Asians Might Vote Left, But The Model Minority Is Still Pretty Racist
Jeff Chang is very misinformed about how racist Asians* actually are.
Eight days after the massacre at Emanuel A.M.E. Church in Charleston, the executive director of the Institute for Diversity in the Arts at Stanford University published a commentary in the Washington Post challenging mass murderer Dylann Roof’s assertion that Asians were “by nature very racist and could be great allies of the White race.”
Let’s be very clear: Asians are not allies of white supremacists. But in the quest for upward mobility, we do ally ourselves with White America. And therein lies the problem.
As a second-generation Chinese-American immigrant, my upbringing was shaped by that desire for upward mobility. My mother, who came to this country in her mid-thirties with no family connections in the U.S. and speaking barely any English, effectively started over from the bottom rungs of the socioeconomic ladder. Every day during the drive to school she reminded me of why she made that choice: so I could grow up feeling in tune with the nuances of America’s language, culture and society — that this was my home. But she also warned me that my black hair and yellow skin would always identify me as foreign.
“This isn’t our country,” she’d say, a reminder that us Asians did not have a right to be here in the same way that America’s “original” inhabitants did. We had to earn our place — by proving that we were “useful” additions. We did that by getting straight A’s in school, going to the best colleges and entering the professional class — while keeping our heads down and accepting any “inconveniences” (her euphemism for discrimination) that came with being newcomers to a country full of people not like us.
The implication was that we couldn’t complain. As much as we were stereotyped as drab, interchangeable nerds who lacked social skills and have difficulty seeing out of our squinty eyes, Hispanics and African-Americans had it worse. They felt the brunt of racist, anti-immigrant, anti-poor hatred, while we were seen as “industrious” and law-abiding.
There was nothing bad about being the quiet nerdy kid in the room, she told me, as long as I beat every other kid, white, black, and Hispanic on every test. That as long as I proved my worth, people had to like me — even if they feel threatened by my success.
Becoming aware of America’s special strain of “benevolent” racism toward Asian-Americans was especially troubling to me. Not only did I have to understand my race privilege with regard to other people of color, I had to accept that the seemingly positive stereotypes about Asians that I was raised to emulate were still racist. “Good racism” felt like validation from the owners of this country, while outrightly demeaning “bad racism” was how the dominant population affirmed their distance from the have-nots, as I learned early on. They justified the gap using logic that blamed poverty not on institutionalized discrimination or poor social support systems, but on the “values” of the poor themselves.
Being from a part of the world whose history and culture were influenced by a philosophy instead of a religion, our particular brand of “Asian” values were key to our identity. Not only was Confucianism a source of pride among us expatriates, it emphasized scholarship and hard work, which aligned with America’s Protestant work ethic and college-bound culture.
Coupled with our Confucian values, the myth of American meritocracy that we so readily bought into granted us an entitled attitude. Every other group who failed to “make it”, despite all this country ostensibly had to offer, deserved to be criticized. In my experience, the targets tended to largely be African-Americans, and to a lesser extent Hispanics and even whites themselves.
That black Americans were part of America’s “original population” made their high levels of poverty seem particularly inexcusable in my home. “They speak English,” my mother would say. “This is their country, they were born here and grew up here.” Which begged the question, why were they still stuck in America’s underclass, 150 years after the end of slavery?
An Outsider’s Appraisal
To a first-generation immigrant such as my mother, the language barrier and the perpetual awkwardness of finding oneself living under a whole new set of social norms will always be the most crippling, insurmountable barrier to upward mobility. The absence of these challenges should already mean smooth access to the American dream. That African-Americans weren’t getting there must mean they’re doing something wrong — namely, that they weren’t willing to put in the elbow grease to find jobs and go to college (a view that you’d sooner see endorsed by Bill O’Reilly than a Chinese woman working a wage job).
Hispanics received a slightly more favorable evaluation. Their socioeconomic status is observably closer to that of blacks than whites, but their immigrant history made it more acceptable that they hadn’t reached the middle class. They were clearly a hardworking people, taking physically strenuous jobs as landscapers, busboys, and day laborers. This earned them our respect. What was criticized, however, were their large families, lack of “cultural emphasis on education” and their large numbers of unauthorized immigrants.
It was “irresponsible” to have so many children, not only because large families are difficult to support on a low-wage job but also because it is nearly impossible to engage in the kind of intensive parenting that Asian parents feel is the only way to do right by their children with five kids instead of two. The reasoning behind the achievement gap is a faulty one — it assumes that Hispanics devalue education, not that there are unique barriers among Hispanics to getting the education that they already know is important for success. Hispanic youth most often cite financial pressure to support one’s family as the reason why they cut their education short. Confucian belief in filial piety similarly obligates Asian children to support their parents, but only in their old age and after children have achieved stability on their own.
Undocumented migrants were a particularly hot topic with my mother, especially given that we lived in Texas. To someone who lived a threadbare life for years to afford an immigration lawyer to help her navigate the bureaucratic labyrinth of U.S. immigration law, the fact that people could just “skip those steps” was a gross injustice to every documented immigrant. She supported former Gov. Rick Perry’s rhetoric on “securing the border” and encouraged me to do the same.
Other Asian families also expressed these beliefs to varying extents. Sam, a Chinese-American senior at an East Coast university, told me that his parents and family friends would sometimes make racist remarks against African-Americans, suggesting that “as a whole, they aren’t good examples to follow.” He also attributed those beliefs to “Confucian meritocratic thinking.”
“I think Asians tend to believe strongly in meritocracy, where hard work is always the solution to inequality. Therefore, they look down upon groups which are perceived as less hardworking than them. They also believe that exposure to or tolerance of people with bad work ethic will influence them, so they tend to dissociate from those groups. Now that segregation is no longer legal they won’t accept ‘soft’ excuses for poor socioeconomic standing.”
He also referred to the privileged circumstances of the Asian community:
“Most Asian immigrants in the U.S. were insulated within Chinatowns, came after the Civil Rights Movement, or earned stable incomes despite more tangible obstacles (language barrier, visa, etc.), so they don’t understand how communities without these problems still don’t succeed. So the answer must be that they are inferior.”
White Privilege In Parallel
Other structural features of Asian-American life insulate the community from a truthful understanding of race. Asian migrants primarily come from countries where people are phenotypically homogenous. Everyone had black hair and brown eyes. Blacks and Hispanics didn’t exist, so their understanding of these races came from Western representations: in the news and movies mostly generated by the (white) dominant class that negatively stereotype these groups. Add that to Asian immigrants’ insulation in single-race enclaves and the pan-Asian bias against dark skin, and racist rhetoric becomes that much easier to adopt.
Additionally, Asian-Americans largely do not experience social problems, namely poverty, incarceration, and low levels of high school graduation at the rate of black and Hispanic populations. And though Asians have surged to the Democratic party in recent years, they are less likely to follow politicsor to hold ideologically driven political beliefs, meaning they are relatively disconnected from liberal discourse on the relationship between race and inequality. They rarely join causes that combat the institutional roots of inequality, a core struggle of people of color.
Despite these advantages we enjoy, the concept of “privilege” is all but nonexistent our vocabulary. We tend to focus on our struggles as new inductees to America while failing to recognize the advantages afforded us by our pre-immigrant lives. Save those who migrated as refugees, most Asian immigrants already enjoyed favorable socioeconomic conditions that enabled their cross-continent mobility. They came from either the merchant or the professional class. Many were college-educated. Many also had family members or friends already established in the U.S. to ease their transition. In fact, data from the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services shows most Asians enter the country through family or employer-sponsored visas. Employed Asian immigrants are also more concentrated in highly skilled occupations such as management, information technology, and science and engineering than immigrants overall.
An idea resembling privilege, however, is discussed within Asian circles — that of guan xi, translated from Chinese as “connections.” Most Asian immigrants whose home countries suffer from government corruption are familiar with the unequal opportunities created from connections: a low achiever who got a cushy government job because he is related to high-ranking Party member, a family who was able to get their son into a tier-one university even though his entrance exam scores fell short.
But privilege from having guan xi is understood as an individual advantage rather than a class or race-based one, a consequence of the homogeneity of Asian countries. White hegemony in America, then can be understood as the special connection of all whites to power and wealth that we, as well as blacks and Hispanics lack. We do not object to this privilege for another reason — because we feel that it is on some level deserved.
In Asian countries, “the face of America” is understood as a white one: when Asians who live in Asia are asked to think of a typical American, the image they have in mind is that of a blonde person with blue eyes (whether the color spectrum has broadened with President Obama is uncertain). Even in Asian communities in the U.S., when someone talks about “American people,” he will more often than not mean white people.
Our interest in white Americans to the exclusion of other races, which are just as equally American, come from a pervasive sense of “white aspiration” across Asia, but most prominently expressed within middle- to upper-class Asian society. Caucasian features, such as large eyes and high noses, are considered more beautiful than Asian ones. Asian women in particular painstakingly shield themselves from the sun to “stay white.” China’s newly super-rich are taking up activities like polo and golf, direct imports from the West. And as much as Asians may disparage whites for not being as hardworking as them, their tone never seems to escape a veneration for whites and “their country” that suggest a fundamental white superiority. Asian immigrants brought these attitudes with them across the Pacific, and they continue to be propagated in our cultural enclaves and remain with us in spite of our further assimilation.
Our affinity with white America clearly shows that the history of unmitigated, institutionalized oppression of Asian-Americans at the hands of the white governing class has escaped our notice. From being abused as migrant laborers in the 1850s to the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, the most restrictive and outrightly racist piece of immigration legislation ever passed to our Supreme Court-sanctioned forcible relocation to internment camps during World War II — there is surprisingly little pervasive bitterness about any of it, nor have Asians politically organized at the level of African-Americans to make sure that their rights are never violated again.
We do not remember this past partly because 90 percent of Asians in America are either immigrants or children of immigrants, a background which leaves us unequipped to fully comprehend a history of a country that is not theirs, and partly due to the efforts of the same dominant class to promote Asians as a “model minority” as a foil to African-Americans and Hispanics. The title is condescending, but we accepted it anyways because we believe that it serves us. It not only affirms the cultural superiority some Asians already feel, but also raises us up from the underclass that our immigrant predecessors would necessarily have occupied and places us nearer the whites with power and ownership of this country. It finalizes the sell of the American dream, by giving us hope that our future generations are fully capable of having the same opportunities as any “original” American.
The “model minority” role also required that we adopt the same disparaging language as whites to distance ourselves from the other minorities who were not worthy of being emulated. Racist ideas that already existed among Asians only made American racism much easier to adopt.
On the surface, racism feels like a small price to pay for white acceptance. But it’s actually a devil’s bargain. Asian-Americans have normalized toxic rhetoric within their homes and communities and have abdicated their right to determine their own place in society.
If it continues to be up to white America, Asian-Americans will forever be the submissive, stuttering nerds hunched over a math workbook. Our “model” behavior is too model — we beat whites in college graduation ratesdespite only making up 5.6 percent of the U.S. population. This type of unparalleled success makes whites anxious; Asians are climbing the socioeconomic ladder too quickly and at this rate, could soon displace whites as the majority in upper-middle and professional classes. “Model minority” stereotypes of Asians prevent us from reaching the same tipping point for power, the last bastion of white hegemony, because the same picture that portrays us as studious and “industrious” also undercuts our capacity to be leaders and innovators. We are responsible for reinforcing the “bamboo ceiling.”
The Asian-American strategy to succeed in America, by positioning ourselves as “favored” immigrants has not mitigated America’s historically suspicious gaze casting us as the Orient. It is time to accept that our plan has failed, that our conclusions about success in America are founded upon faulty premises. Our hope in a pure meritocracy was just that, a hope, and the racism we perpetuated came from ignorance.
Racist attitudes among Asian-Americans matter because we are the fastest-growing ethnic segment in America. If we are to truly understand the legacy of being American, we must begin the soul-crushing process of looking beyond the meritocratic ideal that motivated our predecessors to emigrate and start believing in the validity of our own struggles as a people of color. White hegemony has profited from our tacit agreement to be its “model minority” and our mitigation of anti-Asian racism as mere “inconveniences” for too long.
(*In this article, “Asian” and “Asian-American” is specifically used to refer to people of East and Southeast Asian descent.)