I have written about racial justice in the context of Black and Latinx Americans, where I have trusted colleagues and friends who are willing to serve as cultural interpreters and education guides. But other voices must be heard, too. For example, Asian Americans reached a tipping point in March when a gunman killed eight people at three Atlanta area spas, including six women of Asian descent.
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The visibility of the Atlanta attack in the context of the past year’s Black Lives Matter movement and the reaction to the death of George Floyd caused many Asian Americans to come forward to share their experiences and feelings about racism. I set out to educate myself about this aspect of racism as I did over the past year. I found that Asians’ experiences in America are similar to those of other minorities.
A high-ranking Japanese American colleague at SMU first made me aware of the racist challenges that even the most accomplished Asian Americans face. His father immigrated from Japan to the U.S. within ten years of the end of World War II to pursue graduate education at Yale University. Subject to racism in New Haven, he emerged from the chemistry building where he lived and worked only once a week to buy groceries. He eventually married an Anglo woman which made “man bites dog” headlines in the New York Times at a time when many Anglo men had returned from World War II service in the Pacific with Japanese and other Asian wives. His parents became professors at Texas A&M University, and my colleague, their son, grew up with considerable educational advantages.
He went on to a stellar academic career that included service as a dean and a college president as well as distinguished professor rankings and numerous publications. None of this made him immune from discrimination and micro-aggression based on his race. In describing his experience, he introduced me to the “Model Minority” stereotype. I invited him to tell his story to classes of Latinx executives, and I was moved by how many similarities and parallels the Asian American speaker and the Latinx executive listeners found between their experiences as minorities in America.
The Model Minority Stereotype
It typecasts Asians as quiet, intelligent, and well-behaved and so suitable for subordinate roles as individual contributors, especially in science and technology.
The “Model Minority” sees Asian Americans as well-educated, prosperous, and compliant, successfully navigating America by keeping their heads down and not speaking up, confident that their work will speak for itself and be recognized. It is a misreading of an Asian cultural ethos that values hard work, prefers conformity, and discourages making trouble, according to the aphorism that “the nail that sticks up will be hammered back down.” This stereotype makes Asian Americans appear monolithic and obscures the multiple countries of origin, religions, and cuisines of Asian Americans. It also papers over the wealth and education gaps that exist within the Asian community in America. It typecasts Asians as quiet, intelligent, and well-behaved and so suitable for subordinate roles as individual contributors, especially in science and technology. This stereotype pressures Asian Americans, especially when young, to succeed against a standard that defines self-worth and self-sacrifice as quantitative. It ignores the real needs of young people, who are, as a result, more prone to suicide and suicidal thoughts than others. They feel forced to choose to conform to an Asian stereotype or to the U.S. cultural stereotype. They find no middle ground. In addition, the stereotype of the “model minority” tends to drive a wedge between Asians and other people of color who see Asians as being advantaged at their expense. For white Americans, the model minority fosters a belief that racism doesn’t exist by spotlighting Asian success.
Other Asian Stereotypes
The model minority is not the only stereotype that Asian Americans have been subject to. Others include:
- The “Yellow Peril” stereotype that sees Asians as a threat to Americans from the mid-nineteenth century Chinese railroad workers to the late twentieth century Japanese prowess in manufacturing and technology.
- The stereotype that Asians are monolithic, conflating all Asians with East Asians.
- The “Yellow Fever” stereotype that sexualizes Asian women as exotic, submissive, and desirable trophies and, related, a stereotype that Asian men are emasculated—baby-faced and hairless. Such stereotypes promote bullying and sex trafficking.
These stereotypes have persisted in the context of a long history of racism and discrimination against Asian Americans that started with the Chinese who immigrated to help build the Central Pacific Railroad (the western half of the Transcontinental Railroad) in the mid-nineteenth century. Immigration from Asia continues to this day as an influx of refugees seek escape from repressive political regimes and pursue access to educational and professional opportunities available through globalization. Throughout this history, Asians have been subject to exclusionary legislation and court decisions, the interment of 120,000 Japanese Americans during World War II, massacres and beatings, and anti-Asian rhetoric up to the recent condemnation of the “China virus.”
Impact of Stereotyping
As my SMU colleague and his Latinx listeners discovered, the impact of these stereotypes on today’s Asian Americans is not very different from what African American and Latinx people also experience.
Living in Fear. In the context of conflicts around the Black Lives Matter movement, anti-Asian rhetoric about the origin of the Covid-19 pandemic, and the growing geopolitical rivalry between the U.S. and China, the recent Atlanta shootings “amplified” Asian Americans’ “sense of vulnerability to violence,” and so they fear leaving their homes and fear for their parents and children who do so.
- Ben Tang, a Silicon Valley industrial designer who moved from China and became an American citizen, experienced racism in the US but never felt unsafe. Now he feels he must be extra vigilant when out with his children.
- Tammy Nguyen Lee, came to the US with her mother as Vietnamese boat people refugees and is married to a Korean. She is an award-winning film and television producer, director, and on-camera talent. Where she once felt a sense of pride in being an American, she now feels overexposed, a target, and misunderstood as an enemy, not just an “other.”
- Cynthia Yung is President of the Boone Family Foundation with long experience as a philanthropist and non-profit leader. After the Atlanta shootings, her sense of fear fanned by the ugly “China virus” rhetoric keeps her at home. When she does go out, she feels a need to pay close attention to everyone around her for threats. This is not how she wants to live her life.
Stay or Go? Some who came to America for better educational and professional opportunities now question whether they should stay. Xiaofan Qiu grew up in China, immigrated to the US during college, and is now a product line manager at Texas Instruments. After the Atlanta attacks, he felt anger. That prompted him to learn more. Reading history, he realized that Atlanta was one of many such instances. This made him sad, and he questioned whether he and his family should stay in the U.S.
Parenting. Those who are parents must prepare their children to experience racism as African American and Latinx parents do theirs. Tammy Nguyen Lee has three children. Like many other first-generation Asian immigrants, she is speaking openly with her children for the first time about racism and what it means to be a minority in the U. S. She realizes that the world they will enter when they return to in-person school post-pandemic will be different from the pre-pandemic world they left to go virtual. She struggles to preserve their innocence and positive outlook on other people.
For many Asian American parents, this is a change “after years of espousing an immigrant work ethos that dictates that they work hard and stay out of trouble.” They realize that “quietly pursuing the American dream won’t ward off violence.” Like many Latinx parents, they now must teach their children things that run counter to a culture that values hard work and believes that quiet competence will be recognized and rewarded. They are teaching what African-American mothers and fathers have long taught their children about how to navigate life in the U.S. As Debby Soo, CEO of OpenTable, points out, this pushes her out of her comfort zone, but she wants to model self-advocacy for her son, as her parents did for her. Mimi Ong, the lead engineer behind the flight of NASA’s helicopter om Mars, credits her mother, the first woman from Myanmar to earn a Ph.D. at an American university for setting an example for her, just as many African Americans and Latinx people credit their parents, especially mothers and grandmothers, with enforcing ethics and discipline that propelled them to success.
The Bamboo Curtain. Many Asians feel that they are denied opportunities for advancement and leadership based on stereotypes associated with their race. Joe Chan, a Philadelphia-born Chinese-American IT professional with both corporate and consulting experience, feels he was overlooked for promotions during his corporate career because he was viewed as a model minority and didn’t speak out on his own behalf. Vicky Tsai, founder, and CEO of Tatcha, explains, “over-delivering and outperforming your peers is not enough when you come from an underrepresented community. Your results alone are not enough because implicit bias shapes perceptions and those perceptions shape your professional reality.”
Micro-Aggression. Asian Americans experience insulting micro-aggressions that deny their individuality. Tammy Nguyen Lee, for example, worked hard to overachieve in the entertainment industry. Nevertheless, her bosses demoralized her by referring to her publicly as “the boat person” and “my fortune cookie.” Vicky Tsai says that “every part of my body was touched when I was a trader on Wall Street. I never complained.” When a stranger asks Anna Swann, a first-generation Filipino American and an American citizen, where she is from, she answers, “from the Bay Area, in California.” The questioner, seeing only her Asian-ness and not her Americanness, then often replies, “yes, but where are you really from?” This denial of important parts of her identity—her particular Asian-ness and her Americanness—is demeaning.