The Other Side of the Model Minority Myth
By Daniel Hyukjoon Choi
"So the Nisei generation kept their minds off the fact that they were Japanese, in order to become good nursery-men, good physicians, bankers, good photographers—whatever they became. It is [in] an era of relative prosperity that the Nisei created that the Sansei can ask themselves the question "What is my identity?" They didn’t have a problem of identity in the Nisei generation because they were too ambitious, they had a goal for themselves; they didn’t have a problem. They had too much work to do. It’s the college-educated, affluent Sansei who have an identity problem. I think it’s funny as hell."
-S.I. Hayakawa, former President of San Francisco State College, 1971
"Precisely because Asian Americans have become economically secure, do they face serious identity problems. Fully committed to a system that subordinates them on the basis of non-whiteness, Asian Americans still try to gain complete acceptance by denying their yellowness. They have become white in every respect but color."
-Amy Uyematsu, "The Emergence of Yellow Power in America," GIDRA, 1969.
"To become white, you shit in your blood, hate yourself and all your kind."
-Frank Chin, "Confessions of a Chinatown cowboy."
"Fuck you, Chink." These words appeared recently on a poetry board in a Harvard library, along with the slurs, "Death to all Chinks" and "Chinks suck." The same week, hundreds of crank phone calls seething with anti-Asian remarks like, "Fuck you, Korean bitch," were reported. The same month, Senator Ernest F. Hollings told workers in South Carolina to "draw a mushroom cloud and put underneath it: ‘Made in America by lazy and illiterate Americans and tested in Japan’"; and a radio talk-show host referred to television reporter Connie Chung as "Connie Chink." The same month, a Black man called me a "little Chinese faggot" in a men’s room, and a homeless woman told me "go back to Japan" while I was walking through Harvard Square. And Kristi Yamaguchi won the gold medal in women’s figure skating. For America.
At a time when Harvard has just admitted its largest pool of Asian American applicants ever, a collective Asian American identity crisis is beginning to set in. "Asian Americans are everyone’s favorite minortiy but their own," wrote Tufts professor Reed Ueda for a recent issue of The New Republic(1) . Asian Americans are beginning to question their old accommodationist ways, their quietly studious manner, and their previous notions of success. "Increasingly," a recent Time article stated, "Asian-American students and graduates are chafing at the ‘model minority myth.’"(2)
Paradoxically, the statistical profile of Asian America is both a reason for self-congratulation and an unsettling validation of some of our most distasteful stereotypes. As the "model minority" myth indicates, Asian Americans at the top strata of academia are indeed super-achievers. 18 percent of the newly-admitted Harvard class of 1996 are Asian Americans, compared to the three percent that Asian Americans comprise in the general population. In their academic and professional focus, on the other hand, Asian Americans are overly narrow, concentrating heavily in the areas of science, medicine, and economics, giving rise and lending credence to the widely acknowledged stereotype of the "science geek" Asian. While Asian Americans currently comprise on 3.6 percent of American university students, they make up over 15 percent of America’s 1990-91 medical school first-years. While Asian Americans make up a little over 7.5 percent of all professionals and technicians, they comprise only 1.5 percent of America’s managers and officials, and an even smaller percentage of America’s political leaders and public personalities. According to a July 15, 1985 article in The New Republic, 57 percent of the Asian Americans in Harvard’s class of 1985 (as opposed to 29 percent of all students) went into the sciences, and 71 percent went into either science or economics. L. Fred Jewett, dean of admissions at the time, was quoted in the article as saying that " a terribly high proportion of the Asian students are heading toward the sciences."
Despite all the accolades we have received for being such a "model" minority, white America continues to perceive Asian Americans in generalized terms. We have been called "the silent minority" in a recent issue of the National Review(3). Even the most well-meaning writers pigeonhole Asian Americans according to prevalent stereotypes. In a recent editorial in U.S. News and World Report, David R. Gergen—though he criticized Asian-bashing politicians like Richard Gephardt and insisted that Asian American "curiosity, discipline and sheer hard work are not to be mocked but modeled"—ended nonetheless on an insinuating note, claiming Asian Americans "will be among our next generation of Nobel winners, industrial innovators and educators"—but not, he implies by omission, leaders, celebrities, and activists. Journalists like Gergen assume that Asian Americans will safely recede into the scientific-industrial-academic complex. Blacks, who come from a tradition of collective struggle, can at least root for Jesse Jackson in a presidential election. Asian Americans, by contrast, haven’t even managed to shake loose the lingering caricature of Long Duk Dong and have gotten only so far as Admiral Sulu, who finally got his promotion in Star Trek VI.
In 1971, S.I. Hayakawa, the former president of San Francisco State College, advised blacks to imitate the Asian American pattern of success: "Go to school and get high grades, save one dollar out of every ten you earn to capitalize your business"(4). Hayakawa’s advice was also implicit in the white media’s portrayal of Asian Americans as the "model minority." One of the first "model minority" features, published in U.S. News and World Report in 1966, opened with the following lead: "At a time when Americans are awash in worry over the plight of racial minorities—one such minority, the nation’s 300,000 Chinese-Americans, is winning wealth and respect by dint of its own hard work."(5)
Even today, white America continues to use the Asian American "success story" to counter or deflect the charges of systemic racism often leveled by black activists. In my government class this semester, a white student pointed insinuatingly to Japanese Americans as a group that, though historically oppressed, had managed to become successful without the help of affirmative action. Both blacks and Asian Americans often find themselves flustered on this point, reacting defensively or offensively, but rarely, I think, grasping the whole proportions of the problem. In a conference on campus race relations I attended last February, I ruined what had been an atmosphere of mutual accord by asking the keynote speaker, William H. Gray III, the president of the United Negro College Fund, whether he thought that affirmative action could really be justified at the expense of Asian American students. He responded that he knew of no college or university that took away spots from Asian Americans in order to give them to blacks and that since college enrollments had increased over the years, there were more spots to go around. A black dean of admissions accosted me afterward, telling me that Asian Americans were affirmatively admitted to his law school. Then a black woman, a Harvard graduate, angry with my question, grilled me with comments like, "Do you really think that you deserve to go to college? No one deserves to go to college." A white man sided with me, and in thirty seconds I was sitting their silent, listening to the sublimated rumble I had let loose between blacks and whites.
The question of affirmative action points to a snag in the race relations dialogue, not only because it inflames the sensitivities of black and Asian American college students, but also because it misses the larger sweep of our respective evolutions as minorities in America. Most people cannot get beyond the notion of eugenic insult in the affirmative action debate: to say outright that Asian Americans have outperformed blacks in academics is to risk being called a racist. Collectively, Asian Americans have outperformed blacks on the SATs, just as blacks have clearly outperformed Asian Americans in athletics, not because of any racial advantage, but because Asian Americans and black Americans have approached the problem of being a minority differently. Asian Americans, arguably, have succeeded not only because they work hard, but also because they follow the rules, stay inconspicuous, and never question authority. Blacks, on the other hand, have always been threatening to white America with their outspokenness, their assertion of difference and readiness to testify to their oppression, Malcolm X and Ice Cube. Theirs has been a history of struggle and group activism, ours a pattern of uncomplaining assimilation and an individualized pursuit of material success.
In contrast to the Harvard Black Students’ Association, who were accused this year of "Afrocentrism" for inviting radical and reputedly Afrocentric speakers like Leonard Jeffries and rapper Chuck D, Asian Americans at Harvard deliberately avoid such "radical" politics, fearing white backlash. As part of a series of interviews conducted last year by Douglas Park ’91, one Asian American said, "If we [Asian Americans] keep trying to push for rights, whites will hate us like the blacks who get Affirmative Action and other special benefits." "My having been an officer in AAA probably won’t mean anything on my resume," said another Asian American. "It might even make me look like a radical Asian." By participating in Asian American activities, one Chinese American said, "you look anti-white or anti-American… Americans won’t like that and might start resenting Asians more than they already do"(6).
Likewise, it is Asian American self-consciousness admits the white majority that makes "cliquishness" a salient and problematic feature of the Asian American scene at Harvard. One Chinese American student said that cliquishness "makes Asians look bad to white people, like we don’t want to be around them." Many Asian Americans feel the especially acute problem of choosing between Asian American and non-Asian American friends. "If you devote a lot of time to KOHR [Koreans of Harvard/Radcliffe], you might have the problem of people thinking you’d rather be with Asians," said one Korean American. The perceptions of non-Asians (esp. white Americans) are a major factor in the decision to join or quit the Asian American scene. "I was heavily into some of the [Asian American] activities," recounted one Chinese American ex-participant, "and I found that non-Asians sometimes were a bit hesitant to invite me to parties and other social activities"(7).
Undoubtedly, there is something uncomfortable about being Asian American, something larger and more encompassing than the "science geek" stereotype. The economic success of the first generation proves an unsatisfying and incomplete legacy for many young, second generation Asian Americans. Ironic, that Asian Americans should suffer an identity crisis precisely when the institutional, legal, and structural barriers to Asian American success have almost completely disappeared, when Asian American families have attained one of the highest average incomes for minority groups in the United States. "It’s the college-educated, affluent Sansei who have an identity problem," said S.I. Hayakawa. "I think this is funny as hell. "
But the identity problem is a serious one for many Asian Americans. Some Asian American advocacy groups argue that Asian Americans, lost in their pursuit of money, security, and white approval, have sold away their cultural souls. As Amy Uyematsu, a contributor to Asian American reader GIDRA, wrote in 1969, "Asian Americans still try to gain complete acceptance by denying their yellowness"(8). Frank Chin, another Asian American writer, views the model minority image from the flip side, contending that blacks are the true model minority, while Asian Americans have sold out to white America: "[Asian Americans] are the Uncle Toms of the non-white people… a race of yellow white supremacists, yellow white racists. We’re hated by blacks because the whites love us for being everything the blacks are not. Blacks are a problem: badass. Chinese-Americans are not a problem: kissass" (9). Black America has at the very least sustained and asserted its own cultural identity.
Our status as an academic and economic "model" minority also encourages us to repress the uncomfortable awareness of our social inferiority among white Americans. In recent years, with the phenomenal succses of rap music, house dancing, Spike Lee films, and Malcolm X caps, "blackness" has become a hot cultural commodity among young Americans, while Asian Americans have never won the cultural interest of America outside the mystic cult of Bruce Lee. Like the stereotype of the money-grubbing Jew, the hilarity of Long Duk Dong and the inscrutable effemininity of Charlie Chan is the price Asian Americans paid for their material success. Asian Americans, while they have managed to assimilate into America’s economic and academic mainstream, continue to suffer especially from a special variety social and sex-linked prejudice. The "glass ceiling" is far from being the last barrier to our inheritance of the American Dream.
Though it may perhaps be permissible, for sociological purposes, to conflate the various Asian nationalities that gave rise to Asian America, it is impossible to conflate Asian American females and males in the same way. The Asian American identity crisis, unlike the black identity crisis as expressed by writers like Ralph Ellison and James Baldwin, is linked to a sexual identity crisis arising from the emasculated status of Asian American males, a phenomenon that appeared with the mystical Charlie Chan and culminated in the caricature of Long Duk Dong. As Amy Tachiki writes,
Despite the emasculating pressures put on all nonwhites, white Americans still perceive black, Chicano, and Indian males as sexually aggressive and threatening to the white woman. In contrast to these stereotypes, Asian American men are characterized as shy, withdrawn, weak, and passive… in the past, before Asians had ‘made it’ and were considered socially inferior to whites, they too were labeled sexually dangerous. Now that the successful Asians are held up as a minority model by white America, their prior image had to be changed
The white media’s complicity in effecting this change is explained by writer Frank Chin:
The movies were teachers. In no uncertain terms they taught America that we were lovable for being a race of sissies, cowed by women, and not black with all our hearts, living to accommodate the whitemen… Charlie Chan never uses the first person pronouns "I" or "we" but speaks in the passive voice and prefaces all his remarks with apologies… Devil and angel, the Chinese is a sexual joke glorifying white power. Dr. Fu [Manchu], a man wearing a long dress, batting his eyelashes, surrounded by muscular black servants in loin cloths, and with his bad habit of caressingly touching white men on the leg, wrist, and face with his long fingernails is not so much a threat as he is a frivolous offense to white manhood
Asian American women, on the other hand, are seen as exotic, sensual, mysterious, and attractive by white males. According to anthropologist Melford S. Weiss, "American stereotypes of ‘Chinese’ – although based upon much fictitious characterization – accept the Chinese female as a satisfactory sexual and dating companion but reject the Chinese male in a similar category"(12). The Asian American male, in turn, is not only neglected by most white women, but also rejected outright by Asian American females who prefer the more "manly" characteristics of white males (13). Even at Harvard, according to Park’s study, Asian American males "tended to feel less comfortable than [Asian American] females around non-Asian Americans than they did around Asian Americans" (14).
Stereotypes of both the emasculated Asian American male and the exotic Asian American female contribute to the pervasive and comprehensive, but nonetheless racist, dichotomy of Orient and Occident, a dichotomy that attempts at a semblance of symmetry but nonetheless distorts the truth. White America, from the autoworker to even the highest strata of academia, feels the ineffable need to place the Asian and the Asian American at an opposite sociological, philosophical, geographical, and historical extreme. This notion that Asian culture is "anti-individualistic, mystic, passive, collective, and morally and ethically opposite to Western culture," Frank Chin argues, is completely false:
Chinese and Japanese culture are not more misogynistic than Western culture. The proof: Chinese and Japanese childhood literature and history. Asian culture is more, not less individualistic than Western culture. The proof: Asian childhood literature and history. If Asian childhood literature and history and Asian American institutions established by the immigrants belie the stereotype, why does it endure, and where did this monster come from? I came, as it still comes, from pure white racist fantasy and wishful thinking born of white racial self-contempt. We can follow the grain through white writing, back into white history to Marco Polo and the pope in Rome
Media images and intellectual dichotomies conspire to keep Asian Americans in their place, as foreigners in our own country. We are perceived always in connection with the Asian countries from which we originated. Blacks are hardly thought of as Africans, whereas Asian Americans are constantly referred to as either Chinese or Japanese, asked always the question, "Where are you from – originally?" After all, Vincent Chin, a Chinese American, was beaten to death in 1984 by an American autoworker who mistook him to be Japanese. The common slur, "Here comes the Asian Invasion," points to our inextricable foreignness in contrast to European and even Latin American immigrants. This is where our identity crisis begins.
Both our success and failure as a minority are largely the products of whit discrimination. Thomas Sowell, in comparative study of Asians and Jewish immigrants, concluded that "those American ethnic groups that have succeeded best politically have not usually been the same as those who succeeded best economically… those minorities that have pinned their greatest hopes on political action—the Irish and the Negroes, for example—have made some of the slower economic advances(16). For Asian American writers like Chin and Uyematsu, however, opting out of the political process has cost us our collective personalities. The large numbers of Asian Americans pursuing the scientific and technical careers, contrasted to the dearth of Asian Americans in more visible fields like politics and the performing arts, can be explained in terms of Asian American self-consciousness in white America, fueling the stereotype of passivity on the one hand and the subjective need to overachieve on the other. The model minority myth, then, is a much-abused and one-sided notion of our "success" as a minority, for we all overlook the heavy costs that we still pay, above and beyond the cost of tuition. This is where our identity crisis ends.
6-7. Douglas Park, "Asian Americans and the Harvard Experience," reprint, Yisei: Voices of Koreans at Harvard, Spring 1991, p. 5.