Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Mytholigising The Model Minority Myth.

Why We Need To Think Twice.....

In my previous post I discussed a Times article written by Jack Linshi in which he made the point that questions, discussions, and considerations of diversity almost always exclude Asian-Americans. A pompous rebuttal piece in the Toast criticized Linshi's article for focusing too much on Asian-Americans in an article about Asian-Americans - go figure. One particular criticism was that Linshi failed to point out how the model minority stereotype is used as a "weapon against both black and brown people" which is also a criticism echoed in a critique of Linshi's article by Julianne Hing at Colorlines which rants.......
People who shape the dominant political narrative in this country—politicians, pundits, media—have little use for substantive conversation about any group of non-white people unless it’s to uphold, in stark terms, notions of black inferiority and white supremacy. To that end, Asians have actually been the subject of quite a lot of public fascination, mainly as props used to denigrate blacks and Latinos and programs designed to support them and other people of color—including segments of the Asian-American population. All too often, Asians are willing to play along.
My first reaction to this is that I fail to see why the possibility that white racists might use Asians and the model minority narrative to "denigrate" people of color should in any way preclude Asians from writing articles that specify the Asian racial experience and focus a little attention on it. Surely, writing about the Asian experience of white supremacist structures is itself a critique of that system and, hence, in no way "plays along" with it? This idea and self-righteous proclamation that "all too often, Asians are willing to play along" is troubling in itself, simply because it sometimes seems to be merely a rhetorical tool utilized by Asian-American advocates to point out how different they are from all the other Asians who just don't get it as opposed to a means of shedding a nuanced light on the attitudes and socio-political stances of Asian-Americans.

Actually, we rarely know just what Asian-Americans are thinking or believing about politics or social issues, largely because we are excluded from the enquiry into diversity, race, and many other aspects of American life. But it always helps one's advocacy cred to make vague and unsupported claims that there must be some Asians out there who are bastards and you're not like them. Of course, the irony here is that in order to make such a sweeping statement about Asians and to have it stick with any kind of rhetorical power, one must be implicitly participating in a process that marginalizes Asian's opportunities to speak for themselves and, thus, take advantage of the racist structures that accomplish the very invisibility that enables the media to engineer an identity for an entire minority. I find it hard to take anyone seriously who so unconsciously appropriates the trappings and benefits of white supremacy whilst believing themselves to be speaking out against it.

A subsequent Times article by Linshi actually seems to heed - or it may be mere coincidence - these criticisms and addresses the issue of the apparent role that the model minority stereotype plays in America's racial discourse. Writing about the significance of Ferguson to Asian-Americans he says this about the model minority stereotype........
One possible answer could be found in the model minority myth. The myth, a decades-old stereotype, casts Asian-Americans as universally successful, and discourages others — even Asian-Americans themselves — from believing in the validity of their struggles. But as protests over Ferguson continue, it’s increasingly important to remember the purpose of the model minority narrative’s construction. The doctored portrayal, which dates to 1966, was intended to shame African-American activists whose demands for equal civil rights threatened a centuries-old white society. (The original story in the New York Times thrust forward an image of Japanese-Americans quietly rising to economic successes despite the racial prejudice responsible for their unjust internment during World War II.)
So, Linshi (as is the case with many other Asian-American commentators) is suggesting that the model minority stereotype owes its existence to the exigency of white supremacist structures to somehow affect the civil rights struggle by shaming, denigrating, or embarrassing African-American activists. Although seemingly an axiom amongst Asian-Americans in general and a fundamental ontological pillar of Asian-American reactivism in particular, I think that it is an overly simplistic conception of the stereotype. Furthermore, this conception of the stereotype itself betrays the danger and immense damage that this custom of relegating the Asian experience to a mere side-note of anti-blackness can present.

It is generally accepted that the term "model-minority" first appeared in a 1966 article in the New York Times Magazine written by sociologist, William Petersen, (a subsequent article that same year in the conservative-leaning U.S News and World Report described the self-sufficiency of New York's Chinese-Americans) in which he described the phenomenon of how Japanese-Americans had overcome extreme racial prejudice and incarceration in internment camps to become a successful demographic. He termed this community the "model-minority". Upon reading the piece, it is difficult to reconcile the charge that the model-minority stereotype was specifically designed to shame and hinder black civil rights activism with the content of the article itself.

Certainly, the NYT piece makes references to the black experience - minor allusions consisting of a bare few sentences - but to my reading, it more significantly provides a wealth of information about the unique history of anti-Asian racism and exclusion with very little indication that blacks are being targeted in any way. In fact, there are just as many, perhaps more, references to how Japanese-Americans outperform whites, yet, no-one has suggested that the piece tries to denigrate or shame whites. It requires an extremely sensitive reading of the piece to even remotely conclude that it is anything other than an expose - extremely unusual for its time, and hardly typical now, five decades later - that focuses on Asian-Americans. In short, the piece does the one thing that Asian-American reactivists seem to hate more than anything; it focused specifically on Asians and anti-Asian racism as significant subjects in and of themselves.

If one steps back from the subject to assess the claim objectively it seems somewhat absurd to believe that this 1966 article served as some kind of anti-civil rights effort. Bear in mind that the FBI was actively gathering intelligence on individuals associated with the civil rights movement through a campaign of surveillance and infiltration, such that they most probably were aware of any facts that could incriminate and discredit the movement and its leaders. Thus, I am being asked to believe that even though there was probably a wealth of intelligence gathered information on the civil rights leadership that could have been, at least, manipulated to make it look unsavory in order to shackle them, the tactic of writing passive-aggressive articles with sometimes vague or passing mention of blacks was utilized to stymie the movement. I hope that sounds as far-fetched to you as it does to me. Quite frankly, it sounds absurd.

What is being said is that the people and culture that inflicted injustices on black people came up with a passive-aggressive ploy - that amounts to name-calling - that they presumed would work on a community who had endured and survived some of the worst treatment ever inflicted on an oppressed people all in order to maintain the unequal social order. Name-calling as a means to undermine the emotional well-being of, and a movement driven by, a group of people who had endured extremes of abuse and not been broken by it? The only shock here is why such an inane idea has flowered and endured amongst Asian-Americans. But, if the piece was not written to denigrate blacks, why was it written?

To answer this question we have to understand that in the mid-nineteen-sixties there was little love lost for Asian people in America. It was only twenty years after a brutal and savage war with Japan in which western prisoners of war had been subject to severe maltreatment, and the war itself had been conducted on the home front with an explicitly racist tone by utilizing existing stereotypes of Asians that had developed since the first Asian immigrants arrived on the West Coast to galvanize the will and antipathy of the American public. A mere few years after the Pacific War, America again was at war in Asia in the Korean peninsula, and once again, the war on the home front was conducted with an explicit tone of racist xenophobia as Chinese-Americans were placed under surveillance by America's intelligence communities.

During this period, the US considered using nuclear weapons against both the Chinese and North Koreans, but also apparently considered a French plan to nuke the anti-colonial insurgents in Vietnam during the nineteen-fifties. Plus, from the mid-nineteen-fifties onwards, the US began to slowly increase its involvement in the Vietnam war - an involvement that utilized strategies of mass-destruction like Agent Orange and carpet bombing, but was also characterized by personal animosity resulting in countless and commonplace atrocities against the local population. In short, Asians were largely viewed as enemies devoted to destroying America's way of life that few Americans would have preferred over blacks. The reason that there were so few Asians in the US was that Asians were simply not liked, and it was the passing of the 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act - that would allow unimpeded migration from Asia - that brought Asians closer to the forefront of America's race dialogue.

America, by the mid-nineteen sixties, was a global power that, through a series of alliances, was striving to stem the advance of communism by pushing its own ideology of freedom, democracy, and equality. The problem was that the whole world could see what nonsense that was. Jim Crow (4th section, "Engaging with Africa") and racist immigration policies undermined America's credibility in the very countries of Asia (page 10) and Africa where the fight against communism was taking place. Thus, doing away with racist immigration policy was essential to maintain America's standing with its allies in Asia. The only obstacle was that Americans were largely against immigration reform that would permit unhindered migration of Asians into the country.

Thus, Asian-America's focus on America's social anxieties at the passing of civil rights legislation ignores the - perhaps equally - anxiety-inducing legislation that dramatically altered America's immigration policies. The Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 removed all of the barriers that up until that point had severely restricted immigration from Asian countries. Given that for decades Americans had been comfortable with immigration and social policies that excluded Asian people, it is not hard to see why the new legislation that would permit a group of people who were largely viewed as enemies to migrate en-masse might have been received with no small degree of trepidation. A Harris Poll of the time found that almost two-thirds of Americans opposed the act, and another 18% were undecided. America just was not happy with the idea of Asian immigration.

In light of this anti-Asian racism of the time, as well as the overwhelming opposition to the 1965 Immigration act, it seems even more far-fetched to suggest that Asians could possibly have been used as foil in some way to undermine black rights in the American mind. What is more likely is that the New York Times piece was merely an attempt by a liberal-leaning news publication to assuage anxieties about, and shape public opinion in favour of, a very unpopular , but politically necessary, piece of immigration legislation by painting Asian immigrants as a non-threatening and industrious group who make positive contributions to society. That's all it was. Even the US News piece seems to make no attempt to denigrate blacks and even quotes a social worker who explicitly states that the Chinese would exhibit very similar problems to blacks if they were placed under the same circumstances.

To fully understand the scope of American society's opposition to Asian immigration it is worth noting that more than a decade after the 1965 Immigration act, Americans were still voicing misgivings and hostility towards the prospect of Asian immigrants. As these two Harris Poll records show that Americans were in favor of closing the door to Vietnamese refugees, feared that they would take jobs from Americans, and widely believed that they would not be able to integrate. That hardly sounds like a resounding belief in the idea of Asians as a model minority that other minorities should emulate. Even today, some in white America are still smarting about the 1965 Immigration act. Articles like these show clearly that there are some Americans who continue to feel cheated out of their demographic privilege by the 1965 legislation.

By belaboring the dubious assertion that there was, and is, some kind of conspiracy of passive-aggression to embarrass blacks into submission - when several centuries of brutal slavery and decades of Jim Crow failed to do just that - Asian-Americans are not only obscuring history, they are contributing to Asian-American invisibility by deflecting attention away from the Asian-specific racial experiences described above and in so doing deny Asians a deserved autonomous racial perspective.

But, what of the idea that the model minority stereotype continues to be used to "browbeat" other minorities and justify discrimination against those groups? Most recently, public figures like Adam Carolla and Bill O'Reilly utilized the stereotype and its most trendy incarnation, Asian Privilege, to deny that racism is the inhibiting force that minorities say it is. I will discuss the Carolla and O'Reilly use of "Asian privilege" rhetoric in my next post, but for now, I ask the question; is there evidence that those who believe the model minority stereotype also exhibit racist attitudes towards blacks that are justified by, and derived from, it? Unfortunately, the answer is not as straight-forward as the examples of Carolla and O'Reilly would make it seem to be.

A study by the Northwestern University of Law found a tenuous correlation between those whites who adhere to the model minority stereotype and a corresponding adherence to anti-black attitudes. Even where a correlation was present, there was no reason to believe that the model minority stereotype was a causative factor in forming anti-black attitudes, merely that there was a pattern or correlation. Do Asian-Americans really believe that white racism requires an Asian intercessory justification to legitimize its existence in the minds of those who adhere to it? From the study....
..generally non- Hispanic whites who believe that Asian Americans work harder than whites are not less sympathetic to blacks’ need for greater government assistance (see Table 1). Put slightly differently, the belief that some Asian Americans have “pulled themselves up by their own bootstraps” does not necessarily accompany the view that all groups should do the same.
More significantly, the study found a strong correlation between the belief that Asians are hard-working and successful and a belief that Asians experience no discrimination. In other words, the model minority stereotypes  hurts Asians, by obscuring the fact of anti-Asian racism, more than it informs negative attitudes towards other minority groups.
The Model Minority Hypothesis would predict that those who consider Asians smart, hard working, or wealthy tend to think that Asian Americans are not discriminated against..........Among non-Hispanic whites, the belief in most of the five positive model minority stereotypes correlated very strongly with the perception that Asian Americans faced little or no discrimination in the job market or government assistance for other minority groups.......Similarly, those non-Hispanic white respondents who believe that Asian Americans are wealthier or harder working than other minorities also tend to be more likely to believe that Asian Americans face little or no housing discrimination.
The study's conclusions?
Overall, there is no relationship between positive views of Asian Americans and negative views of African Americans. Where significant relationships exist, they usually tend to undercut the Model Minority Hypothesis, rather than support it. ....On balance, we found no significant support for the concern that those who espouse model-minority-like beliefs are more likely to oppose affirmative action for African Americans in employment or college aid, to believe that blacks have too much government influence, or to believe that we spend too much money on schools in black neighborhoods (see Tables 1 and 2).
In other words, it is particularly those who hold the stereotype of Asian Americans as hard working compared to whites who show intermittent favoritism for immigration, immigrants, Asian Americans, African Americans, and government programs to help them—no “Yellow Peril” here.
The data showed no general pattern of correlations between beliefs that Asian Americans are smarter, harder working, or richer than other minorities and hostility to immigrants, Asian Americans, or African Americans.
Ouch. There is no reason to believe that whites who hold to the model minority stereotype also exhibit a corresponding antipathy to other minorities. In fact, those who view Asians as model minorities also view other minorities sympathetically. This suggests that despite conservative pundits' use of the model minority stereotype to race-troll, average Americans aren't buying it.

Although it is almost certainly true that politicians and media pundits make rhetorical plays on the stereotype, there is little reason to believe that there is widespread adoption of these attitudes in the general population. There is also reason to believe that the idea that Asians receive favorite status or some kind of special treatment from whites - the "Asian Privilege" theory - is little more than a concocted fantasy. After all, few believe that Asians experience discrimination such that it would warrant special treatment. Believing that Asians are more hard-working than other groups simply does not correlate with any notion that blacks and immigrants should be denied assistance, nor is there reason to believe that the model minority stereotype confers political or social benefits on Asians. I wonder if the entirely Asian-American created notion of Asian privilege has done more to generate resentment from other minority groups than the model minority stereotype.

What all of this suggests is that one of the foundational concepts in Asian-American thought is in dire need of revision. Primarily because focusing on how the model minority stereotype affects other groups - which seems to be not at all - we are implicitly obscuring the patterns of racism that have affected Asians for decades and further handicapping our credibility as deserving participants in the race dialogue.

Conservative politicians and pundits are able to use Asians as battering rams against other minorities precisely because Asians have little opportunity in the mainstream to present their own point of view. Asian-American commentators aid this marginalization by criticizing Asian-focused narratives for being Asian-focused.


  1. Perfect. What I've noticed looking at America from the outside (from Australia) is that the racial discourse happening in the country is drawn almost entirely along Black/White lines, with the occasional Midde-East morsel thrown in here and there. It's as if Asians don't even exist. I think Asians that grow up in that environment end up internalising this very narrow racial discourse and can't help but try to fit their own narrative to that narrow perspective. But, as you say, in so doing they end up marginalising themselves and devaluing their own experience.

    1. Exactly. It is interesting that coming from Australia you would get that more clearly than Asian-Americans. I say that because I managed to catch a little bit of an Al Jazeera documentary called "Immigration Nation" that explores the anti-Asian roots of Australia's "white Australia" policies and how anti-Asianism was an integral aspect of the country's constitution as it became independent from Britain.

      Interestingly, the documentary also explores how Australia's race policies - supported by the US and UK - contributed to Japanese militarism and Japan's turning away from and resentment towards the west.

      But it seems to me that Australia's racial conversation includes a more obvious anti-Asian foundation. America's does too, but it is easy for that aspect to get lost.

  2. American and Canadian history excludes Asians and the historical racism and persecution they have suffered. They also exclude Native Americans/First Nations history as well. On the contrary black and Jewish history is quite prominent. I guess our groups are neither large nor powerful enough.

    1. Which makes it all the more puzzling that Asian-Americans seek to further obscure the history of anti-Asian racism through inappropriate intersectionality.