Our Lack of Role Models

By Najin Lee í96


A role model is one who provides an example for the group that he or she represents. As individuals, role models are people who have actualized the values held dear by their groups: they have "made it" according to the standards of their people. For American immigrant groups in particular, a role model must fulfill all the expectations of specific ethnic values as well as those of American values. They must realize the American dream, for in doing so they achieve all that their immigrant communities hoped for themselves in coming to America. However, role models must extend beyond their limitations as individuals and become unifying principles for a people, symbols of the inherent potential in each and every member of the community they represent.

People whom we call role models--Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X, for example--share an additional property essential to the nature of a role model. They are cultural icons. Their essence is so ingrained into the mass psyche of their communities that they are part of what defines their group as an autonomous entity. They are, in fact, the very definition of what it means to be a member of that group. Not only have they reached a personal level of achievement deemed successful by the communities they represent, but they have also reached a level of public achievement recognized by the larger American society. In this way, Dr. King and Malcolm X were true African Americans, fulfilling the potential arising from the crossroads of two groups.

Role models originate from a demand for them. They emerge as a result of a general dissatisfaction within a community and as a reassurance when its people wonder, "Is that all there is? Is that all that we can be?" They put to rest insecurities about a groupís potential to succeed in American society, and they actively lead its members to the fulfillment of that potential. Without a role model, a dissatisfied groupís breadth of vision is severed, obliterating its brightest and highest point. The possibilities are no longer endless but severely constrained. Conversely, a community with no need for a role model is secure with itself. It needs no symbol to look up to as a realization of its goals, for the group itself has already achieved the. There is no demand for a role model, and hence there is none.

Such is the case with the Asian American community. Despite our status as a "model minority," providing a shining example of what good little immigrants are supposed to do, we provide no conspicuous models for ourselves. We have no analog to Dr. King or Malcolm X. We do not have an individual that embodies what it means to be Asian American, an individual whose spirit is a vital component of every Asian Americanís self-identity.

If role models emerge from a communityís generalized insecurity and dissatisfaction, then the lack of Asian American role models suggests that we are satisfied with what we have achieved. We have reached the goals we set up for ourselves, and we have built an adequate structure around us to perpetuate our values and provide means for realizing them. We feel we do not need role models. We are not a people in trouble, in need of a guiding force to raise us out of what we are to what we could be. Instead, we are a self-satisfied people, satisfied by our quiet, prosperous lives.

Indeed, Asian Americans are prosperous. As a minority group, we are disproportionately successful in our financial, academic, and professional endeavors. For the most part, Asian Americans are professionals or small businessmen. We have aspirations to become doctors, scientists, and accountants. In other words, the main goal of the Asian American is to achieve private, individual success. What is conspicuously missing from our goals is the desire to exert a direct and public force on the course of American culture, including that aspect of it that looks specifically at us. Granted, the "model minority" label has its deleterious effects, squeezing a diverse group into a flat, unidimensional mold. However, it is an infinitely far cry from the very real oppression experienced by other immigrant groups. Consequently, despite occasional instances to the contrary, Asian Americans have a comfortable position in America. As a result of our perpetual "foreignness," we have generally been left in peace to pursue our own quiet goals. It is only when someone begins to rock the boat, to challenge that structure that contains him or her that those who hold the structure together feel threatened. We have not mounted such a challenge, so we have not been stamped down. And because we have not been stamped down, we do not feel the need for someone to raise us up.

Therefore, we can gain comfort from the fact that we have achieved our goals. However, these are goals not of Asian Americans, but of Asians in America. We have admirably held up the Asian end of the bargain, but not the American one. As a people, our presence leaves almost no mark on the very foundations of American functioning. We have adapted well to the American system, using it to achieve success, but we have not made it adapt to us; we have not reconfigured it to accommodate our status as Asian Americans. Perhaps this is part of the source of the prevailing American perception of Asian Americans as eternally foreign, and undoubtedly it is a major part of the reason why we have no role models. We have no Asian American role models because in our actions we are not yet Asian American.

Do we need role models? If our goals remain the same as in the past--to achieve private prosperity--then the answer is no. We have achieved this goal remarkably. But if we choose to extend our range of goals, to expand our influence as a very real component of American society, then we will very rapidly need role models to bear the burden of the inevitable fallout from this expansion. When we are made to question ourselves and to reconsider the fundamental definition of "Asian American," we will need individuals who can provide the answers. We know already that we are satisfied with ourselves as Asians in America. The question now is, are we satisfied with ourselves as Asian Americans?

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