Not Your Model Minority

Posted November 12, 2015 by Nicholas Chan

Picture of blog author Nicolas Chan's mother.

That’s my mom. I snuck the snapshot of her when I said I had to pee really badly waiting to pick her up after work. She is usually really private about her work and her jobs, but had no choice but to let me inside to use the restroom. She’s a seamstress at two different locations five days a week, and then a food sample lady in the Chinese markets on the weekends. My mom honestly has no reason to work seven days a week anymore, but she says she likes it. She gets to meet so many people in the Chinatown markets and says as long as she has the ability to work, she wants to. No English. No education. Just tough skin and an even tougher spirit.

My parents immigrated to the United States in the late 80’s, making me a first-generation Asian American. It’s also taken me quite a while to identify as that — an Asian American. It’s definitely a political term. We are a rapidly growing demographic in the United States. Some Asian Americans have been able to obtain high levels of education and income levels, even outperforming Whites. However, the “model minority myth” could not be further from the truth. Sure, if you don’t disaggregate the data, the numbers might be convincing. However, Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders (AAPI) represent a dizzying array of ethnicities, languages, cultures, religions, foods, and fashions. Any catchall data that attempts to reduce this diversity to a single common denominator cannot hope to reflect what AAPI folks deal on a day-to-day basis.

A perfect example of the model minority myth is the affirmative action debate. Opponents of affirmative action often use Asian Americans to drive a wedge between other racial minorities on the issue. They argue that Asian Americans are negatively impacted by admissions when race is considered since their test scores are, on average, very high. However, an ethnic breakdown reveals that affirmative action benefits a number of communities under the AAPI umbrella; Hmong, Cambodian, Laotian, and Vietnamese Americans have some of the lowest rates of educational attainment and only 61% of Hmong Americans hold a high school diploma. For the Pacific Islander community, the cultural emphasis on an American education is quite different, reflecting a much different narrative than that of other communities under the AAPI umbrella. A friend shares her lived experience, “being a child to immigrant parents meant taking on the duties and responsibilities of a ta’ahine Tonga – young Tongan girl – while ignoring the “American-ness” that materialized all around me. Nonetheless, I was conditioned to believe that excelling in school was not a value indigenous to my Tongan culture but rather something that I had assimilated into.” Education means something different to each of personally, to our family, and to our community. There is no singular narrative when AAPI’s navigate higher education, or this country even, nor should there ever be.

Too often, AAPI’s have been wedged between racial minorities and whiteness. Our families leave behind relatives, their language, their culture, and their comfort when sacrificing so much. As first generation Asian Americans, we aim to provide comfort for our parents in recognition of the hardships they endured on our behalf. However, this “success” often comes at the expense of black and brown communities. The model minority myth comes with many privileges. Overall, Asian Americans have greater access to education and higher levels of wealth. Our parents have always taught us to never cause rifts or stick out from the crowd in order to assimilate. Moving closer towards whiteness, meant moving further away from solidarity with communities of color and continuously overlooking the legacy of black and brown activism making it possible for Asian Americans to “succeed”. We can no longer be mystified by the American Dream promised to immigrants and instead must work towards dismantling the larger institutions and systems preventing our communities from surviving and thriving.

There is a need, more than ever, for solidarity. The success of Asian Americans in this country was built on the backs of black and brown communities. We need to dismantle the model minority myth and recognize that assimilation will never save us. The Yellow Peril movement and leaders like Grace Lee Boggs or Yuri Kochiyama paved a long legacy of Asian American solidarity during the Black Power Movement. We still have tremendous leaders like Jose Antonio Vargas, working on a broken immigration system impacting so many immigrant communities. The legacy is still alive, but we have to keep it going. We must recognize that keeping our heads down and remaining complacent will never be the answer to our liberation.

The Asian America everyone imagines — one characterized by wealth, education, and assimilation, is only a personified extension of white supremacy. We need to begin to reimagine what we think of when we think of an Asian American too. The community is diverse, complex, unique, and ever growing in this country. Founded on the backs of immigrants, our community must stand with other communities of color. It’s funny to think that my mother has no idea of how hard everyday advocates and activists work towards a day where my mom won’t have to clock into work again. Nonetheless, thanks mom.