The Model Minority Myth: An Agent of White Supremacy

This is the first article in a hopeful series about Asian-American politics, specifically as it relates to protest, history, activism, labor, immigration, and more.

With Asian Americans emerging as a formidable electoral force in modern politics, it becomes necessary to address the issue of Asian American depoliticization — as both a myth and a societal reality.

The Current Population Survey reported that Asian American voter registration nearly doubled between 2012 and 2016, increasing from 620,000 to 1.14 million new voters. While Asian American voter registration increases are largely proportional with those of other demographics, this statistic should not be discounted. If leveraged and coalesced properly, the Asian American voting bloc can be a force to be reckoned with.

With that said, only 47 percent of Asian American voters turned out in the 2016 election, as compared to 67 percent of black voters and 64 percent of non-Hispanic white voters.  The disparity between Asian American voter registration and actual mobilization to the polls is unnerving. While electoral politics is not and should not be the only marker of political activism, it is certainly telling of a general apolitical sentiment.

One of the reasons often cited for Asian American depoliticization is the model minority myth, the “cultural expectation placed on Asian Americans as a group that each individual will be smart, wealthy, hard-working, docile, and never in need of assistance.”

While the model minority myth is often peddled as a “good” stereotype, it actively perpetuates white supremacy. The very claim that Asian Americans are a model minority posits the idea that there are other minorities who need to aspire to that model –— and who do not currently fit that model. When the model minority myth praises being smart, wealthy, hard-working, docile, and never in need of assistance, it fundamentally postulates that other racial minorities are respectively unintelligent, poor, lazy, disobedient, and dependent on welfare — all in accordance with racism, specifically anti-blackness.

However, the definition of whiteness is ever-expanding; it must continually adapt in order to retain superiority. For example, while we now consider Italian and Irish people to be white, they were also racially marked throughout the late 19th and 20th century, discriminated against at first, but then gradually integrated into white society. While Asian Americans are certainly not considered to be white, the model minority myth begins to bridge the gap between the two groups—not enough to eliminate discrimination but just enough to cloak the semblance of it.

The model minority myth allows the white majority to perpetuate the racial hierarchy by pedestaling Asian Americans above other minorities, all the while maintaining white supremacy. In accordance with white supremacist ideology, many Asian Americans perpetuate this racial hierarchy out of desperation to assimilate (which by no means is an excuse, but rather an explanation), as is evidenced by the rampancy of anti-blackness in Asian American communities.

In fact, the recent affirmative battle between Harvard and a group of Asian Americans plaintiffs best exemplifies the anti-blackness within the Asian American community. Asian American applicants claim that affirmative action detracts from the acceptance rates of Asian American students into elite schools. From their perspective, college admissions are unfairly overlooking highly-merited Asian American students in favor of black and brown students, presumably with lesser academic and extracurricular achievements. Not only is it wrong to assume that black and brown students are somehow academically or intellectually inferior, but it is also statistically proven that test-based meritocracy is a flawed and insufficient marker of collegiate qualifications. Nonetheless, the aforementioned plaintiffs erroneously dramatize the importance of standardized tests.

Furthermore, the anger surrounding affirmative action is wholly misdirected. Harvard admits legacy students five times more than non-legacy students, and because of historically enduring socioeconomic barriers to higher education, the majority of these legacy students trend towards the “overwhelmingly white and wealthy.” The conversation about affirmative action depreciates the larger problem — that the college application process most favors rich, white legacy students — but of course, this distraction is continually overridden to the benefit of said rich, white legacy student.

Not only does the model minority myth pit minorities against each other, but white supremacists can also exploit it to profess that they are “less racist” than their actions might otherwise suggest, thus counterintuitively empowering white supremacy even more. In idealizing Asian Americans as a model minority, they allege that they can in fact “coexist” with other races—as long as these other races are in alignment with their white supremacist ideals.

The epidemic of “yellow fever” sweeping the alt-right elucidates this fallacy. Yellow fever — the fetishization of Asian women by white men — draws on the model minority myth to sexualize stereotypical Asian characteristics. For example, yellow fever characterizes Asian women as sexually “compliant, subservient, and delicate,” much like how the model minority myth typifies Asian people as submissive and docile. With a dash of misogyny, the model minority is now sexy, exotic, and erotic; it is a disgusting manifestation of the pernicious conflation of sexism and racism.

In fact, the University of Virginia’s own Richard Spencer dated several Asian women. Spencer once remarked, “There is something about the Asian girls. They are cute. They are smart. They have a kind of thing going on. If I am looking at my own life objectively, it really doesn’t surprise me that much.” Presently, he claims his yellow fever was just a phase, “[predating] his evolution into a white nationalist,” but nonetheless, he concedes a special appeal for Asian women.

Perhaps white supremacist men feel as if a relationship with an Asian woman may absolve their racism, elevating them from purely bigots to “color-blind” individuals. Needless to say, this color-blindness limits itself to people of color who can be easily whitewashed, thus again emphasizing the fundamental racist ideology.

The idealization of the model minority and yellow fever go hand in hand; the two may be seemingly innocent in nature — touted as a positive stereotype and a mere racial preference, respectively — but they are insidiously rooted in racism and white supremacy. The mask of non-racism exacerbates the racism itself. The model minority myth is so palatable, marketable, and understandable that it extends its racist reach much faster to the unsuspecting, seemingly good-intentioned white person.

The model minority myth is, of course, founded upon a gross oversimplification of Asian American politics, typecasting Asian Americans into a wealthy, educated East Asian nuclear family. It assumes a certain privilege of all Asian Americans — that all Asian Americans can be occupationally and educationally successful — thus erasing the actual political truth and diverse extent of the Asian American diaspora.

In reality, Southeast Asian Americans graduate from high school in the lowest rates of all racial groups in America. ICE deported 30 Cambodian refugees this past August. Asians compose 10 percent of DACA recipients. One in seven Asian immigrants are undocumented. Asian American hate crimes tripled in Los Angeles County between 2014 and 2015. Asian Americans are three times less likely to find mental health services than their white counterparts. Chinatowns across America are being increasingly gentrified. The University of Virginia employs only 39 faculty members of Asian descent, only a few of whom teach classes relating to the Asian American experience. The list goes on and on.

The model minority myth is only to the benefit of the white majority. By pitting minorities against each other, by oversimplifying Asian American politics, and by silencing the Asian American voice, this myth suppresses the potential political power of the Asian American community. Our racist systems and institutions know all too well the power of the Asian American political coalition, as it has so clearly been demonstrated in the past. We have witnessed Filipino grape strikes and boycotts, UC Berkeley Ethnic Studies program demands, Manzanar internment camp riots, and more. Protest, activism, and politics are a part of our history, yet it escapes us through the endurance of the model minority myth.

Our racist systems and institutions suppress the complex reality of Asian American politics under the simple pretense of the American Dream: the fallacy that anyone can make it in America, that is, if you assimilate as the “model minority,” or whatever else white America wants you to be. But it is a myth — nothing less and nothing more — and it is an incontrovertible design of white supremacy.

Asian American history is inherently political, and to allow it to be erased in the name of white supremacy is a travesty. We must have agency over our narrative, and through an acknowledgment and appreciation of our history, we can reclaim it.