The Problem With Asian American Racial Privilege

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If you do a google search of “Asian privilege” you’ll see that the subject is generating a lot of chatter, both on the right and the left. But, much of the online discussion concerning Asian privilege ignores a couple of really important things.

First, “race” is a political category, invented to serve the interests of white supremacy. Second,  the Oriental “race” (what we were called before we became Asian) was conceived of in this context. When you consider these facts, it becomes clear that Asian privilege may be more complicated than we imagine.

On the first point, race is neither biological nor cultural. In the words of Northwestern University Law Professor, Dorothy Roberts, “Race is not a biological category that is politically charged. It is a political category that has been disguised as a biological one.”

And politics has consequences. It is through our political system that the rules of society are made, and by those rules that the wealth of society is distributed.

So when we talk about Asian Americans, we’re talking about a subjugated political category as much as we’re talking about the people that category tries to contain. We aren’t all alike and don’t all fit together. In fact, Asian America includes ethnic groups that are among the most successful in terms of income, and groups that are among the most unsuccessful by that same measure. Even most so-called Asians don’t identify as such, preferring instead to identify by ethnicity.

Add the notion of privilege to all of this and things get even more complicated. Why? Because privilege doesn’t necessarily equate to real political power, and not all privileges are racial. On the other hand, privileges that don’t start out racial often get concentrated in ways that benefit certain racial groups because of the very real political power of race.

Confused yet? Here’s what I mean.

Many Asian immigrants come to the U.S. on special visas that are granted to those who have skills the U.S. is short on. For instance, South Asian Americans include a disproportionate number of doctors, specifically because the U.S. didn’t have enough doctors to serve the new market for health care created by medicare and recruited them from South Asia. Today, many Taiwanese are being recruited to address shortages of workers qualified for high wage jobs in the tech sector. This kind of targeted recruitment skews statistics concerning Asian educational attainment and income upward, creating the impression that Asian Americans as a whole have a racial advantage that results in a disproportionate number of us becoming doctors and other high wage workers.

But the first wave of South Asian doctors, like the current wave of Taiwanese tech workers, weren’t educated in the U.S., and not all Asians come here on special visas. Some of us arrive as impoverished undocumented immigrants, and others as war refugees. The apparent race privilege indicated by the median incomes and educational levels of Asians overall is about as relevant to these groups as the high median family income of whites is to white people living in the abandoned coal camps of Appalachia.

Moreover, while special visas are certainly a form of privilege, Asians aren’t getting them because they’re Asian. They’re getting them because they have skills U.S. industries aren’t finding enough of at home. There’s a difference.

But the privilege of getting a special visa is undeniable. And in a society organized by race, concentrating that privilege among some Asians makes a difference to all of us because it contributes to the stereotype of Asians as model workers and citizens. And, as dehumanizing as it may be, this kind of model minority stereotyping is a form of privilege in the context of racism, which is nothing more than the logic of race.

I know some Asian Americans are uncomfortable with that idea, but the privilege of model minority stereotyping is made evident when you consider the obvious disadvantage of being labeled a “problem” minority. This disadvantage is represented in the racially skewed composition of our prisons and the widespread practice of targeting of black men for petty crimes like marijuana use that are committed just as frequently by whites, who also present the problem of constituting a much larger percentage of the illegal marijuana market.

That privilege may not benefit us all equally, but even white privilege doesn’t benefit all white people equally (I again offer those white Appalachians for your consideration). People with the power to confer privilege tend to do so in order to concentrate benefits for themselves, so most of what is gained through racial stereotyping isn’t really being spread around, and even to the extent that it is, the distribution is hardly even. Moreover, in the case of Asian Americans, that privilege is conferred upon us by whites, making Asian privilege a form of conditional white privilege.

So, as we argue over Asian privilege, we should keep in mind that Asian is less effective as a descriptor of people as it is of a political category created to serve the interests of white supremacy. And because the Asian political category is a subjugated one by definition, just like special visas granted to address labor shortages, Asian privilege can be revoked if we don’t play by the rules.


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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.

22 replies on “The Problem With Asian American Racial Privilege”

I think that you have outlined perfectly why using the term “Asian privilege” at all is actually unhelpful, particularly – ironically – as part of the dialogue on race.

Conditional white privilege is conferred on all ethnic minorities to some degree or another. Isn’t the admission of black athletes who have poor grades into top universities for the sake of the sports program something of a privilege? What about amnesty for 11 million undocumented Hispanics – isn’t that a form of privilege?

The fact is that white supremacy has always relied on the “complicity” of some members of the ethnic minorities it has oppressed, and in turn, these “privileged” few have always prospered in some way. My problem is that there seems to be a drive to make this phenomenon and fact of history into an issue that is specific to Asians. It isn’t.

As you said yourself, the stats on Asian income are skewed by educated professional immigration, which makes me wonder, if you acknowledge that Asian privilege does not apply to all Asians – in fact, possibly does not apply to most – why use the term at all? If all that is being said is that “some Asians are given special treatment”, then that doesn’t seem to be saying much – as I suggested above, there is privilege available to all ethnic minorities to some degree or another. Surely using such a blanket term further clouds opportunities for Asians to develop a meaningful and nuanced voice as they hope to contribute to racial justice. What we need is less over-generalization and more specificity, don’t we?

I like your counter arguements. Would those same arguemens not be valid with white privilage?

Thanks, Ben. I agree and disagree. I think you frame the thorny nature of the whole concept of race privilege really well. However, elite black athletes who are admitted to college in spite of a lack of academic qualifications aren’t being conferred “race” privilege anymore than are academically gifted black scholars who are admitted to those same institutions. They’re being admitted because of their qualifications, not because of race. Those schools need those athletes as much or more, in some cases, than they need young scholars who actually do well on college admission tests and have school records that demonstrate they are qualified academically.

Moreover, while certain black people and other people of color may be given privilege – for instance, my sense is the Oprah Winfrey’s remarkable rise is based on her popularity with whites for whom she is a symbol of race liberalism – it usually isn’t the same as race privilege. Oprah’s story is one that could have been written by Horatio Alger and has had something of a Horatio Alger effect. The President is another example of this same phenomena. But, the success of these individuals isn’t having a broad positive effect on how society views your average black person. Instead, it seems to be having a broad “positive” effect on how society views itself, it’s central myths of freedom, liberty, opportunity for all, etc., not to mention on how white people view themselves and their own privilege (in ways that promote post-racialism and color blind racism).

But, when a whole racial group is given a makeover, flipping from yellow peril to model minority, different questions are raised. My sense is that Asian Americans as a group have a certain privilege conferred on us because of perceived racial characteristics, which makes this privilege racial in nature. But, this privilege isn’t really Asian privilege so much as it is a form of conditional, second class white privilege. The idea of Asian Americans and some real Asian American people are being vertically integrated into whiteness, but the questions are 1) how high will we rise, 2) who among us is rising, 3) what is the effect of this on those who are raced Asian but don’t fit the model minority stereotype as well, to people of color generally, and to questions of race in the age of neoliberal multiculturalism, and 4) at what cost to society and ourselves are some of us rising?

My sense is that Asian Americans are being given a bit of a leg up, and the push to integrate us into the white middle class is an expression of neoliberal multiculturalism that is being popularized in order to promote it. Like white privilege, it doesn’t benefit us all equally, but even poor whites enjoy white skin privilege even if they may lack class privilege, right?

But, your point that it isn’t really “Asian” is eloquently made and well appreciated.

I always appreciate your comments and your writing. Thanks for taking part in the discussion!


I would argue that we are still the yellow peril – it is just that the expression of it is now more sophisticated because some of the Asians we (Americans) fear, are actually by necessity our allies. Chinese nationals are forbidden from entering NASA buildings because the yellow peril fear still exists. The yellow peril has not gone away, it has merely been filed away and used selectively when the need arises. It is hard to argue with the evidence of culture and intermittent political rhetoric which commonly depicts Asians and Asia as an existential threat. I think that the broad views that society has of Asians is still largely negative – I don’t see us being held up as paragon’s of American culture or middle class.

But I think that my confusion is based on the fact that I have never really seen any evidence or reason to believe that Asians are favoured because of their race any more than you argue that academically unqualified black athletes are not favoured because of theirs.

I think that the confusion lies in the implication that Asian success is implicitly anti-black and by definition upholds white supremacy, yet the success of other minorities is somehow not. I have repeatedly failed to find convincing arguments that show Asians who are successful have become so by any other means than that utilized by non-Asians, and I certainly see no favouritism or special affection.

Also, I appreciate all of the thought-provoking work you are doing with this space – always a joy to read.

Great post, Scot! My only thought is I feel our community’s instinct these days to discard the “Asian” race ignores the social movements benefit that comes with this construct. While it upholds White supremacy, the contemporary Asian American identity has its roots as much within the community (vis-a-vis the Asian American Movement of the 60’s) as it does with the Oriental construct. Today, I still think the racial construct can be put to use to advance the sociopolitical causes of member ethnicities, so long as we remember the limitations of this artificial construct. I worry that we are forgetting why the Asian American identity was reappropriated in the 60’s in our desire to underscore its White supremacist origins alone.

Although most of us tend to identify by our ethnicities rather than our races on an individual level, perhaps that — itself — is also something worth addressing rather than offered as a reason to dismantle our politicized racial identity entirely?

Agreed. We need to acknowledge that while race is a political construct, politics have real, material consequences. In order to address those consequences, we might just need to take advantage of the way we are raced as one group, build a unifying political agenda, and move toward movement. Thanks!

Scot, when you state that race is not a biological construct but a political one only and quote only a law professor, it made it difficult for me to read anything further. You clearly don’t know how controversial that flat statement without qualifications is in the genomics community. I’m not here to proclaim that race is definitively biological, but there is little in nature that follows hard and fast rules that have zero exceptions including the definition of species and the definition of life. I’m also not going to get into a quote war where I cite a particular scientist and you cite an opposing one. I will say that the issue is very far from being settled on the side of politics only.

Genomics, eugenics, whatever… It usually ends adding up to white supremacy. Don’t pretend like you were put-off by the law professor quote, you’re not fooling anyone. You know what it means. You’re just trying to water down and impede understanding with relativism and promote confusion. Typical white deception. Isn’t the main topic of the article about the treatment of Asian Americans? No comment on that, huh? Looks like you are more focused on making sure people stay confused about race.

You must be a white person — obviously practicing racism. Are you a white person, Pzed?

Lol, dude. Click the link I included in my username and see if you think I’m white. And I stated up front that I had a hard time finishing the article after I saw that quote. In fact, I wrote the comment without finishing the article. I have since finished it (before your comment) and I didn’t have anything especially noteworthy to add.

I do think it says something about the mindset of commenters here that the first thing you do is question my motivation and race. No, this is not a white conspiracy to invade an Asian discussion space. I have no wish to engage in a flame war, so you can have the last word on this if you so choose.

A yes or no would suffice. “Mindset of the commenters here”? There you go again promoting confusion. I just asked you a question. That doesn’t have anything to do with other commenters’ mindsets. It’s just me.

The pattern in your comments is the same as if a white supremacist was commenting. And you know it. That’s why you used the terms “white conspiracy” and “invade”. If you’re not white, you sure are functioning like one here.

That’s right. Especially with comments like yours it is important to know your motivation and classification. Obviously your motivation was to deceive. You “have no wish to engage in a flame war”? Do you mean to say that you wish to practice deception unchallenged?

I bigot is the correct term for a non white who hates other races. Is that correct rashnu?

While I agree with all you have said in a US-specific context, isn’t there something bigger going on? I really want to know what you think of it. My hunch is that, to be blunt, most Asian-Americans, usually first or second-generation, do not really know the Civil Right’s movement, nor cared about it that much. It was largely an African-American movement, not a pan-African movement, nor an all-minority movement. The movement gave most of our tools to understanding and analyzing racism. But most of the Asian community in America have a very different understanding. They will always refer back to their home countries for an understanding, their ideologies. They could not care less about the black, white supremacy struggle. If I can indulge in imagining an average Asian-American, they care more about the ruthless dominance of China in the region of their homeland than what skin is the next assembly member of NY. The Chinese immigrant is looking at a much longer game, since they were here before all the others, of how China will do in this race for superpower. So, I think, after the “rights” game, we have the “power” game. I think African-Americans understood this fully, no wonder almost the whole of US culture is inflected this way. I recently heard UK youth, with their adorable accent, sayin “Oh, snap!”. That is power, whatever you think of it. The minorities in the US probably are not in civil rights game, which is a kind of humiliating thing if you think about it now, “can’t you let me use your toilets?”, than more on cultural influence.

No, there is not something bigger going on. All roads lead to racism/white supremacy. Regardless of the other things you are trying to divert to, you are going to end up talking about racism.

@ Asterix.

Actually, the civil rights movement was significantly more than an African American movement, as it involved many different minority groups challenging White American power including Chicanos, Native Americans, and yes, Asian Americans . It’s only the ignorant–or duplicitous–that believes otherwise.

Moreover, there is no “average Asian American” nor is there a singular issue they are concerned about. Your construct of these average Asian Americans and indeed Chinese immigrants are fallacious.

What’s more in your comments about China, you reiterate the tired Sinophobic propaganda that America and its allies are increasingly peddling about China as the “Yellow Peril” threat.

Hell, if there is one country on the planet that is pursuing ruthless dominance, it is by far the United States of America with its thinly disguised aggressive wars, routine bombing, or assaults on multiple nations around the planet.

See American attacks on Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, Pakistan, Somalia, the Central African Republic, or American’s phony War on Terrorism in general.

Despite its propaganda about being the “Leader of the Free World,” America in reality is a global overlord with a ruthless determination to maintain its dominance and power.

Racism will enter into this geopolitical calculus, as America has a nasty habit of demonizing its own people who share the same ethnic or religious background of its “enemies.” See the USA’s current vilification of Muslims and Arabs or the Japanese American Internment.

I have a problem with this notion of “Asian privilege”. In no field of human endeavour can I think of an example where Asians are preferred due to their race with the notable exception where Asians are in demand as racist or demeaning stereotypes in Hollywood movies and TV. I also see no evidence of Asian Americans being vertically integrated into whiteness. I see Asian American females being integrated into white social structures, but that is not racial integration, it is making Asian females sexually available to white men. The notion also that Asian Americans enjoy some sort of racial privilege when it comes to crime and sentencing does not seem likely. For the marijuana example, it would seem that white privilege is in play if it were true, not Asian. Also to come to correct conclusions one would have to know the rate of marijuana usage amongst all races, the number of offenders being caught, and the subsequent conviction rates. “Asian privilege” did not help Vincent Chin, Chai Vang, Wen Ho Lee and countless others. In fact in many cases, being an Asian victim of a crime resulted in acquittals for the perpetrator. Higher incarceration rates for African Americans vs white Americans for the same crimes given all other factors being equal, would be an example of racial bias against African Americans if it were true, however this is questionable. Asian Americans are incarcerated at rates lower than that of African Americans simply because they commit less crimes. There are many social memes that have no basis in reality but are socially constructed to either deliberately help or hinder certain races. I am curious to know the source of this “Asian privilege” meme and the author’s intent.

I do not think the Civil Rights movement involved many Chicanos. They had their own leaders and very different issues to settle. Also, the Civil Rights movement started in the Southern U.S. while the Chicano movement was started in the West. The Civil Rights movement concerned political rights while the Chicano movement concerned more with economic rights. Also, it is not just Asian immigrants who have come to the U.S. on a work visa but standard immigrants who have worked very hard and sacrificed to obtain a better life for their children. They may not see it but they are determine that their children see it. It seems to me that as long as the Asians retained at least some of their cultural identity they have been able to move up the ladder. When they adopt total American values, they are in no different situation than the rest of the society. Latino immigrants actually do the best of any immigrant for moving from almost no education to obtaining a high school education. Where they fail is obtaining a university level education. My opinion is that the basis for this may be the situation regarding professionals in their birth country. My experience in Mexico taught me that educated professionals earn very low salaries compared to other countries. This is quite different from Asia, Europe, the Middle east and the U.S. A school teacher in Mexico will start out making USD 400,00 per month. An engineer out of college will start out at 24 dollars per day. Even with 5 years experience an engineer is still making only USD 1,000.00 per month. Not much incentive. Maybe someone has another explanation or different experience.

Are you saying that race is a “political construct” because it sounds nice or because you actually know that? I’ll be honest, I don’t know myself how much, if at all, genes and race affect behavior, but denying that they have any affect at all seems like a big assumption to make. I’m no geneticist, but I’ve lots of books about genetics, particularly relevant to this topic is one called A Troublesome Inheritance.

Identifying genetic racial differences is essential for curing diseases, few people argue with science when it saves lives. No one gets upset when scientists point out positive adaptations, like Tibetans adaptations to living at extremely high altitudes, different shades of skin that evolved in areas with different levels of sunlight or the mutation for consuming milk after weening.

But the idea that genetic differences between races can affect behavior is taboo. It reminds people of the sordid history of eugenics, sterilization, concentration camps etc. Just because people have used the idea of race to justify evil in the past doesn’t mean races don’t exist. The behavior of Belyaev’s foxes changed completely in just a few generations. Humans are more complex than foxes of course, but that doesn’t mean we are exempt from evolutionary forces that shape behavior.

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