Deborah Wong & Elaine Zhou
Sometimes, Asian North Americans might ask themselves, “Many of us have been here for so long. Does that mean that we’re now truly considered as part of this community?”
Sometimes, reality answers “no”.
In November last year, a school district in Washington state announced that Asian students would no longer be considered people of colour — a category that includes “Black, Latinx, Native American, Pacific Islander, and Multi-Racial Students”. This categorization was made to compare the overall academic performance of the white student population to students of colour. It dictates that due to their high academic achievements, Asian students are not considered people of colour, and therefore cannot possibly face “persistent opportunity gaps” (Soave, 2020).
On the other hand, there was a recent lawsuit against Harvard University for illegally discriminating against Asian Americans by discounting their academic performance and putting a cap on admission to the university, making it harder for Asian applicants to get in (The Guardian, 2019). Harvard was cleared in court, with the judge concluding that maybe “Asian American applicants just do not have the personal qualities Harvard is looking for” in comparison to white applicants (Gertsmann, 2019).
In both cases, it is quite baffling to see Asians still having to defend their place as a minority group that faces systematic discrimination in society. Although the latter is a more intricate situation, it is still telling to see a federal judge indulge in this sort of conjecture, providing an institution with such an extensive history of racism this much benefit of the doubt. The burden should be on Harvard to prove that the lower personality scores of Asian Americans is not the result of racial bias rather than the other way around (Gerstmann, 2019).
The Model Minority Myth
When Harvard was accused of giving lower personality ratings to Asian-American applicants, it was as equally devastating as it was unsurprising. The model minority myth has pigeon-holed the Asian community as smart, competent, and hardworking. However, the community has also been vilified for being too focused on academics, one-dimensional, and lacking in personal skills. “The news reminded many Asian-Americans of some painful stereotypes, that they’re industrious but don’t have interpersonal skills and charm” (Hassan, 2018). Hence, even if the stereotypes are deemed “positive”, it still makes Asians less likely to be promoted into management and leadership positions; they are “hardworking” but not assertive enough.
The model minority myth paints Asians as the desirable classmate, the favoured neighbour, the preferred co-worker, the all-around non-threatening kind of person of colour. They highly value education, have strong work-ethics, and respect authority. While it is true that these stereotypes are often dismissed as being ‘better’ than those faced by African Americans, they are harmful in their own right.
Discrimination should not be viewed as a race to the bottom.
The normalization of Asian racism is encouraged by the fact that it is typically not of the violent nature other minorities often face. But racism is not just physical assault. It is also the ching-chong jokes, being the easy target of comical jabs in movies, and being considered “the undesirable race” both romantically and sexually. Because of this, many Asian North Americans have learnt to feel a sense of shame over their identity, over the things that supposedly make them foreign: their traditional costumes, their food, their language, their parents’ accents.
Whether or not there is some level of truth in the above stereotypes does not matter. The problem is that this one-size-fits-all cultural classification ignores the historical, linguistic, and ethnic diversity in the Asian community. Moreover, it locks and essentializes them into a narrow definition of what it means to be Asian North American when in fact, they should be able to be anything they want to be.
History of Asian Discrimination
In Canada in the 1850s to the 1950s, the initial Chinese and Japanese immigration was countered by labour leaders through their successful lobbying for social and legal restrictions on Asian activity (including employment, civic participation, education, and housing), particularly in British Columbia (Wallace, 2018). This fervent anti-Asian racism also led to the introduction of the Chinese Head Tax—an entry tax that soon increased to become a $500 entry fee per Asian immigrant—during this period (Wallace, 2018).
Likewise, in the late 19th century, xenophobic propaganda was spread in San Francisco about Chinese uncleanliness, leading to the establishment of the Chinese Exclusion Act, a law in the United States that barred immigration due to only one factor: race (De Leon, 2020). Asian-Americans were perceived as illiterate, undesirable, full of “filth and disease,” and denied the right to become naturalized U.S. citizens.
However, the change in U.S. immigration law in 1965 — which gave preference to highly educated and highly skilled applicants — ushered in a new wave of Asian immigrants. This phenomenon is known as “hyper-selectivity” and it explains why Asian Americans today are more likely to have graduated with a degree compared to peers in their countries of origin. They are also almost twice as likely to have a college degree than the average American (Hassan, 2018).
Thus, though it is not an obvious connection, the concept of “Asian excellence” stems from the immigration discrimination faced by the community in years past.
Asians do value education, but not because of some cultural or racial predisposition. Immigration policies in the West have long been cherry-picking wealthier, skilled, or business migrants who happen to come mostly from Asia for their potential to boost economic interests. When new migrants with few established networks migrate to chase the elusive “American Dream”, they are left with higher education as the primary means to ensure generational upward mobility. Thus, many of these migrants naturally value higher education and promote the same mindset to their children.
Academic achievement does not erase the structural barriers faced by the community. Instead, it reflects it. It is mythical thinking to invoke “Asian-ness” as the cause to academic and economic achievement as if there is some sort of cultural and ethnic buoyancy that floats them to the top.
Beyond the Model Minority Myth
While the current stereotype of Asian-Americans is that they are smart, competent and hardworking, history has shown that Asian North Americans were once perceived as “marginal members of the human race,” and that marginalization is still felt to this day. Their historical status as the perpetual foreigner in North America is one reason many were quick to blame Asians for the spread of COVID-19 — calling it the “Chinese virus” or the “Kung Flu”, heightening xenophobic behaviour towards Asians in North America.
The model minority myth erases the complexity of Asian-American identities and veils the issues continuing to plague the community. Asians are still a minority who face racism and structural barriers in North America. This is a fact far beyond the need for proof.
*Note: the term “Asian” in this article refers only to the East Asian community. South Asians (Indian, Pakistani, Sri Lankan, etc.) face a similar model minority myth, but the way the issue plays out for their community is different.