Asian Americans and the Modern Minority Myth
When I was busy applying to colleges four years ago, my mom gave me a piece of advice she thought would boost my prospects.
“Don’t tell them you’re Asian,” she told me. “Then maybe you’ll have a better chance of getting in.”
My mom was specifically referencing the several University of California schools I was considering applying to, many of which have large Asian student populations already. And it was because of the predominantly Asian student bodies at these campuses that she thought I wouldn’t have a good chance of getting in: Why would those schools accept another Asian student when they were already overrepresented? My mom thought it would be best if I hide my Asian heritage by checking another racial group, one that was more of a minority at these UC schools — I considered self-identifying as “Pacific Islander” in my applications instead, reasoning to myself that the Philippines was an island nation in the Pacific Ocean — to increase my chances of being accepted.
This idea that Asian students are slighted by the college admissions process — even discriminated against — because of affirmative action has become a common talking point among many Asian Americans. This belief has even made it all the way to Attorney General Jeff Sessions and the Department of Justice, which was announced in August that the DOJ would be looking into affirmative action policies amid allegations that they discriminate against Asian Americans. According to the New York Times, the DOJ will specifically be investigating a lawsuit in which a group of Asian Americans claim that Harvard University’s affirmative action policies discriminated against them.
The announcement has reignited a debate within the Asian American community about the merits of affirmative action. Those opposing affirmative action believe colleges and universities use quotas to limit the number of Asian applicants accepted, even though the Supreme Court ruled racial quotas to be unconstitutional in the 1978 case Regents of the University of California v. Bakke. The anti-affirmative action group Students for Fair Admissions is quick to cite the fact that the enrollment of Asian Americans at elite schools have largely remained static, despite enrolling in colleges at higher rates.
In contrast, Asian American organizations supporting affirmative action say it benefits particular communities within the Asian diaspora that are underrepresented in higher education, such as Laotians and Cambodians. Furthermore, the 2016 Asian American Voter Survey found that 64 percent of respondents said they favored affirmative action, compared to the 25 percent who opposed it.
For the vocal number of Asian Americans who disapprove of affirmative action, the Justice Department’s announcement may lead them to believe that the Trump administration is willing to fight for them and that the DOJ truly cares about issues affecting the Asian American community. Yet this thinly veiled facade of “fighting for the victim” positions Asian Americans is nothing more than a convenient racial wedge for the Department of Justice to advance the agenda of the Trump administration.
White supremacy is the game, and Asian Americans are the pawns.
The debate among Asian Americans over affirmative action, in combination with the current administration’s supposed support for their cause, stretches far beyond the implications of admissions policies. Rather, it is reflective of a racial history that has purposely placed Asian Americans in a gray area on the racial hierarchy.
That position in the racial ladder’s gray zone stems from the centuries of racist love and racist hate — terms first coined in 1972 by Asian American authors Frank Chin and Jeffrey Paul Chan — Asian Americans have received since immigrating to this country. Pinpointing the periods of racist hate — blatant discrimination fueled by racialized animosity and fear of the immigrant “other” — against Asian Americans is, sadly, easy enough to identify. There was the roundup of Japanese Americans during World War II into internment camps and the wave of anti-Asian sentiment throughout those wartime years. The Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882 barred Chinese laborers from immigrating to the U.S., fueled primarily by a fear that Chinese people were taking job opportunities away from other Americans. Sound familiar?
Racist love, on the other hand, is not necessarily defined by particular exclusionary policies, but rather exists as an ever-existing force of manipulation that has heavily shaped the modern-day experiences of Asian Americans. It is defined as the approval given to a minority group by those dominant in society as a result of behavior that is pleasing or satisfactory to said dominant group. The primary form of racist love bestowed upon Asian Americans by white people is that of the model minority myth — the perception that Asians are smart, obedient, and financially well-off.
Like many Asian Americans I know, I became a victim to the model minority myth as soon as I started school. Other kids would think I was the smartest in the class at math. Sometimes my non-Asian friends would tease me for receiving a test grade lower than an A — an “Asian F.” My fellow peers and teachers often said I was “quiet” and “soft-spoken” in class. Others admonished me for being “too shy,” only to be taken aback at how outspoken I could be once I opened up to them.
The modern-day model minority myth primarily developed after World War II as a tool of comparison between Asian Americans and African Americans. A 1966 New York Times piece by William Petersen, former sociologist at the University of California, Berkeley, entitled “Success Story, Japanese-American Style,” further solidified the stereotype of Asian Americans as obedient and industrious. Not only did the piece paint the picture of Asian Americans succeeding against all odds, but Petersen created this trope in direct juxtaposition to African Americans, further perpetuating negative stereotypes against them as a result.
With this increased social acceptance of Asian Americans post-World War II came better job opportunities, adding more fuel to the model minority myth. But as Washington Post reporter Jeff Guo wrote last year, the success of many Asian Americans during this time was not solely a product of education.
“Asian Americans — some of them at least — have made tremendous progress in the United States,” Guo writes. “But the greatest thing that has ever happened to them wasn’t that they studied hard, or that they benefited from tiger moms or Confucian values. It’s that other Americans started treating them with a little more respect.”
Despite its packaging as a positive stereotype, the model minority myth is just as destructive as any other stereotype. Studies show that mental health issues are more common among Asian American youth than their immigrant parents, yet second-generation Asian Americans are three times less likely to seek out mental health services than their white peers. These mental health issues among young Asian Americans like me are caused by a variety of factors, with one of the most prominent being the high standards and expectations we are asked to meet because of the model minority myth.
Beyond these clear mental health issues is another, more insidious impact of the model minority. At its most innocent, the model minority myth is a complete overgeneralization of the fastest-growing minority group in the country. But at its worst, it is a stereotype masquerading as a Trojan horse to uphold white supremacy.
Indeed, one of the causes and effects of the model minority myth is the division it creates between Asian Americans and other communities of color. Because the model minority stereotype is predicated on white America’s perception of Asians as a docile and well-educated group, it subsequently demands that Blacks, Latinxs and Native Americans pass this threshold as well.
If they can do it, the model minority myth asks, gesturing to successful Asian Americans, then why can’t you?
The model minority stereotype has the effect of making Asian Americans palatable enough for white supremacy while perpetuating harmful stereotypes of Black people and Latinxs being lazy, dangerous and unmotivated. It gives a pass to Asians at the expense of fueling bias and even anti-Black racism within Asian communities, creating categories of the “good minority” versus the “bad minority.”
So as long as Asians remain docile and obedient, the model minority myth attempts to convince us that we will remain relatively safe from the same oppressive forces that lead to poverty, discrimination and a lack of economic opportunity in other communities of color. But the catch to the model minority myth is its intrinsic connection to American meritocracy and the “pull yourself up by the bootstraps” mentality that is achieving the American Dream. The narrative of educational and economic success is predicated on an Asian person’s individual drive — his or her willingness to stay up all night in college studying for a test or the obsessiveness with getting into top universities during college admissions season.
The meritocratic undertones of the model minority narrative, however, completely ignore the systemic barriers that continue to harm Asian Americans and other communities of color. It ignores the “bamboo ceiling” that keeps Asian Americans from leadership positions in tech companies and corporate businesses. It ignores the wealth inequality that permeates Asian American communities, in which Bangladeshi and Cambodian Americans have lower household incomes.
Instead of recognizing the ways institutionalized racism and systemic discrimination impact communities of color, many Asian Americans have been manipulated into believing that systemic violence and discrimination doesn’t exist. In the fight for racial justice, we become completely invisibilized, and our collective and intertwined histories of oppression and hardship in this country is erased. The murder of Vincent Chin and the solidarity between Mexican American and Filipino American farmworkers are reduced to dust in our collective memories.
When I was little, my mom would tell me that I needed to work twice as hard as my peers to make it half as far. It is a piece of advice that many immigrant and Black parents often tell their children, as it subtly hints at the extra barriers faced by marginalized communities without clearly defining these obstacles as products of systemic racism. But at the same time that my mom told me these words, she would scold me years later for participating in Black Lives Matter rallies at my college. These reactions present a numbing juxtaposition I feel is common among other second-generation Asian Americans like me: Our parents may hint at the existence of institutional obstacles that impact our ability to succeed, yet they still believe following the path set by the model minority myth will be the most beneficial to us.
Because our race is invisibilized by the model minority trope, Asian Americans are often disconnected from modern-day social justice movements, such as the Black Lives Matter movement mobilizing against police brutality. Instead of standing up against injustice with our Black, Latinx and indigenous brothers and sisters, many of us largely remain silent and complacent, for this is how the white man told us to behave to ensure our own survival.
Be obedient, they said. Work hard, they said. Sit down, they said, and you’ll make it in this cutthroat, capitalist world of ours.
And, for the most part, we believed them.
Asian Americans have been fooled for decades, tricked by white supremacy into believing that stepping on the backs of other people of color is necessary for white acceptance. But in this “race for second place” instigated by the dominant group, Asian Americans will never win. When the system is gamed to benefit only rich, white, cisgender men, the marginalized groups — Asian Americans included — are always programmed to lose.
Now, with the current anti-affirmative action crusade waged by the Justice Department, Asian Americans are once again being wielded as convenient pieces in a game solely for white people’s benefit. After the news broke, I was comforted to see a number of high-profile Asian Americans use the hashtag #NotYourModelMinority to combat the Trump administration’s attempt to use us — or at least, a caricature of us — for their own benefit.
But just having a few famous Asian Americans reject the model minority stereotype is not enough. All Asian Americans need to wake up and realize that the race for second place will lead us nowhere. That buying into the model minority myth — and satisfying those at the top of the racial hierarchy — comes at the expense of Black folks, Latinxs and indigenous communities. We must abandon our suffocating silence and vocally and unapologetically join the fight against systemic injustices.
We must wake up from this white supremacy-induced dream that has been projected onto us. We owe it to our black and brown brothers and sisters, to the Asian immigrants that were scapegoated centuries before us, to ourselves and to our future.
Celisa Calacal is a fourth-year journalism student who refuses capitalist classification despite what you think. You can reach them at firstname.lastname@example.org.