On Asian America: #thisis2016 and Model Minority [Part III]

past//present//future

On October 11, 2016, Michael Luo’s article, “An Open Letter to the Woman Who Told My Family to Go Back to China,” appeared on the front page of the New York Times. What followed after Luo’s article, along with his tweets recounting this experience and the hashtag #thisis2016, was remarkable. Hundreds of tweets from Asian Americans writing about their own personal encounters with racism streamed in, and Luo and the NY Times put together a video a couple days later.

But here’s the thing.

The hashtag #thisis2016 is problematic. Because while it would be nice to believe that we live in a progressive era, where racism no longer exists, that we fought for civil rights and won, the truth is that we are far from it. #thisis2016 implies that we live in a post-racial society, that we couldn’t possibly have racist encounters because this is the present and racism existed in the past.

Surprise!

Racism still exists. And Asian Americans are not exempt. Racism has just managed to become more subtle and we’ve become blind to it. We’ve become apathetic.

As Asian Americans, we’ve tried convincing ourselves that we’re not people of color, we’re model minorities! We’ve succeeded and achieved the American Dream. We worked hard, we earned our right to this country.

I get it.

It feels nice to be stereotyped as a model minority. Everyone should aspire to be more like us. We’re destined to succeed. We’re hard workers, we’re diligent, we’re obedient. And in return, we’re promised access to whiteness, to citizenship and belonging. We’re promised a future where we’re seen as American, promised the privilege of whiteness. Because we’re not like other minorities. We’re model.

But the model minority narrative is a myth.

Asian Americans have been positioned in opposition to people of color for decades. We bought into model minority so that we could claim citizenship and belonging, without realizing what model minority does for communities of color. It pits us against them, allowing us to be used as an excuse when other communities of color “fail to succeed.” But it doesn’t account for the fact that while East Asian Americans have high rates of economic mobility, Southeast Asian and Pacific Islander Americans face high rates of poverty.

This isn’t a coincidence. The former came according to the 1965 Immigration Act that prioritized family reunification and skilled laborers (which was also written to exclude immigration from Asia, but backfired on Congress). While the latter came en masse because of their refugee status. So while many East Asian Americans immigrated to the US, many Southeast Asian Americans arrived as refugees, largely at huge economic and educational disadvantages than their East Asian counterparts. (Let alone the psychological and emotional trauma associated with fleeing one’s home country).

Model minority stereotypes have become so dominant that it subsequently erases Asian Americans from conversations about working class struggles, incarceration, and poverty. Which leaves Asian American communities who suffer from these things, without any resources to combat them.

Model minority also implies that Asian Americans are smart, successful, and obedient citizens. But many of us have experienced racism (though we’ve been conditioned not to recognize it.)

Where are you from?
What kind of Asian are you?
Where did you learn to speak English?

These questions assume a foreignness about our bodies, all of it embedded in a larger history where Asian Americans have been stereotyped as perpetual foreigners, and Asian immigration labeled as Yellow Peril. For many of us who are 2nd generation and beyond, we are convinced that we are Americans. From the clothes we wear, the language we speak, the cars we drive, we present ourselves as American, it says so on our passports. But there’s a difference between being an American in terms of legal citizenship, and being viewed and accepted as American in terms of social citizenship.

Because when people ask us, Where are you from? they don’t mean the city you grew up in.

What they actually mean is, You look foreign, and that phenotypical difference leads me to assume you weren’t born in this country.

Because a white person would never go up to another white person and ask them, Where are you from?, find their response unsatisfying and re-ask, Where are you REALLY from?

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