COOPERSTOWN – When at least 250 people gathered May 3, on the lawn of the Otsego County Courthouse to show support for the area’s Asian-American population, and then stayed for an hour to listen to speeches during a rainstorm, many of the speakers marveled that the rally was organized by a 15-year Cooperstown Central School freshman, Cate Bohler.
They were not alone in their surprise. Bohler and her mom, Jeannine Webster, told The Freeman’s Journal on Friday, May 14, that they were surprised, too.
“I kind of feel like I didn’t really realize what I was doing,” Bohler said. “I think it was when I was hearing the speakers speaking and then it started raining and people stayed mostly.”
“All of the young people involved learned a powerful lesson about community,” Webster said. “Looking back I am not really sure how it came together.”
Editor’s Note: In honor of Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month, we asked some of the speakers at the recent rally against violence against people of Asian descent to submit their speeches as columns. This week’s submission came from SUNY Oneonta Professor of Anthropology Sallie Han.
Thank you to the organizers for inviting me to take part in this gathering and to all of you here today for being present and taking a stand for truths and against lies and myths. Our commitment to truths brings us together, Asian and Black and White. Lies and myths manipulate and divide us.
Let me speak a little truth, or at least my truth, about what it means to be the American born daughter of Korean immigrants in this moment. Because I am also a professor of anthropology, I sincerely believe in the importance and necessity of learning and particularly of the study of humanity as a foundation for the understanding and unity that we need. Because I am standing here at this gathering today, I know that I am not alone in desperately wanting to find the ways toward righting the wrongs of the lies and myths.
I want to speak a little truth against one specific myth, which segregates people like me from the rest of American society by holding up Asians as a “model minority.” Some of us might already know this term—the model minority myth—and be familiar with the concept. Others of us might not have realized that this is the name given to set of assumptions that are likely familiar to a lot of Americans. All of us, I hope, can learn to question and criticize it. The model minority myth goes like this:
Of all the ethnic minority groups represented in the U.S. today, it is claimed that Asians are the highest achieving and most successful.
We’re good at math! We become doctors or work in tech! We’re living the American dream! Our tiger moms put pressure on us, but we’re otherwise uniformly uncomplaining and non-problematic.
Some claim it’s due to traits in our genes. Others claim it’s due to “Asian” culture.
On surface, this myth seems like it might be a “positive” one, but I think all of us understand that true freedom comes from justice and equity and our recognition of unhappy truths and our rejection of even the happiest lies. Like every other stereotype, the model minority myth conceals a diversity of experiences. It distracts us from the histories and circumstances that make the American dream realistic or not for every one of us. I can assure you that Asians do not inherit a math gene and particularly as a cultural anthropologist, I can assure you that the values of learning and teaching are foundational to every human culture. The chances that I would have attended and graduated from college as well as earned a doctoral degree likely have less to do with my being Asian and more to do with the fact that both of my own parents, too, graduated from college and earned medical degrees.
Over time, I have come to understand that the model minority myth is not so much about lifting up Asian Americans, but more about putting down other Americans. The model minority myth barely conceals a condemnation. If Asians are the “model,” then what about the other “minorities”?
The model minority myth is one that in fact my parents and their closest Korean immigrant friends and their families and even myself at one time embraced and aspired to. The fact is it felt good not to be seen as “bad.” It was about as close to acceptance and being valued as it seemed possible for us to imagine.
The minority myth was alluring, I think, because the alternative was to be invisible. Indeed, invisibility is a strategy for being where we are made to feel we do not belong. Try not to draw attention.
Get along and get by quietly. Do not speak up to avoid being spoken about or worse, acted against.
For me, the myth of the model minority is that it makes us free to be visible. We are not. I am not free from the fear of harm to myself or to the people I love.
The model minority myth also extorts from me the high price of my silence. The awful, hard truth about the myth is it invites my complicity and participation in the institutionalized racism that threatens harm to me. It is a lie that divides Asian and Black and other racialized communities from each other and divides all of us as Americans from each other.
So, this is our moment. Let’s build a new model for a new majority acting in coalition. Here. Now. We can speak and listen to each others’ truths. Together.
Editor’s Note: In honor of Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month, we asked some of the speakers at the recent rally against violence against people of Asian descent to submit their speeches as columns. The first one submitted came from Bassett researchers and League of Women Voters Co-President Liane Hirabayashi.
Thank you Olivia, and Cate, Riley, Elizabeth, Jaina, Maya and Charlotte for organizing this event.
Today we have the actions of these students and the words of our leaders read earlier as shining examples of how to respond to hate and racism. I’m going to take a few minutes to talk about a different kind of proclamation, the actions that followed, and the consequences of those words and actions.
In 1942, my father Edward was 19, not much older than these students, when he and his family joined 120,000 persons of Japanese descent—more than 72,000 of them American citizens—in being taken away from their homes on the West Coast and incarcerated in hastily built concentration camps—the term used by the US government. This was the ultimate result of Executive Order 9066, issued on February 19, 1942.
Dad’s brother James was 16, sister Esther was 13, and youngest brother Richard was 11. Can you imagine that? All born in the United States, never been anywhere outside Washington State, where their parents were farmers.
They lost their rights as citizens, in fact, they lost the title of “citizen”— instead they were referred to as “non-aliens.”
Words matter, don’t they? From double-speak words like non-alien comes the justification for preemptively locking up a community because, well, they didn’t have the time to figure out who was loyal and who wasn’t. And yet, they did know.
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