Asians are the Wedge

The model minority myth is just that, a myth.

by Scot Nakagawa

On the Sunday before Memorial Day 2012, I tuned in to MSNBC to watch Melissa Harris-Perry lead a discussion about Asian American voters. The show started out with some promise. But as it progressed, I found myself descending into a rant. By the end, I was full-on pissed. For all of the good intentions, one subtle but unbroken thread ran through the discussion – Asian Americans are the model minority.

Asian-Americans-more-educated-successful
In response to the relative absence of Asian American stars in Democratic Party politics, panelist William Schneider said,

“…they have not relied on politics to get ahead as many other disadvantaged groups have…”

So how is it that we supposedly got ahead? Schneider used the example of another panelist, comedian Margaret Cho, citing her “talent and determination” as the ingredients of her success. He also talked about Asian American success in “business, professions… science…” all, apparently, without working the political system.

I’m not sure what qualifies Mr. Schneider to speak to the issues of Asian Americans, but he’s wrong. Asian Americans are politically active. Asian Americans have also ridden the coattails of the Civil Rights Movement, benefiting from the Voting Rights Act, Affirmative Action and The Higher Education Act of 1965 among other gains.

While we can’t claim these achievements as our own, they were won through political protest and are among the ingredients of our supposed “success.” We did not just pull ourselves up by our bootstraps.

In about 15 minutes, I saw a demonstration of the ubiquity of anti-Asian racism. It is so commonplace, in fact, that we don’t even see it as racism, making it a powerful wedge dividing Asians from other people of color while maintaining white dominance of politics.

Here’s what I mean –

First, let’s get it straight. The model minority myth is just that, a myth.

The myth first entered the popular consciousness of Americans in the 1960s, shortly after the passage of federal civil rights legislation. It started with a 1966 New York Times article, “Success Story: Japanese American Style” that argued that Japanese Americans, just 21 years after virtually the entire community was interned, had risen to success through quietly working hard and making sacrifices to create opportunities for their children.

examiner_asianU.S. News and World Report’s “Success Story of One Minority Group in U.S.” in 1968, and Newsweek’s “Success Story: Outwhiting the Whites” published in 1971, sealed the deal.

The model minority myth is rooted in the backlash against the Black civil rights struggle. When Federal legislation resulted in programs like Affirmative Action, the media abruptly pivoted from Asians as sneaky foreigners to the model minority stereotype. The myth served the purpose of isolating African Americans in particular, and provided cover to those using coded racism to attack social programs and civil rights gains. The myth allows conservative policy makers to characterize these gains as dependency breeding crutches.

Ever since, the model minority myth has been one of the pillars of color blind racism.

The reasoning goes something like this: Asians (who, after all, are people of color) relied upon hard work and cooperation to overcome racism, and that’s made us especially successful. In fact, overcoming racism through hard work rather than through protest and policy making is the true sign of character, so taking away social programs and civil rights protections is the compassionate thing to do.

On the flip side, the model minority stereotype also makes racial inequity for Asian Americans invisible.
Here’s an example. Asian American household income was higher than white household income in 2011. However, per capita income of Asian Americans is lower than for whites. Asian households make more because they contain more earners, probably as a result of living in households that benefit from the retirement incomes of elders.

More troubling, according to the report A Community of Contrasts, the 2011 per capita income of Taiwanese Americans was $38,312. However, per capita income of Hmong Americans was only $10,949. That makes the Hmong the lowest per capita earners by ethnicity among all Americans. And Vietnamese, Cambodians, Laotians, and Bangladeshis are pretty much in the same boat, earning even less than African Americans.

Worse yet, the model minority myth is dehumanizing. Casting us as super human is the flip side of casting other people of color as less than human, making all of us strangers to a normative standard that is white.

As long as we are treated as exotic others, the script can be switched, and Asians may find ourselves back where we started, cast again as foreign invaders. Either way, we’re still a wedge in the hands of white supremacy.

This entry was first posted in RaceFiles and tagged Affirmative Action, Asian American,

Scot Nakagawa is a 34 year veteran in the field of social justice. Scot was the first staff person of the Coalition for Human Dignity, an organization formed to combat vigilante white supremacist hate groups in the Pacific Northwest. He has also served as Field Director of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, Associate Director of the Western Prison Project (now the Partnership for Safety and Justice), educator on the staff of the Highlander Research and Education Center, and as an executive and philanthropic adviser in the field of social justice philanthropy. Scot has also been a literacy teacher, and has organized homeless shelters, and community-based food and medical assistance programs. Scot’s primary work in social change has been as a social movement analyst and organizational strategist. He is the publisher of the blog, Race Files, which addresses race and racism in U.S. politics and culture. @nakagawascot

 

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13 replies

  1. It is always great to be reminded of the micro-aggressions that make up the fabric of white american society. It is so bizarre to see different races painted as different “themes.” (Nevermind the ‘mixed race conundrum’ that blows all those superficial theories out of the water!) Thanks for keeping it real and getting angry enough to share. 🙂

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  2. Wow. Funny, I didn’t know democracy was something one “relied on” to get ahead. I thought it was our human and constitutional right to participate in the activity of our government and community. And if they want to assert (falsely) that Asians don’t participate in this democratic process and have been able to “get ahead” without it then they are sorely wrong. How can you be a model anything if you don’t participate in politics and government? That would just make Asians highly educated slaves. I applaud Scot for focusing Asian’s that participate in political discourse. I believe that the model minority asignation has to do with a community that by and large doesn’t trigger “white guilt”. It isn’t participation in politics, but rather a group of people who very rarely, especially not publicly discusses imperialism, colonialism, genocide or institutional disparity. Japanese cartoons routinely show anglo featured characters and a white western aesthetic. Crime statistics are the same for impoverished Asians as any other oppressed group. So the love affair has a lot to do with a public segment of Asians who seem to avoid the issue of white oppression. If that makes you a model minority, I’m happy to say as an African-American that I’m not either model or a minority.

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  3. Wow. Funny, I didn’t know democracy was something one “relied on” to get ahead. I thought it was our human and constitutional right to participate in the activity of our government and community. And if they want to assert (falsely) that Asians don’t participate in this democratic process and have been able to “get ahead” without it then they are sorely wrong. How can you be a model anything if you don’t participate in politics and government? That just makes you a highly educated slave. Its a contradiction in terms, and I applaud this article for eloquently defending Asian-American’s place in political discourse.

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  4. Great article. A few years ago a friend of mine at Harvard was bragging about Asians being over-represented in colleges, and drawing great racial pride from the fact. One thing I’ve noticed about the model minority myth is that, because its a positive stereotype, many Asians are more than happy to take it as an identity (something I assume is innate to the divide and conquer strategy)

    However, this over-representation argument itself is a myth, and it would be really interesting if you address it too. When I analyzed the data for the Harvard class of 2011, what I found was that Asian-Americans, though not as much as African or Latino Americans, were actually under-represented at Harvard. It was the combined total of International Asian students and American asian students that gave the appearance of over-representation. However, being that Asians are the global majority, it made perfect sense that Asians would be more represented in the international student population. So this myth has evolved from placing white as normal, and therefore grouping all Asians without drawing distinctions between international and American, or even Chinese and Cambodian (two completely different American experiences).

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    • “It was the combined total of International Asian students and American asian students that gave the appearance of over-representation. However, being that Asians are the global majority, it made perfect sense that Asians would be more represented in the international student population”

      Lol are you suggesting a school’s demographics should represent world demographics?

      Separately, Harvard College is about 18% Asian, and 12% international. Even if every single int’l student at Harvard were Asian (false), that would mean 6% of the College was domestic Asian. As a whole, it is estimated that America is 6% Asian, which would still make domestic Asians properly represented at Harvard College under this scenario.

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  5. Thank you Scott, this was enlightening and explained a lot of not only how PoC can be manipulated, but also pitted against one another. nice work.

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  6. Someone please enlighten me on how saying Asians work hard, sacrifice for their children and overcome barriers to success is an example of “anti-Asian racism.” Anyone?

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  7. Thank you for the really good article and thank you for using me (my picture) in this. I would also like to add though that for many Asian American youth (especially in college), the (hyper)invisibility of Asian American activism are rarely addressed not unless you take an ethnic studies class.

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    • I think it is so sad that one has to search hard or take a course to know what our predecessors have done. What’s more terrifying is that more and more ethnic studies’ departments are being targeted and students are actually discouraged from taking such courses. So who knows how many of us are losing out on extremely powerful information.

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  8. Reblogged this on Corner Store Press and commented:
    “The model minority myth is rooted in the backlash against the Black civil rights struggle. When Federal legislation resulted in programs like Affirmative Action, the media abruptly pivoted from Asians as sneaky foreigners to the model minority stereotype. The myth served the purpose of isolating African Americans in particular, and provided cover to those using coded racism to attack social programs and civil rights gains. The myth allows conservative policy makers to characterize these gains as dependency breeding crutches.”

    Like

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