[W]hile I believe Asian privilege is a real thing, it certainly didn’t protect the seven people murdered when a racist opened fire on members of a Sikh gurdwara in Oak Creek, Wisconsin last August. In fact, post-9/11 Islamophobia has imposed an experience of racism on South Asians in the U.S. that is quite distinct from that experienced by other Asian Americans. Increasingly, South Asian Americans are profiled less as model minorities than as terrorist threats.
And for Laotian Americans, privilege must feel like like a foreign concept. Almost all of them were driven out of their homeland and into the this country since 1973 by a now-exposed secret war waged by the U.S. The American war strategy included running 580,000 bombing raids. This is the equivalent of one planeload of bombs every 8 minutes, 24-hours a day, for 9 years over a country about the size of Utah. The detonations were bad enough, but so much unexploded ordinance is left behind that one third of Laos is considered contaminated.
The experience of Laotian Americans is mirrored in many ways by that of immigrants who came to the U.S. from places like Burma, Vietnam, and Cambodia to flee war and political repression. They know horrors few American-born Asians can even begin to imagine.
Privilege is also a tough word to describe the situation of many Filipino immigrants in the U.S. Many were encouraged to migrate by the Philippine government because it is managing so much foreign debt that debt service is their single largest expense. The terms of the loans made from organizations like the International Monetary Fund have imposed austerity measures, including wage freezes, cuts to healthcare and
education, and privatization of water and electrical service. Filipinos often leave to survive and to provide for their families abroad because the Philippine economy just can’t afford them
Yet, for some of us, the privileges, though conditional, are real. I recall growing up in Hawaii, profiled as Japanese American in a school system in which we were expected to succeed, and in which Japanese Americans were over-represented among authority figures. I surrounded myself with friends who didn’t share in the protection afforded me by my light skin and Japanese surname. We felt one another, but they suffered the kind of racism reserved for those profiled as problem minorities – Native Hawaiians, African Americans, and darker skinned immigrants from Polynesia and the Philippines.
Yet when the time came to be held accountable, I almost always escaped the worst punishments. In spite of doing poorly in school, I was passed from grade to grade, even tracked into college prep classes. I was considered a troubled child with potential where my often much more talented but darker skinned friends were perceived to just be trouble.
Today, without the benefit of a college degree, I have twice been a foundation executive and now work for a think tank. Now, I’m not going to say I didn’t work as hard and try as mightily as the next person, but in order to try I had to first get through the door. Those doors remained open to me when they would likely have closed to others because I lived under the cover (and intense pressure and scrutiny, mind you) of model minority stereotyping.
Reflecting on all of this I realized, part what makes being Asian American so complicated is that Asian privilege is really white privilege, conferred conditionally on some of us in order to maintain white power. If that’s true, we’re being used. And if being used, even lightly, is what this is about, the question is, are we really in control of how and over what damage that use might do to us and to others?
So let’s get real for a moment. Asian America is made up of over 45 distinct ethnic groups speaking over 100 language dialects. Among these groups, some, such as Hmong Americans, are among the poorest in the U.S. by ethnicity.
Moreover, statistics concerning our success exaggerate. The reality is that larger Asian American family incomes result in part from a larger number of earners per household. Asian Americans actually trail whites in per capita income. And the most successful Asian American ethnic groups—the Taiwanese, Indian, Malaysian, and Sri Lankan American minorities—include a large share of members who were drawn to the U.S. as business investors or highly skilled workers. That means that Asian Americans are by no means representative of Asians globally. U.S. immigration policy plays a role in constructing the Asian American “race.”
But regardless of the disadvantages some of us face, many Asians do enjoy privileges beyond the reach of other people of color. That might explain why some Asian Americans are bought into model minority stereotyping. Their attitudes mirror many on the right whose response to Asian American protest against Asian stereotyping goes something like can’t you people take a compliment?
But this Asian complicity with the stereotype is dangerous. Why? Consider this.
As I’ve pointed out before, the model minority stereotype originated as a tool to leverage white resentment toward the Civil Rights and Black Power movements. In the midst of widespread black protest, the Asian model minority debuted in the media as evidence that racism will fall to quiet hard work, self-sacrifice, and compliance with authority. The model minority was contrasted with “problem minorities” in order to undercut support for reform. Between the lines, the suggestion was that black culture, not white racism, was the reason for black poverty, and black protest, for that reason, was neither legitimate nor helpful to black people who would do better to fix themselves than to try to fix the country.
Yet Asian Americans have prospered, and more, some would argue, than other people of color, as a result of desegregation, voting rights reforms, and programs like affirmative action. When we play into “problem minority” racism we threaten these gains.
Now, I get that the relatively small share of the U.S. population that is Asian American makes us less a threat to white racial domination than, say, Latinos or African Americans. And, for that reason, when Newt Gingrich refers to “entitlement junkies” and Mitt Romney disparages the 47%, they don’t have us in mind. But, we ought not kid ourselves. Dodging these attacks doesn’t make us safe.
Asian Americans may be only 6% of the U.S., but Asians are a very large percentage of the global population. And Asian countries such as China, Pakistan, Iran, and North Korea are considered threats to American posterity. Playing to racism by exaggerating that “threat” is becoming a popular strategy of elected leaders trying to win political points with an increasingly resentful public.
The combination of xenophobic Asia-bashing and model minority stereotyping makes Asian Americans targets of resentment. And certain realities are causing that resentment to rise.
Privilege without power makes us vulnerable. To build power in a country whose racial demography is tilting against whites, we would do best to build bonds of cross-racial solidarity with other people of color. To do that, we must look beyond our common suffering and accept accountability for the privileges that divide us.
The Sikh response to the tragedy has largely been like my mother’s—steering clear of politicizing the events. Sikh leaders have called for peace, kindness, and love—fundamental tenets of the religion. They insist we also mourn the perpetrator as well, because we are all victims. The generosity of these statements is admirable, but they don’t address the causes of or solutions to attacks like this. When that topic is broached, many of the survivors seem to blame themselves. I was particularly struck by an interview on CNN with a Sikh man who attended the Oak Creek Gurdwara. When asked why he thinks the attacks occurred, he said it was “because we are not educating people enough about who we are.” I couldn’t help feeling that he was apologizing for being different, as though being different would justify a crime of this magnitude.
I recognize this deference as part of the “model minority” mindset: Keep your head down, work hard, don’t complain, and don’t let your home culture and customs threaten your ability to assimilate. South Asians are a diverse group; we do not all have the same history, class, religious or ethnic background. But in the United States, South Asians are often lumped together and stereotyped as high-achieving and successful—the “good kind” of immigrants. The stereotype ends up hurting us, in some ways. Why? Because a) we are not all wealthy and b) it ignores the diversity of experiences among us, suggesting we are immune to the adversities felt by other communities of color. In turn, it makes it hard to talk about and deal with racism both within our own communities and from society at large.
One oft-repeated response from members of the South Asian community since the attacks has been that “Sikhs are not Muslims.” Whether intentional or not, this defense is deeply problematic and feeds into contemporary Islamophobia. As Amardeep Singh writes in The New York Times, to him it’s not clear if “the shooter would have acted any differently even if he had known the difference.” It also suggests that Muslims are in some way rightful targets of violence. It subtly reinforces the pernicious idea that there are “good minorities” and “bad minorities.”
An inability to address the racism we experience paralyzes us from taking legitimate action against systematic violence and prejudice. At the very least, we can call racism by its name and acknowledge that instances of hatred we have experienced—the fear, the subtle glances, teasing in high school, or being made fun of what we look or “smell” like—are not isolated, but shared experiences that bond us together despite our religion or country of origin. It is this very same racism that set the groundwork for the horrific events of last Sunday to occur. The only way we can even begin to make sense of it is not by pointing out how we are not the “other,” but embracing that South Asians are all “other” together.
Much like a snapshot of a seemingly happy family on vacation glosses over the fuller picture of fights, tension, and love that occur on a daily basis, the Pew report glosses over and even fails to mention entirely some key issues, namely:
* Entire countries of origin were pretty much left out of the report. Most Southeast Asian communities in the US, with the exception of the Vietnamese American community, were mentioned on one page titled “Other Asian Americans.” As many have noted, it is these communities–Hmong, Laotian, Cambodian–that face extreme poverty in this country, as well as a long history of US-led war and aggression in their home countries. And out of all South Asian immigrant groups, only Indian Americans were given a thorough analysis, despite growing Pakistani and Bangladeshi communities, both of which tend (at least in New York City) to have extremely high rates of poverty.
*Many Asians are the very definition of the working poor – in New York City, 20 percent of all Asians lived at or below the poverty line, and 40 percent were low-income, according to a 2008 report by the Asian American Federation of New York. AAFNY also found that half of all working-age Asians living in poverty held jobs – highlighting the extremely low-wage work that is the only option for many Asians.
* Poverty levels for almost all Asian communities are as high as or higher than levels for the general population, compounded by language access issues and inability to access government services.
* Structural racism is a reality for many of our communities – Southeast Asian youth around the US are targeted by the police as members of “gangs,” and after 9/11, racist attacks against South Asian communities dramatically increased, and continue to occur on a regular basis, compounded by domestic spying and surveillance by local police forces and the FBI and CIA.
* A large portion, about 13 percent, of the Asian immigrant community is undocumented, many of them young people and low-wage workers.
And the list can go on and on. At CAAAV Organizing Asian Communities, where I work on a daily basis with Chinese immigrants living throughout New York City, I see every day how Asian families are struggling with low wages, threats of eviction, language access issues, and cuts to needed social services. Where was this detailed in the Pew report?
But–I’m not writing this to show how Asian communities have it bad (too). What’s *more* interesting to me is thinking about how the report in many ways neglects to frame our communities within a broader analysis of race, migration, and economics.
The second perspective that restricts race-talk is the common notion that spirituality, much like life in America, is a personal matter. From prayer, to worship, and even to acts of compassion, American evangelicals find their worldviews thoroughly enculturated in individualism.
One of the hallmarks of individualism is what many racial scholars call “the bootstraps model.” This states that the key factor for an individual’s or groups’ success is their value system. Ethnic minorities achieve via hard work and sacrifice; Christians through effort and growing in the “Fruit of the Spirit.” The former perspective is usually espoused by those who believe America is a land of equal opportunity, where all people, regardless of their racial, gender, or economic backgrounds can attain the American Dream by pulling themselves up by their bootstraps.
Asian Americans are held up as the bootstraps’ poster children. Since I will address this more in the next section, I’ll only say this here. Wonder why Amy Chua, author of Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, rose to Time Magazine’s 2011 Top 100 People List? My speculation: to maintain the belief that hard work, sacrifice, and helicopter parenting are the “keys” to success. And Asian Americans, like Chua, have a monopoly on it.1
Please don’t misinterpret me: value systems that include the aforementioned qualities are extremely important to progress. But this argument, when applied to America’s racial dynamics, works by ruling out all other external factors from why certain groups succeed and others don’t. It does not analyze how racial groups are treated differently on account of their race, both historically and presently.2
Michael Emerson, in Divided by Faith, wonderfully demonstrates how this bootstraps argument is one of the main culprits for American evangelicals’ lack of racial concerns. As his research studies white Americans, he shows how they often perceive moral choices (i.e., value systems) as the root cause for why whites and Asian Americans do well while Latinos and African Americans do poorly. They are, thus, never taught to look at other institutional culprits that affect certain racial groups’ opportunities, access, and lives. For example, how Bank of America intentionally charged Blacks and Latinos higher interest rates than whites on home loans; or how research shows “blacks and whites use drugs at about the same rate, yet African Americans are 10 times as likely to be imprisoned for drug offenses.”
Despite American evangelicalism’s individualistic history, it brings me great joy to know that much of the American Church is returning to its roots of biblical justice. In particular, addressing the vast disparity between rich and poor is becoming a priority. Christians’ understandings of the causes of poverty and all its residual effects are becoming more complex than the oversimplification of poor life choices.
If Christians can make the connections between how structures of power shape and (can) determine the outcomes of people’s lives, perhaps they can expand this understanding to American racial politics. Forty Catholic leaders recently released a rebuking open letter to some of the Republican presidential candidates, challenging them to “reject the politics of racial division, refrain from offensive rhetoric, and unite behind an agenda that promotes racial and economic justice.” These Catholics understand how racialized and disparaging comments can perpetuate and reinforce the way race shapes our views, categorizations, and treatment of certain groups.
I deeply apologize for not posting this sooner. ::side-eyes tablet::
However, I am so loving Paul Matsushima’s post on how the tenets of US exceptionalism and The Model Minority Myth isn’t helping conversations about race—and strategizing ways to deal/combat racism—in some Asian American evangelical churches at the R today.
Linsanity is not a story of Jeremy Lin or even basketball but a story that gains power from the deployment of ideologies of colorblindness and racial progress. Lin, like Tiger Woods when he first enters the national consciousness, symbolizes the possibilities and the purported exceptionalism of the United States. Interestingly, Woods, like Lin, was celebrated as “America’s son” not only because of his success in golf but because of the values and ethnics instilled in him by his parents.
“Woods celebrity depends on a eugenical fantasy that stages a disciplining of the black male body through an infusion of Asian blood and an imagined Confucian upbringing,” writes Hiram Perez.
“Just as model minority rhetoric functions to discipline the unruly black bodies threatening national stability during the post-civil rights area, the infusion of Asian blood together with his imagined Confucian upbringing corrals and tames Tiger’s otherwise brute physicality. Some variation of his father trained the body and his mother trained the mind is a recurring motif for sports commentators diagnosing Wood’s success at golf.” While Lin operates through a different point of reference, the dominant narrative continues to represent his success as the result of his father’s ability to teach him about basketball, knowledge he learned from watching the NBA’s black superstars, and his mother’s emphasis on learning, school, and values. Whereas Asianness was depicted as the necessary disciplinarity to transform Tiger into a phenom, Lin, as product of family and culture, is imagined as antidote to the NBA’s ills–its blackness.
Part of that narrative further links Mayweather’s statements to Thomas’: it’s not just that Lin is doing so good, the theory goes, but that it’s being positioned as some sort of source of redemption for the game, a tonic for the arrogance of players like Kobe Bryant or Lebron James. By no fault of his own, Lin is being placed into the same kind of spot Bird was in 1987.
(There is at least one difference, by the way, between Mayweather’s insults and Rush Limbaugh’s unfounded digs at Donovan McNabb in 2003. McNabb came into the league less than a decade after the NFL had seen at least two other elite black quarterbacks, and another one led his team to a Super Bowl win. In contrast, the last Asian-American to play for the Knicks, Wat Misaka, predated Lin by more than 50 years. This proves, if nothing else, that crassness has its own spectrum.)
Sometime soon, the hoopla around Linsanity will start to collide with basketball realities: what will happen when Lin isn’t leading the Knicks in scoring–or, more pointedly, when he has a bad game? What if the Knicks don’t even make the playoffs? How will Lin and his fans react when the time comes for him to renegotiate his contract? And how many of these new fans will be there for Lin if he chooses to seek a trade or sign with another team?