veryone talks about this, but we鈥檙e not seeing it implemented as quickly as it needs to be.鈥

鈥淒iversify your newsrooms,鈥 he adds. 鈥淥r else, you鈥檙e just gonna have the same problems over and over again. You鈥檙e going to cover the same shit the wrong way. It鈥檚 ... covering food or art or politics or community issues.鈥

Nowadays, Yu says he鈥檚 working on a few projects. Without offering up too much information, he hints that he鈥檚 got something brewing in the film and television world. But he says 鈥淎ngry Asian Man鈥 will always exist in some form.

We Asian Americans will never forget the beginning, though.

鈥淗e started to share his insights, his observation, his point of view and his plentitude of narratives with a social justice and intellectual bend,鈥 Danico wrote.

She concluded: 鈥淚t was refreshing but it was raw, real, and true.鈥

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