Over the past three years or so, a new hope has emerged amongst Asian advocates of a way to wedge the community into the race dialogue without going to the trouble of first formulating a bothersome autonomous narrative of an Asian racial experience. Whisperings and rumors began to swirl of a powerful new entity whose emergence from the light would propel Asians out of the darkness of the facts of their own experiences to morph into a vestigial appendage, like a bubo under the armpit of, anti-blackness. Its name was.....Asian Privilege.
I first became aware of the idea of Asian Privilege back in 2012 from a post in Hyphen Magazine that asked the question; Is There Privilege in Being Asian American? Written by Bruce Reyes Chow, the piece says this......
As Asian Americans, if we are going to stand in solidarity with our African American brothers and sisters, we must not only acknowledge our forms of privilege, but leverage the influence that comes with that privilege in order to serve as allies to Black communities as well as other marginalized groups. There is privilege for many Asian Americans in not generally being perceived as threatening, which allows us to move about public spaces without eliciting suspicion.My first thought is to wonder why it is so important to "acknowledge our privilege" but seemingly not so important to acknowledge that as beings with agency who make moral choices and utilize reason and rational thinking, that we might have a more sophisticated set of reasons to stand in solidarity with anyone suffering injustice. My sense of justice or altruism alone would surely be enough to warrant a moral decision in favor of standing with any oppressed group against injustice? Aside from that, my sense of compassion, empathy, sympathy, or simple good-will should impel me to side with the cause of justice and fairness.
Privilege - particularly the idea of owning it - simply is not a part of the equation. My second thought on the quote above is how bizarre it is that not being seen as threatening can be conceived of as a privilege. In the context of the Asian-American racial experience a more accurate statement would be to say that Asians are simply not seen, threatening or not - and that is a function of anti-Asian stereotyping. Most interesting, though, is this idea of leveraging this privilege to serve allies and other oppressed groups, particularly when that privilege consists of invisibility. How can a disadvantage - like invisibility - be leveraged to influence anything?
On the whole, the article actually does a fair job of highlighting some of the ways that racism impacts Asian-Americans but never really provides a clear illustration or definition of what Asian privilege is. Mention is made of immigration and academic privileges, but being allowed to immigrate in the same manner as other groups is far from being a privilege, and it is merely conjecture (bordering on inflammatory) to claim that Asians have access to academic settings merely because of assumptions.
This is the general problem that I have with the narrative of Asian privilege; no-one seems able to quite pin down what it means or even give reasonable examples of it in action. Even more importantly, since it is such a vague notion, and little more than a value judgment, the assertion of Asian privilege exists merely as one more sweeping generalization about Asian-Americans.
Since the Hyphen piece was published there have been several articles in the Asian-American media where the existence and notion of Asian privilege has been further referenced, asserted or discussed. Most of the ones I have read take the existence of Asian privilege as a given, although there is still much vagueness about how it manifests, or even why these manifestations should even be thought of as privilege. The basis for this assertion of Asian Privilege seems to lie in various stats that show high Asian college achievement and a healthy income level that, for some Asian groups, surpasses that of even the white community.
But none of these statistical analyses come even remotely close to showing that privileges are somehow imparted to Asians from the white establishment in order to help keep blacks in their place, or even that there is such a conveyance of privilege at all. There is simply no reason to believe that Asians are the recipients of any advantageous treatment at all. In fact, the possibility that Asians are even outperforming whites actually is a point against the notion of Asian privilege since it seems absurd to think that Asians would be given advantages by a racist white establishment that would result in what is fundamentally a disadvantage for whites. In other words, I am being asked to believe that a racist white establishment is driven to undermine blacks so much that they are willing to privilege Asians even over whites to achieve it? That is known as cutting off your nose to spite your face and the mere suggestion of it is worthy only of derision.
Even worse, though, is the possibility that by claiming privilege, Asians have hurt the black struggle for justice. The co-opting of the idea of Asian Privilege by Adam Carolla and Bill O'Reilly last year shows just why Asians shoot themselves in the foot every time they come up with one of these convoluted schemes that attempt to frame the Asian experience of race in the context of anti-blackness. No conservative even thought to think of Asians as having privilege until, that is, Asian-Americans themselves came up with the bright idea of interpreting the various data points of Asian "success" as some kind indication of imparted privilege. Of course, I cannot possibly know whether Carolla and O'Reilly were influenced by Asian-American musings on Asian privilege, but there is little doubt that Asian-Americans themselves bear the brunt of the responsibility for formulating and propagating an idea that has been picked up on and utilized by the very race-baiters they abhor.
The problem is that if Asian Privilege is real, then devoid of comprehensive evidence for it, O'Reilly's inferences are as valid as anyone's. If you can infer Asian privilege from a group of stats, then you can with equal validity infer black dysfunction from the same data set. Even worse, if we infer that the white establishment does indeed proffer privileged treatment to one minority, it is equally valid to infer that such an offer is a meritorious consideration - a clear point in favor of the notion that blacks aren't trying hard enough. In other words, the idea of Asian Privilege undermines the argument that blacks are held back by racism since there is no logical reason for one minority to be elevated over another to the degree that they apparently outperform whites. Again, we have to ask the question; does it make sense that a racist white establishment would privilege a visible racial minority to the extent that they would disadvantage whites?
If Asian Privilege is real, it undermines even the whole notion of a racist white establishment since, if it was somehow privileging Asians it would be unlikely to do so at the expense of whites if the motivation was to maintain white supremacy. If you believe in a racist white establishment then you cannot possibly believe that such an establishment would privilege a racial minority at the expense of its own race. Thus, to believe in Asian privilege undermines the case for racially motivated social injustices since no racist establishment would privilege another race over its own.
Clearly, the notion of Asian Privilege is a piss-poor heuristic that does little to advance understanding of Asian-Americans and even less to understand the propagation of injustices against African-Americans. As a poorly examined, but hysterically embraced, ontology, it obscures both the Asian-American experience, but also over complicates the conversation on race by needlessly making Asian guilt an issue in the race conversation. Worse still, by undermining the case for white racism it implicitly undermines the case for all racially derived injustices - even, funnily enough, anti-blackness. Good one.
This and my previous two posts have highlighted what I perceive to be a reluctance and even fierce opposition amongst Asian-American commentators to embrace an autonomous Asian-American racial experience, even to the extent that any efforts to focus on Asians are discredited or even derided by Asian-American "advocates". As I hope to have shown, not only does this tendency further marginalize Asian-Americans, the vague and flimsily established notions of the model minority and Asian Privilege that Asians have embraced as the basis for their anti-anti-blackness sensibilities could actually have the potential to harm the cause of anti-racism far more than it could possibly help.
On a final note, I could not have planned it better myself but it says a lot about this supposed Asian privilege that the most widely disseminated discussion on Bill O'Reilly's screed took place between none other than two white men. Yeah, not an Asian in sight to offer an Asian perspective on a subject that supposedly defines our community.