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The model minority forgets

milk before cereal

I think we have forgotten who we are as Asian Americans.

The conversations that I have with my East Asian parents and peers about topics like immigration and race in the United States not only disappoint me but also lead me to believe that we are either purposefully or subconsciously attempting to shed our status as perpetually foreign as a means to achieve “honorary Whiteness.” To make it to positions of power—and even to get to Duke University—we, to some extent, adapted ourselves to the confines and customs of Western culture, often with the understanding that we can only succeed by keeping our heads down. Our parents and popular discourse sold us on the vision of assimilation as the goal of racial politics only achievable through “stoic patience, political obedience and self-improvement.” These virtues aren’t inherently wrong but have become weaponized to place the burden of inequality on the oppressed; they obfuscate our understanding of the legacy of racial discrimination in the United States by shifting the discussion to an issue of “family values” and “education” and away from slavery, Jim Crow, the war on drugs and mass incarceration.

There nevertheless exists a pervasive understanding of Asians as the Model Minority and that this myth was propagated solely by White supremacist structures. However, it’s harder to admit that we as Asians often benefit from such stereotypes and even perpetuate them. We seldom have to worry about being stopped and frisked by a police officer, faced with housing or loan discrimination, or people thinking that we “don’t belong” at elite universities. Asians accept and even relish in stereotypes about our propensity for math problems and hard work. Racial equality, however, is an objective good, not a dividend paid out to those who meet the societal standards for what constitutes an upstanding minority. The Model Minority paradigm creates a wedge between Asians and other minorities while fueling an anti-Black, capitalist meritocracy that justifies the status quo for people of color.

In this column, I argue that our transformation to the acceptable had very little to do with our culture and investments in education. Independently of whether or not we were able to pull ourselves up by our bootstraps, Asians still need to be more vocal about racism and politics. I understand that many of the arguments I am making are quite broad; I seek to reduce the number of incorrect generalizations about the Asian community especially because most of my musings begin from the standpoint of East Asians in the United States. I will not extrapolate my thoughts to other Asian populations because there are significant differences that hinder the accuracy of my analysis.

The pattern of Asian upward mobility is real, but the mainstream causal analysis is incorrect. Research investigating the widespread assumption about Asian parents’ extraordinary investments in education found that educational gains alone could not account for Asians closing the wealth gap with Whites. Asians received better opportunities as a result of a drastic shift in public sentiment in the 20th century fueled by geopolitical conflict and the civil rights movement. Providing equal rights to Asians helped the United States’ international standing and struggle against communist regimes, particularly in Asia, by forwarding the argument that the U.S. was a liberal democracy where people of color could enjoy identical protections and opportunities. Similarly, Asian stories were used as propaganda to curtail concessions in the civil rights movement by embracing the “hard-working nature” of Asians and insinuating that Blacks were to be blamed for their own poverty. The stereotypes of Asian obedience and docile-ness allowed the U.S. to advance the understanding that patience would be rewarded and that political retaliation would be met with militant resistance.

Regardless of whether you find this historical analysis convincing, I think that it is both ethical and possible to do comparative analysis between the Black experience and the Asian experience in the United States. Many, including soft-left liberals, argue that comparing the material conditions and positionality of minorities devolves into a race to the bottom that encourages an “Oppression Olympics” and that this is a bad thing because it denies the legitimacy of victimization of other groups. This threat—based on the idea that we are all equally people of color—is an intellectual charge that relies upon the same colorblind logic as the “stop playing the race card.”. Not only does this view presume a monolithic understanding of racial victimhood, but also dangerously and incorrectly allows Asians and other immigrants groups to conflate their experiences with those of Black people in the United States. Progress is only possible when the oppressor wills it, but civil society has consistently demonstrated that it has a psychotic compulsion to commit anti-Black violence. Chattel slavery has replicated itself with different names; the accumulation of history from the Atlantic Slave Trade to the Prison Industrial Complex and the murder of Trayvon Martin are proof. The truth is that Asians (and everyone else)—including the smart, woke ones at Duke—need a history lesson on the “true scale and nature of black suffering.”

Having an understanding of the racial triangulation between White, Black and Yellow is essential to understanding how inequality is established, sustained, and perfected. I am not a self-hating Asian-American, and it should be obvious that my argument isn’t that we as a group have not experienced structural antagonisms. Precisely, to remember who we are as Asians is to remember internment and Fu Manchu. To remember is to acknowledge that this is not our country regardless of whether it may fetishize our women and commodify our cuisine. To remember is to understand that White civil society believes we are personality-less, desexualized and ultimately forgettable. The lived experiences of our own peers and ancestors should, if anything, give us greater reason to inquire more deeply about race in the United States and to stand in solidarity with the oppressed.

David Min is a Trinity sophomore. His column, milk before cereal, runs on alternate Thursdays.