Not in our name, either: Rejecting the myth of Asians as the model minority

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“Oppression Olympics” is a bad word. Very little positive tends to happen when members of various minorities start to battle over who has it worse—the whole point of the term “intersectionality” is to put a label on the general fact that it’s way more complicated than that.

That said—if we were to hold an Oppression Olympics for the past month or so, just perusing through the headlines we can see casual brutality against black teenagers, a terrorist mass shooting targeting the black community, and a wave of black churches burning down due to suspected arson.

Meanwhile, over here in the Asian corner we’ve got…Harvard University dismissing a complaint that they don’t admit as many Asian students as we’d like them to despite already admitting lots of Asian students.


Wow. I don’t know that that even qualifies for a bronze.

Hell, even one of our usual slam-dunk “this happens to us but not to you” cards now fails. We used to talk about how our culture has successfully pounded it into people’s heads that blackface is disgusting and unforgivable thanks to its undeniable association with Jim Crow, but yellowface, a.k.a. Emma Stoning, is still common.

That was what we used to say, before a white woman in blackface paraded all over the national media last month and all the hooting, jeering trolls on the Internet crawled out of the woodwork to defend her as “transracial” so they could watch black people squirm. Until we see someone try to replicate the Chung Ling Soo story sometime soon, I think we lose that one too.

I bring this up not just because I think using high-scoring Asian-American students—like I used to be—as a cudgel against affirmative action is wrong. And I don’t bring this up to try to claim Asian-Americans aren’t an oppressed group or that the “bamboo ceiling” doesn’t exist—I’m strongly convinced that we are and it does.


I bring this up because this is only a small part of how Asians’ status as the “model minority” gets used to muddle up the conversation about race in this country, and how the strategy of using us as a weapon against black America is old, tired, ugly and transparent. And I’m sick of seeing us buy into it and hurt ourselves in the process.

Look, Asian-American advocates don’t get to have it both ways. You don’t get to use the language of solidarity and collective political action and then try to use that to defend an individualistic meritocracy.


If you really believe that there’s no place for trying to address systemic bias against black and Latino applicants for schools and jobs through preferential admissions and hiring, then how can you believe in the bamboo ceiling?

If you think that there’s nothing wrong with Asians disproportionately getting into STEM fields and technical positions because of our high test scores, then you should, logically, be equally okay with Asians disproportionately being kept out of management positions and entrepreneurship because of our lack of “people skills.”


If the system has a right to set up standardized tests as a barrier to entry for some jobs it has the right to set up schmoozing and networking as a barrier to entry for other (higher-paying, more prestigious) jobs. If you get to tell black Americans that if they want to get into MIT they should study harder for their SATs, then white people get to tell us that if we want venture capital funding we should come off as more “likable” and “relatable” to investors.

If that’s what you really think—if you support that kind of naive meritocracy that says the racial hierarchy we see in the world today is just fine and anyone who doesn’t like it just needs to work harder to pass whatever arbitrary test the gatekeepers have installed—then own that. But don’t pretend, like so many anti-affirmative action advocates do, that you’re speaking the language of racial solidarity and advocating for advancement of Asians in general, because you’re not.


But if you’re being deliberately and selfishly inconsistent—if you think that racial preferences or “quotas” should be removed from the one area where we happen to do well, at passing standardized tests, but that we absolutely need to fight for racial diversity in the areas we do poorly—the arts, politics, upper management—then you’re a transparent hypocrite.

And you’re a hypocrite who’s being callously and blatantly used, because the bigger, better-funded groups of white people who’ve been fighting affirmative action longer than we have will be quite happy to stop at killing affirmative action for undergrad admissions and then not change a damn thing about the entire rest of the system. (If anything, shouldn’t the first step in meritocracy, before doing anything else, be eliminating legacy admissions that by definition only benefit wealthy families that are already in the old boys’ network?)


But I don’t even really care about that specifically. I care about all the ways, subtle and not-so-subtle, our racial solidarity as Asians gets used as a tool to keep the racial status quo in America intact.

I care about the obvious wedge strategy of turning Asians into front-line soldiers in the war against black America so wealthy white people can play “neutral observer.” I care about the protests in support of NYPD Officer Peter Liang that treated his being thrown under the bus by his superiors as somehow being a worse tragedy than Akai Gurley being shot dead for no goddamn reason.


I care about the fact, usually politely talked around by Asian-Americans, that Asian America is willing to be pretty damn racist against black people when we feel like it, and that white supremacist ideology tends to come with an asterisk saying “Asians are OK too.” It bothers me a lot that the white supremacist Pace Amendment proposing the deportation of all non-white Americans made an exception for people who had Asian blood. It bothers me that Dylann Roof was happy at the thought of East Asians “carrying on” the imperialist legacy of the West should the white race die out, that he applauded us as “by nature very racist” and “great allies of the White race.”

It bothers me that after a white supremacist gets done with his horrifying tirade about the innate inferiority of black people he usually turns around and says he can’t possibly be racist because of his lovely Asian wife. (And yes, it’s always a white guy with an Asian wife. When I was working at a tour company in DC when Glenn Beck had his “Restoring Honor” rally in 2010 the only non-white people I saw all weekend—and the only people I saw without gray hair—were Asian wives.)


Look, here’s the facts of the situation: The whole concept of “race” is a 16th-century construct that evolved from the novel global phenomenon of Europeans colonizing the entire New World using African slave labor. “Race” as we understand it isn’t a law of nature, it’s a myth made up to justify a world economy created by Native American genocide and African mass enslavement.

Our existence as the “Asian race” isn’t a real, natural thing either—it’s the result of how we ended up fitting into that global world order after Western imperialism came and tore a new one in all of our respective nations.


The concept of the “model minority” hardworking immigrant is not some kind of birthright built into our DNA. It’s a cultural construct made up by the powerful in this country because it’s a useful box for us to be put in, a useful role for us to play. We’re allowed to succeed in that specific way only insofar as it’s useful to the already-powerful, as a way to bleed off discontentment and create a buffer between them and the people on the bottom of the pyramid. (This is not a particularly new or unique historical strategy.)

Do you complain about the “robot Asian” stereotype, about how Asians can’t get ahead because we’re seen as useful technically-skilled employees for white entrepreneurs but little more than that? Well, that’s the deal with the devil our people accepted when we agreed to come to the U.S. in the post-1965 “brain drain” when Uncle Sam opened the Golden Door—but only to those immigrants with a low propensity to make trouble and high revenue-earning potential.


We agreed to be a passive economic asset for the white elite, and we continue to enthusiastically praise the box we’ve been shoved into every time we brag about our work ethic, our high grades, and our willingness to assimilate as a way to kick down at the other minorities that aren’t as “model” as we are.

And yes, I continue to argue that means we are oppressed, that there’s ultimately no such thing as a “good” stereotype, that the price we’ve paid for this devil’s deal is too high a price for anyone to pay in the end. I think the ultimate goal should be understanding how the racial hierarchy we live in screws all of us—except for a very few people at the very top—in the end, that there can’t be an Asian-American movement without solidarity with African-Americans. (I’ve tried to write pieces in the past, albeit deeply flawed ones, to this effect.) Even the idea of an “Asian-American identity” was born of Asian solidarity with the black civil rights movement in the 1960s and ‘70s, a history that all too many of us today forget.


But we have to recognize in the end that we did make that deal and we do get “model minority” privileges in return for helping keep other people down. We are complicit. White professors can spout ignorant bullshit about how our hardworking assimilationist ethic proves black people are just whiners because our own leaders have spent years singing the same tune.

We’re still the Other. When it’s a choice between us and white Americans, we still get shafted. We are still, sometimes, the scary foreigner who gets reflexively shot for being unfamiliar. We are still, sometimes, the scapegoat that gets beaten to death by white folks blowing off steam in a down economy. There is a history of slave labor and apartheid and lynch mobs and mass incarceration attached to our people just as there is to African-Americans.


But most of the time, in the modern world? When there’s a useful alliance to be made between us and our benevolent white bosses versus the scary brown-skinned thugs? Most of the time we’re fine. I’ve mindlessly sped away from a blaring police siren when I was a stupid teenager and not even gotten shot once, much less 137 times. Church was as central to my Chinese-American community growing up as it is to many black communities—and I never heard of one of our churches being burned down by a racist mob, much less lived in fear of it.

I inherited the privileges that come with the bargain my parents’ generation made, just as my wife inherited the privileges that come with being white in this country. It comes with a price—living in a box that says you’ll be tolerated in this country as long as you make yourself maximally useful and productive is not a happy way to live—but it is a privilege.


Working for a just world where the hierarchy comes tumbling down means understanding that privilege and rejecting it, even when that means standing against the warped version of “solidarity” our leaders all too often employ. The devil’s bargain of being the “middleman minority” is never, in the end, worth it. The second rung on the ladder is not a stable place to stand—sooner or later the guy on the top’s going to kick you down too.

The older generation at Berkeley that founded the Asian-American Movement—the memory of Japanese internment still fresh in their minds, the scars of Chinese exclusion still clearly visible in the neighborhoods of San Francisco and Los Angeles—understood this. Hearteningly, a growing number of my generation of Asians are coming to understand it as well.


Arthur Chu is a bi-coastal Chinese-American nerd who's currently settled down in Cleveland, Ohio. An actor, comedian and sometime culture blogger, he somehow captured national attention for becoming an 11-time Jeopardy! champion in March 2014 and is now shamelessly extending his presence in the national spotlight by all available means. He lives with his wife and an indeterminate but alarmingly ever-growing number of cats.

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