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It’s time to reverse the model minority narrative

27th April 2021

Author: Eddy Ng is the James and Elizabeth Freeman Professor of Management at Bucknell University, USA, and Editor-in-Chief of Equality, Diversity and Inclusion: An International Journal

On April 22, 2021, the U.S. Senate overwhelmingly (94-1) passed the COVID-19 Hate Crimes Act to combat violence against the Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders (AAPI) community. Three months earlier, President Biden made a similar presidential proclamation condemning and combating racism, xenophobia, and intolerance against AAPIs. While these political actions are lauded and necessary, we know these are symbolic gestures and do not change widespread xenophobia and racism towards the AAPI community.

As anti-Asian violence and harassment against Asian Americans and Asians in America intensify in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, many in the community complain about being “invisible” and “overlooked.” Some bemoan that they have not been treated with the same regard as violence and discrimination against Blacks and Latinos. This is partly attributed to the fact that some Asians have privilege compared to other racialised groups in America.

Asian Americans have been socially constructed as “model minorities,” and this has, in turn, driven a wedge between Asians and other racialised groups, particularly Blacks. Both Asians (especially Korean immigrants to the US) and Blacks are in competition for economic survival in a country that has a long history of xenophobia and racism. American media’s portrayal of Blacks as uneducated, dangerous, and poor, and Asians as self-serving and untrustworthy has further contributed to this racial tension and mistrust.

For one, Asian Americans have been raised to work hard, respect authorities, assimilate, and stay out of trouble. This pattern of behavior is generally true of Asians whether they are in North America or elsewhere. However, this “pull yourselves up by the bootstraps” narrative has been hijacked by white supremacists to suppress the socioeconomic mobility of other racialised groups and to keep themselves at the top of the racial hierarchy. The model minority narrative is thus expedient for whites to blame Blacks and Latinos for their own lack of economic success and in their denial of systemic racism. In this regard, Asians are helpful allies in their efforts to dismantle Affirmative Action.

Asians and Asian Americans are complicit in perpetuating the model minority narrative. East Asians leveraged on this helpful moniker to advance themselves socioeconomically in America. Some Asians succumbed to Pinkerton Syndrome, which is a tendency of some Asians to regard Whites as superior or more desirable for marriage and relationships. Many are eager to whiten themselves – where they rush to assimilate to white culture – in order to be viewed or treated as “fellow Whites.” One East Asian colleague pulled up his sleeve (to bare his arm that is unexposed to the sun) and declared, “see I am White!” when asked to engage in some diversity work on campus. Clearly, these efforts by some East Asians to be viewed as white-adjacent or near-white did not insulate Asians from anti-Asian hate and violence.

The constant politicisation of migrants and refugees cast racialised minorities -- especially those of Asian and Latino origin -- as problematic and forever foreign, and this contributes to xenophobia and race-based hate. Political leaders need to do better. They need to stop demonising one group as more or less desirable as citizens for personal or electoral gains. They need to stop conflating Asian Americans, Asians in America, Chinese Americans, and the Chinese government.

I want to share a story which I recounted during a ‘Stop Asian Hate’ candlelight vigil on campus. Shortly after the Atlanta shooting, Cedric Dawkins, a professor at Loyola University in Chicago who is also a close friend, immediately texted me to let me know he stands in solidarity with me. Another colleague on campus, Cymone Fourshey, Director of the Griot Institute for the Study of Black Lives and Cultures and a professor of history and international relations, reached out to ask if there was anything I needed, and asked how she could help. What is noteworthy here is both are Blacks, not White or Anglo Americans but Black Americans. Not a single White or Anglo person on campus reached out until they were cued. This is striking because my experience goes in the face of the historic Asian-Black tension in America.

We need to craft a better narrative on the contributions of all Americans and how they build the country together and make it stronger and more prosperous. We need to dismantle the model minority myth. It is crafted by putting Asians on a pedestal to avoid having to remove barriers that enable the success of Blacks and other racialised groups.

We need allies who can help raise visibility of any form of injustice. Compared to the civil rights movement, the current Black Lives Matter movement draws supporters from across different racial and ethnic lines. I am encouraged by this, because of the broad support against racial discrimination towards any one minority group. I want to especially emphasise that Asian Americans have more in common with Blacks than with Whites and it is encouraging to see both communities show up for Black Lives and anti-Asian hate.

When you hear a racial joke like Kung Flu or China Virus, immediately interrupt and explain why it is inappropriate and how it contributes to misinformation. Don’t act like you didn’t hear it or see it. Even if it is presented as a joke, it is hurtful. Doing nothing simply reinforces stereotypes and perpetuates misinformation and racial harassment.

Read more from Emerald this AAPI Heritage Month

We have made selected journal papers and book chapters free for you to read during May 2021. You can browse these below. And if your research is relevant to the Asian-American or Pacific Islander experience, or tackling anti-Asian hate, get in touch with Jen McCall our Fairer Society Publishing Development Manager to discuss how we can generate impact for your work.