Jun 1, 2023
Content Warning: Racism
The Asian model minority is a phrase that most are familiar with, however few have a grasp on the severity of the concept. When we initially consider the “Asian model minority” we think of the pale Korean businessman or Chinese doctor. These could initially appear to be an unassuming, almost flattering assumption, a kudos to Asian success. However this narrative is not just vaguely annoying; its shadow looms far past people assuming that Asians are good at math.
Firstly, and this cannot be stressed enough: not all Asians are pale. We tend to socially categorize the eastern countries, such as China or South Korea as pale, then south and southeastern countries such as India, the Philippines, or Myanmar as brown, however in every one of the aforementioned countries there are people with many shades of complexion. This may seem like an obvious statement, however it is a statement that must continuously be acknowledged for the erasure of brown Asians from the narrative has persisted for generations with only a recent widespread recognition of the entrench colorism. This is not completely instituted by white americans; it is also embedded in the colorism that flows through Asian communities, notably surfacing in the 1960s-70s Yellow Power movement that ignored brown Asian Americans. However white supremacy and the model minority give this sentiment an incredibly fertile environment to grow.
The importance of recognizing the diversity of Asia extends past just remembering that countries other than Japan, South Korea, and China exist. Not only should we cease to consider “Asian” a monolithic, often Eastern Asian identity, as there are over 50 countries in Asia, each with different languages, cultures, cuisines, etc., but also that the countries themselves should not be mistaken to be homogenous. Although there is a universal national identity, there is also diversity in both ethnocultural and political identities, and approaching Asian countries with a lens of cultural essentialism is regressive and reductionist. There are frequent inferences of this in news and media, such as the homogenous mass of Chinese citizens who are simultaneously brainwashed by their government but also a barbaric hivemind; or essentially all Southeast Asian countries portrayed as beachy, underdeveloped lands rife with violence (ex. Myanmar), poverty (ex. Vietnam), or conservative religion (ex. Malaysia), which results in the assumption of a simple minded and therefore helplessly oppressed people. These implications thoroughly ignore the social nuances of the actual people in those countries.
Secondly, the assumption that Asian Americans’ prevalence in high paying white collar jobs effectively eliminates the existence of anti-Asian discrimination is misplaced. In those high paying jobs themselves, according to national EEOC (U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission) workforce data, Asian Americans are the least likely group to be promoted to management positions across all industries, from tech and business to law and government. On top of that, while Asians are overrepresented in high paying jobs, they are also overrepresented in low paying jobs, and out of every racial group, Asians have the most rapidly growing income inequality.
Therefore here is my personal definition of the model minority: the act of squashing the vast diaspora of Asian Americans into a very rigid orientalist archetype, specifically a conglomeration of cultures shoved into the body of an East Asian stereotype whose merit is measured in proximity to whiteness.
However this is nearly impossible to achieve, for as a default, the Asian American is always associated in relevance to their ethnic country of origin, regardless of the level of connection that they have to it. Even here in Eugene, a relatively liberal area, people will react in impressed astonishment to an Asian person having perfect English, or be considerably surprised if English is their first or only language. And although most will not react with dramatic disgust at the presence of chicken feet or dried squid in the Asian-Mart, it is still regarded as a spectacle of the foreign, and a reminder that Asian people are exotic. The problem that arises out of this is that white people can tour and select what they like from various Asian cultures and adopt it into their lives; Buddhism, speaking Mandarin, wearing traditional attire, lumpia, anime, incense (though this is also traditionally relevant in various Native American and African cultures), etc., are all socially acceptable, even encouraged, for white people to partake in, often adding to their status of sophistication and “worldly knowledge.” However, if an Asian person does or indulges in those same things, they become too Asian, and eventually can become an unrelatable walking exhibition of the entirety of Asia, swallowed into the monolithic concept of “Asianness.”
This is a vulnerable position to be in because one is either, what researchers call, the “perpetual foreigner,” or publicly emancipated from cultural identity. The line to walk is very thin. Thus there is an unspoken expectation, especially in school or the workplace, for a rejection of cultural connection and a resulting overcompensation through social adaptation and almost a neo-assimilation: the intentional choice to blend in through hyper-professionalism and flexibility; academic excellence; suppression of true emotion; logistical competency; and submission to western norms and practices. The model minority is not the behavior of a model Asian person, it is the behavior of the most perfect white person through the capitalist lens, and thus can sometimes result in a collection of capital, and traditional success.
Consequently, the model minority myth reinforces the false idea that success in America is achievable with just hard work, while ignoring systemic barriers and discrimination that affects racial minorities. This ability for some Asian Americans to abandon identity and spirit to emulate whiteness and reach high levels of success is weaponized by white supremacy to subdivide and categorize minorities, with the proof that racism does not debilitatingly exist. The model minority myth builds walls between Asian Americans and other racial minorities; it sinisterly taunts each group’s individual attempts to gain recognition and end discrimination by invalidating this discrimination’s very existence. Employing abominable generalizations, white supremacy places pale Asian Americans and Black and Brown Americans as antithesis of one another, while brown Asian Americans face the worst of both worlds. More recently there has been a growth in solidarity, which is very beautiful to see after the long history of disjunction. It is important to recognize that the model minority myth is a tool used by white supremacy to maintain power and control over all racial minorities, which actively prevents a united revolution, so dismantling it is necessary for true equity and justice to be achieved.
The model minority myth also builds walls within oneself, alienating the Asian American from their own self and identity. The model minority myth has historically (and presently) enabled Asian American survival and even flourishing in the form of select monetary success, however this is with the pervasive condition of the rejection of community and culture, a fervent dedication to loss of identity, and being the sidekick to the symbolic cishet white man.
Within many Asian American families there is the universal life advice to kowtow to the needs and standards of the empowered, silently suffer, and always preserve dignity and save face no matter what, or a very similar message. And it fucking sucks. The dedication that the Asian American community has developed due to the model minority myth to achieve the same status as the white man has devastating consequences for the people within it.
We are expected to pretend to be a blank white slate for white supremacy to write on and hold up as a twisted lie that discrimination can be overcome with hard work and dedication. We sacrifice everything meaningful for personal survival, just to be used as a tool to uphold racism. So when we have externally expressed passionate interests and dreams, can’t hide our emotions, or simply take up more space than the bare minimum, we are no longer useful to use as a cog in the white supremacist machine and are rejected into obscurity. The model minority stereotype is elusively persistent and deeply damaging, and it aids white supremacy to prevail, thus it is crucial to dismantle and eliminate its permeation in America.