Read So You Want to Talk About Race Online
Authors: Ijeoma Oluo
This is the same for our role as the adult
generation in society. It is our role not to shape the future, but to not fuck things up so badly that our kids will be too busy correcting the past to focus on the future. It is our job to be confused and dismayed by the future generation, and trust that if we would just stop trying to control them and instead support them, they will eventually find their way.
My goal as a writer and an activist
is not to shape future generations. I hope to give a platform, a foundation for our young people to build upon and then smash to bits when it is no longer needed. That is what our kids are doing right now, with all of the work we have done, all that we have dedicated to them—they are building upon it so that they can smash it all down. And it’s a beautiful thing to see.
SPENT MY ENTIRE CHILDHOOD AND THE ENTIRETY OF
my twenties poor. No, not momentarily broke where you can’t go to the concert you want or can’t eat out for dinner that week—I mean
. The type of poor that cuts the electricity off, that doesn’t have a phone, that eats dinners in soup kitchens. I remember trying to sleep longer so that I would have
less time awake to feel hungry. I remember sneaking down the hall to use a vacant apartment to shower after our water had been cut off. But I also remember that we weren’t alone.
We certainly were not the only poor kids, although in our neighborhood, we were perhaps a bit poorer than most. But there were poor black kids and poor brown kids, and occasionally some poor white kids. I would gravitate
to other brown and black kids in my neighborhood naturally, not because I assumed that we’d have a deep connection racially,
but because I felt like we’d be more likely to have a connection economically—which for kids, can matter more than just about everything. Yes, I’d been mocked for my dark skin and coarse hair, but I’d been mocked far more for the mustard sandwiches I brought for lunch, the
oil lamps and candles we often used to light our apartment, or the fact that nobody could call me on the phone.
Chances were, if you were brown, and you lived in my apartment complex, you were almost as poor as me. And you could spend the night at my house and we’d scrounge up a dollar for some packages of ramen and if the power went out we’d crumble up the dry noodles and eat them like chips
under candlelight and nobody would think that it was weird or shameful.
I had friends you could go to the food bank with. Friends who wouldn’t be embarrassed if you paid for your groceries with food stamps. I had friends that never expected fancy gifts. I had friends who never looked at the label on your clothes because ours all had said Goodwill on paper tags when we got them. I had friends
who never asked where your mom was because we all knew our moms were working. And because we were all poor, none of us ever had any material thing to be jealous over or petty about. We were just kids, and for the most part, we were happy.
This isn’t to say that being poor was just fine—it wasn’t. We still felt every bit of shame that the outside world wanted to pile upon us. We still saw the
worried looks on our parents’ faces as they tried to figure out how they were going to make $20 last a week and a half. We still saw how much less our teachers expected from us. But when we were together, we could pretend, even for a little while, that we were the normal ones. That we weren’t broken.
I didn’t realize until I was an adult that most of my poor childhood friends were Asian American
or Pacific Islanders. My idea of Asian Americans very much fit in with the popular stereotype of hard-working, financially and academically successful, quiet, serious people of predominantly East Asian (Chinese, Korean, or Japanese) descent. But most of my friends’ parents were from Guam, the Philippines, Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, and India. Most of my friends’ parents had fled war, conflict, and
economic disaster. They were all poor, they were all struggling, and they were all discriminated against for their brown skin and their strong accents. But even though they were my friends, their racial and ethnic identity was invisible to me and continued to be so well into my adulthood.
And so when I started fighting for racial equality they were not on my mind. When I started fighting for
economic justice, they were not on my mind. And still today, even after having spent years of my life focused on racial justice, Asian Americans are at times an afterthought in my work.
I’m not proud to admit it, but it’s the truth. This is not because I do not know and love many Asian American people—but that excuse doesn’t work for me any more than it does for anybody else. It’s because I’m
a product of this country and I’m just as susceptible to the narrative that fetishizes and erases Asian Americans as anybody else. I, like so many of us, have to do better.
When we think about race in America most of us (with the notable exception of many Asian Americans) think in terms of black and white, and maybe brown Latinx and white, and maybe—just maybe—American Indians and white. But
we rarely talk about the model minority myth and how it affects Asian Americans. And if we do talk about it, we rarely talk about it as a problem.
The model minority myth fetishizes Asian Americans—reducing a broad swath of the world’s population to a simple stereotype. The model minority myth places undue burdens and expectations on Asian American youth and erases any who struggle to live up
to them. The model minority myth erases religious minorities, it erases refugees, it erases queer Asian Americans. The model minority myth gives a pretty blanket for society to hide its racism against Asian Americans under, while separating them from other people of color who suffer from the same white supremacist system. The model minority myth is active racism that is harming Asian Americans, and
we need to talk about it.
OMETHING CALLED “MODEL MINORITY” DOESN’T SEEM
like it would be a problem. When we think of being a “model” for a group, we think of being someone to aspire to. For many people in the Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) community who complain about the model minority myth, this argument, that being a “model minority” is not actually something to complain about,
is often used to silence them. These complaints are often met with an overly simplistic idea of what the model minority myth is. But no, the problem isn’t actually that society just sees Asian Americans as “just too great.” It isn’t that Asian Americans are “just too successful.” The model minority myth is much more complicated and harmful than that.
Originally coined in 1966 by sociologist William
Peterson to profile the socioeconomic success of Japanese Americans, the myth of the “model minority” has become a collection of stereotypes about Asian Americans, presenting them as an “ideal minority group” in the eyes of White Supremacy. Included in these stereotypes are presumptions of academic and financial success, social and political meekness, a strong work ethic, dominance in math
and the sciences, and strict parenting. Peterson’s use of “model minority” was to study the success of Asian Americans, contrasting them with what he termed “problem minorities.”
While some in the Asian American community embraced these stereotypes, many others fought against it. The work of Asian American scholars like Bob Suzuki’s “Education and the Socialization of Asian Americans: A Revisionist
Analysis of the ‘Model Minority’ Thesis” and Ki-Taek Chun’s “The Myth of Asian American Success and Its Educational Ramifications” helped lead early pushback against the idea that all Asian Americans were destined to succeed.
On the surface, the model minority myth does not seem like a myth. Asian Americans do have some of the highest rates of college graduation, highest salaries, and lowest
incarceration rates of minority groups in America. But Asian American sociologists, psychologists, educators, and activists have helped shed light on the reality of life for Asian Americans that the model minority myth hides, and the real harm that it does.
When we say “Asian American” we are talking about an incredibly broad swath of cultures and histories representing a very large portion of
the globe. When we say “Asian American” we are talking about not just people of Japanese,
Korean, and Chinese descent, but also South Asians, Southeast Asians, Pacific Islanders, Indian Americans, Hmong Americans, Vietnamese Americans, Samoans, Native Hawaiians, and more. When we say “Asian American” we are talking about war refugees, tech professionals who first arrived on H-1B visas, and third-generation
Midwesterners. When we say “Asian American” we are talking about so much more than can be fit in a single stereotype.
While every racial minority in the US is subject to harmful stereotyping, the model minority myth becomes hard to combat when it is not seen as harmful because the people most harmed by it are also made invisible by it. So who and what do we not see when we see the “model minority?”
Quite a lot:
The culture, history, and voices of people of Hawaiian, Guamanian, Tongan, Fijian, Samoan, and Marshallese descent, and more, are largely invisible to greater American society and culture, and the needs of Pacific Islanders are often left out of discussions on the needs of Asian Americans.
Extreme economic disparity.
While as a whole,
Asian Americans have wealth and poverty rates similar to those of white Americans, that statistic covers up a wide disparity of wealth and poverty amongst Asian Americans when you look at country of origin. Filipino Americans, on average, have a low poverty rate of 6.7 percent—more than 3 percentage points lower than white Americans. But Cambodian, Laotian, Pakistani, and Thai Americans have
a poverty rate of around 18 percent. Bangladeshi and Hmong Americans have poverty rates between 26 and 28
percent, matching or surpassing that of blacks and Hispanic Americans.
Pacific Islanders have the highest unemployment rate of any racial or ethnic group in the US.
As Ronald Takaki pointed out in his book
A Different Mirror: A History of Multicultural America
, a fair amount of this economic
disparity can be attributed to how Asian Americans immigrated to America over time. Asian Americans were first derided as “unskilled labor” until the 1965 Immigration Act prioritized Asian Americans who were more highly educated and financially successful, in the belief that they would “contribute” more to American society. As the most privileged and skilled immigrants from China and Japan entered
the US, the stereotype of Asian Americans in the US changed to one of a cultural inclination for academic and business success—ignoring the fact that the majority of Chinese and Japanese people who were unable to immigrate did not enjoy the same high levels of income or education. As that myth took hold, it did not adjust to accommodate the vastly different social, educational, and economic
circumstances that Asian refugees were coming from as they fled countries like Vietnam and Cambodia. Nor did it account for the social and economic barriers they, like many other refugee populations, would face when they arrived in the US.
Extreme educational disparity.
While in 2013 Asian Americans had the highest college graduation rate of any racial group in America by far with
53 percent, as with overall numbers of economic success, this number hides a wide disparity based on country of origin: 46 percent of second-generation Cambodian and Laotian Americans
have only a high school degree or less, compared to only 6 percent of second-generation Chinese Americans. The model minority myth makes it even harder for struggling Asian American students to find academic success,
as studies have shown that it causes many K–12 educators to believe that Asian American students need less academic resources for their success—even though approximately one in three Asian Americans (especially those raised in households where English is not spoken) lack proficiency in writing, reading, and speaking skills.
And while many Asian Americans suffer these economic disadvantages and
lack of resources, they often face lower acceptance rates to colleges and universities because they are seen as “overrepresented” in US higher education. When you add in the US immigration processes encouraging a “brain drain” of elites from countries like China and India, the vast majority of the “academic success” we see when we think of Asian Americans is only available to wealthy, highly skilled
immigrants who already have a high level of education, and their offspring—while only 17 percent of Pacific Islanders, 14 percent of Cambodian Americans, and 13 percent of Laotian and Hmong Americans have four-year college degrees,
compared to 22 percent of black Americans and 15 percent of Hispanic Americans.
The stereotype that Asian Americans naturally excel at math and science also discourages
Asian American students from pursuing careers in the arts and humanities and keeps those who do pursue those careers from being taken seriously in their fields. A 2009 census report showed that under 15 percent of Asian American degree holders majored in the arts and humanities, less than any other racial or ethnic group in America.
Limits on professional success.
Americans are seen as professional success stories, very few are able to make it the top of their fields, despite the education and qualifications that they are known for. A 2011 study showed that Asian Americans made up only 1.4 percent of Fortune 500 CEOs and 1.9 percent of all corporate officer positions, and 63 percent of Asian American men reported feeling “stalled” in their careers.
Asian Americans make up between 35 and 60 percent of the workforce in top tech companies like Google and Facebook, they are less than half as likely to reach management levels in the tech industry as their white counterparts.
Hate crimes against Asian Americans.
Hate crimes against all Asian American groups are given little attention in the United States, but because the model
minority myth focuses so heavily on East Asians as the definition of Asian Americans, the alarming rise of hate crimes against South Asians is often ignored. General cultural ignorance about many South Asians makes them targets for violent Islamophobia, even if they are not Muslim. Since the terror attacks on September 11, 2001, many Sikhs and Hindus have reported being the victims of hate attacks
by those mistaking them for Muslim Americans. In the first month after the attack, three hundred hate crimes against Sikh Americans were documented by The Sikh Coalition. In the San Francisco Bay area, 69 percent of turban-wearing Sikh students reported harassment or bullying in a 2008 survey.
In 2012 a white supremacist opened fire in a Sikh temple in Wisconsin, killing six and wounding four.
Health and safety of Asian American women.
The stereotype of the docile and subservient Asian woman is often used to encourage and hide abuse of Asian women by their partners. Between 41 and 61 percent of Asian American women will be physically or sexually abused by their partners in their lifetime—twice the national average for all women.
Studies also show higher rates of depression
and suicidal thoughts in Asian American women. Yet Asian American women are rarely the focus of domestic violence awareness, victim advocacy, or mental health efforts.
Lack of political power.
The stereotype of the “meek” Asian American, combined with social pressure to stick to science and technology fields, has discouraged many Asian Americans from seeking political leadership
and activism roles and prevents those who do seek those roles from being seen as “strong enough” leaders for the task. As of 2017 there is only one Asian American in the US Senate, and only eleven Asian Americans in the House of Representatives. There has not been an Asian American president or vice president in the US, and there have only been seven Asian American state governors in US history
Everyday discrimination and microaggressions against Asian Americans.
The model minority myth puts a lot of pressure on Asian Americans to seem happy with their “great success” in America and live up to the hard-working and docile image projected onto them. This makes it very hard for Asian Americans to complain about racist microaggressions against them, and makes it even
harder for them to be taken seriously when they do.