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Breaking Down the Model Minority Myth

Unpacking the stereotypes facing the AAPI community: where they came from and what harm these stereotypes perpetuate for all

Authors: Steph Hsu, Strategic Ops Director, Cristina Diaz-Borda, Editorial Manager

When we asked our AAPI colleagues — 25% of Common Future — to talk about what their identity meant to them in this work, so many mentioned having to defend their place as BIPOC, an unspoken embarrassment that the racism they faced in this country was negligible, and that their lived experiences did not count in the work we do. So many faced questions like “What could an Asian American woman know about racial equity?” — despite 75% of AAPI reportedly living in fear of experiencing racial violence.

We work in the space of trying to eliminate the racial wealth gap. Asian immigrants have enjoyed relative economic success in the past 70 years in America, yet to this day are seen as the perpetual other, forever foreign, regardless of how many generations back their families may have been in this country.

There are 48 countries in Asia, all painted with a single monolithic stereotype which has evolved over 150 years of Asians in America. In this piece, we’ll explore not just the legacy of anti-Asian stereotypes and legislation, but also how white supremacy has strategically terrorized Asians into submission, lionized their economic success — and then pitted them against Black and Latine people.

Where did the Model Minority Myth Come From?

The United States is just shy of 250 years old. The first anti-Asian legislation passed nearly 150 years ago. That’s 60% of our country’s history with a legacy of codified racism against AAPI immigrants and their descendants. And with that legislation, we can see the prevalent through lines of racist stereotypes we see today: the Page Act of 1875 prevented Chinese women from entering the U.S., under the guise of preventing prostitution — a stereotype Asian women struggle with today, often painted as hyper-sexual and objects of fetishization.

Just seven years later, the Chinese Exclusion Act passed as a response to Chinese immigrants allegedly stealing American jobs, and limited their contributions to the economy by restricting what jobs they could access. Jumping to the 1940s — when 120,000 people of Japanese ancestry were forcibly relocated and imprisoned — the Chinese Exclusion Act was repealed, strategically used to pit Chinese immigrants against the Japanese, who were pegged as dangerous interlopers from an aggressive nation. This is also the first instance we see the government passing policies specifically meant to prop one Asian minority group up, and intentionally pit them against the others.

Just 20 years later, with the Cold War looming, the model minority myth was born, and it was weaponized intentionally against other BIPOC groups — as we saw in WWII. For over a century, Asians had been scapegoated as racial others, not worthy of citizenship, equality, or entry to the country — suddenly accepted into society once America needed to court Cold War allies. Historian Ellen Wu explains in her book, The Color of Success, that discrimination was not a good look on the international stage, and that embracing Asian Americans “provided a powerful means for the United States to proclaim itself a racial democracy and thereby credentialed to assume the leadership of the free world.” Brown University economist Nathaniel Hilger further explains that Asian Americans only began to see economic success once the racist narrative around them, and the racism they experienced diminished.

And with this success, a new narrative was born: that Asians were inherently better than other minorities.

Assistant Secretary of Labor, Patrick Moynihan, put down Black and African American communities by comparing them to those of Chinese immigrants and Americans. Japanese Americans received even higher praise: “In spite of being interned by their own government, [Japanese Americans] managed to succeed and become contributing members of society without making a big fuss about being imprisoned against their will,” Angie Chuang, an associate professor in journalism at the University of Colorado explained to National Geographic. But this docile, compliant nature was born out of fear, and did not protect Asians and Asian Americans from the systemic bias and pervasive white supremacy culture.

We call this racial triangulation, and it prevents communities of color from seeing, understanding, and supporting each other.

Exactly one hundred years after the passing of the Chinese Exclusion Act, Vincent Chin — a 27 year-old Chinese American auto worker in Detroit — was murdered by white men who perceived him to be Japanese, and accused him of “stealing their jobs.” One year ago, Atlanta mourned the loss of eight individuals killed in a ruthless targeting of Asian woman owned spas. More recently, with the COVID outbreak a rise in xenophobic sentiment has created a spate of violence against the most vulnerable of Asian Americans, including the elderly. A recent survey shows that more than 75% of Asian Americans worry about experiencing hate crimes, harassment, and discrimination because of COVID-19.

If anything, understanding the origins of these racial underpinnings can help us to draw a line between the history of Asian American and Pacific Islanders, and white supremacy in America. To move forward, we must stand together, drawing on a strong legacy of cross-racial solidarity to draw upon. Our belonging — is not a zero sum game. And so we fight.

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