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‘Model Minority’ myth conceals history of racism against Asian-Americans

Photo by Jason Leung on Unsplash

Roar writer Dinh Nguyen on the damaging effects of the ‘Model Minority’ myth on Asian-Americans.

The world woke up shocked at the hate crimes committed by Robert Aaron Long, who brutally gunned down eight people in two different spas across Atlanta, Georgia in the United States; six of the victims were of Asian descent. The attack followed a series of violence against Asian-Americans, who were blamed for the spread of Covid-19 by the likes of former President Donald Trump, who branded the virus the “Chinese virus”.

The incident also exposed a long-forgotten culture of hate against Asian-Americans in the United States. Ever since the first Chinese immigrants arrived in America in the mid-nineteenth century, they had faced alienation, discrimination, and racial persecution. However, the popular media and the emergence of the “model minority” myth have swept Asian violence under the rug and replace it with a thin veil of admiration.

Sure, if we look at the statistics, Asian-Americans seem to be doing pretty well. The median income for Asians is the highest amongst all ethnic groups, standing one-third above that of White Americans and over double that of African-American households. Stories of Asian successes are also popular in mass media, often presenting them as a “model minority”. Popular stereotypes portray that all Asians are doctors, lawyers, and engineers or that all Asians are good at maths and are hardworking. This is especially problematic. The narrative that all Asians are successful fuses the diverse group into a singular monolith of characteristic and hinders socioeconomic supports, especially considering that Asians see the large income inequality. The top 10% of highest-earning Asian-Americans make 10.7 times more than the lowest 10%. By showing a single narrative of success, lower-income Asian households are underrepresented and will likely receive less social funding.

The stereotype has also historically been used to discredit arguments that racial discrimination exists in the United States. By presenting Asians as a group of successful minorities, the US could get away with not addressing its institutional racism. Pitting people of colour against people of colour, it paints America as a colour-blind paradise where people can succeed regardless of race, while the truth is far from so.

The “model minority” myth also served to cover up the racial injustices that Asian immigrants and Asian-Americans have had to face throughout history. Chinese immigrants that came to America in the nineteenth century to work on the railroad infrastructure had to live in fear as angry, violent mobs roamed the street brainwashed by the idea of a “Yellow Peril”. The discrimination against Chinese was then institutionalised with the introduction of the Page Act of 1875, banning entry into the US for Chinese women, and subsequently The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, banning entry to all Chinese people.

A racist 19th-century advertisement showing Uncle Sam holding a bottle of Magic Washer and kicking a Chinese man off a cliff as others flee to the sea, referencing the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882

Feeling justified by the acts, anti-Chinese Americans went on a crusade to drive these immigrants out of their lands, massacring many in the process. The bill then continued to stand unchallenged for another sixty years, only being repealed as the US sought to improve its relationship with China during WWII. Even then, a quota of only 105 Chinese immigrants a year could enter.

Treatment of Asian-Americans worsened during the Second World War. In 1942, over 100,000 Japanese descendants were taken from their homes and forcefully relocated into internment camps. America effectively turned an entire ethnicity into enemies of the state, further heightening racial tension and tearing apart communities.

Modern America is no stranger to Asian hate either. Soon-to-be husband Vincent Chin was beaten to death in an attack that shocked the Asian American community. His attacker’s reason? They thought he was Japanese. More recently in 2017, two Indian men were shot in a restaurant, one died. The last words the man heard was: “Get out of my country”. The historic mistreatment of Asians in America is then often overshadowed by the overrepresentation of their success in a manufactured narrative where Asians managed to achieve the American Dream, completely disregarding the turbulent history they had to endure. In this narrative, Uncle Sam created opportunities for them to rise when, in reality, Uncle Sam tried time and time again to bring them down.

Violence against Asian-Americans was always there but was outshined by the idea of a “model minority” and by the stories of successful doctors and lawyers. The senseless killings in the Atlanta shooting once again shocked the public into recognising the hateful culture against Asians once hid away by popular media portrayal.

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