The Problem With Calling Asian-Americans A “Model Minority”

Like many students, I was shocked, angry, and upset by the brutal arrest of UVA student Martese Johnson in Charlottesville, in the early hours of March 18. Johnson’s arrest was a painful reminder that, despite our best efforts to believe we live in a safe “bubble,” we are not immune to the realities of the world. However, in response to this pain, UVA student activists and allies, both black and non-black, have come together in a series of events and dialogues to recognize and combat the systemic racism and implicit racial bias that we have seen.

Despite these efforts, as an Asian American, I have noticed a huge lack of representation from the Asian community at rallies, discussions on inclusive policy, and dialogues about systemic racism. Despite the fact we, too, are a minority group (the largest group on grounds), many of our members hesitate to participate in the conversation.

On some level, this absence makes sense. If we’re going to play “oppression Olympics,” as Roxane Gay would say, then Asians’ experiences in the U.S. are markedly different than those of African-Americans. While Asians and their descendants in America came voluntarily, many African-Americans descended from people who were brought here in chains—forced, involuntary, slaves. Furthermore, “Asian-American” as a descriptor is a vague, arbitrary construct. It ignores the ethnic and cultural diversity of Asia, and it often uses “model minority” as its defining characteristic, positing Asians as the immigrants who achieved the ever-elusive “American Dream,” who worked hard and have the riches and prosperity to show for it.

However, this characterization as a “model minority” is largely problematic. On the one hand, we are portrayed as the model: we came to this country with no money and became doctors and engineers. We’re nerdy, we win spelling bees, we only get A’s, we’re good at math. On the other hand, we are concurrently stereotyped as owners of laundromats, as taxi drivers, as nail salon owners—and sometimes, some of us are even stereotyped as terrorists. These dissonant portrayals demonstrate that, while American society tells us to believe that we are the model minority, there are many prevalent stereotypes against us that depict us as anything but the model. Despite what we try to convince ourselves, the model minority stereotype is not actually true.

On an even more harmful level, characterizing some minorities as “model” and “ideal” implies that there are “bad,” “non-ideal” and “non-model” minorities out there—namely, Latino/as and African-Americans. In this way, the model minority stereotype perpetuates the systemic racism that many in our community are apathetic to.

We keep buying into the model minority trap, because in doing so, it gives us the impression that we are on a pedestal, that we have privilege akin to our white peers—that problems that affect “bad” minorities, like systemic racism, do not affect us. Our voices in the discussion on race are silenced, by society at large and by ourselves.

But we are constantly subject to systemic racism, most commonly in the form of subtle micro-aggressions that all minorities experience. It’s systemic racism that makes people expect me to be the sole voice and representative of my race, that makes people apply the actions of one individual of my race to the entire community. It’s systemic racism that makes people ask if they can give me a nickname because my name is “too hard” for them, and it’s “not their fault” that my parents gave me this difficult name. It’s systemic racism that makes people criticize me as a self-segregator and a FOB (Fresh Off The Boat) for having too many friends that share my race, despite the fact that I was born and raised in this country. It’s systematic racism that makes strangers in New York City ask me where I’m from—and, when I respond with “Virginia,” they say, “don’t give me that bullsh*t, you know what I mean.”

These comments devalue us; they treat us as though we are the “other,” as though we are not true Americans, despite many of us not knowing what it’s like to live in another country. We, as a community, cannot allow these implicit racial biases and institutions to consistently undermine us, and the lives of other minorities, especially when recently, an Indian man, a member of the broader Asian community, was a victim of police brutality as well.

So when members of another minority community are attacked, when their lives are devalued, we cannot be blind to the fact that these attacks devalue our lives as well. Systemic racism goes beyond UVA, beyond non-model minorities. If we truly want to break down barriers, if we truly want to achieve the ever-elusive American Dream, we must refuse to be apathetic to systemic racism. We cannot allow social constructs of model minorities and what “Asianness” means to silence us and prevent us from working towards inclusive discussions of race. We need to reclaim our space in the dialogue. We need to have discussions as an Asian community on what race and being Asian means to us, and what systemic racism means to us. We need to take those discussions and find common ground with the experiences of other minorities that are fighting for the value of their lives. We must show solidarity with other racial minorities in these experiences—otherwise, we will never make progress.

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