June 8, 2020

GUEST ROOM | Model Minority No More

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An Asian-interest fraternity at New York University was suspended indefinitely after screenshots of a racist exchange by its brothers went viral, sparking outrage and calls for solidarity among Asian Americans.

“… We grinded significantly harder while black peoples were lazy,” read a message.

“They’ve stepped on us due to jealous [sic] because of a ‘model minority’ label white people slapped on to us,” read another.

The sentiments shared shed light on an uncomfortable truth: Asian complicity in anti-black racism. The model minority myth worked primarily as an armor of defense for white Americans against demands for racial justice by the civil rights movement. Though the National Immigration Act of 1965 reversed decades of discriminatory immigration policy by removing geographic restrictions that disfavored Asian immigrants, permission was only granted to those from highly educated backgrounds. The model minority narrative disregarded the fact that Asian immigrants were filtered by educational and professional standards in the first place, creating a poster child for American success achieved by a non-white race. The model minority myth thus inaccurately functioned as ‘proof’ that socioeconomic inequality was a result of laziness, not racism.

For Asian Americans, being hailed as quiet, hardworking citizens seemed favorable compared to the  anti-immigrant rhetoric we still see today. Reinforced stereotypes culminated in a self-fulfilling prophecy: Asian Americans internalized silence and accepted the label of “model” behavior. With it, they accepted anti-blackness and hostility toward other POC as well.

The myth had provided an escape for systemic racism while pitting racial minorities against each other, although “fighting the system” would likely have been a privilege for the first generation of Asian immigrants struggling to resettle in a land of heightened xenophobia. Xenophobia and racism against Asian Americans persists, but so does the privilege we enjoy in the midst of it. We can no longer remain complicit in enabling a system of injustice, fueling a false rivalry between minorities. There is no model minority. Only an angry coalition refusing silence.

Note: Awareness and recognition is a hopeful start, but uprooting requires more than optical allyship.

Joanne Lee is a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences. Comments can be sent to [email protected]. Guest Room runs periodically throughout the summer.