The Model Minority Myth

April 17, 2017, 5:38 PM UTC

Blogger and political columnist Andrew Sullivan created a small firestorm over the weekend when he wondered aloud in a recent column how, if America is so racist, that Asian Americans have experienced such outsized personal and financial success. He started by talking about Dr. David Dao, the passenger who was brutally removed from a United Airlines flight, then began calling out the media for exploring the racial implications of the event.

Here’s the graph that got everyone heated up:

Asian-Americans, like Jews, are indeed a problem for the “social-justice” brigade. I mean, how on earth have both ethnic groups done so well in such a profoundly racist society? How have bigoted white people allowed these minorities to do so well — even to the point of earning more, on average, than whites? Asian-Americans, for example, have been subject to some of the most brutal oppression, racial hatred, and open discrimination over the years. In the late 19th century, as most worked in hard labor, they were subject to lynchings and violence across the American West and laws that prohibited their employment. They were banned from immigrating to the U.S. in 1924. Japanese-American citizens were forced into internment camps during the Second World War, and subjected to hideous, racist propaganda after Pearl Harbor. Yet, today, Asian-Americans are among the most prosperous, well-educated, and successful ethnic groups in America. What gives? It couldn’t possibly be that they maintained solid two-parent family structures, had social networks that looked after one another, placed enormous emphasis on education and hard work, and thereby turned false, negative stereotypes into true, positive ones, could it? It couldn’t be that all whites are not racists or that the American dream still lives?

Sullivan’s analysis is not unusual, but it totally misses the mark. The history of discrimination and race-based violence toward Asian immigrants is true, in fact, it was far worse than he describes. But the happy ending he implies did not come from grit, education and good ol’ family values. It’s also not always so happy, either. And the implication that one group has the “right stuff” and another one doesn’t, is both insulting and hurtful.

Luckily, in the online melee that followed, some useful knowledge was dropped. Journalist Jeff Guo took on Sullivan in this extraordinary Twitter thread, explaining that education is not the key to Asian American success. Instead, he says, it was that white Americans explicitly decided to stop being so racist toward them.

“First, there were a lot of incentives for the white mainstream to champion and promote stories of Asian American success after WWII,” he tweets. “Importantly: Elevating Asian Americans as ‘deserving’ and ‘hardworking’ was a tactic to denigrate African Americans,” and minimize the potential impact of the civil rights movement. “This is why the ‘model minority’ label is so distasteful. It is a status conferred by the majority for the majority’s own purposes.”

The Asian American experience in America is complex – involving immigrants from many countries, the Cold War, and global politics, for starters – so I don’t want to give it the short shrift here. For more information, I’d direct you to Guo’s interview with historian Ellen Wu, and her seminal work on this subject, The Color of Success. Here’s one fascinating nugget from Wu, which helps explain how Chinese communities embraced the most flattering versions of themselves as a tactic to avoid racist attacks:

When I started digging, I found that this idea of this model Chinese family, with the perfect children who always just loved to study and who don’t have time to get into trouble or date — started to circulate quite prominently in the 1950s. That speaks to America’s anxieties about juvenile delinquency.

Also, since these stories were taking place in Chinatowns, it allowed Americans to claim that America had these remaining repositories of traditional Chinese values at a time when the Communist Chinese had completely dismantled them. So there’s this other level where these stories are also anti-Communist — they are doing this other ideological work.

Though the income advantage enjoyed by certain subsets of the Asian American population breaks down when you control for education level, and even further when you examine specific demographics, the pressure parents still feel to use education and achievement as a hedge against a racist world remains profound. In many cases, it can be emotionally crippling. “Ditto stuff like violin lessons, piano lessons, etc.,” tweeted Guo. “People make fun of these stereotypes but I find them heartbreaking.”

On Point

Essence publishes its first ever #Woke100 listIt’s an embarrassment of riches, an extraordinary list of black women who are working on social change in a variety of areas. You’ll recognize many – Shonda Rhimes, Luvvie Ajayi, Michelle Alexander, Roxane Gay, and Patrisse Cullors are all on the list – but there are many other women whose names we don't typically hear, doing the work in business, tech, law, and science. Click through, get inspired, Link’em in, and add them to your panelist binders. Oh, and I buried the lede: I made the list too. Humbled and honored to be recognized, and grateful for each of you who give me insight, inspiration, and a killer e-mail open rate.Essence

Understanding the racial wealth gap
A recent report from Demos, a liberal public policy research organization, and the Institute for Assets & Social Policy (IASP) at Brandeis shows that black and brown households lag significantly behind white ones in household wealth, one of the most important indicators of financial success. According to The Asset Value of Whiteness, in 2013 the median white household had $13 in net wealth for every dollar held by the median black household and $10 for each dollar held by the median Latinx household. The same report convincingly showed that the interventions we typically think of corrective for struggling households aren’t helping black and brown ones: College education, full-time employment, two-parent households and better financial planning are not closing the gap.

How the model minority myth hurts people at work
It’s more than just the pressure to succeed, says professor and researcher Adia Harvey Wingfield. Racism affects the professional potential of Asian people from the time they become students. While Korean, Chinese and Japanese people have made it part-way into managerial ranks, Hmong, Laotian, Cambodian, and Filipino Americans remain overrepresented in low-wage jobs. “Research suggests that whites see Asian American men as being unfit for management, because they are stereotyped as passive and weak,” which operates as a racialized glass ceiling. But throughout their professional development, being rewarded for silence means that very real problems – from discrimination to depression – go unaddressed. “When Asian Americans are depicted as the minority group that doesn’t complain, attract negative attention, or cause problems, it can feel uncomfortable for them to point out stereotypes, insults, and assaults,” she writes.
The Atlantic

How to avoid cultural appropriation at Coachella
It’s that time of year again when photos of festival-going white folks wearing bindi dots, cornrow hairstyles, and “Indian” headdresses will gleefully populate online feeds only to become cautionary tales depicting a wide variety of cultural crimes and misdemeanors. In Teen Vogue's newest column, appropriately called “Don’t Do It Girl,” Jessica Andrews explains exactly why each act of decoration is a separate but equal problem. “Bindis, feathered headpieces, dashikis, war paint: Coachella street style is mired in cultural appropriation. And it's the kind that reeks of privilege.” Click through and share, share, share. We'll pick this up again at Halloween.
Teen Vogue

David Dao, from yellow menace to model minority and back again
ICYMI: Frank Guan has written an important piece that helps deconstruct the historical elements of bigotry and resentment currently in play in the lives of Asian Americans. Like Sullivan, he starts with the recent incident on United. By leaking his past criminal troubles, “David Dao is being forced out of one narrative, that of the dutiful, nonblack professional, into another narrative: that of the recalcitrant, nonwhite criminal.” While clearly black people remain the central targets of authority, “[t]he social power that permits one to safely refuse the commands of the state will never be extended to anyone who is not clearly middle-class as well as white.” The “model minority” notion was embraced by white elites in part to congratulate themselves for instituting a meritocratic education system after WWII. If you don't act like middle-class white people after some schooling, what happens next is your fault. But now, an increasingly threatened “majority” is being encouraged to reconsider all people of color as suspicious interlopers, who are taking what’s rightfully theirs.
New York Magazine

Tribal communities brace for the elimination of an essential program
Bracing for another blow to the health, safety, and autonomy of impoverished indigenous communities, tribal officials are keeping a close eye on the current budget: The Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program, also known as LIHEAP, has been targeted for elimination. The program which helps low-income families with their heating and cooling needs has become indispensable for tribal members, many of whom live in states with extreme weather. "People will die" without LIHEAP, Eileen Shot, who administers it for the Rosebud Sioux, told Fortune. Supporters of the move say that energy assistance would be better served by individual states. But Mark Wolfe, executive director of the National Energy Assistance Directors' Association, says that states and charities can’t handle the need. "There are a number of ways to help people afford energy, but you can't take $3.3 billion away from this program without consequences," he said.

The Woke Leader

An elderly Alzheimer patient and the feline companion who saved him
Jiji was living in his home in Tokyo when he was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease a few years ago. "I think when you learn that you have Alzheimer's, it is easy to start feeling scared, lonely, sad and lost," said his granddaughter, photographer Akiko DuPont, who lives with him and her grandmother. "I saw that in him. He tried to hide it, but I could see it. He was still Jiji, a loving man. But he gradually began to make a wall between himself and other people." That was until a sweet cat named Kinako wandered into their lives and helped bring him back. Now 94-year-old Jiji has been able to maintain his health and restore some of his connection to the world. Click through for some tender photos of a truly great second act.
The Dodo

Classical music’s race and gender problem
It was a big year for classical music. This year’s Pulitzer Prize for Music was awarded to Du Yun for her opera “Angel’s Bone,” a triumph on its own. But she was one of three female finalists, the first time in the prize’s 74-year history. Since 1943, only fourteen finalists for the music Pulitzer have been women, and only seven women have won. Is this the sign of a change? Hard to says writer William Robin. “One of the strengths of classical music is its preservationist streak, and the omission of women from the canon has a powerful impact on the culture of contemporary composition,” he writes. And then, there’s this: “It’s possible that women are still struggling for parity because masculine tropes of ‘genius’ are more prevalent in classical music than in any other art form.”
The New Yorker

On skin whiteners and the love of family
Lamya H, a queer Muslim writer living in New York City, has written a poignant essay in three parts that explores the way the racism inherent in her own family formed a complex backdrop for her own thinking on beauty, race, bias, and violence. In scene one, an adolescent Lamya is encouraged by the older women in her family to bleach her skin, to "become pretty." In scene two, she feels her own narrative unraveling while sitting in a postcolonial theory class, her feelings amplified by romantic stirrings she feels for a brown-skinned woman classmate. “Unlearning what I have learned about skin from my brown family is a slow, circuitous process, full of embarrassing regressions and painful memories,” she writes. In scene three, she lets it burn.
The Offing


I have never had any desire to play a maid, a liquor store owner kicking a black person out of my store, a rude and harried waitress, a worldly-wise acupuncturist, an early-rising, loose black cotton pants wearing elderly woman practicing tai chi in the park, a manicurist, a prostitute, a student in an English as a Second Language course, a purveyor of exotic mushrooms and ginseng, an exchange student, a newscaster covering gang warfare in Chinatown, a woman drowning my newborn baby in a bowl, a daughter crying with my mom over our constant battle between East and West yet finally coming together over a particularly intense game of mahjong...a young girl being raped and killed by GIs in the Killing Fields, a woman balancing a basket of any kind on my head...
—Margaret Cho

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