Edit: I wrote most of this in summer 2020 but reading Cathy Park Hong’s book Minor Feelings: An Asian-American Reckoning made me want to revisit this draft and get some more ideas down. And hit publish on this draft in case these rough thoughts resonate with anyone reading.
I’ve spent the past several weeks (summer 2020) paying close attention to the BLM movement in the forms of donating, researching, and reading. As a result of this, I believe that the path toward progress and justice involves a large deal of self-reflection and self-awareness. Especially in acknowledging, confronting, and tackling our own privileges and biases. I identify as an Indian-American, and I understand that in this country, there are a number of preconceived notions that come with this identity. However, the concept of a “model minority” was very new to me until spring 2020. In case you’re not familiar with it — a model minority is any minority demographic whose members are perceived to achieve a higher degree of socioeconomic status than the population average. This level of “success” is determined by a number of factors including education, income, high family stability, and low criminality. Asian Americans in particular often fall under this category of people. The model minority concept is especially problematic because it serves as a racial wedge between Asian and Black people.
The notion of model minority also has to do with its ties to whiteness and perceived whiteness. I’m not proud to say this but for much of my life, I’ve semi-participated in this narrative. Even something as simple as my name — I always felt somewhat glad to have a name that people could easily pronounce as “Mo-ni-ca”. This probably ties back to elementary school days of roll call and daily attendance. Before I knew it, I was (and still am) much more comfortable with the “American” way of pronouncing my own name as opposed to the more traditional, Indian pronunciation that I’ve had various people and family friends call me over the years. This is something I noticed when I later analyzed the ways I’d introduce myself to new people with a quick “Hi, I’m Monica.” I always notice and mentally bookmark ethnically ambiguous and easy-to-pronounce names when coming across them.
I grew up in an affluent, 91% white town, with about 5 other Indian-American students in my grade most of the time. Not exactly the picture of diversity. While the term model minority is relatively new to me, I’m not a stranger to some of the benefits of the label — in high school, people often asked me for help on math & science assignments, thought I was very musically inclined, and inquired about my Indian heritage because they were curious. I never really questioned it back then, because a lot of these things leaned positively. One girl in my APUSH class even admitted to me at the end of the year that she used to cheat off me on exams since she assumed I always knew what I was doing and studied hard.
But when thinking about our place in the model minority myth to further contextualize within the BLM space, it’s important to examine where the success of Asians and Indian immigrants is coming from. From second grade onwards, there was always a small section in my social studies classes focused on race during my time at YCSD (Yorktown Central School District). But I realized later on that we were taught a false narrative, something along these lines: segregation and racism existed for many years, the Jim Crow laws passed, the Civil Rights Movement surfaced, Martin Luther King Jr. arose and used nonviolent tactics to end segregation, and BAM end of the story. I wonder why the discussion ended there because it would have been informative to be exposed to examples of modern-day racism and learn the tools to address it.
I’m glad that people in my community are actively taking steps to address some of the issues in my own town’s educational system. A group of current and former students wrote this petition to the administration to demand a revised curriculum including anti-racism content and a panel of diverse teachers to spearhead racial justice education. This is especially important to address because in my 12 years in the Yorktown school district I’ve had a non-white teacher only once.
I digress. There are a number of actions one can take to counteract the effects of the pervasive stereotypes within the model minority umbrella. In my opinion, the most important thing that we can do is simply recognize the privileges granted to certain groups and stop using them as a way to drive wedges and amplify differences between people. Maybe this just means to stop pointing out these differences in conversation, and being more intentional about what we say and who we say it to.
Some people are born into circumstances that make certain parts of life “easier” for them, such as getting a good education or easier access to highly coveted career paths. And if you happen to be in one of these privileged positions, I believe it’s part of your responsibility to do what’s in your power to make it a more level playing field for your successors. On a more individual level, Asian Americans and others affected by the positives of the model minority myth can challenge back on the stereotypes laid upon them, such as making sure they are focused on their own goals (not the sometimes unrealistic expectations of their peers or families).
<insert January 2022 edits>
Reading Hong’s book Minor Feelings made me realize more complexities of what I’d written 1.5 years ago. Her examples and lived stories demonstrate that the treatment of Asian-American people in the US is often not positive and actually quite emotionally and physically harmful. This is also evidenced in countless Asian hate crimes that unfortunately continue to occur. Luckily there are organizations such as Stop AAPI Hate doing great work to help where they can; and are actively taking donations.
I’m not at all sure how to conclude given all this, but I hope that we can work to create a better future for Asian-American people in the US and improve the ways we treat one another.