The Model Minority Myth and its Distraction From Violence

It started a few months ago, walking through Thoreau Street with a friend on a chilly school afternoon. I had grown tired of a monotonous routine riddled with Zoom meetings and desperately needed a feeling of freedom, no matter if my ears and hands grew red and numb. We strolled on the sidewalk continuing our conversation on what most 11th-grade students at Concord-Carlisle High School would talk about: classes, college, and fellow peers. 

As we neared the school, coffees from Dunkin’ Donuts in hand, a blue pickup truck emerged from the end of the road approaching opposite in our direction. The driver’s side window was open, and in the truck sat a white male. Passing us, he shouted intangible language at the two of us and sped off at lightning pace. 

It all happened too fast to comprehend. We stood motionless in shock, silence pierced through our conversation. But because my friend and I are Chinese American, we solemnly agreed that the man’s words were directed towards us. We swiftly carried on with our conversation, quick to change the subject and to forget what had just occurred. 

Except the events that day remained etched into my brain. The day passed, and shock soon turned to anger. Anger at myself that I could’ve spoken back and anger at the man who had internalized anti-Asian rhetoric and decided to disperse it upon me and my friend. 

When hearing about the recent shootings in Atlanta that left eight people dead, six women of Asian descent, the feeling of shock resurfaced. My mind went numb after reading countless social media posts and news articles fixating on the 21-year-old shooter and his motives.  

Returning to school, however, I heard nothing said about the hate crimes in Atlanta. Classes continued without pause, and teachers remained silent. My blood boiled as administrators provided meager sentences in condemnation of Asian-American racism. Anger relapsed as Cherokee County Sheriff’s spokesman Jay Baker belittled the cause of the shooting, claiming that the shooter was having a “bad day” prior to the shooting. 

The violence in Atlanta is just one of the thousands of hate crime incidents towards people of Asian descent. According to the reporting center Stop AAPI Hate, it received 3795 reports of hate incidents between March 19, 2020, and February 28, 2021. Before the beginning of state shutdowns and mask-wearing mandates, a study reported 49 hate crimes towards Asians in 16 American cities in 2019. This number increased to 122 reports during 2020. 

Many of the recent hate crimes stem from increased anti-Asian rhetoric blaming China for spreading COVID-19 to the world. The same night of the shooting in Atlanta, former President Donald Trump appeared on Fox News using the phrase “China virus” to describe the pandemic. Trump, among other politicians, has continuously used similar rhetoric to blame China for spreading Covid due to its first detection in Wuhan. 

A similar event took place during the Spanish Flu pandemic from 1918 to 1920, a virus that killed 50 million people worldwide. While historians continue to disagree on the virus’s origin, the Spanish Flu did not originate in Spain, but the virus was only named as such due to the countries extensive reporting in the media. 

While seemingly harmless at first glance, placing blame on China is hurtful, especially in a country that views Asian-Americans as monolithic. When statewide lockdowns seemed imminent last March, a man who I knew approached me and jokingly asked if was infected with COVID-19. As one of the only Chinese Americans present at the time, I knew the man had singled me out due to my ethnicity despite me having no connection to the People’s Republic of China at all. 

Shocked but angered at the man’s comments, I could not form the words nor the courage to speak out against the blatant racism and xenophobia I had experienced. Was I afraid of creating an awkward situation with someone who I trusted? Was this the result of society forcing me to avoid confrontation and to minimize my voice? 

No matter the questions that festered in my mind, I knew one thing: For the first time in my life, I would no longer be the target of praise for my race, but rather be the target of hate and blame. From then, I could not deem my community trustworthy to protect me from xenophobia and racism.  

All my life, I perfectly embodied the racial stereotypes formed by my white peers. Good grades in math were quickly assumed to be a product of my heritage, others believed my parents would “kill” me for producing subpar results in both academics and my extracurriculars. Despite these targeted generalizations towards my race, I never thought these caricatures served detrimental to my self-image. 

I had succumbed to the belief that divides minorities and pits us against each other: the model minority myth. Used as an oppressive tactic against Black Americans during the Civil Rights Movement, the model minority myth frames Asian Americans as obedient, hard-working individuals who set a precedent for immigrants attempting to achieve the “American Dream.” Policymakers took to highly educated and qualified Asian immigrants and framed them as a monolith and compared their success to the struggles of Black Americans in the United States, justifying the false narrative that Black Americans lack the resolve to bring themselves out of their oppression. 

I was reminded of this truth during my sophomore year, when my Asian-American friend accused students of the Metropolitan Council for Educational Opportunity program of lacking the effort to succeed in school. “My parents worked hard immigrating to America — why can’t they?” He reasoned. Residing in a wealthy, majority-white school district, my friend perfectly exhibited the false narrative that hard work was the sole determinant of success in America. 

The myth divides fellow Asian Americans as well. As the US generalizes the Asian population, they fail to recognize the disparities among the group. Data from 2013 by the National Coalition for Asian Pacific American Community Development states that among AAPI groups, Hmong Americans have a 27% poverty rate. This is followed by Bangladeshi Americans at 21.1%. In comparison, Asian Indian Americans only have a poverty rate of 8.5%. 

The model minority myth also detracts from inequalities caused by an economic divide among the fastest-growing racial group in the nation. High poverty rates in several groups in the AAPI community remain overlooked, especially in industries such as restaurants, salons, housekeeping, and factories. Polling data claims that 37 percent of Asian Americans face financial issues during the COVID-19 pandemic, the lowest out of all racial and ethnic groups in America. But this statistic gives a false perspective, as it excludes Asians in the US who are not proficient in speaking English, a section of the population who are more likely to be poor and most vulnerable to violence. 

The income gap among Asian Americans stems from the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, where the US allowed entry of highly skilled immigrants to its borders. In a nation that fails to acknowledge the countless ethnicities that comprise the Asian American population, these skilled laborers served as the sole image of the Asian American experience in the US. Dominating in fields outside of activism and community organizing, others began to view Asian Americans as invisible, docile, and submissive to the assimilation into white culture. 

The assimilation into “whiteness” creates the perception that Asian Americans can no longer experience racism and violence, for the model minority myth frames them as law-abiding citizens. As a result, hate crimes and blatant acts of violence are downplayed and ignored by non-Asian Americans due to the mere notion that Asian Americans face little hardship within the community. 

As the critically acclaimed novelist Toni Morrison once said, “The very serious function of racism … is distraction. It keeps you from doing your work. It keeps you explaining, over and over again, your reason for being.” 

In relation to Asian Americans, the model minority myth in itself is a distraction. Almost 40 years ago, Vincent Chin was beaten to death for being mistaken as Japanese. “Yellow Peril” in the late 1800s sparked the Chinese Massacre in 1871 and the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. And despite decades of xenophobia and hatred, how does the United States suddenly regard Asian Americans as the “perfect immigrant?” 

In witnessing news of the recent shooting in Atlanta and the countless hate crimes targeted towards the Asian elderly population, I realize that America’s hatred towards Asian Americans has never left. The praise for our contributions to this country is still veiled by the simple belief that we don’t belong. Until the model minority myth disappears from America’s conscience, the fight to stop Asian hate will continue to fall on deaf ears.

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