On Asian American Privilege


The explosion of online race talk about Asian Americans lately is enough to make your head spin. Are we progressive or conservative? Are we rich or poor? Are we privileged or oppressed? And the thorniest of all: are we allies or colluders on the question of anti-blackness?

The challenge of discussing race on Twitter is that nuance gets stifled by character limits and thumb fatigue. But the short answer is: Asian Americans are all of these things. This can be seen in research on Asian American political views and poverty, and in our reports on Asian Americans and race. The Asian American vote is up for grabs. We inhabit both ends of the economic spectrum. We are sometimes anti-racist and sometimes not. The problem is, this answer satisfies no one.

Why are these questions so hard, and the answer so unsatisfying? I think it has to do with a tendency to view race as a question of demographics rather than of politics. Because this all begs the question of what and whom we’re talking about when we say Asian American. Is it a demographic category that includes a long list of ethnic subgroups? If so, then what holds us together racially, when segments of that category are among the poorest in the nation, and others among the most prosperous? When it includes prominent right wing politicians, as well as organizers for police accountability and worker justice? Given these differences, how can we say anything definitive about the relationship of Asian Americans to blackness, which is an inescapable, core idea in any conversation about race?

We formed ChangeLab because we believe there’s a need for the racial justice movement to catch up to all the slippery ways that racial politics is changing, and because we believe Asian Americans have an important role to play. Too often, the drive to have the perfect analysis gets in the way of the need just to have a conversation, to admit what we don’t know, and to seek out different solutions. And struggling with our relationship to blackness throws up hard questions. After all, our very economy and political system is built on slavery and settler colonialism. Imagining our way out of that is no easy task, and recognizing our participation in it is painful. But when we wiggle our way out of the question, that makes things worse.

Does Asian American privilege exist? Yes it does. I get the argument that says the historically rooted structures supporting white supremacy were not intended to accrue benefits to Asian Americans, and that the primary beneficiaries of those structures are white. This is true. But this argument sidesteps another truth, that Asian Americans unintentionally benefit from or actively seek to exploit those very structures. It also evades the special burden (and difficulty) that the model minority myth places on those of us who benefit from it to define ourselves politically, as either left or right of the color line. And finally, when we use this argument in response to black criticism of Asian American anti-black racism, it denies the fact that we don’t just benefit from anti-blackness, but also from the legacy of black struggle and resistance. Perhaps a better response would be to say, “Absolutely. It’s a problem that we need to figure out. Ideas?” or “Yeah! We gotta work on that. Who’s in?”

In our research exploring Asian American ideas about race, anti-black racism was an important theme. It often came up in comments about the construction of the model minority myth, but people also specifically critiqued Asian American participation in anti-black racism. One person said:

Especially educated, more middle-class Asians benefit greatly from the current structure…  There’s a great fear out there of ‘Okay, if we identify with Blacks and Latinos, do we become like them? Does having a more progressive, racial justice Asian identity, does it help Blacks and Latinos? Or does it just hurt us?’…I’ve heard people say Asians associate with whiteness… and sometimes I feel like… it’s more a disassociation from blackness.

Such comments often attributed this to how white supremacy has shaped Asian American ideas of race. Another person said:

Some of it is simply you’re a new immigrant here… You want to survive this structure… Even if you don’t have the language for it, you understand there’s a disparity between white people and black people… If you want to align yourself with the measure of success in that hierarchy, it means buying into this idea that we should dehumanize black people and play into that oppression.

The reality is that Asian American internalization of anti-black racism has special political consequence, given the resonance of model minority thinking. And it’s important to acknowledge that not all Asian Americans experience this in the same way. One person put it this way:

The larger structure has not been as… unforgiving of Asian populations, provided that they ‘behave themselves.’ And ‘behave themselves’ might mean not getting too involved in the political process, accepting the role of the junior partner… It’s always contingent upon certain tacit agreements… It is the imagination that Asians, specifically Japanese Americans and Chinese Americans and maybe more recently Korean Americans, behave properly… oftentimes used in opposition to African Americans, and more recently maybe Latinos… They haven’t taken into account Laotian Americans, or Vietnamese Americans, and Hmong Americans, but ‘Asian’ sort of sweeps them all up… They study hard, they work hard, they’re good at math, they’re good engineers, they’re not too loud [and] they don’t riot. This is obviously not true. But in a sense that doesn’t matter, because what we imagine, or how we organize stories, need not have very much relationship to the way things really are.

Let me be clear. Anti-Asian racism is real and life threatening. White supremacy has never fully accepted the presence of Asians in America. The history of exclusion and internment, the objectification and trafficking of Asian women, and current experiences of post-9/11 policing and hate crimes by Muslim, Arab, and South Asian Americans, have proven this. Moreover, the structures of poverty and criminalization, while designed to exploit and diminish the lives of black people, affect us. Incarceration and deportation remove loved ones from our communities, and racial discrimination traps Asian Americans in low-wage jobs and unemployment.

The point isn’t that Asian Americans don’t experience racism, or that it’s somehow less important, or that there isn’t resistance. It’s that Asian American race politics are contested, and blackness is at the crux of the question. And Asian American anti-black racism holds special political potency. Orientalism, an idea that’s hard to break down into everyday language, drives the political utility of Asian Americans in racial discourse, and our invisibility and misrepresentation in popular media. As Michael Omi and Dana Y. Takagi put it:

Unlike ‘black’ and ‘white’ as racial categories, there is a greater fluidity to ‘Asian American’ that can be manipulated in particular ways… It may not matter whether specific claims about Asian Americans are empirically correct or not. In fact, much of what both the Left and the Right claim about Asian Americans is contestable. Thus, the ‘truth’ of the claims is immaterial. What matters are the kinds of rhetorical constructions, and their emotional impacts, that the Right and the Left deploy.[1]

So maybe the answer feels unsatisfying because the questions don’t go far enough. Yes, Asian American race privilege exists, and yes, we participate in anti-black racism — and as Asian Americans, we need to do something about it. What strategies and movement practices would it take to build a more visible and organized base of antiracist Asian Americans? As I said on a recent national webcast, we have internal and external work to do. Building an anti-racist Asian American coalition holds great potential for advancing racial justice, but it requires real, vigorous debate to determine what our political commitments are – to the most marginalized parts of that coalition, and to the broader racial justice movement.

[1] “Situating Asian Americans in the Political Discourse on Affirmative Action”

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By Soya Jung

Soya has been active in the progressive movement for over 30 years. During the 1990s she worked as a reporter at the International Examiner, communications and policy staff for the WA State House Democratic Caucus, and executive director of the Washington Alliance for Immigrant and Refugee Justice. She was the founding chair of the Asian and Pacific Islander Coalition, which formed in 1996 to restore food and cash assistance for low-income immigrants and refugees in Washington State. During the 2000s she worked at the Social Justice Fund, a public foundation supporting progressive organizations in the Northwest, and consulted for various institutions like the Western States Center, the Philanthropic Initiative for Racial Equity, the Nonprofit Assistance Center, the City of Seattle, and the Washington State Budget & Policy Center.

At ChangeLab Soya has authored two research reports: "Left or Right of the Color Line: Asian Americans and the Racial Justice Movement" and "The Importance of Asian Americans? It’s Not What You Think", and co-authored the Asian American Racial Justice Toolkit. She has convened numerous public events uniting scholars with social movement activists to explore race, gender, war/empire, and Asian American identity. Her writing has been published in Othering & Belonging: Expanding the Circle of Human Concern, and cited in places like the Routledge Companion to Asian American Media, ColorLines, and The Guardian.

43 replies on “On Asian American Privilege”

The middle class flow of Asian Americans follow the immigration pattern of many of the Asians that arrived after the 1965 repeal of the Chinese exclusion act where only the educated class (Most of the Taiwanese Americans come from this group) were able to immigrate to the US. Thus, college educated Asian Americans are more equipped to enter that middle class group rather than war refugees from south east Asia.

Not to be a pedant but the Chinese Exclusion Act was repealed in 1943, largely as a symbolic nod to Chiang Kai Shek and similar allies during WWII. However, the Immigration Act of 1920 put such stringent immigration prohibitions in place, repeal of the Act did little to change immigration quotes until the 1965 Act overhauled the entire system.

It’s also inaccurate to say that “only the educated class” were allowed entry post-65. It would be more accurate to say that skilled/educated workers were given immigration priority and especially when paired with separate family reunification clauses that those aforementioned families took advantage of.

I’m willing to bet that you’re … or rather your parents are of Taiwanese descent, ethnocentric a bit? Amazing how one can gloss over the implications of US immigration policy so easily and pretentiously when in fact, it’s the minutia within it’s parameters therein, that is so vital to the understanding of such policies. Next time go deeper and flesh it out some.

Thank you for your article. Its quite salient to us as African-Americans because it seems all other racial/ethnic groups have benefited from the social policies we have articulated and engaged in politics for. But Asian-Americans remain eerily and sadly silent. Additionally on several occassions I have had that Asian-American roomate or neighbor who finally breaks down and asks or intiiates that conversation about racism because they have an anger and disappointment they have yet to learn how to deal with in America. Asian-Americans will ALWAYS BE NON-WHITE and therefore your “privelege” is grossly limited. So there is room for dialogue. Lastly, in both the Trayvon Martin case and I believe the Kendrick Johnson case, the coroner’s were both Asian and both misconstrued the truth ( in the case of MArtin, he was really shot in the back and not the chest which changes much about that case) in order to appease white law enforcement, which is sad. However I wonder if they as individuials or if Asian-Americans as a group had a “people of color” mentality (which is a collective idenity ) would they have engaged in such behavior…..just a thought.

Asian Americans are also largely silenced in the media. So the “silence” of Asian Americans on racism you speak is also endemic to a larger symptom of black-white race politics. We need more allies highlighting the need for showcasing Asian American voices in the media rather than someone pointing out how we are perpetuating interpersonal racism.

Thanks to Soya for putting so much energy and time into writing this response piece to recent critiques on the Twitterverse. I have to admit, however, that I find one of the lines of thinking in this piece to be pretty dissatisfying, and in response I wanted to make two points that I think bear further consideration by self-identifying Asian American social justice activists and thinkers. First, I think the AAPI movement (small “m”), insofar as it is organized around and for the purpose of greater social justice, racial justice, and conceptions of fairness, must be aggressive in its contributions to racial justice discourse, rather than reactive or passive within the frameworks set up by other theories of discourse. Second, I think that “we” need to be much more careful than we generally are in our public discourse and social network discourse about not reinforcing the false monolith of “Asian Americans” that plays out not only in the Model Minority Myth, but even in some efforts of social justice or racial equality organizing.

To the first point, there are a lot of good things to be said about this response. I think that Soya touches on a lot of important points, although I do wish more was said about the substantive diversity of “Asian Americans” in terms of experience, but I will say more on that interconnected idea in a moment. But what was less-than-satisfying is that I think this piece takes a reactive or defensive position that in some ways plays into the ideas of the Model Minority Myth. What I mean by this is that the Model Minority Myth operates not just to frame how white society views Asian Americans, and not just as a tool of white supremacy in setting up Asian Americans as a foil to Blacks, Native Americans, and Latinos (and especially to Blacks), but it also operates between racialized groups of social justice activist or racial theory thinkers when conceptualizing what racial and social justice looks like. It is true that only in recognizing, accepting, and fully “grok”-ing the ways in which anti-Black racism and anti-Native American settler colonialism define racial politics and racial socioeconomic power in America, can Asian Americans be truly committed to the project of racial justice, whether from a reform or radical approach. Yet, accepting elements of the Model Minority Myth as we do so weakens the efficacy of both the interethnic and interracial organizing that Soya mentions.

What I mean by this is, there is a strain of discourse from Asian American activists and thinkers that internalizes the white supremacist idea of a racial hierarchy and places “Asian Americans” writ large as a “privileged” population within the racial hegemony. In other words, “we” sometimes say, “Yeah, you have it much worse off than us, and our role must first and foremost be that of an ally.” Blackness is the fulcrum, I absolutely recognize this. It is the core of anti-Black racism in the U.S., and it is foundational to the larger racial, socioeconomic power structures and institutional racisms that play out in the U.S. and abroad. But it is not the whole of the story for Asian Americans, for Native Americans, for Latinos, or for Blacks. Settler colonialism, the project of genocide against Native Americans, is foundational to the larger racial hegemony in the U.S. Orientalism, the “other”-ing of the East that has been core to European identity since medieval times, is foundational to the larger racial hegemony. In fact, anti-African racism was a part of Orientalism since before the practice of chattel slavery. Asian Americans exist in a reality that operates across all these frameworks, and to accept passively the framing by other activists and thinkers of “Asian Americans as less oppressed” is an oversimplification and reactive.

We are not simply, as implied by the quote from Omi and Takagi, a passive racialized group that serves as a pawn to be “manipulated” in the larger project of white supremacy and racial political economy. We must always recall and remember that the very idea of “Asian Americans” draws its roots in the Asian American Movement (AAM), from the lived experiences of differentiation and oppression faced by racialized Asian populations living in the U.S. for two centuries, shaped by pre- and post-colonial European constructions of the Oriental Other, resulting, for one important example, in our own subjection to the racism of minstrel shows that are even today considered fully acceptable on prime time television (HIMYM, for example), Broadway, and local theater companies across the country. The AAM reinforced the idea of pan-ethnic “Asian Americans” based on the lens of shared oppression, not shared privilege. This is because there’s no shared “privilege” of “Asian Americans.” “We” do not have privilege. The Model Minority Myth is a racist formulation of white supremacy, and does not accrue privilege to “Asian Americans.” There is no such thing as “Asian American privilege.” Instead, white supremacist anti-Black racism accrues certain *perceived* benefits to individuals and communities who participate in the white supremacist project of anti-Black racism, whether through act or omission. But latching on to such *perceived* benefits come at a price, and are not a privilege in the same sense that whiteness is a privilege, or cis male gender appearance is a privilege. It is not a “privilege” to be free from subjection to anti-Black racism.

Are Asian Americans better able to survive in America because we are not subjected to anti-Black racism? Yes. Do some or many Asian Americans participate in anti-Black racism and reinforce the portion of the white supremacist project? Yes. But anti-Black racism is essential to anti-Asian racism, just as settler colonialism and genocide against Native Americans is essential to anti-Asian racism. When “we” reject anti-Black racism, we don’t do so from a position of privilege as members of a monolithic racialized category, but rather from a position of solidarity as folks experiencing racism and fighting for racial and social justice. Perhaps more clearly, Asian American activists and thinkers should be rejecting and fighting against anti-Black racism because that is how we fight anti-Asian racism. I think this was core to Scot’s MLK Day post. Passively and reactively apologizing for “our privilege” only serves to reinforce the Model Minority Myth within activist and social justice circles. I would suggest we instead take a note from Professor Andrea Smith, Cherokee, who in her important article “Indigeneity, Settler Colonialism, White Supremacy” notes: “[O]rganising by people of colour must be premised on making strategic alliances with one another, based on where we are situated within the larger political economy. Coalition work is based on organising not just around oppression, but also around complicity in the oppression of other peoples as well as our own.”

I will offer maybe a more constructive critique, an idea that is not my own. This comes from Chanda (my PIC), in turn from an informal and private conversation she had with her grandmother, who happens to be noted leftist feminist activist Selma James. James pointed out to Chanda the limitations of a “privilege” framework for considering systems of oppression, such as anti-Black racism. She instead urges us to consider our fundamental human rights. Human rights are not privileges; therefore, one should not consider the freedom from anti-Black racism and oppression to be a privilege. Rather, anti-Black racism is a violation of fundamental human rights. Yes, it’s true that Asian Americans sometimes have better access to their fundamental rights than Black, Native American, or Latino people do (likewise, see Professor Smith’s critique of the limits of thinking only within the framework of anti-Black racism in considering the ongoing genocide against Native Americans), but this is a matter of access to rights. There were times when white supremacist structures went out of their way to extend access to some fundamental human rights to Asian American ethnic groups as part of the project of white supremacy and anti-Black racism, and some Asian Americans have unfortunately latched upon this calculated extension, becoming active participants of the project and actively engaging in anti-Black racism. Such active engagement may take the form of supporting policies of oppression such as the mass incarceration or the defunding of public infrastructure, or may take the form of personal discrimination, such as, infamously, the following of Black customers around Asian- and Asian American-owned stores (which Chanda has personally experienced). Others have taken advantage of their human rights uncritically, ignoring the ways in which anti-Black racism and settler colonialism have violated the rights and called into question the humanity of other communities of color.

I recognize that we should be careful when utilizing a human rights framework, as there’s sometimes a tendency in the liberal Western tradition of using such generalized concepts to erase situational and specific systems of oppression (i.e., color-blindness), but I think this may be a useful way of differentiating between the ability of *many* Asian Americans to exercise their freedom of movement and the security of their personal being, for example, with what we consider to be unearned privileges based on systems of discrimination, such as white privilege or cis male privilege.

This ties deeply into the second point I wanted to make regarding the false monolith of “Asian Americans.” I think a statement such as “Yes, Asian American race privilege exists, and yes, we participate in anti-black racism — and as Asian Americans, we need to do something about it,” reinforces the idea of Asian Americans as a monolith and as homogeneous. Tellingly, one of the quotes in the piece above begins with “Especially educated, more middle-class Asians benefit from the current structure.” This is what the Model Minority Myth discourse generalizes all Asian Americans to be: educated, more middle-class. The Myth normalizes the idea of Asian Americans as being happy occupants of a certain upper rung of the racial hierarchy, the Betas of Huxley’s Brave New World. I urge caution in using the term “Asian Americans” loosely, and again refer back to the AAM, to the roots of a concept of Asian Americans as an umbrella identity not for the purposes of seeking perceived benefits from the racial hegemony, but as an act of interethnic solidarity in the face of racialization, Orientalism, and socioeconomic deprivations. Just because some self-identified Asian Americans, or entire ethnic/national origin groups are “doing well” does not mean that “Asian Americans” are doing well, or have some kind of privilege.

There exists a need for a lot of conversation around the way that use of the term “Asian American” by activists and thinkers serves to erase or sweep under the rug the vast inequalities between Asian American ethnic groups. As Soya has pointed out previously on Change Lab, there are some Asian American ethnic groups that are *not* privy to unfettered access to their fundamental human rights. The wealth gap between certain ethnic groups within the larger Asian American categorization is huge, and certain Southeast Asian communities especially are not able to access the right to education. Many belonging to certain ethnic groups face at greater rates poverty, poor heatlh status, police harassment, violence, exclusion from civic participation, etc. Let’s not rely on the term “Asian American” lazily, or use it in situations where it might be convenient but could also prove inaccurate and destructive. There are times when we say “Asian American” as activists and thinkers when we mean “the pan-ethnic coalition of people who struggle commonly against anti-Asian racism and Orientalism.” Then there are times when we say “Asian Americans” and we mean “whatever ‘they’ mean by it / the popular understanding of ‘Asian’ in American culture that tends to homogenize and reinforce white supremacist notions of a Model Minority.” Activists and social justice thinkers are not immune from the latter.

I’ll end by directly responding to Soya’s closing question: What strategies and movement practices would it take to build a more visible and organized base of antiracist Asian Americans? My answer is that that is not the right question. “Asian Americans” should not exist as a category for the sake of equivalence or comparability; that would be playing along with the project of white supremacy. “Asian Americans” is only a useful idea, umbrella, or community insofar as it is useful in fighting for the fundamental human rights of both those within the community and those communities of color who share in the struggle against anti-Black racism, settler colonialism, and Orientalism. The goal should not be for there to be more and more visible “antiracist Asian Americans.” Rather, the goal should be that folks consider Asian Americans to be, fundamentally, antagonists of these systems of oppression.

Here is my constructive suggestion: focus on issues. Spend less energy trying to force a movement or a critical mass of differently situated elites that are equipped to speak within prominent social fora, and instead focus on those issues of common ground.

Focus on voting rights, actual voting rights that eliminate barriers to folks with problems securing ID, registering to vote, getting time off to vote, understanding their choices and the impact it will have on their lives.

Focus on expanding civil rights laws, protecting workers in the workplace and people walking home from the store, on the freedom of movement across town, across states, across borders.

Focus on a revolutionary conception of immigration and migration, while winning battles for immediate immigration reform, focus on allowing families to exist as families, on creating communities that live without fear, whether within or without U.S. borders.

Focus on policing, on decriminalizing existence as Black or Brown or Yellow Americans, on eliminating the ability of police to murder without fear of retribution, on demilitarization of police, the demilitarization of immigration, on elimination of police brutality and the prison-industrial complex.

Focus on hunger, on access to nutritious food, on food insecurity, food deserts, the ways in which the food system have long exploited people of color, Black, Brown and Yellow, and the ways that the organizing around farmworkers’ rights, farmworkers’ health, our health, has not even scratched the surface of what needs to be done.

Focus on schools with no librarians and no libraries, no opportunities for students to learn about themselves, about the legacy of the folks from their communities who came before them, focus on ethnic studies in elementary and high school as part of the regular curriculum, not as something teachers muddle through one month a year per racialized population, or not at all for some, focus on defending attacks on and criminalization of ethnic studies in schools and on expanding access to ethnic studies.

Focus on organizing, so that those who have been most denied and/or deprived are equipped to demand what they need, what their communities need, for themselves. Teach each other language, art, music, history, challenge white supremacy and the devaluation and distillation of who entire peoples are down to multicultural nonsense. Remember the motto of the Asian American Movement: Serve the People. Being Asian American isn’t about being Asian American. It’s about serving the people. And when we serve the people, serve actual needs and fight to break down systems of racial oppression, then mobilization will happen. Then you’ll get to a more visible and organized base of antiracist Asian Americans. But that should just be a side effect, not the goal.

Thank you Kevin H and Soya! Kevin, Soya and all her colleagues at Changelab ARE working closely with those of us who are working on issues like poverty, housing, jobs food security, deportation and criminalization of our young people, locally and nationally. The infrastructure we have to serve the people/address these issues in our communities is imperfect and insufficient but I very much appreciate the Changelab team’s effort to engage with us practitioners to start where we are at and strengthen our work instead of just standing on the sidelines throwing critiques like so many thinktanks and academics. Some examples of local groups highlighted here: I heart Changelab for helping us to sharpen up our analysis our messages and strategies in real time. There is a lot more work to do!

I think U.S. groups are still segregated so much that people don’t even know other groups well enough to know them as fellow humans with the same needs, wants, desires and frailties.

One thing remains constant though. Everyone knows which group is the largest oppressor, and that many oppressors are equal opportunity oppressors.

“Yes, Asian American race privilege exists, and yes, we participate in anti-black racism — and as Asian Americans, we need to do something about it. What strategies and movement practices would it take to build a more visible and organized base of antiracist Asian Americans?”

I think that if you acknowledge that white supremacist thinking pre-dates anti-black racism and actually evolved out of “Orientalism”, much of the confusion might dissipate. If you don’t accept the fact that anti-black slavery, was a consequence of the western imperial drive to control and subjugate Asia, then there almost certainly cannot be any true Asian consciousness.

White supremacy is based on an East/West dichotomy – as first conceived by thinkers of ancient Greece – Africans and native Americans were unfortunate to get caught up in the middle of it. America was “discovered” by explorers looking for alternative routes to Asia so they could gain control of the resources there. Why else would America’s indigenous people be called “Indians”?

I tend to think that culture emerges out of the historical experience, and identity emerges from the expression and practice of culture. The key is history and understanding the moments in history that have created the world that we have today. What this means is that you cannot really have an Asian awareness without a culture that has informed an oppositional identity, derived from the memory of the historical experience.

Squeezing the Asian race dialogue into the black/white dichotomy does not accomplish this – in fact, it seems like instead of Asians disappearing into whiteness, you would have us disappear into blackness. Either way, Asian awareness and consciousness would be skewed. The Asian identity must implicitly be a global one because the deep roots of white supremacy derive from notions of white racial and cultural supremacy over “Asiatics”, and xenophobic hostility to the same.

So, no, Asian awareness and consciousness goes beyond America’s colloquial racial dichotomy, and has to reflect the geo-political reality of the modern world that marks a clear distinction between the “Us and “Them” divide of Eastern and Western ways of life. That is to say that instead of trying to force the Asian (and wider American) race dialogue into a narrow black/white narrative, perhaps it would behoove us to expand the notion of blackness and the reasons for its existence so that it reflects this more accurate historical narrative?

Your concern is understandable, Ben Ef, but I think you missed the point a little. Just because someone denounces anti-black racism and wants to intentionally not participate in it, does not mean they want to “disappear into blackness”. There is no threat to “Asian identity” or any of their cultures in doing so.

No non-white person is “squeezing the Asian race dialogue into the black/white dichotomy”. If anybody is going to get squeezed into a “black/white dichotomy”, white people will do the squeezing, and “Asians” are already being squeezed in.


I appreciate your feedback, but I think you missed the gist of my comment. the question is ” What strategies and movement practices would it take to build a more visible and organized base of antiracist Asian Americans?“, and I offered one in my comment. I’m not sure that you fully understood what I was saying!

Anyone who struggles against racist thinking is, by definition, an enemy of racism. That’s why I value an Asian identity, informed by a culture defined by historical experience, because by the nature of the Asian experience, such a culture and identity has to be anti-racist. To simplify, I’m not talking about threat to Asian identity or cultures (where did you get that idea?), I’m talking about bringing the dialogue more into line with the global nature of white supremacy and the East/West dichotomy that spawned it.

America’s anti-black racism ultimately derives from this dichotomy, so I don’t see how you might perceive what I wrote to be in any way antithetical to a desire to end anti-black racism. On the contrary, it is putting the Asian race experience into its proper oppositional historical context.

Things like “Asian American Privilege” are only a symptom of the main problem which is white supremacy. It is set up by white people to keep non-white people confused and in conflict. Non-white people need to keep that in mind and not get duped into wasting time and energy fighting each other over “privileges” that are being rationed out by white people.

White people are luring and compelling some “Asian Americans” to join in anti-blackism and manipulating them to be used against other non-white people just like white people in South Africa used the “coloured” people against the “black” people. White people further established and maintained anti-blackism under apartheid through what you could call “coloured privilege” and cemented “coloured” loyalty to whites and their continued disassociation from “black” people.

It is good that some “Asian Americans” are aware of this and do not want to be used as a tool for white people to practice their increasingly refined racism.

I’ve been thinking about the term “Asian privilege” a great deal and think that “allowance” gets closer to what that actually is in a white supremacist system. Any ostensibly “positive” description for a PoC in a white supremacist system is contingent on the continued cultivation of white supremacy – part of that phenomena manifests in other communities of color being negatively affected when one is “positively” rendered (this article is filled with examples – another example is black folks being assumed a monolithic, “American” community of color (despite this concept not being inclusive of immigration patterns/black diasporic configurations) which interacts with Asians and Latinos continuing to be perceived as forever foreign and thus silenced in other ways).

I don’t want to minimize the significance of “being allowed” into dominant spaces, if that is what some PoC are after, including, in many ways, myself. But calling it “privilege” when we’re not and will never be white is a problem to me.

Thank you for this.

I also think about how colonialism has created much of this structure and the anti-black sentiment within Asian American communities, possibly starting in the forms of shadeism and colorism within the communities and how that goes unaddressed often as well. We have barely begun to mass-(re)politicize our communities, and jumping to our internalized anti-blackness without a sound foundation of white supremacy and the historical context of which this may exist is difficult. Though that is not to debunk or discount the untackled anti-black racism that largely exists silently in our communities that you eloquently point out.

Also, one clarification, did you mean to say “on/to Muslim, Arab, and South Asians” instead of “by…” ? Thank you.

“The history of exclusion and internment, the objectification and trafficking of Asian women, and current experiences of post-9/11 policing and hate crimes Muslim, Arab, and South Asian Americans, have proven this.”

Thank you, everyone, for all your comments! I had to take a break from responding on FB, Twitter, and RaceFiles for a few days, but wow, what an inspiring read it was to catch up on all those platforms. Let me try to respond to a couple of things: First, if I have contributed to the flattening or monolith-ing of Asian Americans, that certainly wasn’t intentional. As I said, there is both internal and external work – internal, to grapple with the ways that Asian Americans (defined demographically) are extremely diverse in terms of racial experiences, and what this means for us in terms of our politics. For example, what would it look like for us to take up the question of war/genocide and militarism as Asian Americans? It would, I think, open up different space to fight back against criminalization and poverty in ways that are grounded in our historical experiences. But for the most part, we don’t do that. The groups that do are small, marginalized, underresourced, and invisiblized. This is more than a question of representation. The work that this demands isn’t prioritized. So we gotta figure that out and find better ways to hold ourselves accountable to these and other fights when we operate (meaning organize, communicate, institutionalize ourselves) as Asian Americans.

External work, because the kind of issue-based fights that Kevin rightly advocates for is already happening. There are many, many Asian Americans fiercely fighting against racial profiling, mass incarceration, gentrification, and more. The problem is one of U.S. racial politics, dominated by white supremacist discourse (including Orientalism) which renders and understands these fights as not Asian American fights (they aren’t, of course — they are people’s fights, as Kevin uses the term “serve the people”) but therefore Asian Americans in the white imagination have no stake in them, except as “allies.” (See Scot’s MLK Day post). Why do we care? Because it means we are largely absent from political racial discourse, except as “tools” — the kind of utility that Takagi and Omi describe. It’s a political problem that demands a political solution. And part of that solution, I think, is to intervene in and interrupt that mainstream discourse, in addition to fighting fights on the ground (which is already happening).

The question of the word “privilege” is an academic one, and I don’t mean that disparagingly. Not being an academic, I realize I’m kind of swimming in the deep end here, and would love to engage the semantical question, and the importance of that, with academics (why we have included them in the beginning in ChangeLab’s work, in addition to organizers, artists/cultural workers, etc.). What I mean in using the word “privilege” is that there are privileged Asian Americans — economically, socially, politically. We as a whole are not privileged, but I’m describing what Ellen Wu has recently pointed out to me could better be understood as “social capital” or something. I guess the problem I have with that term, though, is that most people don’t understand it. We need different language — a big problem generally with racialized discourse. The movement language of 30 or 40 or 50 years ago has largely been drained of meaning by the rightwing movement to popularize dog-whistle politics and the idea of reverse racism.

But all of this is to say, I love the exchange here. The points are well taken. We have lots to think about, lots to talk about, and the question of analysis is a part of it, as well as the question of tactics in a political time that forces simplistic language and thinking, to broad, detrimental impact.

Hi Soya,

Thank you for the response to the lengthy conversation that has been taking place here. I do want to respond to the points you make here, since you’ve started and encouraged this internal conversation, which I think is really valuable.

I didn’t think you were being intentional in the way that your original post played into some of the narratives of Asian Americans as monolithic. However, that was also the point of my original comment to that concern: it doesn’t really matter whether or not we intend to participate in that sort of narrative, because what we write and say can so often nonetheless reinforce that narrative, which is why we should be more cautious about how we talk about “Asian Americans” writ large.

I think, for example, considering the type of issue-based work that you and I have both mentioned as “external” is problematic. As you’ve pointed out before, there are many communities within this broader demographic category of Asian Americans who experience poverty and other socioeconomic barriers at higher rates than most racialized demographic groups in the U.S. Advocates and activists who are part of the larger Asian American demographic who are working on these issues are not doing “external” work, but are doing an inherently “internal” type of work as you’ve defined it, grappling with the diversity of this larger racialized group by working on the problems that populations within the umbrella of “Asian American” face everyday.

This is why I argued in my original response that it is important not to unintentionally play into and reinforce the “Model Minority Myth” by failing to challenge the discourse that Asian Americans are only allies in this role. You are absolutely right that the white supremacist discourse and the white imagination has a vested interest in perpetuating the myth that “Asian Americans” have no stake in these issues. And I agree completely that the solution to this is, in part, to interrupt mainstream discourse. The problem is that when we write and say publicly that “Asian Americans have privilege,” we are not interrupting mainstream discourse. We are instead reinforcing it. This is exactly what the Model Minority Myth says, that “Asian Americans have privilege.” Other comments in this conversation have further elaborated on possible ways this statement is problematic.

This is very much why how we use the word “privilege” is *not* an “academic” question. Privilege is not an academic term with questionable value in popular discourse, the way, for example, “ontological” is such a word. It is strongly understood, as pointed out by others in this thread, to be an element of the system of white supremacy. As such, saying “Asian Americans have privilege” is a statement that often is the beginning and end of engagement with mainstream discourse. Those who understand race in American through the white supremacist narrative hear exactly what they have always been told. They do not hear the additional caveats regarding the diversity, wealth gaps, inequality and dramatic socioeconomic differences between ethnic populations and communities within the larger Asian American demographic group. They do not hear the caveat, even, that there are “some” people within the larger category of Asian Americans who experience socioeconomic success and large degrees of access to the institutions of the U.S. in ways that other people of color do not, while also recognizing that there are many people within the larger category of Asian Americans who *do not* experience this success or access these institutions.

I believe that Ellen Wu’s reference to “social capital” is related directly to the social capital gained from participating and accepting the narrative of the Model Minority Myth. That is, the relative increase in access to fundamental human rights that the white supremacist project allows for when individuals perpetuate the conception of an anti-Black racial hierarchy. Within that context, I believe it is still inaccurate to say that there are “privileged Asian Americans,” as that requires accepting the idea that participation in the Model Minority Myth is an actual privilege for even the individuals who do engage in that racist discourse, rather than pushing back with the reality that the Model Minority Myth is destructive and harmful. There are, first, the homogenizing effects of the Myth, which leads to continued oppressive and inequitable socioeconomic and political stances toward many ethnic population identified as Asian American who are not doing well. But there is also, second, the perpetuation of the Orientalist project, for even a Model Minority is inherently “minor,” and with “Asian Americans” especially, perpetually “foreigner” and “other.” One needs only go back one week for the story of the 84-year old Chinese American man bloodied by the NYPD for jaywalking on the Upper West Side to examine the ways in which these strains of white supremacy–anti-Black racism, settler colonialism, Orientalism–does not extend to “Asians Americans” writ large any sort of privilege.

As an academic, i.e. an individual in the pursuit of knowledge and better understanding of the world, I believe that stereotypes exist for a reason. Just as other groups are stereotyped through a representative sample, we are not alone. The model minority indeed exists. They are hardworking, considerate, and responsible. Confucianism at its essence. The truth of the matter is that, as pointed by other commenters, the model minority did not exist until sometime after the repeal of the Chinese exclusion act. Only the best were initially able to immigrate to the U.S. and, as Colbert would say, took the jobs that no one else could do across college campuses. What needs to happen to drown out or counteract the model minority stereotype is the widespread recognition of other Asian stereotypes. Fight stereotypes with stereotypes. There is not as much diversity across the country from Asian Americans beyond the model minority and Southeast Asian. What needs to happen is (1) for Asian American to spread out and represent themselves across the country and not just in the West coast (as Hoffstede might say, it is a cultural issue of collectivism) and (2) create or surpass a culture that is not mimicking other cultures (as Pan might say, the acceptance of copycats depends on image consciousness).

Sorry, but I find this post hopelessly naive. Have you stepped back and asked yourself, why, if we are privileged, should we seek to equalize ourselves with others? Have you questioned the very idea of racial equality itself, whether it is possible, or even desirable outside of moral considerations?

I am a realist, and I believe that voluntary racial justice is an impossibility. All races and identity groups seek to further their own interests, using a variety of excuses and ethical gymnastics. Many truly believe their cause is just, but should their own group risk loss from a new policy, they quickly shrink behind a mask of victimhood. People who are truly committed to racial equality are an extreme minority. In this scenario, does it make sense for Asians to “play fair” when everyone else is out for themselves?

In other words, isn’t it more realistic to compete for privileges, rather than pretend they can be equitably distributed?

There is too much concern as to the model minority myth, which is essentially what others think of us. Why does that matter? If you fit the stereotype, good for you. If you don’t, good for you. My primary purpose is to elevate the status of the Asian race, regardless of how others perceive us. Should we stop getting good grades and good degrees just to “be diverse”? No.

Just some general points I made on this issue (not necessarily a single narrative), also posted elsewhere. Please feel free to comment and respond, however I’d rather people keep it civil even if you disagree with me. (For the record, I’m a largely middle-class ethnic Chinese bisexual trans woman who was born in a relatively poorer part of mainland China – by no means the poorest part since it’s still a relatively large city in the interior of China – but fluent in both Mandarin Chinese and English and have been living in the UK for many years. Politically I’m a socialist and semi-Maoist)


Well, China itself is a very big (and unequal) place. While in recent years there are more relatively well-off “middle class” Chinese people in the West, there are still a lot of very poor (and often “illegal” or undocumented) immigrants from China in the West too, just like there has been ever since the 19th century. This is not surprising since even in China itself, rural migrant workers etc. are much more disadvantaged than the “middle class” urban people, especially those from the more developed and richer cities of the coastal areas. On the whole China is still a poor developing country, despite its huge size and the fact that it is now the world’s “2nd largest economy” overall.

And even “middle class” Asian people in the West still face more implicit forms of racism, mostly from white people, e.g. racist “micro-aggressions” etc., it cannot be just reduced to economic issues.

So not just “Asian privilege”, I would explicitly object to the notion of “Chinese privilege” in the Western context too. I also find it a bit problematic to lump Asian people from developing countries like China and India with those from advanced capitalist countries like Japan. Yes, there are quite a lot of “middle class” Chinese and Indian professionals in the West, and in recent years there are some relatively well-off “Chinese tourists” in the West, but there are also a lot of very poor ethnic Chinese people in the West, including some “illegal”/undocumented immigrants, including Chinese men who are heavily exploited and do very heavy manual labour and Chinese women who are heavily exploited as prostitutes. The Japanese community in the West don’t really face these issues. Indeed, the GDP per capita of mainland China is still lower than some Southeast Asian countries, and many parts of mainland China are poorer than South Africa in terms of GDP per capita, let alone Japan. I think it’s much fairer to categorise “China” economically speaking as “somewhere-in-between” Japan and the poorer countries of Southeast Asia, because within the Chinese community in the West, you can find both relatively successful “middle class” people as well as really poor and disadvantaged immigrants. We Chinese can to some extent identify with both the Japanese and the poorer Southeast Asians.

PS. the plight of poor immigrants from mainland China in the West is something many relatively well-off “middle class” Chinese people (especially “Westernised” middle class Chinese people and those not originally from mainland China) tend to ignore as well. There is not much hope in the Chinese middle class in the West caring more about relatively disadvantaged Asians if they cannot even care about the relatively disadvantaged sections of the Chinese community.

My biggest problem with things like the “model minority myth/stereotype” and “Asian privilege” is not so much the idea that on average “Asians” (or specific groups of “Asians” like the Chinese) are less disadvantaged than certain other non-white groups, e.g. Black people. There may indeed be some truth in this. But what I cannot accept is the idea that “Asians” (or specific groups of “Asians” like the Chinese) aren’t relatively disadvantaged compared with white people, or even more “privileged” than white people in some ways. As I said, it’s not just about economics, even relatively well-off Asians in the West still experience certain forms of racism and disadvantages sometimes due to the negative stereotypes about Asians that exist in the West etc. It is the latter idea which I cannot accept at all and frankly find explicitly racist against Asians.

Rather than say something like “Asians are relatively privileged compared with Blacks”, I’d much rather say “Asians are generally less disadvantaged compared with Blacks”. This might be “semantics”, but I think it is important, because the former statement gives the implicit idea that “Asians” are a “relatively privileged” group by virtue of their race and culture, whereas the latter statement still recognises that qualitatively speaking Asians are still oppressed and disadvantaged to some extent and experience racism, even if quantitatively to a lesser extent compared with Blacks. I think this is an important point to make. Different groups of “people of colour” (PoC) might be disadvantaged in different ways and to different extents in some ways (even between different groups of Black people this is true, I would argue for instance that recent Black Muslim immigrants from Somalia are more disadvantaged than established Black Christians in the US who have been Americans for generations), but we are still all “people of colour”. (In South Africa under apartheid for instance, ethnic Chinese people were categorised as “coloured” by the white authorities, those Chinese people who think whites aren’t racist towards us or that we are now “just as privileged” as whites should never forget this)

Similarly, I’m not really annoyed if a Black person says things like “Asian privilege”, even though I do think this term is problematic. (A term like “Chinese privilege” would also be quite problematic IMO) I might disagree with the specific points and details if a Black person starts saying how Chinese people are relatively less disadvantaged in some ways compared with Blacks, but I won’t simply dismiss it as some kind of “oppression olympics” either. However, if a white person starts saying stuff like “Asian privilege” etc. to me, I will actually get quite annoyed and even a bit offended, because in most cases I think that’s just a form of “whitesplaining”. I don’t accept any attempt to “white-wash” the reality of racism against Asians (including Chinese people) in the West.

Another thing (slight tangential) is that there isn’t an “absolute boundary” between different Asian groups. Many people in countries like Thailand, Korea and Philippines have some Chinese ancestry. Many “Han Chinese” people also have quite a bit of Mongol and Manchu ancestry, especially those from North China. Even if different Asians are disadvantaged to different extents quantitatively speaking depending on their class, gender, national origin and regional origin etc., qualitatively speaking I think there is still a certain degree of a “common Asian experience” in the West when it comes to racism, because we all face similar issues to some extent (“slanty eyes” jokes and the fetishisation of Asian women/de-sexualisation of Asian men apply to Mongolians, Chinese and Filipinos alike, even if in somewhat different ways), and Asia as a whole do share a common history of being subject to Western colonialism and imperialism in recent centuries, even if some countries and regions were affected by it more than others.

One last point is that after reading the articles written by Adriel Luis on this issue, I think I agree with a lot of his points. The only thing is that it might implicitly sound like he is trying to say that while there is no general “Asian privilege”, there may be “privilege” for specific Asian sub-groups such as say “Chinese privilege”. I don’t think he actually means to say anything like this since in one of his replies to my comments following his article he admitted that western parts of China are largely left out of the Western discourses about China and the Chinese people, which largely focus on the more developed large cities along the eastern coast in China. But just to clarify, I would like to say that I reject the notion of “Chinese privilege” in a general sense just like I reject the notion of “Asian privilege” in a general sense, even though no-one has actually mentioned “Chinese privilege” explicitly. Yes, some relatively well-off “middle class” Chinese people in the West are relatively “privileged” in some ways (though they still face some “racist micro-aggressions” etc. from white people), but this is primarily due to their class position rather than because they are “Chinese”.

Here are three articles from the UK (where I live now) which talk about the plight of some of the poorest sections of the immigrant Chinese community in the West (such people exist in the US too), about hard manual labourers who drowned in the sea due to the unsafe practices of white gangmasters, about ethnic Chinese female sex workers working under terrible conditions and mainly serving white men with an “Oriental” fetish, and about “illegal”/undocumented Chinese immigrants in London’s China Town who are facing crack-downs by the UK Border Agency. What “Chinese privilege” do these poor immigrants from poorer parts of mainland China have? Surely they are much more disadvantaged than even the poorest of “native” white workers in the West?

Soya – thanks so much for this post. You articulate concepts that I think are deeply felt in the lived experiences of many Asian Americans, but that are truly very complex. The historical knowledge and political analysis you offer, and the sharply insightful connections you make, create a concise, clear explanation of Asian American racial positioning that I think is desperately needed!

If I may make a request for things to talk about in future blog posts, I’d love to see you address the racial wealth divide and how much of a role Asian American wealth and class privilege (among certain Asian American subgroups) plays in the creating the realities of Asian American privilege you explain here.

Thank you, everyone, for your comments. Clearly the term “Asian American privilege” is problematic, as it’s getting interpreted as equal to white privilege, or as privilege in relation to whites, and as universal to all Asian Americans, rather than as the active pursuit of a racial bribe that allows some Asian Americans to rise above others, while yet remaining a “junior partner” in relation to whites. I’m going to think about how better to communicate the main point, that Asian American race politics are contested, and that we need to find more effective ways to engage, as Asian Americans, in the national discourse on race, that make antiracist Asian American politics more coherent and more visible. The good news is that there are opportunities for this to happen, to counter rightwing assertions by Asian Americans that examples of Asian American “success” are due to things like hard work and discipline, rather than the result of structural conditions.

And to myoung, you’re reading the wrong blog. The struggle for racial justice is not about the expansion of privilege. Its goal is to dismantle white supremacy — its very logic and the structures built upon it.

[Someone posted a link to this essay on Facebook, so I wrote this as a (long) comment under that Facebook posting.]

In my opinion the article needs a lot of work. The writer’s entire essay is incorrect due to a critical flaw in the foundation of her argument. The writer basically says what any person of any ethnicity, nationality or “race” would say which is: “My ethnicity / nationality / race covers the entire range of possibilities of political standings – from the most conservative of political views to the extremes of being liberal. And my ethnicity / nationality / race are spread evenly from the top to the bottom of economic class possibilities, from the richest to the poorest.”. Worse than that the writer implies that all Americans who are from any one country in Asia – and who also happen to be in the same economic class in America – would have the same views on race in America, politics and everything else. Then there’s the writer choosing to not capitalize the “B” in the word Black, when referring to Black people or African Americans. This is overtly offensive to many Black American or African Americans. It shows an intentional lack of respect for Black/African Americans and the historical basis (during the Civil Rights Movement and prior to it) for African American’s struggle to push forward the re-naming of our ethnicity to be that particular word in the first place. The writer’s article also shows delusional ideas that any non-White person can somehow choose whether to be considered a “minority” or not and whether to be a a part of the White race and to be treated as such by our entire society. Still, the writer’s most confused assessment of Americans of Asian descent is that there could ever be any way for non-White Americans to be included in, or allowed to be a part of any sort of “White privilege”. Americans of Asian descent are racially discriminated against for being and looking Asian (!) and for not looking like White Americans (Caucasian), and for no other reason. Black Americans are racially discriminated against for being and looking Black/African, and for no other reason. Latinos are racially discriminated against for being and looking Latin, and for no other reason. Who doesn’t know that? So, it is completely impossible for any non-White American to be included in any sort of alleged “White privilege” in America, Europe or anywhere else. Those are the main flaws I saw with the writer’s essay or article. The writer’s attempt is to be applauded, but the article / essay itself is not well thought through at all. Side Note: How many shows (comedy or drama) have there been on American television about American families of Asian descent (that have not been cancelled soon after their pilot episode) in the last thirty years or so? More importantly, how many shows about Asian American families or simply with a mostly Asian American cast have been even attempted. Here’s another entertainment industry example. Name ten Asian Americans that America’s big budget motion picture companies have helped make into “household name”, celebrity movie stars in any of the last three decades – or all of them combined. That is how the “Powers that be” feel about Americans of Asian descent. Period.

From my point of view about racism, I see a lot of Black People mixed with White People nowadays. I am intimidated that the world will become a Western Integration. Black People used to tell us that Black is White. For any Chinese to have an extreme white ethnicity to a certain extent as White Trash is not going to give you the rights of owning slaves. The North has never welcomed Black People, and that’s why they are not ever going to own any Black slaves.

Black People are very far away from The Northern People. Maybe not White People, but The Northern People. Black Pride is Black Pride, but they have a feeding frenzy for me. Maybe because of cross-race effect: Only they can tell the differences between me, and them.

[…] position by social distance to blackness through colorism? In the U.S. context, what about our compliance to the role of model minority, one that essentially supports ‘getting ahead’ by accepting […]

I’m a bit late in the game, but I think Asian Privilege is really a form of Class Privilege. Chinese, Japanese and Korean Americans tend to be middle class, while Laotian, Vietnamese, Cambodians are less likely so. As middle class people, we have access to better neighborhoods, and thus, schools. Most of us are shielded from the horrors of dangerous streets and gang life. Thoughts?

[…] am an “equality for all” minority attempting to subvert what activist Soya Jung dissects as “Asian American privilege” by consciously teaching curriculum centered on the lives of the underrepresented, the […]

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