- In recent months, there has been a significant spike in violence against Asian Americans.
- Inadequate history education and the model minority myth result in less sympathy to the plight of Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders.
- The AAPI story needs to be diversified in order to capture the diversity and fullness of the experience of AAPI lives.
- Sarah Kim is a freelance journalist and writer with cerebral palsy.
- This is an opinion column. The thoughts expressed are those of the author.
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Throughout my K-12 public school education, the term “Asian American” appeared only once: during my 11th grade history class when covering the bombing of Pearl Harbor. I squirmed uncomfortably in my chair as my classmates began to shift their gaze over to me, the only student of East Asian descent, as our teacher lectured about the aftermath of such a catastrophic event – the US government’s edict that put 112,000 Japanese Americans into internment camps. Although I was a New York-born Korean American, my classmates could not tell the difference, and I was not spared from stares riddled with judgment.
I wanted to be anything other than Asian
Growing up in the suburbs of New Jersey, I was made painfully aware of the fact that I was “non-white.” Although I was never bullied outright because of my race, the accumulation of microaggressive incidents drove home the message that I did not belong. From a young age, I realized that no matter how unique and different my lived experiences were, they would always be compared to the very limited Asian history to which my peers and acquaintances had access.
My “best friends” in middle school would be genuinely shocked when they saw the school’s only other female student of East Asian descent and mistake her for me – miraculously ‘healed’ from my disability. Due to my cerebral palsy, I’d usually use my wheelchair in school or, other times, walk with a noticeable limp and abnormal gait. So, the fact that they could not distinguish me from the other girl doubled the insult of the situation.
Once, a teacher asked if I was related to Seung-Hui Choi, the Korean American perpetrator of the infamous Virginia Tech shooting in 2007. I am not.
Soon after, I started to wear thick, dark eyeliner in an attempt to make my eyes look bigger and rid them of their slants. I tried to deceive people into thinking “Kim” was my middle name, and religiously suntanned my skin. I wanted so badly to erase my Asian heritage and appear more European. Although I was a first-generation Korean-American, such a distinction made no difference to my peers. No matter how much I tried to minimize my Asianness and assimilate into the Western culture, the “Asian” in “Asian American” would always weigh significantly more than “American.” It wasn’t “whiteness” I was striving for, but literally anything other than Asianness.
Those incidents cut deeper than the straightforward bullying I would receive because of my physical disability. I understood the concept of ableism before realizing that the microaggressions against my Asianness were, indeed, racism.
It was ingrained in me from a very young age that I ought to respect my elders (even when they were wrong), keep my head down, and work hard to fit in. To my family, the model minority “myth” was anything but a myth; it was something they’ve striven to embody. This mentality has made my father continuously tolerant of strangers saying “ching chong ting tong,” treating him like an imbecile, and mocking his “broken” English throughout his 30 years living in this country.
It was not until freshman orientation in college, after receiving an invitation to the students of color reception, that I realized that I was considered a “person of color”. I had spent the years prior feeling alone in being one of the few, if not the only, non-caucasian student in class. So seeing that invitation and knowing that such an affinity group existed immediately gave me a sense of belonging, perhaps for the first time in my life. Once I spotted other Asian American/Pacific Islander (AAPI) students at the event, I relaxed, assured that my presence was warranted.
Violence against Asian Americans continues
During the 19th and 20th centuries, Asian immigrants were subjected to villainization and horrendous racial violence. This instigated the creation of the “Asian American” identity during a time when racial justice was considered a black-and-white issue. Although Asian countries were often in conflict with each other, those who immigrated to America started to put their differences aside and stood together in solidarity. During the civil rights movement of the 1960s, the term “Asian American” was officially coined by student activists and helped shape decades of advocacy. Yet, none of this was included in my high school US history curriculum.
To most Americans, the recent uptick of violent hate crimes against Asian Americans comes as a surprise. Amid the rise in COVID-19 cases in the United States, there has been an increase in violence stemming from anti-Asian bigotry. Recently, such crimes have been targeted at the elderly in the AAPI community. It wasn’t until celebrities and influencers mobilized the #StopAsianHate social media campaign that mainstream news outlets started to cover these incidents more in-depth.
The ‘model minority’ myth
There is a deeply-rooted tradition in this country that sees everyone in the AAPI community as monolithic. All Asian Americans are seen as the ‘model minority’ – successful, hard-working, and largely wealthy. However, many communities in the Asian diaspora are subjected to extreme poverty levels in America, like the Nepalese, Micronesian, and Burmese.
As a former New York Magazine writer arrogantly demonstrated in a 2017 piece, the old, haggard trope of Asian Americans goes like this:
“Today, Asian-Americans are among the most prosperous, well-educated, and successful ethnic groups in America. What gives? It couldn’t possibly be that they maintained solid two-parent family structures, had social networks that looked after one another, placed enormous emphasis on education and hard work, and thereby turned false, negative stereotypes into true, positive ones, could it? It couldn’t be that all whites are not racists or that the American dream still lives?”
Although the passage is problematic on many levels, the most dangerous is its perpetual message of “hard work” and “overcoming hardships” which is central to the model minority myth. This stereotype harms the well-being and mental health of Asian Americans, who in addition to the hate crimes of the past year, faced prolonged unemployment. In the last three months of 2020, nearly half of Asian Americans who’ve lost jobs that year, stayed unemployed for 27 weeks or more – far longer than had white, Black, or Latinx Americans. And yet, Asian American job losses have gone unnoticed.
The model minority mentality is instilled within the AAPI community so much so that many were reluctant to reach out for help even during these desperate times.
Not only does the myth diminish the real struggles that the AAPI community has continuously faced, it also systematically pits Asians against other minority racial groups, creating unnecessary tension and hatred.
This myth has persisted for so long largely because of the proximity Asian Americans have to whiteness when it comes to the color of their skin and their socioeconomic status. When it is seemingly convenient – for example, in the question of affirmative action in higher education – Asian Americans get lumped together with white Americans. Perhaps this is the reason why 164 House Republicans opposed a bill that condemned anti-Asian sentiment this past September.
However, no matter how much “whitening” there is of Asian Americans, we will never have the same rights and privileges as white Americans. Despite being born on American soil and living here all my life, I still get asked, to this day, “where are you really from?”
To the gaze of America, we will forever be “foreigners.”
It is not until the vastly different ethnicities and cultures in the Asian diaspora become recognized and accepted in this country that such racism will truly stop, and we will finally become “full Americans” in our own right.
When we are approximated to white Americans, our Asian American identities – full of rich history and unique practices – are erased and our struggles are illegimatized. It also intensifies the colorism among Asian Americans, pitting fair-skinned Asians against those with darker complexions, and ultimately dismantling the cohesive and diverse Asian American collective.
Asian Americans are a vastly diverse group of people, comprising dozens of nationalities, ethnicities, and religions, as well as different genders, (dis)abilities, education levels, and socioeconomic statuses. Not recognizing such diversity and erasing our identities is yet another form white supremacy, with too high a price tag.