By: Andrea Fernandez
As Asian and Pacific Islander Heritage Month comes to a close, it is time for us to not only celebrate Asian achievements, but to also recognize how as a society we have failed their community by labeling them the “model minority,” often discounting them as people of color, and in turn, minimizing their experiences.
According to several dictionaries, a person of color is simply someone who is not white. Since Asian American is a term that describes a pan-Asian identity, it should certainly fall under the non-white category. However, in public perception, Asian people are rarely considered POC (people of color). Even I myself did not realize that Asians fell into this category because when we discuss racism against POC, our minds usually go to African Americans and Latinos. Why is this? Unfortunately, as a society, we are guilty of creating and believing in the “model minority myth” which contributes to the oppression of the AAPI (Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders).
According to Teaching Tolerance, an organization that provides educators tools to combat prejudice in a classroom setting, “This myth characterizes Asian Americans as a polite, law-abiding group who have achieved a higher level of success than the general population through some combination of innate talent and pull-yourselves-up-by-your-bootstraps immigrant striving.” Furthermore, this preconceived notion asserts that Asian Americans achieve universal academic and occupational success compared to other historically underrepresented communities. While on the outside these assumptions may sound complimentary and positive, they actually have negative ramifications.
First of all, the model minority myth discredits the oppression Asian people have faced starting in the 1850s. During the mid-19th century, young men from Southern China were recruited to work as miners and railroad builders, making up 20% of California’s labor force at one point. These statistics caused an uproar in the American community who believed that Asians were “stealing jobs,” resulting in what is known as the “Yellow Peril.” This fundamentally racist phenomenon perpetuated that idea that the “yellow” East Asians were a threat to the Western World. As such, Congress passed drastic legislation to keep Asians out. In 1882, Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act, the first American law to prevent immigration and naturalization on the basis of ethnicity. Such discrimination continued up until 1924, as Chinese, Japanese, Korean, and Indian immigrants were not only denied citizenship and naturalization, but also prevented from owning land or marrying Caucasian people. Furthermore, after Pearl Harbor, President Franklin D. Roosevelt ordered the internment of thousands of people of Japanese descent, who were forced to leave their homes simply due to their ethnicity. Evidently, Asian Americans of all ethnicities have faced a history of bias and prejudice, contrary to what the model minority myth insinuates.
Secondly, the “model minority myth” assumes that all Asian people are one and the same, masking the struggles of certain ethnicities within the Asian racial population. This model minority myth even pervades statistics about education. According to the National Center of Education Statistics, 74% of Asian students graduate from a postsecondary institution as opposed to 64% of white students or 54% of Latinos. This statistic must mean that the Asian community as a whole is “doing great,” right? Wrong. These numbers fail to reflect the ethnic diversity and disparities that exist within the Asian community. While 74% of Asian Americans might graduate, 40% of those were Chinese, Korean, or Japanese, while only a mere 9% were Hmong, Laotian, and Cambodian. Evidently, the model minority myth assumes that all Asians look a certain way, specifically like East Asians. This has affected how Asians are portrayed in the media. As Tazrean Hossain, a Bengali student who identifies as brown, notes, “Being brown can often feel at odds with my Asian identity even though brown people are technically Asian because I feel that people tend to see the Asian community as only East Asians. When I consume Asian-American media, from podcasts and articles about representation to memes and fun games, I often feel excluded from the inside jokes because the references tend to be solely about East Asian culture. When we discuss Asian representation, TV shows like Never Have I Ever have to be specified as brown representation, because it doesn’t fit the narrative of what a ‘typical’ Asian-American looks like.” Since the media is a powerful tool, it even affects what Asians think other Asian people look like. Tazrean said, “I’ve been told that I wasn’t really Asian a number of times from different members of the Asian community…Though my story is equally valid and important to tell, it’s not one that gets enough attention and there needs to be more awareness about the diverse umbrella under the term ‘Asian’.”
Lastly, the model minority myth places unachievable expectations on the AAPI community, resulting in an internal pressure to fit the mold of the “smart successful Asian” in their class. For example, Courtney Li, a student who identifies as Burmese and Malaysian, said, “Growing up I always knew that I was expected to become successful in the future. Part of this came from wanting to make my family proud and wanting their hard work to amount to something. Another part of me, whether you realize it or not at the time, felt some sort of pressure to show that I was every so much as capable of being successful and smart as society and painted all Asian people to be. The Asian Americans and Asians in America that I had heard about growing up were always rich and successful. Very little recognition was given to the daily sufferings of so many Asians in America….” This pressure to live up to the stereotype of a mathematical geniuses or musical prodigies at a young age impacts the mental health of Asian people. The model minority myth can cause psychological problems as a result of feeling inadequate. Unfortunately, the model minority myth also discourages Asian Americans from seeking help, and evidence from the Journal of Ethnic and Cultural Diversity in Social Work shows that Asian Americans are less likely to seek mental health services but usually present more severe symptoms than Caucasian people who seek help.
While the suffering of Latinos and African Americans may look different, it is unfair to belittle Asian American’s experiences as people of color. Our suffering is not a competition. To this day, all historically underrepresented communities face discrimination and exclusion to an extent, whether that be police shooting against unarmed black men, criticizing Latinx people for speaking Spanish in public, or attacking Asian Americans with racist coronavirus rants.
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