Tuesday, March 11, 2014

A Modulating Racism

Prosperity, Success, And The Permissiveness Of Racism.

I came across an article in the New York Times that covered the racial experiences of minority groups at the University Of Michigan. What struck me about the piece was one comment by a black admin officer that I thought had significance in the intra-Asian-American dialogue on the model minority stereotype. This is the comment...
We’re clearly not postracial,” said Tiya A. Miles, chairwoman of the department of Afro-American and African studies. “Sometimes I wonder if having a black president lets people feel like that gives them cover. It absolves people of being prejudiced.
An interesting comment that sums up in a nutshell the experience of Asian-Americans.Whereas the the above comment mentions the "success" of having a black president serving as an excuse or cover for prejudice, for Asian-Americans, it is the notion of an economically and educationally high-achieving minority that excuses anti-Asian attitudes - what do Asians have to complain about when they are so successful?

Whereas much commentary focuses on how the minority model stereotype separates us in the eyes of our co-minorities, all too often we miss the fact that the stereotype's primary function serves to render an autonomous Asian voice invisible and downplay the fact that casual anti-Asian racism and hate crimes are regularly committed through derogatory cultural representations of Asians, normalizing such attitudes and further ingraining anti-Asian hostility into the cultural zeitgeist as the normal and acceptable mode of behaviour and conceptualization of Asian people.

While we spend our time decrying how the successes we achieve are an affront to other minorities, we fail to notice that this success - paraphrased as the "model minority" - serves as an excuse to legitimize America's casual cultural racism towards Asian-Americans. Many of the incidents cited by the article of racial intolerance and insensitivity towards black students are mirrored in commonplace experiences for Asian-Americans. In fact, not only are they common, American culture itself brazenly and unapologetically propagates this intolerance flagrantly distilling "Asian" characteristics down to a series of demeaning qualities that are recycled by subsequent perpetrators and even broadcast to international audiences.

Here are some examples of the intolerance cited in the article....
fraternity hosting the party, whose members are mostly Asian and white, had invited “rappers, twerkers, gangsters” and others “back to da hood again.”.....high-profile incidents — including a number of fraternity parties nationwide that have used racist symbols, including watermelons and gang signs....a black student at the State University of New York at New Paltz, shared a photo of a “colored only” sign that had been placed on a water fountain in his freshman year.
What is being described here echoes the kinds of media depictions that Asian-Americans complain about, the difference is that the article is acknowledging that these incidents may reflect an intolerance towards blacks, whereas the media's perpetration of the same kinds of insensitivities and dehumanization of Asians causes few eyebrows to be raised, and scarce criticism save from Asians themselves. Rarely, if at all, is the possibility raised that these intermittent but consistent depictions of Asians might reflect intolerance. The question is; what is the difference between "play-acting" at being a "gangsta" in a college frat-house and play-acting dehumanizing ideas about Asians on the television or movie screen?

One difference is that Asians are a model minority whose educational and economic achievements have enabled anti-Asian racism to find an acceptable avenue of expression - prosperity alleviates the effects of racism, so the prevailing wisdom goes, and, in fact, prosperity itself may reflect a reversal of racist attitudes such that racial insensitivities can be excused because the bottom-line has become the gauge of its prevalence. The logic is flawless and convenient; prosperity is an indicator that racism has diminished, therefore racially demeaning depictions of Asians simply cannot be racist.

The reality is that what the Asian-American experience can offer us - and it is an experience that we often miss in our attempts to distance ourselves from "internalizing" the model minority stereotype - is an insight into the future of all visible minorities who attain some level of prosperity. If we accept that prosperity is the line beyond which racism is judged to have disappeared - when our experience tells us it has not - then we have not really succeeded in changing ingrained racist attitudes, we merely allow them to exist in a more subtle or snide way that enables the permissiveness of racial harassment.

The model minority dialogue must provide more room for the exploration of this phenomenon of prosperity providing the legitimacy for the permissiveness of racial harassment. Instead of framing the Asian-American experience of achieving prosperity as primarily a story of a formerly aggrieved minority's ingratitude or indifference to other minorities who may be less successful than we, perhaps it would behoove us to explore the subtle, grudging, racisms that accompanies prosperity or even merely the appearance of prosperity, and in so doing, highlight the fact that racism does not end once a group has exhibits high college graduation or income levels. 


  1. I think the model minority stereotype backlash has transformed itself into Asian privilege. Model minority is as you described, where Asians Americans are praised for doing well, but that means all our woes as Asians are invisible. Asian privilege on the other hand is where Asians are demonized for doing well while all our woes as Asians remain invisible. Thing is I don't think Asians really have privilege. Our hard work is often seen as being robotic, emotionless, and just slaving away. Our intelligence is also seen similarly. It's not real intelligence. It's not white intelligence.

    1. Anonymous

      yes, the purpose of the model minority stereotype is to the Asian voice, and render us invisible.

  2. When you say "American culture", what do you mean? "White culture" is a more accurate term. Who is the most responsible for creating, perpetuating and maintaining anti-Asian attitudes? I think non-white people should get comfortable and used to being specific when talking about these problems. The problem is white people.

    If non-white people would consume less white media and engage each other more outside of a white paradigm, that would be a significant move towards eliminating the model minority stereotype and improving interactions between Asian-Americans and other groups. Everyone gets too much incorrect and destructive information about each other from white media and white indoctrination from being in this system, that is designed to maximize conflict between people and maintain division and hostility.

    1. I don't think that it is accurate anymore to presume a white/non-white dichotomy in America. Even minorities help to propagate prejudices about each other, and I don't always believe that white folks are at the root of it.

    2. What do you think is a more accurate way to describe the problem? What do you think is the root of the prejudices people express toward each other? Can you give me some examples of innate prejudices that are not learned from white people? When did it become inaccurate to presume a white/non-white dichotomy in America? Are you taught to be prejudice in your culture? I can't say the same thing, the only people that have suggested to me to be prejudice toward other groups is white people.