It’s time to kill the Asian American model minority myth, and I mean really kill it.
That myth is one of the tenets of American racism, used repeatedly for decades to promote the idea that racism and structural racial disadvantage are either non-existent or at least entirely surmountable, while suggesting that some people of color, and Black people in particular, are just whiners unwilling to pull themselves up by their bootstraps. And that belief, that the black poor are just entitlement junkies, has negative consequences for all poor people because the tough “love” solutions this belief inspires, like cutting back on food stamps and other programs, see no color.
For Asian Americans, killing the myth requires destroying the veil of elevated expectations and assumptions that surround us to reveal the real face of our richly diverse communities and experiences. I call it model minority suicide. Need convincing?
Here are five reasons:
The idea that Black people are a “problem” minority is the flip side of the model minority myth. Problem minority stereotyping is one of the often cited justifications for resistance to programs like affirmative action (and still is) and for tough on crime policing of low-income black neighborhoods, including the war on drugs. The economic costs of the related prison build up, not to mention the human toll on targeted communities, is just too high. We pay for it in the tragic currency of broken families, impoverishment, and the measurable financial consequences to tax payers of policing, prosecuting, warehousing, and post-prison supervision of far too many people, among whom a not insignificant number did nothing more than pocket some marijuana.
While being idealized as a model of Americanism has a certain upside in the form of elevated societal expectations, we know all too well that all that idealizing wouldn’t stick if Asians weren’t too often regarded as inscrutable strangers in our own country. Only a group regarded as strangers could be so often found living side by side with middle class white Americans and yet be stereotyped as, in some regards, as very nearly an alien species. And strangers are easy targets when the going gets rough and scapegoating is on the agenda, as evidenced by the wholesale violation of the rights of those perceived to be Muslim in the U.S. in the wake of the 9/11 tragedy, and the continuing persecution of Muslim Americans 13 years later.
In spite of the fact that most Asian voters identify as liberals, we’ve become a tool of conservatives. This quote from Charles Murray, the author of that veritable ode to eugenics, The Bell Curve, appeared in The National Review immediately after the 2012 election,
…somewhere in the vicinity of 70% of Asians voted for Barack Obama in the last presidential election.
Something’s wrong with this picture. It’s not just that the income, occupations, and marital status of Asians should push them toward the right. Everyday observation of Asians around the world reveal them to be conspicuously entrepreneurial, industrious, family-oriented, and self-reliant. If you’re looking for a natural Republican constituency, Asians should define ‘natural.’
More recently, former Florida governor Jeb Bush made this argument during a TV interview in order to make the case that Republicans are failing to win over their “natural” constituents,
…I mean, if you look at Asian Americans, for example, in general, they have higher income[sic] than the median of our country, more intact families, more entrepreneurship, higher levels of education. And they supported President Obama 75-24; higher margins than with Hispanics…
Now, I ask you, if being family-oriented, entrepreneurial, industrious, self-reliant, and better educated makes one “naturally” conservative, what are “natural” liberals? Takers? Entitlement junkies? Nanny-State weaklings? I’m guessing all of the above with a heaping helping of lazy on top.
The myth covers up some difficult realities, such as the fact that Asian groups such as the Vietnamese and Cambodians are among the poorest by ethnicity in the U.S., and 12.8% of Asian Americans lived below the poverty line in 2011. The very real service needs and challenges of these Asian Americans are obscured or minimized because of model minority stereotyping.
The model minority myth also adds some steel to the bamboo ceiling, that invisible yet all too consequential barrier between Asian Americans and top-level leadership. Apparently, in the corporate world, being perceived as quiet, passive, and hyper-industrious makes Asians seem more suitable for technical positions and unfit for leadership. And that, it seems, is why Asian Americans, lumped together as we are, are simultaneously the most highly educated racial group in the U.S. and the least likely to make it to the top tiers of the corporate ladder.
So, given these incentives, what are we to do about it? Here are five suggestions:
1. Don’t say things like, “we need to get beyond the black-white paradigm” because that paradigm is the foundation of white supremacy, and the injustice anti-black racism, both historical and contemporary, is not yet resolved (as evidenced by the continuing utility of the anti-black ideas at the root of concepts like the “entitlement junkie,” the “culture of poverty,” and the assumption that successful black people are undeserving affirmative action recipients).
2. Don’t call Asian American rights campaigns “the new Civil Rights Movement” as if the goals of the Civil Rights Movement were achieved, no longer matter, and/or only benefited black people. Asian Americans owe a great debt to the Black-led Civil Rights Movement, and our contemporary campaigns for civil rights reforms, at their best, aspire to move all people of color forward together into the new century.
3. Recognize that the “Asians suffer from racism too” response to the model minority myth is not enough. Side-stepping the damage that the myth has done to other people of color while raising the visibility of our own suffering actually reinforces the damaging “problem minority” flip side of the myth. We need to acknowledge that Asian Americans suffer from racism, but that white supremacy is perpetuated through an intersecting array of racist bigotries of which Orientalism is just one example.
4. Become an advocate for racial justice, not just for Asian Americans, but as a matter of pushing forward the unfinished business of winning democratic rights for everyone including women, LGBT people, undocumented immigrants, religious minorities, Native Americans, Native Hawaiians, and other people of color. And while raising a ruckus online is a fine way to get involved, joining a group in your community allows you to take concrete steps toward justice alongside those who suffer from racism and exclusion the most, including those on the other side of the digital divide.
5. Raise the visibility of Asian Americans’ political activism both of the past and in the present. We’ve been far from quiet throughout U.S. history and we’re making trouble and making noise today. Let’s turn up the volume.