Jeff Yang in WSJ deconstructs “model minority” & “New Jews” stereotypes of Asian Americans

Gil Asakawa cowboy

This is me, being a typical American kid in the early ’60s … in Tokyo, Japan where my family lived at the time.

The “model minority” myth applied to Asian Americans has been a persistent trope since the phrase’s first use in 1965 by a sociologist in a New York Times column that used it to face off Japanese Americans against African Americans.

The not-so-subtle underlying message was, look at this Asian minority, they went through hell during World War II (the imprisonment of more than 110,000 people of Japanese descent in American concentration camps) and faced racism for most of a century, yet they work hard, don’t complain and succeed as students and employees.

In contrast, of course, blacks were marching and protesting and causing white America a whole bunch of angst at the time by demanding equality and fair treatment.

The model minority canard pops up every decade in mainstream media, like an insane cultural Wack-a-Mole game. In 1997 TIME magazine ran a story about “Those Asian-American Whiz Kids” with a group of young AAPI student overachievers beaming from the cover. Every once in a while, a story or report acknowledges the lie of the myth: In 2008, a New York University study did just that.

But then some other report adds fuel to the mythic fire. Earlier this summer, the Pew Research Center published a much-hyped report titled “The Rise of Asian Americans,” that concluded that Asian Americans are now “the highest-income, best-educated and fastest-growing racial group in the United States.” That study caused a lot of discussion in the AAPI blogosphere, and disappointed me, because I generally think Pew’s demographic studies are unassailably pure. This tie, I felt Pew swallowed the Kool-Aid and found evidence that bolstered that view without working very hard to dig deeper.

Now, the idea of Asians excelling in academics is back in the news with the Supreme Court’s review of Affirmative Action in the “Fisher Vs. University of Texas at Austin” case.

And this week, the Wall Street Journal posted a commentary by Lee Siegel, “The Rise of the Tiger Nation” that not only ascribes to the model minority notion, but picks up another theme that’s been aired on occasion: That Asians are the new Jews.

“It seems that, despite their very different histories in this country, Asian-Americans now share with American Jews both the distinction and the occasional burden of phenomenal immigrant success” Siegel writes.

Siegel name-drops successful Asian Americans to illuminate his point: NBA sensation Jeremy Lin, “Survivor” winner Yul Kwon, controversial “Tiger Mom” author Amy Chua and, the WSJ pitches in with an out-of-context photo of former Washington DC school chancellor Michelle Rhee even though Siegel doesn’t mention her in the article at all.

I get the point that Siegel’s making, but he makes it with such a lazy lack of distinction between the many Asian ethnic groups that he falls into the same trap as people who buy the model minority myth. We’re simply more complicated than such a stereotype implies.

The WSJ, to its credit, allowed Jeff Yang, who writes the “Tao Jones” blog for the company’s website and who is an Asian American thought leader and cultural historian, to respond with his take on Asian and Jews, “Easy Tiger (Nation),” later the same day. Yang brings up a bunch of important points in his post, including this passage:

But any use of the term “Asian” should recognize that its meaningful existence is less than half a century old, and the identity it refers to is very much in beta — and working out the compatibility issues that come with a rapidly growing and wildly varied installed base.

Which means that there are many individuals of Asian descent in America who, if congratulated on the success of the “Asian community,” will simply look blank. Not all Asians think alike. Not all Asians think they’re “Asian.” And not all Asians share the same values, the same opportunities and obstacles — or the same socioeconomic outcomes.

The communities that sit under the Asian umbrella comprise over two dozen ethnicities speaking over a hundred languages and dialects, with each population arriving in the U.S. at different times and under unique circumstances. It shouldn’t be surprising, then, that Asian Americans have the widest income spread of any demographic group: Indian Americans have the highest per-capita income of any ethnic group in the U.S., at around $38,000; Hmong, the lowest, at around $11,000, with a full 27 percent living beneath the federal poverty line.

Yet the flattening effect of means and medians erases these distinctions, encouraging the trumpeting of the triumph of “Asians” in broad, paint-roller strokes. It’s a major reason why the Pew Research Center’s large, important and widely cited study of the Asian American population, titled “The Rise of Asian Americans,” has generated such consternation among advocacy and service organizations.

Yang manages to poke holes in Siegel’s logic without making it seem like a personal attack. It’s a thought-provoking read. Take in Siegel’s piece first, then follow with Yang’s perspective.

Then finish off with Yul Kwon, who felt compelled to respond to Siegel since the writer mentioned Kwon’s name several times. The WSJ yesterday ran Kwon’s “‘Survivor’ Star on Asian American Success Stories,” in which the former reality TV stud makes fun of his studly shirtless photo that ran with Siegel’s essay. Kwon also cautions against comparing Asians with Jews:

However, I do think it’s worth highlighting one critical difference between Jews and Asian Americans that Siegel’s essay doesn’t touch upon. In general, Jews are more easily able to assimilate into American society because of the absence of easily identifiable physical traits that distinguish them from other “white” Americans. For example, Jon Stewart is Jewish (he was born “Jonathan Leibowitz”), but most people would never know this If he didn’t make reference to his Jewish background. By contrast, one of the drivers of the enduring “perpetual foreigner” stereotype for Asian Americans is the fact that we obviously look different from whites (as well as blacks). Consequently, it often doesn’t matter if we were born in the US, educated here, work here, or even Americanize our names – the immediate presumption that many people make upon seeing us is that we’re foreigners because we don’t look conventionally American.

I’ve encountered this presumption for most of my life, and it even led to a few awkward moments when I hosted a PBS series last year called “America Revealed.” The crew – of which I was the only Asian American – shot much of the footage in the American heartland and other parts of the country where Asian Americans barely register a blip. Upon learning that I was the host of the show, a number of folks I met or interviewed would do a double-take before slowly asking, “So, what country are you from?” I was even complimented once or twice for speaking English so well, to which I’d respond (in jest), “Thanks. I hope my English is ok, I’ve been practicing for a whole year.”

Sadly, almost every Asian American I know has had the “Where are you from? You speak English so well” conversation… honestly.

There are over 30 different Asian ethnic groups in just the Denver area, after all, and the Burmese and Bhutanese refugees communities are struggling, and their kids are being attacked and bullied on buses and in schools.

So enough with the model minority stereotype. It might be based in a kernel of truth (those kids on the TIME cover were Harvard geniuses and all that, after all) but it’s just ignorant to project that truth onto every Asian in America.

1 Comment to "Jeff Yang in WSJ deconstructs “model minority” & “New Jews” stereotypes of Asian Americans"

  1. Susan Hayase's Gravatar Susan Hayase
    March 11, 2013 - 11:18 pm | Permalink

    There are many reasons why the model minority myth is just factually wrong. But, in my mind, the main reason to reject it is that it embodies the proposition that if you don’t complain about inequality you can be famous, a lap dog, and a second class citizen — otherwise take your chances with black Americans.

    In reality, Asians of all backgrounds have fought back against inequality in this country for over a hundred and fifty years and have done so with Americans of all colors. When people call Asian Americans a model minority that’s their way of making sense of the non-assimilation of the perpetual foreigners, but it’s not how Asian Americans generally depict themselves, except as something to be deeply alienated from.

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