CW: Racism, anti-Blackness
The invisibility of Asians in mainstream discourse, the so-called “positive” stereotypes we are bombarded with every day, the rampant anti-Blackness found in Asian communities — these issues have gone unaddressed long enough. We as a society need to start talking about them, but to do that we must first address what all of these problems are irretrievably tangled up with: the model minority myth. (Note that the model minority myth applies specifically to East Asians, who are the ones westerners usually have in mind when they use the word “Asian”.)
The myth goes like this: through hard work, Asians managed to overcome barriers of race, and have become productive, integrated members of society. You’ve probably heard or assumed variants of this story before. It’s the source of many stereotypes imposed on Asian people—that we’re hard-working, quiet, intelligent, disciplined. Why is this a bad thing? Well, first of all, the myth didn’t exactly arise naturally: it was crafted by white people for a reason. You see, though the narrative is about Asians, we aren’t the original intended “target” of the myth. No, the main use of this narrative is to create a contrast between Asians as a group and other people of colour—namely, Black people. There’s a reason the popular perception of Asians swung from ‘untrustworthy foreigner’ to ‘diligent math whiz.’ The fact that many of the most prominent stereotypes about Black people (like, for instance, laziness) seem like utter ‘opposites’ of contemporary Asian stereotypes is no coincidence. Asians, it is argued, managed to climb up the societal ladder and carve a place for ourselves in western society without resorting to political means. Essentially, we managed to ‘overcome racism’ by ducking our heads docilely and working hard, instead of through protests and demonstrations. “Look at the Asians,” people say, “they don’t cause a stir, they don’t complain, they’re doing it right.” The root of the model minority myth is backlash against Black struggles for equality. By casting Asians as the “model” minority, Black people are subtly set apart and vilified—and programs like affirmative action are regarded with doubt and suspicion.
The myth is so deeply grained in our mentalities that when you try to point out that the taciturn, book-smart Asian is a tired stereotype, people quickly laugh it off as a ‘positive’ stereotype. “It doesn’t hurt anyone,” they always say. “Actually, shouldn’t you be happy? It’s a compliment. What are you complaining about?” If you’re an Asian living in North America, you’ve probably been confronted countless times with this sort of rhetoric. The truth of the matter is that there is no such thing as a positive stereotype. Stereotypes, by their very nature, cannot be anything but dehumanizing. The model minority myth claims that Asians collectively conform to a certain standard—and for the most part, people believe it. For example, we live in Montreal, a generally open-minded city, but the ‘positive’ nature of these stereotypes makes them much easier to buy into, and thus more pervasive. Try being Asian and having people find out you got a bad grade on a math exam—you can expect comments about it, to be sure. And if you’re Asian, people will automatically assume you study science or engineering, ‘hard’ disciplines that fit popular images of what intelligence means. This is why no stereotype can be a good thing: by making Asians out to be inhumanly hardworking and intelligent, you are putting a tremendous amount of stress on anyone who fails to meet those irrationally exacting standards. So many Asians feel like they’re ‘fake’ or defective because they can’t do what all their classmates think they should be able to do. Of course, on the other hand, Asians who do excel in school have their effort completely invalidated. “You did well because you’re Asian,” is what they’re told. All their hard work is dismissed because they’re believed to be naturally smart, but when they say they studied for ten hours for an exam, it’s also dismissed as just typical Asian behaviour. Making us out to be superhumanly smart does us no favours: it just means we’ll never be seen as ‘normal.’
That’s the thing about the model minority myth. It might assign all these ‘positive’ traits to Asians, but that doesn’t mean it actually helps us integrate into society. But our lack of visibility runs especially deep. Ever notice how little Asian-specific issues are talked about, even in forums where race issues are frequently discussed? Ever notice how little representation Asians actually get, and how often our stories are outright whitewashed, in 2016? Diversity in media has been slowly but steadily improving in recent years, but at a slower pace for Asians. This is another key feature of the model minority myth: it cloaks us in invisibility due to our supposed freedom from oppression, and by doing so, also conceals any inequity that Asians do face. The narrative is that Asians have already achieved economic and social equality through hard work—as though all Asians are now middle class or wealthy. This is patently not true. In the U.S, 15 per cent of the Asian immigrant population continues to live under the federal poverty line—but these people are now invisible in the public imagination, because they don’t fit the typical Asian image anymore. And racial microaggressions directed towards us are waved off as ‘just jokes’ (in the best case scenario) or hurtful barbs somehow meant to be taken as ‘compliments’ (in the worst case scenario). So many people hold the implicit assumption that just because Asians have certain privileges that other people of colour don’t, we don’t face any problems at all.
It’s true that Asians are less likely to face explicit racism and systematic violence than indigenous, Black, or brown people, especially in places like the U.S. But that isn’t due to any kind of goodwill directed towards us. In the so-called ‘racial hierarchy’ created and perpetuated by white people, we’re considered the ‘in-between’ race: not white, which would be ideal, but not as ‘bad’ as others on the bottom of the ladder—again, indigenous, Black, and brown people.
Moreover, the blatant anti-Blackness in Asian communities is often exploited by white leaders to help keep these other groups down. The model minority myth is stealthy but vicious: it pits minority against minority, marginalized against marginalized. But that doesn’t mean the power dynamics are equal. The amount of casual anti-Blackness in Asian communities is more than obvious. If you’re Asian, you’ve very likely heard at least one parent or family member say inexcusable things about Black people. Asian cultures have their own sets of endemic problems, which sometimes overlap in unfortunate ways with Western racism. For instance, if you’re an Asian woman with fair skin, you probably can’t count the number of times relatives or family friends have complimented you on how pale you are. I’ve personally never come across an Asian skincare product that didn’t market itself as skin-lightening. East Asians also tend to look down on Southeast Asians with darker skin. This can’t all be attributed to the model minority myth, and even if it could be, it wouldn’t justify it. Asian communities here in the West need to own up to their anti-Blackness and rectify it. As the buffer group, we ultimately have a choice in front of us: acknowledge and attempt to shed the model minority myth (which many Asians have unfortunately internalized by now), and stand with other people of colour, or continue to be used to oppress those people. The choice should be obvious—but many aren’t at all aware of the dynamics in play here, and don’t know that there is a choice to make at all. Given recent developments in the U.S., this needs to change—not only there, but here in Canada, and everywhere else. Racism affects us all. But before we can overcome it, we need to unearth and expose all of these unpleasant power currents running under the surface of our society. Because whether you’re aware of them or not, they are there.
Bottom line is: the perpetuation of the Asian model minority myth serves as a convenient vehicle for the continued dissemination of anti-Black messages. It also hurts us Asians deeply. It’s time that people stopped believing in it. It’s important to realize that while our invisibility and our role as the ‘model minority’ has been hurtful to us, it’s also offered us a limited degree of protection that indigenous, Black and brown people simply don’t have. Rather than continue to be indifferent, we need to take a stand and make it clear that we will not be used. Racism is a common enemy that simply manifests differently for different groups. We need to overcome our divisions, acknowledge our position, and work together if we want to defeat it. With a Trump presidency on the horizon, this is more important now than ever.