Asian Americans Are Still Caught in the Trap of the ‘Model Minority’ Stereotype. And It Creates Inequality for All
Tou Thao's face haunts me. The Hmong American policeman stood with his partner against Derek Chauvin, his partner, when Chauvin knelt on George Floyd's neck for 8 minutes and 46 seconds and murdered him.
In the video I saw, Tou Thao is in the foreground and Chauvin is partially in the background, George Floyd's head is pressed to the ground. Spectators ask Tou Thao to do something because George Floyd didn't move and, as he said, he couldn't breathe.
Tou Thao's face is like mine and not like mine, although George Floyd's face is like mine and not like mine. Through racism, we focus on the differences in our faces rather than on our similarities, and in the alchemical experiment of the United States, racial differences mix with labor exploitation to create an explosive mix of profit and atrocities. In response to endemic American racism, those of us who have been racially stigmatized join our racial differences. We take what white people hate about us and convert stigmata into pride, community and power. So it is that Tou Thao and I are "Asian Americans" because we are both "Asian", which is better than being an "Oriental" or a "Gook". If an Oriental mocks us and a gook can kill us, being an Asian American could save us. Our strength in numbers, solidarity across our many differences in language, ethnicity, culture, religion, national origin and more is the basis for being Asian-American.
But in another reality is Tou Thao Hmong and I am Vietnamese. He was a policeman and I am a professor. Does our Asian nature bring us together across these ethnic and class differences? Does our Southeast Asian being, our two communities brought here in our countries by an American war, mean that we see the world the same way? Has Tou Thao experienced anti-Asian racism that makes us all Asian, whether we like it or not?
Let me go back to a time that is repeated today. Even though I don't remember how old I was when I saw these words, I never forgot them: Another American who was driven out of business by the Vietnamese. Maybe I was 12 or 13. It was the early 1980s and someone had written it on a sign in a shop window near my parents' shop. The sign confused me because while I was born in Vietnam, I had grown up in Pennsylvania and California and had taken in all kinds of Americana: the Mayflower and the Pilgrims; Cowboys and indians; Audie Murphy and John Wayne; George Washington and Betsy Ross; the oath of loyalty; the declaration of Independence; the guarantee of life, freedom and the pursuit of happiness; all the fantasy and folklore of the American dream.
Two immigration officers interrogate Chinese immigrants suspected of being communists or leaving seafarers on Ellis Island. | Bettmann Archive / Getty Images
Part of this dream was against communism and capitalism, which was perfect for my parents. They were born poor in rural families and without much schooling and only with their ingenuity and hard work became successful business people. They fled Communist Vietnam in 1975 after losing all of their property and most of their wealth. What they carried with them - including some gold and money sewn into the hem of their clothes - they bought a house off the San Jose freeway in 1978 and opened the second Vietnamese grocery store there. They called their shop New Saigon optimistic and nostalgia.
I am older than my parents now when they had to start their lives in this country with little English. What they did is remembered as an almost unimaginable achievement. In the age of the corona virus, I'm not sure how to sew a mask and I'm worried about buying groceries. As survivors of the war, my parents struggled to live as a foreigner in a foreign country again, learned to read mortgage documents in another language, enroll my brother and I in school, and take driver's license exams. But there was no manual that told them how to buy a business that wasn't offered for sale. They called strangers and navigated the bureaucracy to find the owners and persuade them to sell while suffering from the trauma of losing their land and leaving almost all of their relatives behind. When my parents bought the business, my mother's mother died in Vietnam. She almost broke the news.
Somehow the person who wrote this sign saw people like my mother and father as less human than enemies. So I am not surprised by the rising tide of anti-Asian racism in this country. Sick, yes, to be heard from a woman who was splashed with acid on her doorstep; a man and his son were cut open in a Sam's club by a knife-swinging assailant; Many people are referred to as "Chinese virus" or "chink virus" or are asked to go to China, even if they are not of Chinese origin. People who are spat on because they are Asian; People who are afraid to leave their homes, not only because of the pandemic, but also for fear of being verbally or physically assaulted, or just looking crooked. The poet and essayist Cathy Park Hong cataloged these incidents and wrote: “We don't have a corona virus. We are corona virus. "
When I look back, I can remember the low racism of my youth, the stupid jokes my classmates told at Catholic school, like "Is your last name Nam?". and "Did you wear an AK-47 at war?" as well as more obscene. I wonder: did Tou Thao hear such jokes in Minnesota? What did he think of Fong Lee, a 19-year-old Hmong American who was shot in the back eight times and four times in 2006 by Minneapolis police officer Jason Anderson? Anderson was acquitted by a purely white jury.
A classroom of Chinese children in New York, 1900 | Keystone-France / Gamma-Keystone / Getty Images
Given the anti-Asian racism of whites, the Hmong, who came to the United States as refugees in the 1970s and 1980s, were often relocated to different urban areas, some in predominantly black communities, where they also faced racism. "There are countless stories in our community about batteries, robberies and intimidation from our black neighbors," Yia Vue wrote recently. "The Hmong live side by side with their Afro-American neighbors in poorer neighborhoods, with generations of misunderstandings and stereotypes still strongly anchored on both sides." But when Fong Lee was killed, black activists rallied for his cause. "They were the loudest voices for us," said Lee's sister Shoua. "You didn't ask to show up. You just showed up."
In contrast to the engineers and doctors, who came mainly from Hong Kong, Taiwan, China and India - the exemplary minority in the American imagination - many Hmong refugees came from a war-torn rural life in Laos. They were traumatized in the midst of poverty and a complicated history of racial oppression that they knew little about. Even the Hmong, who condemn Tou Thao and advocate solidarity with Black Lives Matter, insist that they should not be seen through the lens of model minority experience unless exposed to liberal Asian-American guilt and manual labor over Tou Thao as Symbol of complicity. Christian Minister Ashley Gaozong Bauer, Hmong ancestry, writes: "We had to be part of the collective disgrace of the exemplary minority, but when did Asian Americans take part in the pain and suffering of the Hmong refugee story and the threats of deportation?"
Like the Hmong, Vietnamese like me suffered from war, and some are now facing deportation. Unlike many Hmong, a large number of Vietnamese refugees intentionally or otherwise became part of the exemplary minority, including myself. The low-level racism that I have experienced has occurred in elite environments. When I entered my mostly white, private school, the message was clear to me and the few of us who were of Asian descent. Most of us gathered in a corner of the campus every day and called ourselves "the Asian invasion" with a laugh or maybe a twitch. But if that was a joke we made at our own expense, it was also a prophecy because when I returned to campus a few years ago to give a talk about races to the assembled student body, about 1,600 young men, I realized that if we hadn't taken over completely, it would still be many of us almost 30 years later. We were no longer the threat of the Asian invasion, but the exemplary minority: the desirable classmate, the preferred neighbor, the non-threatening type of colored person.
Or were we? A couple of Asian-American students spoke to me afterwards and said they still felt it. The atmosphere. The feeling of being strange, especially if they were Muslim or brown or Middle Eastern or were perceived as such. The atmosphere. Racism is not just a physical attack. I was never physically attacked because of my appearance. But I had been attacked by the racism of the air waves, the Ching Chong jokes from radio shock jocks, the malicious or comic Japs and Chinks and Gooks from American war films and comedies. Like many Asian Americans, I've learned to be ashamed of the things that supposedly made us strange: our food, our language, our hairstyles, our fashion, our smell, our parents.
What aggravated these feelings, Hong argues, was that we said to ourselves that these were "little feelings." How could we feel or say something valid about race if we were supposed to be accepted as an exemplary minority by American society? At the same time, the anti-Asian mood remained a reservoir of important feelings from which the Americans could always draw in times of crisis. Asian Americans still don't have enough political power or cultural presence to get many of our fellow Americans to implement a racist idea. Our unimportance and historical status as eternal foreigners in the United States are one of the reasons why the President and many others believe that they can call COVID-19 a "Chinese virus" or "kung flu".
Japanese-American residents of Los Angeles say goodbye to relatives and friends who are deported to Japan in October 1941. Hulton-Deutsch / Corbis / Getty Images Collection
The basis of anti-Asian racism is that Asians belong to Asia, no matter how many generations we actually lived in non-Asian countries or what we could have done to prove that we belong to non-Asian countries if we were not born there . Pointing the finger at Asians in Asia or Asians in non-Asian countries has long been a proven method of racism. in the United States, it dates from the 19th century.
At that time, the United States imported thousands of Chinese workers to build the transcontinental railroad. When their usefulness was over, American politicians, journalists, and business leaders racially demonized them to appease white workers who felt threatened by Chinese competition. The result was white mobs that lynched Chinese migrants, drove them out of the cities en masse, and burned Chinatowns. The pinnacle of anti-Chinese sentiment was the adoption of the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, the first racially discriminatory immigration law in American history that would make Chinese entry into the United States the country's first illegal immigrant population. The Immigration and Naturalization Service was set up to monitor Chinese immigration and identify Chinese who came to the United States as "sons of paper" who claimed to have a fictional relationship with the Chinese who had already managed to enter the country. Political scientist Janelle Wong told me that while "European immigrants faced widespread hostility, they were never exposed to the legal racial restrictions on immigration and naturalization that Asian Americans experienced."
American history has been marked by the cycle of large corporations that depend on cheap Asian workers, which has threatened the white working class, whose fears have been fueled by racist politicians and the media, leading to catastrophic events such as the Chinese expulsion law and the internment of Japanese Americans in 1942. The person who wrote this sign that I saw as a child and who accused the Vietnamese of destroying American businesses simply told a story about the yellow peril that was always available to anxious Americans.
The reality was that downtown San Jose was shabby in the 1970s and 1980s, a rundown place where almost no one but Vietnamese refugees wanted to open new businesses. Today, Americans rely on China and other Asian countries to get cheap goods that help Americans live the American dream. Then they turn around and accuse the Chinese of losing American jobs or increasing American vulnerability to economic competition.
It is easier to blame a foreign country or a minority, or even politicians who negotiate trade agreements, than to identify the real power: companies and business elites that shift jobs, maximize profits at the expense of workers, and do not care about working people Americans care. Recognizing this reality is too worrying for many Americans who blame Asians for an easier answer. Asian Americans have not forgotten this anti-Asian story, and yet many have hoped that it is behind them. The arch of the "Chinese virus" has shown how fragile our acceptance and inclusion was.
Faced with renewed attacks on our American affiliation, former presidential candidate Andrew Yang offered this solution: “We Asian Americans have to embrace and show our Americans in ways we have never had before. We should no doubt show that we are Americans who will make our contribution to our country in this time of need. “Many Asian Americans were offended by his call, which seemed to apologize for our Asian-American existence. Yang's critics pointed out that Asian Americans literally wrapped themselves in the American flag in times of the anti-Asian crisis. donated to white neighbors and fellow citizens in emergencies; and died for this country that fought in its wars. And is there anything more American than going to the police? Did Tou Thao think he would prove himself by becoming a cop?
None of these efforts has prevented the persistent persistence of anti-Asian racism. The call for more victims only reinforces the feeling that Asian Americans are not Americans and must continually prove an American who does not need to be proven. Japanese Americans had to prove their American during World War II by fighting Germans and Japanese while their families were imprisoned, but German and Italian Americans never had to prove their American to the same extent. German and Italian Americans were selectively detained for suspected or actual infidelity, while Japanese Americans were detained on a large scale and classified as un-American based on their race.
Asian Americans are caught between the perception that we are inevitably foreign and the temptation to be allied with whites in a country based on white domination. As a result, racism against blacks (and against browns and natives) is deeply rooted in the Asian-American communities. Immigrants and refugees, including Asian, know that we usually have to start low on the ladder of American success. But no matter how deep we are, we know that America allows us to stand on the shoulders of black, brown and indigenous people. Throughout Asian-American history, Asian immigrants and their descendants, both black and white, have been given the opportunity to choose a side of black and white segregation, and we have chosen the white side far too often. Although Asian Americans actively criticize anti-Asian racism, they have not always spoken out against racism against blacks. We have often joined the status quo and are connected to whites.
The Japanese owner of this grocery store in Oakland, California, shows a sign that reminds pedestrians of its loyalty to America and not to Japan in 1944. Library of Congress / Corbis / VCG / Getty Images
And yet there were noisy Asian Americans who demanded solidarity with blacks and other colored people, from activist Yuri Kochiyama, who cradled a dying Malcolm X, to activist Grace Lee Boggs, who settled in Detroit and was seriously committed to radical organization and Theorizing with her black husband James Boggs. Kochiyama and Lee Boggs were far from the only Asian Americans who argued that Asian Americans shouldn't stand alone or just for themselves. The term Asian American, coined by Yuji Ichioka and Emma Gee in the 1960s and adopted by student activists, was brought into national consciousness by a movement that was more than just defending Asian Americans against racism and promoting an Asian American identity aimed at.
Asian-American activists also saw anti-war, anti-imperialism and anti-capitalism in their movement. Inspired by the 1955 Bandung Conference, a gathering of misaligned African and Asian nations, and Mao, they were in an international struggle against colonialism with other colonized peoples. Mao also inspired radical African Americans, and the late 1960s in the United States was a moment when radical activists of all backgrounds saw themselves as part of a Third World movement that racially upraged minorities with a global rebellion against capitalism, racism, colonialism, and the like War combined war.
The legacy of the Third World and the Asian-American movements continue today among Asian-American activists and scholars who have long argued that Asian Americans have a radical potential to tackle the worst of the worst because of their history of racism and labor exploitation of offer American society. But the more than 22 million Asian Americans, over 6% of the American population, have many different national and ethnic origins and ancestors, as well as periods of immigration or settlement. As a result, we often have different political views. Today's Asian Americans are offered two paths: the radical future imagined by the Asian-American movement and the consumer model symbolized by drinking Boba tea and listening to K-Pop. While Asian Americans are increasingly democratic, we are by no means radical.
What usually unites and annoys Asian Americans is anti-Asian racism and murder, from 19th-century anti-Chinese violence and virulence to incidents like a white shooter killing five Vietnamese and Cambodian refugee children in a Stockton, California. The murder of Vincent Chin, who was killed in 1982 by white Detroit auto workers who thought he was Japanese, remains a collective call. Just like the 1992 Los Angeles riots or riots when much of Koreatown was burned down by mostly black and brown looters while the LAPD watched. Korean-American merchants suffered about half of the economic damage. Two Asian Americans were killed in the violence.
All of this is cause for sadness, memory and indignation, but also something else: the 61 other people who died were not Asians, and most of them were black or brown. Most of the more than 12,000 arrested were also black or brown. In short, the Korean Americans suffered economic losses and emotional and psychological damage that would last for years. But they had property to lose, and they weren't paying the price for their delicate American by the same loss of life or freedom that their black and brown clients and neighbors experienced.
Many Korean Americans were angry because they felt that the city's law enforcement and political leaders had sacrificed them by preventing the riots from reaching the whiter parts of the city, causing the Korean Americans to be the brunt of the past long smoldering rage of black and brown angelenos to carry poverty, segregation and abusive police treatment. Subsequently, Koreatown was rebuilt, although not all shopkeepers made a living. Ironically, part of the money used to rebuild Koreatown came from South Korea, which had been turned into an economic power plant for decades. The South Korean capital, and eventually South Korean pop culture, especially cinema and K-pop, became cooler and more fashionable than the Korean immigrants who had left South Korea for the American dream. While the economic struggle still dominated much of the life of Korean immigrants, it was overshadowed by the general American perception of Asian-American success as well as the new factor of Asian capital and competition.
This is what it means to be an exemplary minority: to be invisible in most circumstances, because we do what we should do, like my parents, until we become hypervisible, because we do what we do too well like the Korean shopkeeper. Then the exemplary minority becomes an Asian invasion, and the Asian-American exemplary minority who have demonstrated the success of capitalism are to blame if capitalism fails.
The National Guard at the Korean Pride Parade in Los Angeles on April 29, 1992 after the riots swept through the city after three out of four police officers accused of beating Rodney King in 1991 were freed from all charges. | Ted Soqui - Corbis / Getty Images
Not to say that we bear the brunt of capitalism. In the midst of America's tense racial relations, we benefit more from American capitalism than from black, brown or indigenous peoples, even though many of us are also affected by poverty and marginalization. While some of us are dying from police abuse, it is not happening to the same extent as against black, brown, or indigenous people. While we experience segregation, racism and hostility, we also live in integrated neighborhoods rather than blacks or indigenous people. As we benefit from our race, we are complicit in maintaining a system that discriminates against black, brown, and indigenous peoples because of their race.
Given our weak place in American society, it is no wonder that so many Asian Americans are proving their Americans or dreaming of acceptance by a white-dominated society, or do not want to condemn Tou Thao as neither of us. But when Asian Americans speak of their huge collective that originated in East, West Asia and South and Southeast Asia, who is the "we" we use? The elite multiculturalism of colored faces in high positions is a noble representation policy that focuses on assimilation. So long excluded from American life, marked as unassimilable aliens and eternal foreigners, we asked where we came from and praised our English, Asian immigrants and their descendants who have passionately tried to make this country our own. But from the point of view of many blacks, browns, and indigenous people, this country was built on their enslavement, expropriation, extinction, forced migration, detention, segregation, abuse, exploitation, and colonization.
For many, if not all blacks, browns and indigenous people, the American dream is a farce as well as a tragedy. Multiculturalism may make us feel good, but it won't save the American dream. Redress, economic redistribution, and refinancing or abolition of the police could.
If Hmong experiences better match the failure of the American dream, what does it mean for some Asian Americans to still want their piece of it? If we claim America, we must claim all of America, its hope and hypocrisy, its profit and pain, its freedom and loss, its imperfect union and its continued segregation.
Asian-American is therefore paradoxical, because being Asian-American is both necessary and inadequate. It is necessary to be Asian American. The name and identity give us something to organize around so that we can have more than just "little feelings". I vividly remember how I became an Asian American in my second year when I switched to UC Berkeley, entered campus and was instantly hit by intellectual and political lightning. With my Asian American study courses and fellow students from the Asian American Political Alliance, I was no longer a faceless part of an "Asian invasion". I was an Asian American. I had a face, a voice, a name, a movement, a story, an awareness, an anger. This anger is a great feeling that compels me to reject a submissive apology policy that requires uncritical acceptance of the American dream.
But the anger at the heart of the Asian-American movement - a just anger, an anger for justice, recognition, salvation - could not overcome the movement's transformation into a watered-down, if empowering, identity. In its most watered-down form, Asian-American identity is also open to racism against blacks, the acceptance of colonization, and the firing of the American war machine that Americans from all democratic and republican parties accept as part of the United States
Refugees from Vietnam descend stairs from a plane in Oakland, California, April 1975 | Ted Streshinsky - Corbis / Getty Images
My presence here in this country, and that of my parents and the majority of the Vietnamese and Hmong, can be traced back to the so-called Vietnam War in Southeast Asia, to which the United States has contributed. The war in Laos was called "the secret war" because the CIA waged it and kept it secret from the American people. In Laos, the Hmong were a stateless minority without a country of their own, and CIA advisers promised the Hmong that if they fought with them, the US would take care of the Hmong both in victory and in defeat, and may even help them would win their own home. About 58,000 Hmong fought with the Americans were killed, fought against Communists, and rescued defeated American pilots who carried out secret bombings over Laos. When the war ended, the CIA gave up most of its Hmong allies and brought only a small number from the country to Thailand. Those who stayed behind were persecuted by their communist enemies.
That's why Tou Thao's face follows me.
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