By Marpheen Chann
Asian Americans are not a model minority, nor are they a monolith, and beliefs to the contrary result in the erasure of significant disparities and issues faced by the many communities that fall under the broad umbrella term “Asian American.” And because the administration of former President Donald Trump insisted on blaming China for the pandemic, incidents involving racism, xenophobia, and violence against those of Asian descent – or those perceived to be of Asian descent – have risen to record levels. According to the latest FBI hate crimes statistics, in 2021 alone, hate crimes against Asian American communities rose over 300%.
“Model minority” myth
The model minority myth is a stereotype that weaponizes the perceived success and socio-economic well-being, class, and status of Asian Americans against communities of other Black, Brown, Indigenous, and people of color communities. This divide-and-conquer strategy of dominance was employed by white supremacy and colonial powers for centuries, deterring a united front among the many ethnic groups, cultures, and tribes they found in Asia, Africa, and the Americas.
The model minority myth, simply put, presents Asian Americans, as a whole, as examples for other communities of color to follow. Using stereotypes and tropes such as perceived work ethic and submissiveness to authority, coupled with the perception of broad social mobility, wealth, and success within the Asian American community, the myth sends both overt and subtle signals to other communities of color that if only they behaved, worked as hard and submitted like Asian Americans did, they too would see success.
Another problem with the model minority myth is that it glosses over the long history of struggle and structural, institutional, and interpersonal racism, xenophobia, and discrimination faced by people of Asian descent globally and throughout U.S. history. Beneath the golden veneer of the myth lies the dark history of horrific events such as the 1871 Chinese Massacre in California, and the nativism of “Yellow Peril”. Both involved depictions of people of Asian descent as threats to national security, later leading to injustices such as the stripping of wealth and the confinement of Japanese Americans in internment camps during World War II.
In the latter half of the 19th century, anti-Chinese sentiment was so strong that the U.S. enacted the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, the first piece of federal legislation that expressly prohibited people of an entire nationality from coming to the U.S. This was followed by a ban on Indian immigration in 1917, and one in 1924 barring Japanese and Korean immigrants.
Origins of “Asian American”
While an important term coined during the 1960s Civil Rights era in America, “Asian American”, encompasses a vast range of cultures, languages, beliefs, and religions from all over the continent of Asia and the Pacific Ocean. The first use of the term is widely believed to be at University of California at Berkeley in 1968, when two students, Emma Gee and Yuji Ichioka, wanted to start a student activist group in the midst of a wave of social change movements sweeping the country.
In an interview with author Yến Lê Espiritu, Ichioka later said, “There were so many Asians [participating] out there in the political demonstrations, but we had no effectiveness. Everyone was lost in the larger rally. We figured that if we rallied behind our own banner, behind an Asian American banner, we would have an effect on the larger public. We could extend the influence beyond ourselves, to other Asian Americans.”
Movement to disaggregate data
Since its first use, the term Asian American has proven effective in uniting many different ethnic groups to protest and advocate for change and new policies. But as it was picked up by the mainstream, the term had the effect of blurring the lines between various ethnic groups and sweeping under the rug the disparities experienced by different communities.
That is why many organizations, such as AAPI Data and the Southeast Asian Resource Action Center, have called on the U.S. Census Bureau and other federal, state, and local agencies to disaggregate such data.
Disaggregated income data for Asian American ethnic groups shows that real and substantive changes need to be made in terms of data collection. According to the National Community Reinvestment Coalition, the income gaps among Asian American ethnic groups are among the widest of any racial group.
The aggregate 2018 median income of Asian Americans, taken together, would clock in at about $87,194, or 38% greater than the national median income of $63,179. Looking at that data point in isolation gives the impression that Asian Americans are doing quite well. But broken down by ethnic groups, the data shows that only some groups are doing well. Indian Americans, for example, have a median income of $100,000, while Burmese Americans had an annual median income of only $36,000 in 2018.
Similarly, the poverty rate of 10.1% among Asian Americans, compared to that of white Americans (8.1%) is not so bad. But the poverty rate of 16.2% for just Hmong Americans alone is much higher.
Acknowledge diversity within Asian, Pacific, and Desi American communities
While there is no perfect term or other solution to getting people to see those of Asian descent as something other than a monolith, how we collect, analyze, and report on data is one small step that can help raise the visibility of the many ethnic groups that are meant to be included by Asian American or Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI).
Visibility will help those of Asian descent to move out of the margins, out of the shadows, and into the spotlight, where they can be seen and heard – toward the center, where decisions are made and resources are allocated.
And when the diversity within the Asian American community is acknowledged, it becomes harder to see us as a monolith and harder to cast us all broadly as the model minority.
Although Asian Americans together share the experiences of anti-Asian racism, xenophobia, and violence, we all have our own rich cultures, histories, languages, beliefs, creeds, and ways of being human. When we are bundled together and caught up in a catch-all category, it becomes too easy to ignore our humanity in search of a target, a scapegoat, or “the other.”
So when using the term “Asian American,” know that it is but the tip of the iceberg, that we are more than meets the eye. We are not a monolith, and nor are we a model minority.