Sophian Zhu ’18
Americans were shot in a bar in Kansas on Feb. 22. The shooter was a white man who first asked their visa status and then shouted, “Get out of my country,” before he fired the gun. We heard little about the racial aggressions facing the Asian American community and even less about the oppositions voiced by this community. According to the stereotypes, Asians are a quiet, docile, hardworking group of people who represent a “model minority” that often serves as the proof of the American dream of color-blindness. It seems that Asian Americans, with their higher education attainment rates and higher household incomes, enjoy an “exceptionalism” that somehow separates them from other minority groups. But unfortunately, this exceptionalism doesn’t protect them from racism and violence.
The narrative of Asians as a “model minority” was constructed about 50 years ago. This label was first only given to Japanese Americans and then exploited by political conservatives during the Civil Rights movement, to deny the existence of systematic racial discriminations in American society. They asked: “If Asians can do it, why can’t others?” The derogatory implications of such a statement is obvious: it falsely portrays all Asian Americans as homogeneously diligent, disciplined and socioeconomically well-off, while other groups are the opposite of these terms.
While some may take the labels as compliments, they are not only false but also damaging to Asian Americans’ social standings in the U.S. There are many aspects that statistics leave out, such as the fact that Asian Americans often have a larger household. Per capita incomes showed the disadvantage of Asian Americans in reality. Education attainment rates also vary significantly among different age groups. Research suggests that the percentage of high school graduates among 25-year-old or older Asian Americans is even below the average line.
In addition, when citing successful examples of Asian Americans, we tend to ignore the fact that immigrants are a self-selective group much dependent on the design of immigration laws. There are more educated and wealthy Asians in America simply because only those people were allowed into the country under the 1965 Immigration Act, which welcomed only high-skilled and economically well-off Asians to come and contribute to the American society — not because they are smarter or unaffected by discriminations.
The claim of “Asian advantage” is also meaningless because such a generalization ignores the heterogeneous nature of the term “Asian,” which includes people coming from a great variety of countries with vastly different socioeconomic profiles. We neglect the fact that while people from East Asia and India may be economically better off, immigrants from Cambodia and Hmong, for example, have poverty rates of around 30 percent.
In contrast to the portrayal of the “model minority,” Asian Americans do experience racial discrimination. Like other minority groups, they are faced with micro-aggression, hate speech and employment disadvantages. A new study by researchers at the University of Toronto and Ryerson University suggested that job applicants with an Asian last name are 28 percent less likely to be called for an interview. Asian men have long been stereotyped as awkward, stiff and emasculate, and white actors taking Asian roles has become unsurprising. Even when Asian actors are cast in Asian roles, they unfortunately only serve to reinforce their racial stereotypes.
But the curse of the “model minority” has camouflaged those threats, rendered Asian Americans silent when facing injustice and even caused tensions between them and other minority groups. Internalizing the label of being a model minority, Asian Americans have felt reluctant to complain and have learned to remain complacent. But, they never learned to share the grievance of their ally minority groups and stand up for others, just as others also pay little attention to their issues. They are essentially the marginalized among the marginalized groups.
Internationalization of racial stereotypes has also deterred the alleged “model minority” from becoming a group of “model citizens.” Compared to other minority communities, Asian Americans are less politically engaged and are less likely to vote, volunteer or serve in the army. Their complacency has estranged them from the mainstream society while they stay in their roles given by the white majority without fully recognizing it.
Due to these labels, Asian youth also suffer more burdens, excessive pressure and overly high expectations, because they are asked to continue the “success model.” They are expected to be good at math and to probably become an engineer in the future. Their career choices are implicitly narrowed due to specific expectations from their parents and society. As a result, they have higher depression rates than other racial groups and are also more prone to suicide.
In return, Asian Americans held more negative opinions towards “political correctness” because they felt left out in discussions about racial equality and minority rights. With a paradoxical political philosophy, they constituted a significant part of the “silent majority” supporting Donald Trump and others who made hate speeches. Without breaking out of the “model minority” mindset, their distorted self-image will continue to hurt themselves and their “exceptionalism” will only serve to marginalize them even further.