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.