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.