More than “Model Minority”

Illustration by Janine Goetzen

I never had to go out of my way to interact with other Asian American/Pacific Islander (AAPI) folks back home in San Diego. I could be sure that any space I entered would be full of other Asians, and more than that, other Southeast Asians. So, of course I expected that coming to Brown would be a little uncomfortable, but I was hopeful that finding the AAPI groups on campus would be helpful. And they were. But even so, there was still a part of me that still felt uneasy.

I couldn’t put my finger on why I felt that discomfort until second semester, during a workshop at the Brown Center for Students of Color about AAPI issues. There were vast generalizations being thrown around that I didn’t think applied to me. It seemed that most people there were operating under the assumption that all Asians experienced the same stereotypes as East Asians. People were talking about the mental health issues they faced from the pressure to succeed from their parents, anger at cultural appropriation, frustration at how the educational system screws them over in favor of allowing more white people into college.

I am a mixed, light skinned Filipina, and am often mistaken for East Asian. So yes, sometimes the model minority myth is applied to me, and sometimes those same problems are relevant to my experience. But as a Southeast Asian who grew up in a low income community surrounded by other Southeast Asians, most of what was being said didn’t really feel inclusive of the kinds of issues that my community and I had faced.

What was I supposed to say without sounding insensitive? “Please use “I” statements?” “Yes, I get that you face this, but not all Asians do?” I didn’t want to dismiss the problems, but I also wanted to assert that they weren’t indicative of my experience. This conversation was supposed to be dedicated to my voice, too.

I was ready for the disorientation that would come from being in the minority at a predominantly white university. I wasn’t ready for the disorientation that came with being in the minority even in AAPI spaces. I already knew coming in that I’d have to work to seek out AAPI spaces, but didn’t realize that I’d also have to work to make my voice heard in them. It was a wake-up call to find that those spaces were no longer tailored to me like they were back home, where I was in the majority at my high school along with hundreds of other Filipino and Vietnamese kids. Suddenly, other issues were at the forefront.

Once I became aware of the source of my discomfort, I started noticing it everywhere. In so many spaces it seemed that the overwhelming concern, time and time again, was dismantling the model minority myth. It’s not that I don’t think it’s a worthwhile cause— undoubtedly, there’s a lot of hurt that comes from the myth. And dismantling it would clearly be helpful, not just for AAPI folks, but for POC solidarity in general. The myth stems, after all, from a desire for white people to drive a wedge between communities of color by praising Japanese-Americans’ supposed ability to “pull themselves up by the bootstraps.” The rhetoric was that other minorities were going about achieving success in all the wrong ways, protesting and organizing instead of just keeping their heads down and working hard like Japanese people did. This, of course, erases the rich history of Japanese activism, but it was a sacrifice white people were willing to make in order to put other communities of color down. (I’d like to attribute this eventual extrapolation of the model minority myth from Japanese people to other light skinned Asians to the sole fact that—let’s be real—white people just don’t care to tell the difference between Asians most of the time.) The term “model minority” was coined in 1966—suspiciously, the exact same time as the Black and Chicano Civil Rights Movements. There was a clear desire to separate the “good” minorities from the “bad” ones.

But a lot of the AAPI community was historically and is currently excluded from the category of model minority. Filipinos, for example, were protesting right alongside César Chavez in the United Farm Workers movement, making them one of the groups that the model minority myth sought to distance Japanese people from. Not to mention America was still at war with Vietnam at the time. Clearly, the model minority myth was never intended to extend to the entirety of the AAPI community.

And this continues today. Whether it be for reasons of that historical legacy, or of colorism, or socioeconomic disparities, or just general erasure, there’s little expectation for Southeast Asians to succeed. I have never witnessed someone presuming that one of my Filipino or Vietnamese high school classmates was good at math, or telling my Cambodian friends that their ethnicity was the reason they did well on a test. No one is ever surprised when a Laotian drops out of school. No one thinks of dark skinned girls as delicate, submissive lotus flowers. No one romanticizes the cultures of the “poor” and “dirty” third world Southeast Asians. The model minority myth almost exclusively applies to light skinned, middle class folks who are racialized as East Asian.

I’m not trying to trivialize the hurts that come from the myth. That is very real pain. I’m also not trying to say that the issue shouldn’t be discussed at all, but rather that it might be more productive and less exclusive to do so in East Asian specific spaces. It just feels wrong that the model minority issue continues to dominate the conversation in spaces that are supposed to be working towards inclusive AAPI liberation and solidarity while so many West Asian, South Asian, Southeast Asian, and Pacific Islander issues with such violent and exploitative repercussions are ignored. The fact that this one issue takes the spotlight, even in radical activist communities, makes me question how seriously solidarity is being taken. If we are serious about solidarity, it’s necessary to make space for the issues that affect the most oppressed in the community—and to understand how the relative privilege of East Asians may be contributing to that oppression.

There are undoubtedly lingering effects of East Asian imperialism and exploitation in our communities. What does it mean, for example, that the Japanese invaded the Philippines during WWII and left the economy in shambles? It means that even now, long after WWII, Japan is still in a position to exploit Filipino immigrant workers who come to Japan for the economic opportunity. What does it mean that South Korea has not apologized for the rape of Vietnamese women during the Vietnam War? It means that all of the trauma and pain that came out of that violence remains unaddressed, all of the damage caused remains uncompensated. It means that this history, like so much history of oppressed people, is swept under the rug.

This isn’t to say that I want East Asians to be treated like the oppressor. But just as it’s necessary to examine how xenophobia and antiblackness affect the dynamics of broader POC solidarity, it’s necessary to acknowledge how these instances of historical hurt translate into present-day hurt, and to realize how different privileges such as ethnicity, class, or light skin also affect the dynamics of AAPI solidarity.

And if we want to achieve that solidarity, there is so much more we could be talking about than the model minority myth. We could instead be talking about the huge socioeconomic disparities between East and Southeast Asians. How 27% of Hmong people are living below the poverty line, in comparison to 11% of the US overall. How only 66% of Cambodians graduate high school, as opposed to 85% of the US overall. How the conflation of East and Southeast Asians into a single monolithic entity means that these struggles are entirely erased from the conversation. We could be talking about the historical reasons as to why this is the case, and how to heal from that and lift up these parts of our community.

We could be talking about colorism—both within the community, with antiblackness and discrimination against darker skinned AAPI folks, and outside it, with the intersection of poverty and darker skin meaning that Southeast Asians are more likely to be targeted in acts of police brutality than lighter skinned East Asians. We could be talking about undocumented immigration, labor exploitation, language barriers. We could be speaking up for those who are the most oppressed among us. But instead, we are talking about a portion of the community being stereotyped as too successful.

I want to question again why it is that this is the issue the AAPI community has chosen to take up. Clearly it affects some people, but why are those the people that are speaking out? Do they have the privilege of being more educated on the topic? Do they feel safer speaking out? Do the historical dynamics in place grant more power to certain voices who then get to decide which issues are most important?

I think that it’s the responsibility of East Asian folks, as the ones who hold the power in AAPI spaces, to interrogate how they can account for such dynamics in order to better make those spaces inclusive. Especially now that Asian Pacific American Heritage month is in full swing and AAPI issues are being brought into the spotlight, all folks who are working towards AAPI solidarity should make an effort to move past the model minority conversation in pan-Asian spaces and give a voice to the other parts of the AAPI community whose issues are underdiscussed.

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