The Model Minority: A Convenient Source of Racial Wedges

In the 19th century, the US saw an influx of Chinese workers. These migrant workers were a resourceful and cheap way of labour, which was exactly what was needed for the building of the infamous transcontinental railroad, allowing the American economy to rapidly boom into the walls of its gilded age. Despite their great role in ensuring the grandeur, wealth and riches of America and its robber barons, Chinese Americans were tossed aside once their usefulness was no longer needed. 

Viet Thanh Nguyen writes in TIME about America`s tendency to reap the benefits of cheap Asian labour, only to show their ‘appreciation’ through alienation, discrimination and exclusion. Big businesses relying on Asians and their cheap labour has been perceived throughout history as a threat to the white working class. Nguyen writes of how this led to politicians, the media and business leaders demonizing Asians racially to appease white workers. Blaming ‘foreigners’ for collective and white suffering might not be completely unfamiliar, as its presence is very much prominent around the world today. Since the beginning of the pandemic, there have been alarming increases in the levels of anti-Asian hate crimes. In a hate campaign like no other, Asians, especially Asian-Americans, have been forced to face the unprovoked harassment of not only their young, but also their elderly. In Brooklyn, an eighty-nine year old Chinese woman was set on fire, while in California, an eighty-four year old Thai immigrant was fatally shoved to the ground during his morning walk. In the UK, a Filipino nurse was called a “F***ing Chinese c***” by a patient, and Peng Wang, a Chinese lecturer was attacked by a gang in Southampton. 

The Asian diaspora has allowed Asians around the world to see and sense similar experiences, and many Asians will agree that the violent attacks that have recently taken place are quite the contrast to the often subtle and muted racism that we face in our everyday lives. Being Asian has always been different, and in her article for TIME, Nguyen calls this feeling “the vibe.” The vibe, to me, is another way of describing the effects of the model minority. 

The model minority can be described as a “positive” stereotype that generalizes the success and usefulness of a minority group. Wikipedia describes it as “…a minority demographic whose members are perceived to achieve a higher degree of socioeconomic success than the population average…” This myth has undoubtedly been applied to Asians all over the world, but another group that has also in the past been the victims of this are Jewish Americans. 

Intelligent, quiet, assimilated and hard-working are a few of many traits under the Asian model minority umbrella. Buried in sly comments and jokes about an Asian classmate’s math grades, their future career as a doctor and the great food “their people” make, the model minority myth can come off as positive. The high expectations of Asians to be, as put by Japanese writer Masako Fukui, “unofficial ambassadors” for our common race can be highly exhausting. Though the tiring, never-ending list of unrealistic expectations and pressure  might appear as the worst consequences, other effects of the model minority myth could be described as even more harmful, affecting not only Asians, but also other minorities. 

At a time it is being proposed that billions be spent to uplift Negros and other minorities, the nation’s 300 000 Chinese-Americans are getting ahead of their own, with no help from anyone else…

In Los Angeles, a social worker said: “It must be recognized that the Chinese and other Orientals in California were faced with even more prejudice than faces the Negro today. We haven’t stuck Negros in concentration camps, for instance as we did Japanese during WWII. The Orientals came back, and today they have established themselves as strong contributors to the health of the whole economy.

– U.S News and the world report from 1960

Jeff Guo of the Washington Post writes that the remarkable success of Asians between the 1940s and 70s was owed to fellow Americans becoming less racist towards them. Simultaneously as many of them climbed the socioeconomic ladder, the media would portray them as a group of citizens that had “proved themselves” by being law-abiding, hardworking, and obedient citizens with traditional family values. By the 1960s, with the roaring rise of the civil rights movement, Guo writes that white Americans chose to “further invest in positive portrayals of Asian Americans,” as the hard-working traits of Asians became a convenient way of countering black freedom. In comparing the minorities, politicians allowed themselves to ask the ridiculous question of why African Americans were incapable of finding the success that Asian Americans did, despite both groups being racial minorities. 

In 1966, the US Assistant Secretary of Labor Daniel Patrick Moynihan claimed that the strong presence of matriarchy was the reason for the deterioration of black communities, and pointed to the Chinese and their family values as an answer to their success. Ellen D. Wu, a Indiana University history professor and author of The Colour of Success: Asian Americans and the Origins of the Model Minority, writes that the model minority myth “reinforced the denigration of African Americans.” Despite the immense poverty, mental health and drug problems of Asian American communities, they will conveniently continue to be portrayed as a minority for other racial groups to look up to. The quietness and obedience that comes with the model minority myth is to encourage others to silently suffer, allowing white people to continue their lives without having to confront the prominent racial issues they benefit from. 

Wu writes in the LA Times that culture is not an explanation for success. Her statement is evident in the crammed, poor living standards of Chinatowns all across the world, in the abundant and rocketing racism we face, and in the expectations for us to obey white culture in order to succeed. If having to change our ways of living, whitewash and nervously laugh along to “harmless” racist jokes about ourselves, is the roadmap to success, it is fairly obvious that culture, specifically Asian culture, is not the answer to success. It is simply a tool to silence other minorities.

“Whites love us because we’re not black,” writer Frank Chin said, further proving that the true nature of the model minority is a racial wedge, attempting to silence other minorities in their criticism of the racism and horrid neglect their communities are forced to face every single day. It has also become apparent, in recent times, that the model minority is only “true” when convenient. When the outrage and uproar starts, foreigners will again be pinpointed as the enemy, and no model minority myth can change that. It’s portrayal is nothing but a wolf in sheep’s clothing, a racist attack on other minorities dressed in the silks of false, aggressive compliments. As Wu writes, it’s time we see Asians and other minorities as dynamic and diverse, rather than as these one-dimensional, harmful stereotypes. In the end, no matter how “positive” the model minority myth appears to be, it is rooted in racism and white convenience. It is a source of conflict between different racial groups, it encourages silence in the face of suffering, and it distracts us from the bigger picture: unity. 

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