Youre Asian. You must be good at math.
Many Asians become doctors. Theyre smart.
America is full of opportunity. Just look at Asians and how successful they are.
These are some of the most common things Ive heard as an Asian American for years. At face value, theyre complimentary of Asian Americans. But beneath the flattery reveals how disenfranchising these comments can be to all people of color, especially Black Americans.
. . .
The Model Minority.
Due to their ability to attain wealth and education levels on par with White Americans on average, Asian Americans have been dubbed the model minority. Asian Americans are perceived as the minority that assimilated and integrated into American society successfully. Their success is used as a benchmark for other minorities.
As a child, I used to think being called the model minority was a compliment. I relished in the fact that we were stereotyped as smart, likely to succeed and having a prowess for martial arts. Naively, I didnt know the term model minority was used as a comparison against other minorities, namely black and brown people in the United States.
I heard some people say, Well, some other minorities arent as successful as Asians because of XYZ. I even bought into the whole stereotype myself. As a teenager, I believed that Asians had a natural predisposition to be more studious and hard working. Oh, how very wrong I was
The myth of Asian Americans being the model minority is a common perception in the United States. And on paper, it certainly seems true.
. . .
Why are Asian Americans Labeled the Model Minority?
According to the National Community Reinvestment Coalition, Asian Americans, on average, beat out the national average on certain metrics:
- Asian Americans have the lowest unemployment rate across any household of color with a 3.3% unemployment rate vs the national average of 4.1% in Q1 2020.
- 53% of Asian Americans have a bachelors degree or higher, compared to 33.4% national average in 2017.
- In 2017, the household median income of Asian Americans is $87,194, compared to the national median income of $63,179.
Comparatively, here are some stats for Black Americans, according to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics:
- The unemployment rate for Blacks in 2018 was 6.5%.
- In 2018, 31% of Blacks hold a bachelors degree or higher in the United States.
- The median usual weekly earnings for Black workers were $694 while Whites were at $916 and $1,095 for Asians.
At first glance, you could interpret from the data that the model minority theory is true. On average, Asian Americans come out on top compared to Hispanics, Blacks, and sometimes White Americans on income, wealth, employment rates, and education levels. They must be doing something right?
One of the most common reasonings to why this is the case is the assumption that some Asians are raised by tiger parents. Amy Chua coined the term in 2011, describing tiger parents as highly motivated Asian parents who pressured their kids towards their definition of success.
Tiger parents are definitely common in the Asian culture (believe me, my parents were tiger parents), but the cause for the gaps between Asians and other minorities is a lot more complicated than that.
. . .
Becoming the Model Minority.
When anti-communism sentiment was strong during the 1960s 1980s, Asians that were fleeing Southeast Asia from communist regimes were welcomed quickly into the States. It was only in 1965 that the American government finally passed the Immigration and Nationality Act which lifted the active exclusion of Asian immigrants.
White Americans saw an opportunity in allying with anti-communist Asians. With the rise of Communist China & the ongoing Cold War with the Soviet Union, Americans needed allies in the Pacific to counter the threat. Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan emerged as key US allies in deterring the communist threat and the American government sought to paint these countries in a more positive light. In other words, it was politically convenient to be more accepting of Asians.
While both Asian Americans and Blacks have experienced racial discrimination in their respective histories, Asian Americans were not enslaved for two centuries. Asian Americans immigration story began with people who voluntarily left their home countries. Black Americans ancestors were brought here against their own will.
While Chinese immigrants worked on railroads in the West for low wages, Black Americans were working for zero wages on plantations in the South during the early 19th century. A whole war was fought in an attempt to keep blacks enslaved.
In a fascinating study conducted by Nathaniel Hilger on why Asian Americans experienced more upward mobility compared to Black Americans, Hilger said systemic racism was rampant against Asians in the early 20th century. Low wages, segregated communities, and discrimination were common for both Asians and Blacks during this time.
During World War II, Japanese Americans were interned in camps, due to hysteria and fear of them being spies for the Japanese Empire while Blacks had to endure harsh Jim Crow laws in the South.
But by the time the 1970s came around, the educational and wealth gap between Asian and White Americans was closing. In regards to Asian Americans, Jeffrey Guo of the Washington Post wrote Americans started treating them with a little more respect. But Black Americans didnt get the same treatment. Schools were only beginning to be integrated and forced busing was ended in 1979.
Claire Jean Kim, professor at UC Irvine, says Asians have faced various forms of discrimination, but never the systematic dehumanization that black people have faced during slavery and continue to face today.
. . .
Its an insult.
So whats the big deal? Whats so bad about complimenting and praising a minority for being more successful?
First, labeling Asian Americans as the model minority is actually an insult to Black Americans. The term dismisses the issue of systemic racism in the country, pretending that it doesnt or has never existed. It downplays discrimination and is used as a racial wedge between Asians and Blacks.
From a position of privilege, many people see America as a land of opportunity. Success is yours for the taking! All you just need to do is reach out and grab it. But some windows of opportunity are smaller for people of color and many people fail to realize that.
Because of this thinking, the idea of structural racism existing in America can be disconcerting, uncomfortable, and unfathomable to some. Some may think that since Asian and White Americans achieved success through hard work, everyone else can do the same thing and achieve the same results. In their minds, it must be their fault! But its simply not true.
Asian Americans didnt fare better because of tiger parents, being smarter, working hard, or more education. Asian Americans fared better because White Americans became less racist to Asian Americans.
. . .
Even though Asians have made great strides in closing the wealth and education gap, systemic racism still exists against Asian Americans. For example, while 27% of tech company employees are Asian American, only 14% of executives in these companies are Asian American. If the model minority theory was true, wouldnt more Asian Americans be positions of leadership? How could this possibly be a good case study for other minorities?
Today, Black Americans still face common discrimination and prejudice. In a Pew Research study, a majority of black adults (81%) say they have been discriminated against because of their race. The murder of George Floyd has brought the issue of racism against Black Americans to light, sparking nationwide protests for the past few months.
COVID-19 has also led to an increase in discrimination against, not only Black Americans but Asian Americans too! In another Pew Research study, four-in-ten Asian (39%) and Black (38%) adults say someone had acted uncomfortable around them because of their race or ethnicity since the coronavirus outbreak. Asian Americans are nervous about being blamed for the coronavirus while Black Americans are nervous about wearing masks in public, due to fears of racial profiling.
There still exists a huge wealth gap for Black Americans in wealth, employment, and education compared to White Americans and Asian Americans. But the excuse of using Asian Americans as the model minority is an egregious dismissal of the structural racism that is still intact for people of color.
. . .
So now what?
Theres no easy solution to fixing this. But the first most important thing we can do as a society is acknowledging that racism still exists and we still have a lot of work to do when it comes to racial equity.
Secondly, we must be careful to not praise assimilation into society as it could lead to resentment towards other minority groups. For Asian Americans, the desire to eliminate a heavy accent or adopt an Anglicized name is strong in an attempt to fit in with White Americans. By accepting uniqueness and differences, we can normalize the humanity in each other.
Lastly, we must not put any ethnicity on a pedestal. By avoiding this, we can start holding ourselves accountable on our journey to discovering the root causes of systemic racism and addressing them appropriately.
This post was previously published on Equality Includes You.
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