Being a “model” is not always good, especially when it doesn’t bring you a turn on the catwalk or “Sexiest Man or Woman Alive” titles.
Like a gigantic vacuum cleaner that sucks, the Covid-19 coronavirus pandemic has ripped the covers off of many longstanding problems in society. One of these problems has been the “Model Minority” myth that Asian Americans have been saddled with for so many years. This myth has been a cover in and of itself. “Model Minority” may initially sound like a compliment but really isn’t. It’s kind of like telling someone, “you clean up nicely”, “wow, you actually came up with a good idea”, or “you’re pretty/smart/funny for a cardboard box.”
This “Model Minority” label is fraught with oh so many problems. First of all, it suggests that everything is peachy for Asian Americans, which as you’ll see is far from the case. Pretending that everything is fine is like telling people in mid-2020 that the pandemic was rounding the corner or believing that termites are simply crashing in your house temporarily like an Airbnb rental. Ignoring a problem just allows it to get worse and worse.
But that’s not the only thing. “Because we have been labeled as the model minority,” explained actress Catherine Haena Kim, who portrays Special Agent Emily Ryder on the CBS TV series FBI. “We have been taught to be small and quiet and not ruffle feathers. Asian Americans are to do what’s expected of them.” It’s reminiscent of the “be like the teacher’s pet” argument: your success doesn’t depend on your individual talent or ability but on how much you listen and are “agreeable.”
Small? Quiet? Agreeable? Anyone thinks that these terms actually apply to Asian Americans in general hasn’t really been around enough Asian Americans. “We are actually not as silent as people think,” said actor Tzi Ma, who played Solon Han in the Rush Hour movies and is appearing in the new Kung Fu television series on the CW. “The model minority means don’t start trouble. We can actually start trouble. One of the first labor actions in the U.S. was by Chinese rail workers striking for better pay. We participated with the civil rights movement. We’re vocal now, supporting Black Lives Matter.”
Then there’s the use of this “Model Minority” argument to chastise other persons of color in a “be more like Asian Americans and don’t complain about racism” type of way. That, in turn, has served as a “racial wedge between Asians and Blacks” and other communities of color, in the words of Kat Chow writing for NPR. After all, how many students say, “hmm, whom do we really trust? How about the teacher’s pet?” The teacher’s pet doesn’t get invited to the student parties but isn’t quite the teacher either.
At the same time, some Asian Americans have actually bought into the “Model Minority” myth, believing that there is no racism or discrimination. Some have even gone as far as to fight against other persons of color. This may stem in part from a “hey, the Prom King or Queen likes me” attitude or “there are limited club passes available for persons of color” belief. The Prom King or Queen won’t date everyone, unless he or she is into that kind of stuff. So if one racial minority gets invited on the date or to “the club,” that seems to mean that others can’t. “We cannot buy into this divide and conquer attitude,” said Ma. “We need to solve our attitudes towards other persons of color.”
This whole “Model Minority” thing continued relatively unchallenged for many years. However, in 2020, along came the severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV2). The virus then essentially said, “silly humans, tricks are for pathogens,” exposing many of the previously hidden ongoing ills of society. With the SARS-CoV2 causing economic disruption, suffering, and death and the national response to the virus being botched, many Americans looked for someone to blame or scapegoat. And, surprise, surprise, who seemed to be first on that list: that darn “Model Minority.”
Unless you’ve been sitting in your toilet paper teepee all this time or don’t listen to the real news, you may have heard of what happened next. People started blaming Asians for the pandemic. And when people blame, they don’t buy gift cards. They lash out at the people whom they are blaming, especially if they view them as easy marks. A couple months ago, I wrote for Forbes about the anti-Asian violence that has been occurring and rising during the pandemic. A recent survey by the Pew Research Center found that around 32% of Asian adults indicated that “they have feared someone might threaten or physically attack them,” which is higher than other racial or ethnic groups and about 45% of Asian adults say “they have experienced at least one of five specific offensive incidents since the start of the coronavirus outbreak.”
The violence during the pandemic, which has included physical assaults on elder Asian American adults, has been so striking that it has been hard to ignore. It’s led to the efforts like #WashTheHate campaign to help address this problem. For example, #WashTheHate created the following national public service announcement that’s run on national networks such as ABC, NBC, ESPN and TNT and featured Kim, Ma, Celia Au, an actress in Wu Assassins and Nora From Queens, Andrew Chau, co-founder of Boba Guys, Diana Lee Inosanto, a stunt actress in The Sensei, Alok V Menon, performance artist in Femme in Public, and Grace Young a Culinary Historian:
At the same time, many political leaders and media personalities weren’t making things easier. For example, as as I covered for Forbes last year then U.S. President and current Mar-A-Lago resident Donald Trump kept calling the severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV2) the “China virus” and the “kung-flu” virus, despite repeated pleas from Asian Americans to stop.
According to a recent LAAUNCH (Leading Asian Americans to Unite for Change) report, in a recent survey of 2,766 adult U.S. residents showed, only 33% said that Asian Americans are respected in the U.S. Moreover, 80% of Asian Americans said that they are discriminated against in the U.S. Yet, despite the recent news coverage of anti-Asian racism and violence, 37% of white Americans, 46% of Republicans, and 22% of Democrats remained unaware of these problems. In fact, the report said that “Nearly a quarter of white Americans and over a third of Republicans do not believe anti-Asian American racism is a problem that should be addressed.”
All of this doesn’t sound too model-esque, does it? Of course, one positive is that there is finally more attention being paid to the myth-iness of the Model Minority myth. “More people are speaking out,” said Kim. “A lot of non-Asian want to speak out too but don’t know how to act. We need to have more uncomfortable conversations about race.”
Last week, Connie Hangzan Jin wrote an article for NPR entitled, “6 Charts That Dismantle The Trope Of Asian Americans As A Model Minority,” which did exactly that. Myth One was that “Asian Americans are a single monolithic group,” when in fact Asian Americans are incredibly diverse. How many times have you heard people say something like, “oh there’s Bob, who likes to fish, often goes shirtless, and owns a hot dog stand, Jerry, who is super funny, was on the town council, and sings show tunes really well, and that Asian guy” in a way that puts the Asian Americans race first and turns him or her into a faceless entity.
This has contributed to hatred and violence against Asian Americans during the pandemic. What the government of the People’s Republic of China may do really has nothing to do with most Asian Americans. In fact, the vast majority of Asian Americans have very little association with mainland China. Nevertheless, mainland China and Asian Americans are constantly being clumped together.
“This is nothing new and has happened since Asian Americans first stepped foot on this land,” said Tzi Ma. “Many cannot discern the difference between what’s happening in China versus here. They are just going to assume that’s it’s all of us.” He added, “They just lump us all together even though we’ve been here for over a 100 years. For example, Wen Ho Lee was called a Chinese spy.” By the way, Wen Ho Lee, PhD, is a Taiwanese-American scientist, who in 1999 while working at the Los Alamos National Laboratory was accused of stealing U.S. nuclear secrets for the People’s Republic of China. Yet, federal investigators were subsequently unable to prove such accusations, leading him to eventually write a memoir entitled My Country Versus Me.
Jin also highlighted in her article the three myths that “Asian Americans are high earning and well educated”, “Asian Americans face less systemic racism and discrimination” and “Asian Americans are fairly represented in leadership positions.” While the survey for the LAAUNCH report found that nearly half of Americans believed that Asian Americans are either over-represented or fairly represented in senior leadership positions in American companies, politics, media or other realms, data and experience have shown quite the opposite. When is the last time you saw an Asian American man as the lead in a Hollywood rom-com? How many Asian American women do you see in mainstream TV? Ma pointed out the the TV series that he now stars in, the CW’s “Kung Fu,” has an Asian American lead and heroine actress Olivia Liang. This is clearly still very rare.
Politics and big business aren’t much better. Count the number of Asian Americans who have been in the White House cabinet in recent years or the heads of Fortune 500 companies.
Things don’t look much better when you look at fields and industries where many Asian Americans occupy entry level positions such as tech or health care. Where are the Asian Americans when it comes to senior management of big tech companies, hospitals, medical schools, and schools of public health?
A New York Times report from last September revealed that Asian Americans held only about 3% of the “Positions of Power” in the U.S., despite comprising 7% of the U.S. population, leaving them the least represented of all racial groups in sectors like politics. In fact, focusing on those of East Asian decent drops the numbers even further.
Here’s part of the tweet thread for that article:
Ultimately, the Model Minority myth can be bad for the professional, financial, social, emotional, mental, and physical health of Asian Americans in different many ways. It creates a role, a box for Asian Americans. It fails to account for true diversity. It limits opportunities. It actually fosters bias and discimination. It limits assistance for those who need help as well. Additionally, it can leave the vast numbers of Asian Americans who are not doing well feeling even worse and more isolated. They may be reluctant to admit that things aren’t going well or to seek help because then the response might be, “what’s wrong with you?” Finally, the “Model Minority” myth continues the perpetual foreigner feeling that even those born in the U.S. continue to experience, the you’re not quite American and are here simply because you are allowed to be here.
Heck it’s not even clear how else the Covid-19 pandemic has been affecting Asian Americans. For example, New York University rsearchers Matthew K. Chin, Lan N. Đoàn, Stella K. Chong, Jennifer A. Wong, Simona C. Kwon, and Stella S. Yi recently wrote for the Health Affairs blog “poor data quality and lack of disaggregated race/ethnicity data have hampered our ability to identify and mitigate Covid-19-related disparities for Asian Americans as well as identify the mechanisms underlying these disparities.”
As they say with health problems, the first step to solving a problem is to admit that it is indeed a problem and then figure out the true breadth and depth of the problem. The Model Minority myth has been a cover up, covering up a lot of problems that Asian Americans have continued to face for years. The past year has seen increasing efforts to debunk this myth such as the University of Southern California (USC) Pacific Asia Museum’s Debunking the Model Minority Myth exhibit. The amount of media coverage of Asian American issues has increased over the past year. More needed conversations are occurring.
“A lot of conversations were being held with people who were already in the know,” Kim explained. “Finally the pool of people is expanding. A lot of people have been surprised that all of this is happening because they just didn’t know.”
She added, “A lot of people do want to learn and grow. A lot of people are humble, that they don’t have the answers. They are earning and growing along with everyone else.”
And more and more Asian Americans, Black Americans, Native Americans, Latin Americans, and other persons of color are realizing that they are facing very similar experiences:
While all of this is a start, things must go much further. There has to be an understanding that the pandemic didn’t create these problems of anti-Asian racism and violence. Racism isn’t among the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) list of possible Covid-19 symptoms as I wrote previously for the Milken Institute’s Power of Ideas. Instead, the virus has revealed the already very broken systems in the U.S. Once the U.S. can better contain this virus, things can’t just return to how they were pre-pandemic. It should be clear once and for all that Asian Americans are not a “Model Minority.” We’ve already seen too much to know that this is defintely not the case.