- Erika Fisher
Black Lives Matter and the Model Minority Myth
BLM just celebrated its seven-year anniversary. In reflecting on the movement to date, BLM co-founder and executive director Patrisse Cullors wrote: “Our community has created the largest, most diverse civil and human rights movement in the history of both our country and our world.” Yes! There is much to be proud of. However, there have also been missteps. Cullors goes on to mention some in her article. I’m here to discuss some within the Asian-American community.
It all started with a colleague who was growing increasingly frustrated with Asian Americans who seem to believe that honoring our own community’s experiences with oppression under the white establishment somehow detracts from BLM—particularly because, some say, our history “isn’t as bad” as the African American experience: the “they’ve had it worse” argument. This is nonsensical to me. First of all, atrocities cannot be categorized into superlatives; there is no “bad, worse, or worst” atrociousness. Both the African American and Asian American communities have suffered at the hands of whites; our early histories have more similarities than people often realize. Second, as the Chinese-American writer Minna states in her Shrimp Chips blog: “We would never expect Black folks to ‘sacrifice’ their own histories in order to support [the] Asian struggle, and we shouldn’t expect that of ourselves for other groups either.”
I agree. Honoring our own histories does not detract from BLM; voicing our unique struggles does not disrespect it. On the contrary, acknowledging the tragic parts of our history, as well as the ways millions of Asians continue to be oppressed under pro-white policies and norms, helps to inform BLM. Our stories, their stories (and the stories of all people of color) lend power to the continuing civil rights movement and help to strengthen it overall.
BUT WHICH STORIES? WHOSE VOICES?
“What Asian American story?” you might ask. Well, this is where things get a little dicey.
In textbook form, Asian American history usually starts in the late 1800s with the exploitation of Chinese immigrant workers on the construction of the transcontinental railroad. At the same time, Japanese immigrants were working on sugar cane fields in present-day Hawaii, and as farmers and fishermen along the West coast. The dominant white culture gave birth to the “good Asian, bad Asian” dichotomy by favoring the “refined, law-abiding” Japanese over the “dirty, job-stealing” Chinese. Later, of course, the labels were switched when, following the bombing of Pearl Harbor, Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, which essentially started a witch hunt for all Japanese, regardless of citizenship. In this climate, the Chinese were now lauded as hard-working people who fully understood and embraced American values.
By the 1950s, however, white America decided it had bigger problems than “good Asians, bad Asians” and turned its attention to the Civil Rights Movement. In a propaganda move against Blacks, the white establishment lumped all Asians together as the “model minority.” It was an attempt to downplay the effects of systemic racism and show that the American dream could, in fact, be achieved with hard work, tenacity, and civil obedience.
When the “model minority” term was first coined, it mostly applied to ethnic Chinese, Japanese, and Koreans. In recent years, the group has widened to include South Indians. Over time, the “model minority” group has indeed become an elite class of Asians: usually highly educated professionals, politically and culturally savvy, who live in “good” (i.e., desegregated, gentrified) neighborhoods, and whose children attend “good” (i.e., private and the best of public) schools.
Ok, great: upward mobility. Success. Achievement. But there are some problems here. First, these specific ethnic groups (Chinese, Japanese, Korean, and Indian) with their longer histories and wide-open path to assimilation have become—in the eyes of whites and themselves—the Asian American community. This renders the 30-ish other ethnic groups—mostly with roots in Southeast, South, and Central Asia—nearly invisible.
While most Asian Americans resent the “model minority” label, privilege does give rise to status, and status keeps the “good Asian, bad Asian” dichotomy alive. This is the second problem: when privileged, “good Asians” go to great lengths to distance themselves from “bad Asians”—the minimized “silent minority” within the Asian American community, marginalized by their very own.
GOOD ASIAN, BAD ASIAN
So what does it mean to be a “bad Asian”? Well, if “good Asians” are the “model minority,” then “bad Asians” are the opposite. Over the years, privileged Asian Americans have, frankly, looked down on other Asian Americans who are economically poor, and/or poorly educated. If they’re first-generation, they might have heavy accents, or otherwise don’t speak English very well. They might be blue-collar workers or unskilled laborers with roots in a country that is still developing, such as Myanmar, Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Mongolia, Nepal, or Bhutan.
But let me circle back to BLM and social justice.
In our current climate, “good Asians” don’t just see themselves as educated and middle- to upper-class. They also see themselves as being “woke”—and they’re always quick to call out the new “bad Asians” for, well, “not being woke.” And what does that mean? Well, “bad Asians” stand accused of being largely complicit in the fight against social injustice. In this age of social media and keyboard activism, where it’s so easy to say something, they have nothing to say. They haven’t re-posted or re-tweeted the appropriate memes. They haven’t explicitly showed their solidarity with Black Americans. They haven’t stood up to white people.
Yet, “good Asians” also take issue with those who, they say, are too vocal: only “bad Asians” would take up space to air their own thoughts and grievances, when both the platform and the focus right now should be solely for the Black community. Ironically, this call for deference is part of the model minority code too. The message is: show up, be seen, participate, but don’t say too much.
Neither of these views is right. First, the “good Asians’” righteous finger pointing follows exactly what white oppressors have done since the first Asian immigrants arrived. It perpetuates the “good Asian, bad Asian” dichotomy, which robs too many of their Americanness. Second, and what I argued earlier in this piece, burying the struggles of our own people, both past and present, “for the sake of” BLM isn’t noble acquiescence at all; it’s turning the tools and expectations of white oppression on ourselves. And worst of all, we do it under the guise of “wokeness.”
ASIAN AMERICANS AS ONE
In the ongoing fight for equality, there is room for all people of color. As Asian Americans, we need to take care in truly allying ourselves—both to BLM and to the most marginalized in our own community. Instead of being quick to point out “bad Asians” when we see them, we should be asking ourselves: “What can we do about the blatant social and economic gaps, not to mention the prejudice, that exists among ourselves?”
Let’s not dismiss the thousands of Vietnamese, Hmong, and Karen who came to America just a few decades ago as refugees with few resources, little education, and limited knowledge of English—all factors that put these groups at a significant disadvantage and remain barriers to assimilation and upward mobility, even now. They didn’t arrive in modern America with a work visa in hand and money in the bank.
What about the thousands of Southeast Asian children struggling in U.S. schools because of the language barrier, yet their teachers believe they’ll pull ahead because “that’s what ‘good Asians’ do”?
What can we do or say about many of the Bhutanese, Nepalese, and Mongolians who currently live in the U.S. below the poverty line (see here)?
What about the hundreds of thousands of Asians living undocumented as victims of human trafficking for forced labor, sex work, or illicit adoption schemes? Where are their rights? Who’s speaking for them?
What about Asian Muslim immigrants from Malaysia, Brunei, Indonesia, southern Thailand, and Pakistan, who face continual discrimination, detention, and harassment as a result of the War on Terror?
It’s right to call out injustice—it is. But if you’re an Asian American of privilege, I ask you to check your place, your words, and your motives. Is your message a true contribution to the ongoing fight for equal rights and opportunity? Or is it simply performative? Because I would argue that calling others out for anti-Blackness while remaining complicit towards the stark inequalities in our own community is truly hypocritical, and not “woke” at all. We must find a way to see ourselves, really see ourselves, and recognize the stories of all Asian Americans—that is the way forward, with BLM and all future movements toward equality.