Wednesday, April 3, 2013

We're All Model Minorities.....

....When We Achieve Success.

In a previous post I outlined some issues surrounding the way that some people in the Asian community view the model-minority stereotype and how it seems self-defeating to focus on the specific label instead of the underlying culture that produces it. By focusing on the resentment apparently stirred amongst other minorities,  and making it our responsibility to soothe this resentments, we are denying ourselves the opportunity to bring the issue of our profound cultural marginalization to the table. This means that we are failing to address the fundamental issue that causes the problem in the first place; the culture of casual anti-Asian racism that has marginalized the Asian voice to such a degree that it can create - on a whim - an entire false identity for a group of people and make it the definitive mode through which that group is conceived, even though it is false on so many levels. That is the true issue, not the petty resentments created by it.

In the study that I referred to in that previous post, the interviewees voiced their frustrations with Asian-Americans that they claimed have "internalized" the model-minority stereotype and supposedly exchanged a political and social consciousness for economic acceptance. As one interviewee put it.....
One person, an academic, said that the model minority myth bound those who accepted it to certain “tacit agreements” in exchange for privileged racial status. “You don’t have the same kind of churning and dislocation necessarily with middle-class Asians and middle-class whites. .......provided that they behave themselves… [which] might mean not getting too involved in the political process, accepting the role of the junior partner.”
Given my general skepticism about the interviewees' generalizations, it may surprise readers that I actually think that there is some merit to this point - to be successful and gain acceptance into mainstream culture, many Asians do abdicate their political and social consciousness. What is problematic about the antagonism that we mete out towards such Asian - as well as the implicit invitation for other groups to join us in this - is that this phenomenon is not unique or specific to Asians. There is an implicit suggestion that this is an Asian problem that impedes the progress of fellow peoples of colour and both explains and, perhaps, justifies some of the resentments  directed at us by these other minorities.

This, of course, is nonsense for a couple of reasons. Any resentment caused by any racial stereotype is racist, plain and simple. It is makes no difference that those expressing the resentment are black, Latino, or white, if you judge an entire group of people because of a made-up stereotype, then that is racist. The second, and more significant problem with this way of thinking is that abandoning political and social consciousness once economic or social acceptance is attained is something that all minorities do. For example, few black celebrities will speak out about police harassment and brutality in the community or high incarceration rates of black men, or the appalling indifference to the quality of education in urban schools affecting black children. As Harry Belafonte put it.....
From the highest pinnacles of Wall Street to the kings and queens of entertainment, to the gods and goddesses of sports, never before at these levels have we boasted such large numbers of Black participants. All this at the same time Black America is condemned to be the harvest of the largest prison population on the face of the earth, the most destroyed by the diseases of poverty, the most undereducated, the most diminished for lack of self-worth and the most punished by the prejudices of an unworthy justice system. The list goes on...
Clearly, any suggestion that  Asian-American are alone in abdicating political or social consciousness is untrue and as damaging a stereotype as any - the difference is that it is an idea that is put forward by Asians themselves.

Of course, the real issue - which we fail to address in our rush to soothe unfair resentment directed at us - is that it has to be the unspoken rule that in order for minorities, of any colour, to be acceptable into the white mainstream, they must not bite the hand that feeds them. In other words, most ethnic minorities who succeed in the mainstream have to - and do - abide by this unspoken rule, meaning that such all such people are effectively assuming a "model-minority" identity. That is, they get to take a share of the prosperity, and in return they avoid inconvenient political and social commentary.

This may be why few black sportsmen and entertainers seem to mention high incarceration rates of black males, police brutality and harassment, and the poor quality of education that seems characteristic of mainly poor, black, neighbourhoods - to do so in a meaningful way would break the rules. Sportsmen might lose popularity and maybe endorsements, entertainers might notice their record sales sliding, or face a backlash in the press.

The point here is that many Asians seem to have internalized (funnily enough) this aspect of the model-minority stereotype in this unique way; the implication is that acting like a model-minority by avoiding "controversial" politics and social commentary in exchange for a place at the table of success is specific, or even limited to the Asian minority. Of course, the problem here is that there is little evidence for this - in fact, all the evidence suggests that most successful minority individuals will assume this role and avoid activism against the poor treatment of minorities in America.

It should go without saying that any attempt to foster alignment between Asians and other minorities is fatally flawed if we base some of our presumptions about our own community on an idea that is simply untrue. The reality is not that the Asians-as-model-minority label contributes to maintaining the status quo of racial oppression, but that all minorities who achieve success are required to assume a "model-minority identity" to some degree - even, apparently, African-Americans. This is a significantly different proposition that makes all of our shame and embarrassment about being the "elevated" minority somewhat misplaced. In fact, it could be even worse that no-one recognizes this acquiescence to the status quo from successful figures in the black community - not noticing this phenomenon means that we don't realize there is a problem which only enables the problem to continue.

The key thing to understand here is that if these model-minority identities do, in fact, contribute to maintaining the status quo of racial oppression, then any minority individual who achieves success but fails to advocate for justice is guilty of this - and as I have demonstrated it is not just Asians (as individuals or as a group) who do this. Taking on this burden that is based on a false premise only enables anti-Asian racism to persist, not only in the mainstream, but also amongst the other minorities with whom we seek to align.

And that is the biggest issue with our unfathomable unchallenged acceptance of model-minority identities as something unique to the Asian community. Yes, we are labeled as such - again mostly, apparently by ourselves these days - but the reality is that for any minority to succeed means a de facto acceptance, to some degree, of this model-minority identity. Paradoxically, by taking on this burden as a specific problem that Asians alone should address, we are actually allowing the the status quo to continue because such an acceptance implicitly denies that this phenomenon exists beyond Asian-America, when very clearly it does. If minority success brings with it a responsibility to advocate for racial justice, then by denying that this problem exists as a structural issue by which all minorities must abide, is to absolve any non-Asian minority from the responsibility of actually engaging in advocacy - which must perpetuate racial injustice.

What Asian-Americans are effectively doing when they approach inter-minority relations and model-minority labeling from this position, is to get in the way of genuine dialogue on the role that all minorities play in maintaining racial injustices in return for prosperity or success. By allowing ourselves to be viewed as the sole bearers of this identity, we are side-tracking the dialogue away from a more realistic understanding of the complexities of race politics. In the process, we are also allowing what amounts to, often racist, resentment from other minorities to fester without challenging the fundamental premises from which this resentment derives.

1 comment:

  1. when asians ( FOBS) dont even see themselves as part of an 'asian race' then its a waste of time to think of seriously discussing the direction of things like 'model minority' and inter-minority racism.

    historically its dangerous to speak out in terms of race and has gotten little reward.

    what with the only significant race, the chinese and probably biggest section of asians not making a fuss, its unlikely the others will make any.

    also significantly, theres still no asian direction, that any asian can look towards, and as long as there isnt, then its the usual face lost in a sea of people identity problem and glut of sellout women tripping over themselves to get it on with non-asian men

    Because AA make up of so many FOBS it only makes sense to create a sense of pan-asian solidarity, in East asia first before any real AA identity can form. Because western born east asians are insignificant in the grand scale of things. We are or our families after all the 'traitors' to the homeland.