Challenging Asian Privilege

Remember the Asian F episode of the TV series Glee? Given it’s name, I definitely caught it. In it, the character of Mike Chang (Harry Shum, Jr.) get’s a A- on a chemistry test and his father loses it, demanding that he quit his girlfriend and the glee club. Apparently, A- is an Asian F. Mike’s girlfriend is also an Asian American burdened with Tiger parents demanding nothing less than perfect grades and money machine career aspirations.

The Glee writers deserve a little grief for this episode, but I’d go easy on them. They are, after all, no exception when it comes to casting Asian Americans as coldly calculating model minorities.

Even political media promotes the stereotype. Either intentionally or by default, political reporters from MSNBC hosts Melissa Harris-Perry and Chris Hayes on the left, to the racist author of The Bell Curve and occasional National Review columnist Charles Murray on the right have perpetrated it. And last year, a report by the Pew Research Center entitled The Rise of Asian Americans propelled the stereotype into the 21st century, becoming a primary data source for news outlets nationally.

So let’s get real for a moment. Asian America is made up of over 45 distinct ethnic groups speaking over 100 language dialects. Among these groups, some, such as Hmong Americans, are among the poorest in the U.S. by ethnicity.

Moreover, statistics concerning our success exaggerate. The reality is that larger Asian American family incomes result in part from a larger number of earners per household. Asian Americans actually trail whites in per capita income. And the most successful Asian American ethnic groups – the Taiwanese, Indian, Malaysian, and Sri Lankan American minorities – include a large share of members who were drawn to the U.S. as business investors or highly skilled workers.  That means that Asian Americans are by no means representative of Asians globally. U.S. immigration policy plays a role in constructing the Asian American “race.”

But regardless of the disadvantages some of us face, many Asians do enjoy privileges beyond the reach of other people of color. That might explain why some Asian Americans are bought into model minority stereotyping. Their attitudes mirror many on the right whose response to Asian American protest against Asian stereotyping goes something like can’t you people take a compliment?

But this Asian complicity with the stereotype is dangerous. Why? Consider this.

As I’ve pointed out before, the model minority stereotype was first popularized in part as a tool to leverage white resentment toward the Civil Rights and Black Power movements. In the midst of widespread black protest, the Asian model minority debuted in the media as evidence that racism will fall to quiet hard work, self-sacrifice, and compliance with authority. The model minority was contrasted with “problem minorities” in order to undercut support for reform. Between the lines, the suggestion was that black culture, not white racism, was the reason for black poverty, and black protest, for that reason, was neither legitimate nor helpful to black people who would do better to fix themselves than to try to fix the country.

Yet some Asian Americans have prospered, and more, some would argue, than other people of color, as a result of desegregation, voting rights reforms, and programs like affirmative action. When we play into “problem minority” racism we threaten these gains.

Now, I get that the relatively small share of the U.S. population that is Asian American makes us less a threat to white racial domination than, say, Latinos or African Americans. And, for that reason, when Newt Gingrich refers to “entitlement junkies” and Mitt Romney disparages the 47%, they don’t have us in mind. But, we ought not kid ourselves. Dodging these attacks doesn’t make us safe.

Asian Americans may be only 6% of the U.S., but Asians are a very large percentage of the global population. And Asian countries such as China, Pakistan, Iran, and North Korea are considered threats to American posterity. Playing to racism by exaggerating that “threat” is becoming a popular strategy of elected leaders trying to win political points with an increasingly resentful public.

The combination of xenophobic Asia-bashing and model minority stereotyping makes Asian Americans targets of resentment. And certain realities are causing that resentment to rise.

Asian Americans are about 18% of students at Harvard, and almost a fourth of students at Stanford. The sheer numbers of us at the most elite academies domestically, and the infusion of Asian investment capital from abroad is creating cracks in the bamboo ceiling. People who look like us to the general public are increasingly being used as symbols of American social mobility at a time when too many Americans find themselves mired in the mud of a recessed economy.

Considering the history of forever foreign, yellow peril Asian stereotyping, I suggest that basking in the glow of it’s equally dehumanizing flip side is extremely dangerous. Instead, we should be looking at the recent Southern Poverty Law Center report on the record-setting rise of white militias, and studies revealing growing racial animosity since the election of our first black president with grave concern.

Privilege without power makes us vulnerable. To build power in a country whose racial demography is tilting against whites, we would do best to build bonds of cross-racial solidarity with other people of color. To do that, we must look beyond our common suffering and accept accountability for the privileges that divide us.




Avatar photo

By Scot Nakagawa

Scot Nakagawa is a political strategist and writer who has spent more than four decades exploring questions of structural racism, white supremacy, and social justice. Scot’s primary work has been in the fight against authoritarianism, white nationalism, and Christian nationalism. Currently, Scot is co-lead of the 22nd Century Initiative, a project to build the field of resistance to authoritarianism in the U.S.

Scot is a past Alston/Bannerman Fellow, an Open Society Foundations Fellow, and a recipient of the Association of Asian American Studies Community Leader Award. His writings have been included in Race, Gender, and Class in the United States: An Integrated Study, 9th Edition,  and Killing Trayvons: An Anthology of American Violence.

Scot's political essays, briefings, and other educational media can be found at his newsletter, We Fight the Right at He is a sought after public speaker and educator who provides consultation on campaign and communications strategy, and fundraising.

12 replies on “Challenging Asian Privilege”

You know, I’m getting tired of these Model Minority articles. Why? Because nobody cares except for Asians and Asian Americans. The main argument always points out misleading census data, xenophobia, and demographic manipulation by bigwigs to claim us as the dorky, pathetic, “successful” stereotype you see everyday. This point has been driven home for decades and every Asian American knows what it’s like to be treated and generalized to these “positive” stereotypes. Note that my statements are entirely anecdotal, based solely on personal experiences.

These articles and general conversation about Asian American issues leads to a very common response that may sound like the following: “Calm the fuck down, you’re all butt-hurt over being made fun of for having chinky eyes in high school, you really need to shut the fuck up and stop complaining because you don’t have any real problems”. Albeit an internet troll example, many share this sentiment. Hence, I would like to see a more direct confrontation of the model minority stereotype so we can really shut up the bigots. I’ve confronted a racist, sexist, homophobe in the past. Forced to defend my American identity and point out the uncommon issues that Asian americans are forced to face everyday, all I got was, “you say all that, but i know I’m right. You people think you’re so special, well, you’re wrong.” We’re going in circles, yet almost every Asian knows this bullshit stereotype too well. So, why are there so many stereotypical examples?

For a simple answer in my mind, the underlying issue isn’t in the majority giving us shit. Please, feel free to argue, but I believe that the traditional “tiger generation” method of child rearing is in reality child abuse. Us Asian Americans sure like to joke and talk about how hard it is to be us and laugh when we self-proclaim the ‘positive’ parts of our kind. Well, fuck that. For brevity, I would like to give an example. A friend from elementary school gets a B-. Her parents flip out. Then she’s beaten to a bloody mess on the spot. Her sister cries for her father to stop, says that she wants to call the police. The father picks up the phone, shoves it in her face, and shouts to “call the police then”. Of course, my friend was too terrified to make the call. So she was beaten bloody for being “out of line” and not “respectful” of her father. And that’s real fucked up thing to do to a fourth grader. In addition, my own parents threatened to do the same if I ever failed a class. This was some convoluted means of “motivation”, where I should be “grateful” that my parents weren’t “as Korean as Michelle’s parents”. I believe the ramifications tiger generation child rearing is a bigger, much more widespread issue that conditions Asian Americans to be pathetic, studious, push-over nerds. The Asian American Stereotype, I believe, is rooted in the abusive child conditioning set by Asian “tradition”.

I find this comment very suspicious. Am I alone in this? In any case, I’m not at all convinced that “tiger parenting” is the norm of this generation, nor that the possibility that some people raise their children in an abusive manner is an indication of Asian “tradition.” But, unless it’s just completely abusive or promoting some white supremacist’s web site, I publish them. So you decide.

In no way did I mean to express any sense of white supremacy or indicate that all traditional Asian child rearing is abusive. I’m sorry for being harsh but I really have experienced this in my life and consoled others who feel the fear of their parents growing up. For those Asian Americans like myself, the disparity between ethnic tradition and American culture lead to long years of depression. I posted my comment to bring up that the model minority stereotype isn’t going away no matter how much we clarify the data. I guess I’m longing for a world where I can be treated as an American. I’m sick of being called “china” on the L when I pass by Chinatown in Chicago.

Dear Scott Nakagawa,
I am a first time poster, so congrats on motivating an otherwise lazy internet surfer into an active participant. I enjoyed the article but would have loved more concrete examples of Asian privilege, furthermore a more concise definition of what it means to be Asian in terms of the Model Minority pressure.
I wrote this comment as a response to address Dick Hwang’s very bizarre interpretation of the tiger mom as child abuse. First, for his assumption of how common it is, it seems more likely a friend told a friend that told a half brother… But the extent “a tiger mom/dad” would go for an A. His commment seems to dehumanize Asian American parents as merely harsh motivators for achievement , lacking the natural motherly or fatherly care.
Well it seems my laziness has now taken the bet of me. Anyway great article. Love to read more

Wow,I had a sea change in my views on the Asian-American stereotype by the time I was done reading this article. You explained the problem with the model minority stereotype better then anyone ever has.,Thanks.

Thanks, I appreciate the compliment. Kind words always help to keep me motivated!

Hi Scot – I’m writing about race and parenting on and found your posts (this one and the subsequent one) thoughtful and insightful. My perspective on this is coming as a white mother of a black son and my goal is to work with white parents to help them unteach their white children about the racism they will inevitably learn about in society. I am by my heritage Spanish and Jewish (Sephardic) and never considered myself white until I was forced into that box by having a black son. I commend you for speaking about these issues because I think it is incumbent upon us who pass (white or privileged Asian) to look at racism in its entirety.

Thank you Scott. I have been grappling with understanding Asian “privilege” for a while and your post helped me put language to my fears about the Model Minorty myth and my “beef” with it. It’s not that I am complaining that people have assumed I am smart and given me the benefit of the doubt when it comes to my intellect when I have struggled in school but rather it’s that I feel used as a tool to reassert racism towards other groups of people especially Blacks in America and Pacific Islanders and southeast Asian immigrants who perceptibly struggle more than Chinese Americans like my family. In your other blog post, “More on Asian Privilege” I appreciated your qualifying of our “privilege” as conditional because it totally is. How quickly, our model minority status can be taken away from us. Post 9/11 treatment of our South Asian brothers and sisters is the most clear example of how quickly our model minority status can be taken away from us. But also, remember Frank H. Wu?

If our privilege is conditional, then it is not power like you mention and what angers me the most is that when we are used as a tool to pit us against other people of color then we are not oriented towards racial equity but rather playing oppression olympics. It reminds me of how the sugar cane plantation owners would hire multiple groups of people to work their fields and intentionally keep the groups from learning one another’s language so they could keep them under their control and prevent them from building solidarity together.

Hi Scot,

Thank you for your article and the link to the Bamboo Ceiling article. I’m Asian Canadian and pretty much face similar scenario as Asian American.

Prior to University, I actually never felt any racism besides the playground slurs in middle school because I went to predominately Asian schools. While those racial slurs were outright racism, they were mostly kids’ play. We would fought and resolve those issues pretty quickly in the school playground. Ironically, the damage created by “transparent racism” were not even close to the damage created by “invisible racism” I’ve “encountered” post high-school.

My family was pretty well-off so I went to an Ivey league business school. At university, people no longer utter racial slurs. Instead, I felt that there was an invisible wall separating the “visible minorities” from the “locals”. In group projects, you rarely see minorities working in a group with the “elite locals”. From my personal experience, all my positive experience came from working with other visible minorities including South Asian, East Asian, Middle Eastern, and 1st gen immigration kids of Eastern Europe (moved to Canada as a child but not born here).

When I went to exchange in Sweden, I had some really good experience with the Swedes and other exchange like German, Italian, Americans who didn’t seem to have an invisible wall against minority. It was the first time where I found I was included in my entire university life. We were like a family!

After that positive experience, I didn’t think I could come back to my university and face another dreadful semester. I dropped out of school with only 1 semester left to focus on my business.

Now, my business is flourishing. I thought I had escaped any future potential workplace racism because I’m in control of my own life. Little did I know, I still face racism when I’m in the position to hire employees. I’m having a hard time hiring and received an abnormal amount rejection on job offers even though the offers were competitive.

Maybe I’m just inventing this in my head. Maybe I’m attributing everything to racism. Unfortunately, I will never know the answer because unlike racial slurs, “invisible racism” is impossible to detect.

Thanks for sharing your story, Roger. The Canadian experience seems to mirror the U.S. experience in many ways. I relate to your frustration over always wondering why you are being treated in a certain way. I would face road enraged white drivers, or have white people express aggression if the aisles in grocery stores are crowded and wonder, is that person directing their frustration at me because of my race? Are they reacting because they feel like the crowded conditions are due, at least in part, because there are too many of “us” around? And that anger, why just at me? Are they responding to some sort of stereotype of Asians as passive, and therefore using me as a punching bag for their frustrations?

Comments are closed.