Friday, July 15, 2016

Model Minority/Solidarity

Some thoughts on race have been stewing in my head for the past couple of weeks, and I figure it's better if I just write it all out. Originally I had some grand plans about putting together a sensibly organized, thoroughly researched report of some sort, but perfect is the enemy of good and I have not been doing enough of the writing, in any form, lately. Therefore, a messy collection of words.


At the beginning of the month I read this article in the Washington Post, with the clickbaity title "The Group that Seriously Outearns White Men." As I had expected, that group is Asian men. Here's a link to the Pew Research article referred to in the article.

I think if I came across this article with the mindset I had in high school, I would feel happy. Go azns or something facile like that. But the article leaves out any sort of analysis about what factors may contribute to the wage disparities among races. Even with my limited history background (APUSH was three years ago and very stars-and-stripes) I read that and I can tell that there's something missing. The country was founded on black slavery and Reconstruction failed to give freed slaves a real shot at economic independence. Many Latin American workers entered the US through the agricultural industry.

As for Asians, immigration was severely restricted until well into the 1900s and even then, the average immigrant from Asia was more educated/wealthier. (source for Asian immigration to the US; more general source on US immigration policy) Not saying this to ignore that Asian laborers came during the Gold Rush &c, but the numbers vastly increased in the mid-20th century. I'm coming at this skewed because I'm first-gen, but most Asians in the US are also not too far removed generationally from the motherland.


When I think of racism in terms of myself--that is, when I ask the question "what racism is directed at a first-gen Chinese-American kid who is presumed female?"--I think of mostly microaggressions. Random white people saying "ni hao" to me. Being asked where I'm from and then "no, where are you really from?" Looking at media and seeing myself nowhere.

This stuff hurts, but it isn't murder.


Relevant links:

Mapping Police Violence
Campaign Zero
Black Lives Matter
Letters for Black Lives
What white people can do to support BlackLivesMatter


Sandra Bland died one year ago today. I don't remember exactly how I learned the news, probably while scrolling through Facebook at work, but I do remember the feelings of sadness, anger--and impotence, because last summer I was in Indonesia. I have been feeling that impotence again, this summer, but have decided to push it a little bit more. Okay, so I feel powerless because I'm on a different continent than the US. But what would I be doing, if I was back home? Sharing articles on facebook--okay, I can do that anywhere. Talking to people--okay, but what does that achieve? Going to protests and rallies, putting myself in the path of potential arrest or danger? I probably wouldn't do that. I am not that brave.

But why wouldn't I do that? I'm not white, but the stereotypes slapped on my race do not invite upon me more violence than the violence dealt out to the countless black Americans who do put themselves on the line. I know what one response might be--"it's not your problem. Stay out of it." (The voice that says this sounds like my parents'.)

But why not? Abstract rebuttal: as a person who wants to live in a just society, I should be prepared to take concrete action towards achieving it.

Selfish rebuttal: as a POC I am harmed by racism, and all racism is interconnected. Fighting antiblack police violence helps me as well.

Leaving aside the fact that I should not have to invoke myself to be pushed to action against extrajudicial killings (src), I can see some people not being convinced by the argument that "all racism is interconnected."

If I was a person of greater character, this post would conclude with a list of actions I and others can take to support BlackLivesMatter. Instead, because this is where the majority of my angry internal monologue has been going, I'm going to poke some more at this--that is, the mind-shattering complacency that many Asians of my acquaintance have toward racism,. This may turn rant-shaped.


As mentioned above, I'm first-generation Chinese-American, which means that my parents immigrated to the US from China. I know a lot of people with the same/similar background--college-educated immigrant parents, probably in STEM, the kids are also probably in STEM, if not affluent then at least comfortably middle-class. And, although I am guilty right now of gross generalizations, among the people of this background that I've talked to about such issues, what stands out the most (and not in a good way) is the amount of antiblackness and the failure to approach racism as a societal problem.

One note before I go further: if my tone sounds too censorious it's because this is something that I've seen in myself and I really want to root it out.

Something I've come to see as a litmus test of sorts is what people think of affirmative action, because it is an issue on which my opinion changed during my freshman year of college. In high school, the AP classes were mostly populated by whites and Asians, and the model minority stereotype seemed affirmed at every step (not least because in the town where I grew up, "Asian" meant "East Asian"). I remember learning about the Abigail Fisher case in AP Gov senior year and everyone in the classroom thought that Fisher should win, that affirmative action programs were discriminatory. I also remember, vaguely, some proposition that was on the ballot in California that would strengthen affirmative action programs, and that my parents got really angry about it and went to some Chinese-American community meeting to figure out how to oppose it. I remember agreeing with them.

I remember, most of all, feeling real indignation at the thought of affirmative action. If the goal is to have admissions in line with demographics, then how many Asian STEM admits have to turn their letters back in? We (and who is this nebulous "we") made it--why can't others?

Even now, I'm not sure what the most equitable way of administering an affirmative action program is. For a while I strongly held the stance that affirmative action should be done on the basis of income level, not race, because when you're (I'm) coming from a place where people actually thought it was helpful to mention how "colorblind" they were, deciding how to handle people based on their race just "felt wrong." But racism is more than just classism (here's a blog post addressing the topic), and correcting for income level won't correct for the effects of racism.

It's getting late over here, so this isn't going to turn properly rant-shaped after all. I've had this argument in my head a few times this week, sometimes just trying to put the words together for myself, sometimes as part of an imaginary debate between myself and a friend (Chinese-American, STEM) who still very much holds these views that I have been trying to uproot in myself. Here are the main points:

The USA was built on the enslavement of blacks and the genocide/robbery of Native Americans. That is, racism has been one of the forces shaping the US since the very beginning, and therefore cannot be ignored or wished away.

The history of slavery/the failure of Reconstruction led to patterns of geographic and economic disadvantage which are still pertinent now.

For people whose near relations were immigrants who have come to the US and been successful, the national narrative of American individualism and exceptionalism is very, very tempting. I mean, I only need to go back a generation to get to people who worked the soil. My parents really did achieve the American dream--

--but they also came to the US having completed their undergraduate studies at prestigious universities in China (thanks, Communism). As skilled, educated immigrants they had access to opportunities that someone whose family has longer roots in the US, but who is poor, does not. A country will seem friendlier to talent it's trying to lure from overseas than it will to its most downtrodden citizens.

The Civil Rights Movement helped apply pressure for immigration reform. (src)

Antiblackness in Asian communities--all Asian communities--is rampant and disgusting. (A relevant article for South Asians here.)

Not to get into oppression Olympics or anything, but police killings and jokes about "squinty eyes" are orders of magnitude apart in terms of urgency, danger, and therefore importance. Yes, everything is connected, but some nodes carry more weight. (I don't know anything about networks, ignore this attempt at a metaphor.)

In conclusion: The model minority myth may lure us, particularly us East Asians who enjoy a comfortable income level and access to higher education, into thinking that racism means nothing worse than being assumed foreign in the country where we were born. It's a trap. Don't fall for it. We need to do better. I, personally, need to do better. I'll let you know where else this goes.


  1. Hear, hear.

    The anti-blackness, anti-Hispanic tone-deafness and deliberate model minority head-in-the-sand levity in Asian communities is nauseating. Our (individually -our-) privilege makes accepting this and laughing it off very easy.

    Good grief.

    1. Yes, absolutely. I was mostly thinking about anti-blackness because this was written after the shootings of Philandro Castile and Alton Sterling, but the anti-Latinx "good immigrants vs. bad immigrants" rhetoric that gets thrown around is also a huge issue. Thanks for bringing it up.