Asian American writer Jennifer Pan wrote an article for the Jacobin Magazine called ‘Beyond the Model Minority Myth’, which is her take on how Asian Americans have contributed to white oppression and white supremacy by being ‘model’ citizens. The tone is almost apologetic, which I find objectionable. She quotes “Yale’s Asian-American alumni, jazz musician and Harvard professor Vijay Iyer said, “To succeed in America is, somehow, to be complicit with the idea of America — which means that at some level you’ve made peace with its rather ugly past.” And this translates to:
“upward mobility of large numbers of Asian Americans, which, he argued, came at the expense of other people of color.”
As a person of Caucasian-Chinese heritage, I find this logic puzzling and a little bit offensive. Pan made inferences and conclusions while comparing apples to oranges. She makes assumptions such as “The criticism of Asian Americans’ complicity in a power structure that disregards black life has emerged as a significant theme among young activists eager to ally with the Black Lives Matter movement.”
Firstly, it is unsure that any ‘criticisms’ of this sort are justified, if linking Asian American’s achievements through their own hard work which resulted in other minorities (blacks and latinos) being left behind? How is it the fault of Asian Americans through hard work and dedication to their studies and profession and see success as a result complicit in the oppression of blacks and latinos? And the ‘young activists’ that subscribe to this kind of thinking are seriously misguided and need to read up on our ancestors’ journey to this country, which I’ll get into later, and it was no picnic. Asian Americans didn’t get a free pass from racism and discrimination from the white establishment.
Having a white American father gave me direct access and knowledge of white culture and the ‘system’ and though I don’t agree with all of it, it’s certainly not a giant machine that seeks only to oppress, and having a Chinese mother gave me direct experience of traditional Chinese culture and I was primarily raised with my mother, my parents as my parents divorced when I was young. I had no racial identity issues growing up, I easily identified with both cultures and was proud to the product of both cultures, I feel equally Chinese and white, my white half doesn’t ‘oppress’ my Chinese half. Having said that, I will explain why comparing Asian American achievement and how that contributed to the suffering of blacks and latinos is a complete fallacy.
Pan being Asian American herself totally disregarded the cultural differences between Asians, blacks and latinos. Most Asian cultures, especially Chinese, Korean, Japanese and Indian cultures value education to the exclusion of everything else, they believe that education is the gateway out of poverty and to a better life, it doesn’t matter what social class the parents are from, even if they are restaurant owners, laborers, shopkeepers, laundromat owners, they impart the idea to their children to study hard so they don’t have to take on labor intensive low paying job like them. Specifically to the Chinese culture, due to Confucian influence, pursuing higher education should be the the goal of every person that is capable and able to do so, it’s what makes the foundation of a peaceful and harmonious society and this also runs true across all social classes, even amongst the FuJian Chinese, which are on the lower socio-economic ladder than other Chinese, according to Pan. Therefore it shouldn’t come too much of a surprise that Asian Americans do well academically and I can attest that most is not by choice, our parents harass, threaten, harangue us into getting good grades (‘or else you’ll end up working at McDonalds’ is a common retort). Asian parents like all parents don’t want their children to suffer injustice and poverty, they want their children to do better than they and achieve more than they. Having said all this, I am not suggesting that black and latinos do not know the importance of education or do not apply themselves, I am only explaining from the Chinese family’s point of view, which is the one I am familiar with.
Next, Pan doesn’t address the family issues that plague a lot of black families, and that is 70% of black families are headed by a single parent, usually the mother. Due to high incarceration rates, many black and latino children are fatherless and if they do have a fatherly presence it’s an inconsistent and not always a positive one. This fact alone contributes to all sorts of problems in families which bleeds into school performance and future achievement. This is not to say all Asian families are two parent families and are ‘normal’ by any stretch of the imagination, far from it, and I am not asserting that the only ideal family structure is a two parent home, but the lack of consistent male presence in many black and latino homes is a serious problem and contributes to low academic achievement.
On the subject of racism and racial discrimination, while it is true that Asian Americans don’t suffer the same level of discrimination and brutality by the police as black and latinos, and partly is because Asians are viewed as the model minority, the one minority group who are able to lift themselves out of poverty into high paying jobs, Asian Americans are not immune from discrimination. From my own personal experience with my family, we (my cousins and I) were raised to be suspicious of police and to stay away from them unless you need them, which translates to don’t get in situations where police need to be involved. And I suspect this is how many Asian Americans view the police, stay away from them unless you have a real emergency. I can count on one hand how many times I’ve interacted with the police, most were traffic stops where I was handed a ticket.
Asian American achievement is not done by stepping on the heads of blacks and latinos, not directly, indirectly or remotely complicit. And it also doesn’t mean Asian Americans do not suffer from racism or discrimination, they very much do. An uncle of mine, who could probably be categorized as the ‘Model Minority’ came to this country, got his masters degree in electrical engineering at a very good university, got a good job as an electrical engineer but he felt the glass ceiling before the term was invented and used for women who don’t get ahead at work. He became disillusioned with the ‘American Dream’ as he knew (but couldn’t prove) that he was being discriminated against because he was Chinese.
Pan doesn’t make this direct assertion that Asian Americans got ahead by stepping on the head of others but she implies it. She quotes Taiwanese-American author Kai-Ming Ko, ‘we messed up’, and that Asian Americans contributed to the ‘system’ that supports mass incarceration and oppression of black people. Ko wrote an impassioned article called ‘An Apology to Black Folks’ and states that Asian Americans by participating in American life such as paying taxes which contribute to mass incarcerations, shopping and eating out in affluent areas contributes to the white supremacy and for that he apologizes to the black folks. The sentiment is kind but he doesn’t offer any solutions to dismantle this ‘white supremacist’ system and replace it with a more egalitarian one, certainly not paying one’s taxes isn’t a good solution. Ko also asserts that until recently, Asian Americans didn’t do enough advancing the rights of minorities, which may have a ring of truth. Asian Americans until recently are not known to be strong community activists, but it doesn’t mean they don’t care. The Model Minority Myth is just that, a myth. Asian Americans aren’t model minorities and it’s wrong to use the achievement of Asian Americans to justify racism against blacks and latinos, that’s comparing apples to oranges. The black and latino experience is totally different to the Asian American one and it would be remiss of anyone to make that comparison. I know plenty of Asian Americans and myself included who do not fit into the ‘model minority’ category, mostly because I refuse to be categorized in any way. Many Asian American friends I know do not see themselves as model minorities, though they’ve all gotten on well in life.
Lastly, a bit of history of how the first Chinese came to this country, in the 1850’s, Chinese migrants came to this country in search of work:
“[To] work in the gold mines, but also to take agricultural jobs, and factory work, especially in the garment industry. Chinese immigrants were particularly instrumental in building railroads in the American west, and as Chinese laborers grew successful in the United States, a number of them became entrepreneurs in their own right. As the numbers of Chinese laborers increased, so did the strength of anti-Chinese sentiment among other workers in the American economy. This finally resulted in legislation that aimed to limit future immigration of Chinese workers to the United States, and threatened to sour diplomatic relations between the United States and China.”
And the cherry on top came with the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882:
In 1882, Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act, which, per the terms of the Angell Treaty, suspended the immigration of Chinese laborers (skilled or unskilled) for a period of 10 years. The Act also required every Chinese person traveling in or out of the country to carry a certificate identifying his or her status as a laborer, scholar, diplomat, or merchant. The 1882 Act was the first in American history to place broad restrictions on immigration.
This also meant that the Chinese that settled here were not able to bring their families caused many forced separations between men and their families, which gave rise to various bordellos in Chinese neighborhoods (Chinatowns) and the Chinese then became a ‘moral’ concern to the greater good of America. The United States government felt that the first exclusion act wasn’t enough so they went ahead and passed an even stricter exclusion act:
In 1888, Congress took exclusion even further and passed the Scott Act, which made reentry to the United States after a visit to China impossible, even for long-term legal residents. The Chinese Government considered this act a direct insult, but was unable to prevent its passage. In 1892, Congress voted to renew exclusion for ten years in the Geary Act, and in 1902, the prohibition was expanded to cover Hawaii and the Philippines, all over strong objections from the Chinese Government and people. Congress later extended the Exclusion Act indefinitely.
It was only in 1943 where all Chinese exclusion acts were repealed, since China was an ally of the United States during World War II.
This is in no way comparable to black slavery or genocide the American Indians faced, but the Chinese didn’t get special treatment as a ‘model minority’ when they first arrived in this country. There is a lot of literature, in prose and verse, written by Chinese migrants about the heartbreak from being away from their families, culture and living in a hostile land where they are mocked and ridiculed, so no, the Chinese didn’t get a free ride into the middle and upper classes of American society. And Asian Americans shouldn’t have to feel apologetic about their achievements, they should be celebrated without feelings of guilt.