To begin with, let’s make something clear: this piece was not written to refute the existence of privilege. As a cis heterosexual male of Chinese descent, who holds a college degree and a U.S. passport, I’m sweltering in privilege. But it’s from this very privilege that I’m impelled to debunk a term that has recently gained traction in race dialogues across publications off and online, and more specifically in the Twitterverse. The term is #AsianPrivilege — a concept that creates sweeping generalizations by basing assumptions on some communities and societies while sidelining most others. It derails critical conversations about racism, poverty, and the plight of oppressed peoples on a global scale. It’s a destructive, distracting, and fundamentally inaccurate figment of imagination, and I want it dead.
#AsianPrivilege: The Model Minority on Steroids
#AsianPrivilege surfaced with rather constructive intentions — as an offspring of the viral #NotYourAsianSidekick and #BlackPowerYellowPeril conversations initiated by writer Suey Park — where contributors of Asian and non-Asian descent call to surface important issues of income inequality, anti-Blackness, and self-hatred within and beyond Asian Pacific American (APA) communities. But like how “post-race” is a mutated derivative of “colorblind,” #AsianPrivilege is a relapse of the Model Minority concept — except with even more harmful implications. While the Model Minority depicts Asian Americans who have gained certain footing in American society (symptoms include successful navigation of the education system, avoidance of conflict with law enforcement, and the “earning” of stereotypes as hard workers), the term itself has historically been a pliable construct that generally eludes to certain Asian Americans (i.e. Chinese and Indian Americans who earn disproportionately high income on average), with enough ambiguity to exclude those who might not apply (i.e. Southeast Asian and Pacific Islander Americans who experience some of the U.S.’s severest poverty rates), while at times bleeding into non-Asian ethnicities (i.e Jewish Americans who enjoy increasing social mobility as American history progresses).
#AsianPrivilege is toxic because it’s a race-specific label that sports all the bells and whistles of the Model Minority, except it suggests application to Asians on a global scale, and assumes that they benefit from white supremacy. That’s all bad.*
*I’d like to take this moment to recognize that, yes, my beef with #AsianPrivilege is based on semantics more than anything else. But this is a situation where semantics mean everything. After all, we’re talking about a hashtag.
What’s wrong with the “Asian” part:
The “Asian” in #AsianPrivilege is meant to refer to Asian Pacific Americans as they stereotypically exist in the American imagination — well-to-do communities who coast through the university system in droves and comfortably find roles as doctors, lawyers and engineers. But in a setting like Twitter — a global forum where context is all but surrendered — this doesn’t quite register.
When one says “Asian,” the baseline meaning is in reference to those originating from the greater continent of Asia. That’s a LOT of people. “Asian” does mean privileged members of Asian Pacific American communities, but also people in the Philippines who live in extreme poverty. It means the rising Chinese middle class which has made the globe its ground for tourism, as well as Tibetans who are legally barred from naming their home. It means South Koreans who enjoy the world’s fastest fiber-optic network, as well as natives of Bikini Atoll who can’t return to their homeland because of deadly levels of radiation left behind from American nuclear testing. To point this out in the conversation of #AsianPrivilege is not splitting hairs. It’s acknowledging the vast portion of the world population which the term marginalizes.
Let’s humor the assumption that #AsianPrivilege can confidently be interpreted by all as encompassing only Asian Pacific Americans — we still find ourselves on an equally shaky terrain, as it can only apply to the assumed success, intelligence, and altogether upstandingness of Chinese, Taiwanese, Japanese, Korean, and Indian Americans in the American imagination, while sidelining everyone else.
Here’s where I reintroduce my own privilege. Admittedly, ethnic groups like mine have enjoyed the distinct privilege of being the conspicuous faces of Asian Pacific America en masse. While battling the Model Minority myth, we do everyone a disservice by perpetually ignoring in our conversations the majority of APA ethnicities who don’t fit into that mold. As a result, we live in a twilight zone where the largest Asian immigrant group since the 1980s — Filipinos who often come via low-paying service sectors — aren’t encompassed in the “Asian Pacific American” imagination. Made invisible are also Cambodians and other Southeast Asians whose anxiety of deportation are congruent to that of many Latino groups; Pacific Islanders who suffer among the highest rate of incarceration out of all American ethnic communities; South Asians who are constantly targeted and detained due to post-9/11 discrimination; and native Hawaiians who are consistently left out of the already-rare discussions of indigenous American oppression. These acts of marginalization have propelled and been propelled by a privilege that indeed exists within certain members of the APA population, but it’s damaging to call it an “Asian” privilege. For me to accept #AsianPrivilege as a term that only points to a selected few would be to exercise the very privilege that allows Chinese Americans like me to shrug and abide to a statement like, “we don’t mean those people when we say Asian.”
What’s wrong with the “Privilege” part:
The term “privilege” can mean many things, but when preceded by a racial label, it’s meant in a racial context. #AsianPrivilege is a conversation centered around race (though class, gender, sexuality, ableism do orbit it). Yet #AsianPrivilege is even more specific than just its racial implications — it attempts to frame the Asian race the same way that “white privilege” encompasses the white race. But it can’t. Unlike the terms “Asian,” “African,” and even “European,” whiteness is not inextricably tied to continental origin.
Whiteness has been fashioned for use through a history of discourse, theory, and legislation, so that it doesn’t infallibly apply to those of European descent across the board, at all times. In fact, there’s an arsenal of alternative terms, should the term “white” not accurately depict the demographic in question in any given conversation (there’s also “caucasian,” “WASP,” “aryan,” “European,” and oftentimes “American” to choose from, depending on how specific or general you want to be). This is important to note when considering the term “white privilege,” because one of the words within needs the other to hold its meaning. White privilege is defined by whiteness. The “privilege” in “white privilege” can’t just be removed and tacked onto another racial label like a Lego piece. The term “Asian Privilege” refers to a non-reality where Asians assume the position in the global social structure which whites currently occupy.
#AsianPrivilege is a remix of “white privilege,” implying that Asians have reached a level of privilege in the tradition of white privilege. But the kind of privilege the term attempts to depict doesn’t even begin to resemble the economies, languages, standards of beauty, military muscle, history of imperialism, and general definition of humanity that white privilege sets the litmus for. #AsianPrivilege, when narrowed down to privileged APAs, suggests that what social status they can claim make them “more white.” That in itself is evidence that Asians don’t have it. The privilege that #AsianPrivilege assumes to Asians still relies on the existence of white privilege in order to mirror it. Resembling is not the same as being.
I should make clear, in closing, that by no means is this an argument that there aren’t Asian Americans who have privileges that look a hell of a lot like white privilege. Nor am I saying that a disassociation with a term like #AsianPrivilege means our communities can ignore the capitalistic greed, ethnocentrism, and anti-Blackness that are adopted amidst the pursuit to transcend our oppressed histories. While this particular article doesn’t dig too deep into that, related pieces like one by Soya Jung does so quite effectively.
We do need to examine the homophobia, internal racism, white glorification, and misogyny that virtually all Asian and APA communities sadly do have in common. But #AsianPrivilege isn’t the right prompt. It excludes the majority of our people and lives in a grayscale spectrum that can’t contain our diversity of experiences. It’s a construct of reality based on fiction — we already have enough of those to deal with as it is.