How White America Uses “Model Minority” As A Racial Wedge
“Lil Bit! You’re like a size two, you’re a tiny little thing,” proclaims Paula Buchanan. Paula, a communications consultant, is a fellow Tulane alumnus whom I have the pleasure of calling my mentor, and is for the record, shorter than me.
In addition to the nickname, “Lil Bit” she also likes to assign me the label, “brown chick.” I am East Asian and I have lighter skin, so I never felt that I could take “brown chick” as my identity.
But Paula responds, “I see all people of color as brown chicks or brown guys...I hate when they say ‘non-white.’ It’s almost like you’re putting a stigma on me because I’m not one of you. No, no, no, we are people of color, and y’all are not people of color...We’re all really just shades of brown, some of us are lighter, some of us are darker, and some are in the middle. We aren’t white, but we are all people of color. So, maybe we can just call ourselves beige people. Shades of beige.”
“Fifty shades of beige,” I chime in.
It’s not uncommon for Paula and me to have conversations like these. Paula, an older African-American woman and I, a young East Asian-American woman, despite what one may assume at first glance, have a lot in common. One of those commonalities includes our views about white America’s role in race relations, which is what we sat down to discuss in this piece.
One of the most striking examples of white America pitting people of color against each other is the 2014 lawsuit against Harvard University by Students for Fair Admissions, a nonprofit group that opposes affirmative action and that has garnered strong support from Asian-Americans who claim the university discriminated against them.
Plot twist: the lawsuit was orchestrated by white, conservative legal strategist Edward Blum. Blum is also the same man who spearheaded another lawsuit to get rid of affirmative action, Fisher v. Texas, which went up to the Supreme Court. After the failure of this lawsuit, Blum boldly claimed he needed to use “Asian American plaintiffs,” a clear example of whites using Asian-Americans as a wedge.
“I think [Blum] is an opportunist and he’s taking advantage of a system...he is not an ally of the people that he is ‘supporting.’ In a backhanded, roundabout way, this is going to come back and it’s gonna hurt all people of color,” says Paula.
Blum masquerades as a defender of the interests of Asian-Americans whom he positions as the “model minority,” a term coined by sociologist William Petersen in 1966 to describe how Japanese-Americans, despite being marginalized, have been able to climb the ladder to success. However, Blum’s true agenda is to end any consideration of race in college admissions. He uses Asian-Americans, the “model minorities,” as a prop to perpetuate anti-blackness, which is not beneficial to any group but whites.
Firstly, “model minority” is problematic because it spreads the idea that Asians are a monolithic group, which erases disparities between Asian groups. Currently, Asian-Americans are the fastest growing minority group in the US, but have the widest income gap, despite being depicted as the highest-achieving group. For example, Bhutanese Americans have far higher rates of poverty than other Asian populations, like Japanese-Americans.
Despite what’s portrayed in Crazy Rich Asians, “Not all Asians are rich. When I was in San Francisco, I saw plenty of homeless people that were Asian. [People of color] are not a monolith. And neither are whites. There’s a lot of rich white people, and there’s a lot living in trailers and on welfare. We all, regardless of our race or ethnicity, are rich or poor; none of us are monolithic,” says Paula.
Secondly, “model minority” positions Asian Americans above African Americans on the racial hierarchy. “It’s what whites do to us. ‘You’re the good minority, you’re the bad minority. You’re the one who’s good at fixing things, and you’re the one we see outside the projects,’” explains Paula.
In 1999, political scientist Claire Jean Kim introduced her theory of racial triangulation, which positions Asian-Americans as being perceived as a) better than African-Americans, but not as good as whites, and b) as perpetual foreigners who will never be accepted as truly American. This perception causes Asian-Americans to be “wedged” in between African-Americans and whites, constantly struggling to achieve whiteness (superiority), while pushing African-Americans further down to maintain the model minority status.
The model minority myth suggests that Asian success is due to hard work and strong family values and that African-American failure is caused by innate laziness, and cannot be explained by racism. This myth causes a racial divide that helps reinforce white dominance.
Unfortunately, Asian-Americans too often take the model minority bait. Many Asian-Americans do believe that college admissions are rigged against them due to affirmative action. Hasan Minhaj’s “Affirmative Action” Patriot Act episode broke down simply the harmfulness of anti-affirmative action sentiment among Asian Americans: “I thought I wasn’t going to get into Stanford because some black kid was going to take my spot. But I didn’t get into Stanford...because I was dumb.”
Minhaj describes the typical way Asian Americans buy into the myth that only black and brown people benefit from affirmative action. In a sense, this view is similar to how whites view affirmative action as “reverse racism.”
College admissions scandals involving wealthy parents bribing their kids’ way into elite universities represent the irony of these complaints. “There’s a lot more kids at elite colleges because their parents are rich than because they’re brown or black,” says Susan Dynarski, professor of economics, education and public policy at the University of Michigan in a HuffPost article.
Ever heard of legacy admissions? That’s when a student is more likely to get accepted to an educational institution simply because a family member attended. At Harvard University, legacy applicants were accepted at over five times the rate of non-legacy applicants. That’s right--students who have already had a privileged life get yet another leg up!
Jokes aside, Minhaj goes on to say: “I support affirmative action, and the majority of Asian-Americans do too (65%)...I get that affirmative action is an imperfect system...but if they win this case, it won’t just affect Harvard. It could set a precedent that affects every single publicly funded university…and for those in the Asian community who keep insisting ‘We just want equality,’ ‘We’re American citizens,’ ‘Treat us like Americans,’ fine. But if you are willing to act like racism isn’t a thing, team up with lawyers and then take it to the courts when you don’t get your way, you’re right. You truly are an American. You just happen to be the worst kind.”
Despite white America’s attempts at keeping people of color divided, Paula urges that “...we have to realize our power to stand up together for what is owed to us as people, and as Americans.”
If you know Paula, you know she loves Venn diagrams. She explains how all people of color have similarities using her beloved Venn diagram visual tool. “So if you look at the various races/ethnicities, they all represent their own little respective circles. But, in the middle, where they all overlap, that’s where they’re all similar.”
My and Paula’s experiences are clear examples of this Venn diagram. As an African-American woman, Paula knows the realities of police brutality. Paula relayed a story to me about a time when she and her male African-American friend were driving together: “Suddenly, we hear police sirens behind us, and we think we’re going to go to jail. Because we’re two black people who have mouths and we speak up for ourselves. We’re just like ‘Oh, god’...what went through our bodies at that moment, that happens to us every day.”
In 2010, on my way back from China, I had the experience of being called a “ninja” (a Japanese warrior btw) and a martial artist at the airport for accidentally bringing in a self-defense keychain I received as a gift. My experience was similar to what happened to Lena Dunham (except I didn’t have the privilege of a rich, famous, white female to clear my name). Several Transportation Security Administration (TSA) agents questioned me, searched me, and threatened to put me on the blacklist for flying. Eventually, I was let go and received a stern warning that I would receive a letter (which I received months later) detailing the consequences of my “offense.” I was shaken up, not because of the possibility of being punished or even killed (what African-Americans experience on a daily basis), but because of the insinuation that I am not American, but an outsider and enemy of the country in which I was born.
Paula and I are not strangers to discrimination in the workplace either. While I often feel invisible and fall into the stereotype of being the scrupulous, quiet, worker bee who is not seen as a leader, Paula gets looked down upon and deals with surprised looks from white people when she speaks English “so well.” I’ve experienced the same comments. But for a different reason. Whereas Paula surprises white people with her lack of a “blaccent,” I surprise them with my lack of a foreign accent. Cue eye roll.
“Sometimes when people say things, you have to call them out on their ignorance. I’ve heard this all my life from older, white females, ‘Ohhhh, you’re so well spoken, oh you’re so well-educated.’ And you know, you feel like you have to defend yourself. But then, you realize that I’m not the problem; this person is. So I ask those older, white females, ‘Well-spoken, as compared to what?’ and the onus of their own words are thrown back at them. You know, why would you think I wouldn’t be well-spoken? Why would you think I wouldn’t be educated?”
While Paula and I both face discrimination in our everyday lives, it is important to acknowledge that our experiences are not the same. As middle-class, educated women of color, our experiences are also not representative of people of color from other educational backgrounds and social classes.
“We all have our different issues, depending on our race/ethnicities. But we still have an overlap of discrimination and marginalization. We are all discriminated against, whether that’s a ‘good’ discrimination because you’re supposed to be better at math, or ‘bad’ discrimination because you’re perceived to be less intelligent,” says Paula.
When people of color share their experiences with each other, we end up finding power in unity because we realize we are fighting the same system of white supremacy. Working in academia, Paula has fought tirelessly against discrimination and aggression towards her. Instead of being bitter about her experiences, she still creates space and opportunity for students who come under her wing. For example, when she has an opportunity, she will always loop me in and make sure I have a seat at the table.
As we try to better ally with each other as people of color, we're going to make mistakes, and that's okay. Paula reminds us that no one is perfect.
“I had a classmate who was Chinese and her name was Julie. And so this was so long ago that when you got someone’s number, you had to write it down, because we didn’t have mobile phones. And stupid, ignorant me, I had written her name down as Ju Li.
And Julie just laughed, she thought it was so funny and she said, ‘No, Paula, it’s just like white Julie.’ And I said, ‘Oh! I am so sorry.’ I just didn't know. The thing is, we can laugh at it because the faux pas wasn’t intended to harm.”
Let’s all do better about standing up for and together with our fellow people of color.
And cheers to kicking the racial wedge to the curb.
Your token black friend and Asian friend