Sunday, March 31, 2013

We Don't Know Much!

Asian Attitudes And The Model Minority.

The folks over at the "Racefiles" blog have posted the findings of a study that they conducted that sought to..
...better understand the racial position of Asian Americans, and how Asian American identity functions in the realm of racial politics...
To accomplish this, they did the following.....
....conducted in-depth, confidential interviews with 82 Asian American organizers, leaders, intellectuals, and artists working in the racial justice field throughout the United States. We also talked to five non-Asian American racial justice leaders doing promising work that cuts across all communities of color. 
There is some good background information provided that offers a persuasive (but, in my opinion, incomplete) interpretation  of the historical background that has shaped the social hierarchy of 21st century America.

The latter part of the findings shifts focus somewhat to the interviewees' personal visions for mobilizing Asian-Americans. But, I'll begin by focusing on the report's findings on the racial attitudes and positions of Asian-Americans as represented by the interviewees.

In answer to the question of "how Asian Americans think about race, and whether we should work to build a more unified Asian American identity", the following was concluded......
They Don’t. It is significant that about one-third of respondents said that Asian Americans do not think about race at all. Some said this was because of the weakness of Asian American racial identity especially among first-generation immigrants and refugees, but others attributed it to the racial position of Asian Americans, especially those with class privilege, which encouraged the embrace of American individualism.
Asian American Racial Superiority. Many participants critiqued the model minority myth as a strategy to denigrate Blackness and distance Asian Americans from other peoples of color, in service to white supremacy.
 And one Mid-West organizer elaborates....
“I mean, Asians are racist… I don’t think that they think very highly of African Americans. I think that they largely think what they’re told about them, which is that they’re criminals, they’re undeserving, they try and feed off the system, they don’t work hard, they’re scary, all of those different kinds of things… It’s messed up.”
The next question asked; What do Asian Americans Think of Other Peoples of Color?
In general, there was a sense that Asian Americans had internalized negative stereotypes about Blacks and Latinos in particular, and took pride in the model minority myth, even if they did not think explicitly about race in their daily lives.......More than half of the people we interviewed said that Asian Americans exhibited a significant amount of anti-Black racism.
The piece goes on to describe Asian-American attitudes towards Latinos - generally slightly warmer than attitudes towards blacks, but still somewhat negative - and Asian-American feelings towards Native Americans, which turned out to be non-existent - Asian-Americans don't think about them much. But overall, the general consensus was that Asian/black tensions were the most significant manifestation of Asian-American feelings of racial superiority.

Although these findings are presented as representative of Asian-American attitudes, I was disturbed by the fact that nowhere were these conclusions supported by studies, surveys, or polls, conducted on the community. On the contrary, these findings were simply the opinions, perceptions, and guesswork of the interviewees. Now it may be the case that these interviewees were referring to studies but no studies were cited to support their statements.

The problem with this should be obvious. It is simply misleading to represent opinions about the attitudes and worldview of a group as the actual attitudes and feelings of that group. It doesn't matter that these people are activists or advocates, their opinions are just their opinions and nothing more. I don't doubt that the intentions of the study were noble, but without a legitimate study conducted directly with members of the community that reflect a representative cross-section of the demographic then the conclusions can only be misleading.

As I have written elsewhere, marginalization of Asian-Americans (and Asians) is often driven by misrepresentation by self-proclaimed experts - whose objectivity is never questioned and the subjectivity of their assertions never recognized - who often manufacture, skew, or over-generalize, information about Asia and present them as facts. This way of doing things is popular because the input of Asians is not required, and not even wanted, allowing any claims to be made (often resulting in best-selling books) without the inconvenient question of their veracity being raised. No-one wants Asians ruining the cultural Asian-marginalizing party by actually asking Asians to express and interpret their own ideas without the filter of a white expert's subjective opinion. Thus, Asians are often excluded from dialogue about themselves. The last thing that Asian-Americans need is to have our own advocates and intellectuals doing things in a similar vein.

Even if we were to accept the unlikely scenario that a handful of activists can know Asian-Americans well enough to make the kinds of sweeping statements that were made, the way it was reported is troubling. For example, in answer to the question "how Asian Americans think about race, and whether we should work to build a more unified Asian American identity", the study "found" that "Asians don't" think about it. The problem here is that even this is misleading - even if we do accept that the activists' opinions are an accurate representation of Asian-American attitudes. Only one-third of the interviewees believed that Asians don't think about race, this leaves at least two-thirds of interviewees who may believe that Asians do, in fact, think about race. So, even by their own criteria, it is inaccurate to say that Asians don't think about race - in fact, the opposite may well be the case and at least two-thirds do.

These criticisms are significant when we look at the latter part of the study which looks to answer the questions of the direction, character, and focus, of future Asian-American "resistance". The section begins as follows.....
Is It Strategic to Organize and Resist as Asian Americans?This question revealed deep conflicts and confusion, and it demands much more debate and discussion among racial justice organizers. There was a fairly even split between those who said “yes” we should work to build a unified API identity, and those who said “no,” “maybe,” or “I don’t know.” Among those who said that we should, one-third had significant qualifiers, sometimes contradicting their initial answer. Even those working at API organizations expressed doubts. One person said, “I don’t know if I would say yes to that. I mean, I’ve spent my 20 years doing so, but I don’t know.” Another person simply said, “I don’t even know what ‘API’ means.” 
It seems evident that Asian-American justice workers really don't have a clear-cut vision of what the goals of Asian-American advocacy are, what it would take to mobilize Asians politically, how we should co-operate with other peoples of colour, or even whether Asian-American identity is a good basis for organizing. Yet, nowhere is mention made of actually asking Asian-Americans themselves what their experiences are and how they see themselves in the racial dynamics of American society. And this is a serious omission from the thinking of our activists.

The reason is that what is actually missing is a body of work that tells us, with reasonable accuracy, what are the experiences of Asian-America that could inform their activism. What this means is that at this point in time, perhaps it would be more meaningful to focus on working on an ontology of Asian-America that allows us to move beyond the guesswork and opinion. Ontology can be defined as "a specification of a conceptualization", which means to establish a criterion for what does, or does not, exist. For Asian-America, this means removing the guesswork, over-generalized labeling, opinion, and supposition, from our dialogue, and establishing the fact from the fiction. This ontology could be informed by academic study, polls, or even journalistic investigation, but it has to exist in order for a meaningful vision to be established.

My final point of interest is in the stated feelings of the interviewees towards the model-minority stereotype. In the study, much time is spent on, and much reference is made to, the model-minority label and how it affects relations between Asian-Americans and other minorities. Many (perhaps all) interviewees decry the stereotype for "elevating" Asians above other minorities and causing division between them, implying that Asians don't do enough to "fight" the stereotype. But I think that this is simplistic and dangerous because it fundamentally asks that Asians answer for a stereotype that they didn't create and I don't think that it is fair, or appropriate. Even those successful Asians who supposedly "embrace" the stereotype are not obliged to answer for it.

Here is the irony; my observation is that it is mostly Asian-Americans who actually use the term "model-minority". In mainstream America, the term is hardly ever mentioned when referring to Asians. In fact, American culture is so poisoned with negative attitudes towards Asians that, culturally, we are far from being viewed as models for anything. Sure, there are the reports of Asian successes, but often these are presented with a tone of foreboding, and rarely as a celebration. White culture doesn't celebrate our successes - it is disturbed by them.

And this is where it gets uncomfortable because given that American culture demeans Asians (to the point of it becoming the cultural norm), any resentment has to derive from the apparent contradiction between these reported successes and the cultural attitude that Asians are society's losers. This goes beyond the simplistic notion of a "cause-effect" character of the model minority stereotype - it might be more likely that people resent Asians because pathetic Asian losers are not supposed to be successful.

This is problematic for those who wish to allay black resentment towards Asians caused by the stereotype by insisting that we show contrition for it, because the model-minority label doesn't really exist as the resentment-motivating entity that we seem to think it is. It is culturally normalized anti-Asian attitudes that make resentment and hostility the standard mode of interaction for mainstream America (of all colours) and its Asian minority regardless of any specific label - that is Americans are conditioned to view Asians with suspicion, hostility, and distrust, regardless of any particular stereotype.

This might be uncomfortable for some because it suggests that anti-Asian hostility from both black and white Americans derives from the same root cause of cultural conditioning and not from a specific stereotype that we have perceived to be uniquely designed for this purpose. That is why fighting the model-minority stereotype is like jousting windmills - the entire culture is set up to create a no-win and a no-way-in attitude towards Asians. People would find any excuse to resent us even if the model-minority stereotype didn't exist because the entire manner of America's cultural attitude with Asians promotes distrust and suspicion.

It is naive to react with horror (and surprise) that the white racism which produced the stereotype has induced a racist response from other minorities towards Asians. And it is self-deceiving to deny that  that is racist when people are resentful towards a group because of stereotypes, regardless of who is expressing it. It is almost always forgotten that the model-minority stereotype reflects how profoundly the Asian minority of America is culturally marginalized; an entire identity can be, and has been, created for us by media and cultural forces that excludes Asians from the whole process of its creation, yet which has been successful in defining what it means to be Asian-American in the popular consciousness. If other minorities hate us because of that, then that implies an uncompromising prejudice in a similar vein to that modeled by the white mainstream.

There are other, equally or more, pervasive representations of Asians that may have far worse consequences than the model-minority stereotype. American culture enacts and depicts racial harassment of Asian people as a normal and acceptable activity, and often engages in fantasies about committing sadistic violence towards, and mass-murder of, Asian people. Furthermore, there is resentment inducing political blaming of Asia and Asians for various economic or environmental "crimes", pervasive racial mockery in film and television, and casual assertions of Asian underhandedness and sneakiness in all their endeavours. I maintain that all of this cultural hostility has modeled resentment, hostility, anger, dislike, and uncompromising combativeness, as the normal and acceptable way of interacting with Asians.

What this means is that regardless of the specific racially inflected representation, the response is almost always going to be negative - tell people that Asians are the model-minority, then the response is resentment, tell people that Asian kids are the most bullied then the response is "its their own fault, Asians are anti-social", complain about anti-Asian racism in the black community and the response is "well Asians are racist and Koreans are channeling money out of the hood", and tell people that there is significant poverty amongst Asian-Americans and the response is indifference, or "blacks and Latinos have it worse!". The stereotypes are only the poisonous by-product of the underlying prejudices that enable Asians to be defined by people who at best are ignorant, or at worst, malicious.

This why I think that more evidence is required before we start asserting the model-minority label as the most significant cause of tensions between Asians and other minorities. If we stop reacting and look at the situation rationally, we might notice that America's culture of combative disassociation, casual racial harassment, and vindictive resentment, is more likely to shape people's reactions and interactions with Asian-Americans far more effectively than the specific model-minority label. This pervasive culture of dehumanizing and demeaning Asians - which also conditions other minorities in their behaviour and attitudes - more than outweighs any supposed positives stemming from the model-minority stereotype and probably shapes reactions to it.

My final thought on this is that I question the degree to which the model-minority stereotype actually influences federal and state policies towards other minorities. The narrative is as follows; the model minority stereotype is used as some kind of leverage by white America (usually GOP white folks) to justify cutting minority programs. But is this really true, or even reasonable to presume that the stereotype is even considered when policy changes are being discussed and put forward, or even that it influences such policy discussions? Certainly, an argument can be made that this label is bandied about (perhaps mostly by Asians who oppose it) in popular dialogue, but I see little reason to believe that the model-minority stereotype is used to justify any policy of any level of government. I think that it is somewhat grandiose to believe that this establishment actually needs model Asians to justify policies that affect other minorities, or even that the establishment uses this argument to establish a legal basis for "anti-black" policies.

So, in summary, the study highlighted the ontological gulf that exists between advocates and the community it seeks to represent. This gulf is apparently often filled with subjective opinions about the nature and character of Asian attitudes in lieu of a significant ontological basis. Furthermore, the study itself somewhat misleadingly reports these opinions as the actual attitudes and feelings of the community, which I recognize as a common phenomenon in Asian-American "culture" in which subjective thoughts and attitudes are unreasonably generalized as community or culture wide realities. Finally, the interviewees' attitudes towards the model-minority stereotype reflect what I have observed amongst many Asian-Americans; guilt for which they feel a need to show contrition, but it might also reflect an exaggerated and inflated notion of the actual influence that the stereotype may exert over the political process.

It does a disservice to Asian-Americans to downplay the fact that the model-minority stereotype reflects the degree to which the Asian voice is overpowered by the structures of racism in America - the white mainstream can shape our social identity and make it the basis upon which the Asian minority is perceived. Focusing on how the label affects other minorities' opinions of us instead of how the label reflects this damaging, profoundly embedded and overwhelming culture of hostile misrepresentation, is itself marginalizing Asians from their own experience. Communities come together when they recognize common experiences, at the root of the Asian experience is the notion that a shared humanity with Asians is impossible or unwanted - and it is unreasonable to believe that this mainstream position is rejected by other minorities. Giving weight to resentment caused by the label, as opposed to the racism that produces it is actually distancing Asians from any commonality with these other minority groups, and actually empowers the structures of racism.

Here is the link to the study..........


  1. Not all asians are on the same page, thats why communication is polarized between the 'angry asian male' 'the multiculturalist' and 'the sellout'. if it was possible to measure the size of the above, then one would be able to figure out a structure that would enable the three to communicate to ensure they are on the same page

    the angry asian male will just rant and go in circles
    the multiculturalist will embrace all POC as friends but would never make a stance against whites because getting on with everyone is all that matters
    the sellout just wants to sell out and think for number 1.

    another issue based on the above ever changing demographic, is that it spills into all asians - koreans, japanese, chinese, filipinos so that not only is the above unmeasurable , the fact that it overspills into different ethnic subcategories of asian then makes it even more difficult to create clear communication.

    in my opinion, those that are clearest to do anything positive for the asian representation are the 'angry asian male'. because that is the energy that creates distinction. the multiculturalist, for all his methods will not succeed because the way it works is that the more you love your enemy, the more they will whip you.

    simply there is too much overlap between different value systems and degrees of western adoption, that asian culture can only be identified on an individual level , and for this reason will never empower the idea of an asian /pan-asian consciousness because simply thanks to the above fragmentation, and that the only things that motivate asians are largely monetary and rarely civil justice means that in 10.20 years time, even with china ruling the world, asians in the west will still be a mess.

    even if there was a leader, the body is too muddled and confused and mixed up and unquantifiable that not fighting racism and saying nothing when model minority stereotypes are brought up will continue.

    the only hope is that younger generations will embrace a sense of pan-asianism that goes beyond superficial pop culture, but its too early to tell. from what i can see, most of them are celebrating it on an individual level by returning to homelands and getting jobs there.

    1. Hi Anonymous

      I think that anger has its place - just don't let it become all-consuming!

    2. No Ben you are right, taking action is the priority, but unfortunately thats one thing that asians suck at because theres no game-plan, and we are too independent to need or want any kind of racial coalition.

      Probably why most anger just ends up as venting online and in real life nothing gets done because we are trained 'not to express bother'. haha