As an Asian American, you’ll be called a “model minority” — until you decide you’re not

privilege-adjacent. Sometimes invisible. As an Asian American, I’ve usually felt this way about my minority status. Society refers to us as a “model minority” when appropriate. Sometimes we are role models to be emulated – when we are not on the receiving end of people’s fear, anger and distrust.

Growing up in Little Saigon, an Asian enclave in Orange County, California, we were actually the majority. We were so dominant that American grocery stores like Ralphs and Albertsons went out of business and were replaced by Asian supermarkets. In my high school, where Asians made up about 80% of the student body, taking a day off to celebrate the Lunar New Year was expected.

In many ways, my family fitted into this model minority image. As Chinese refugees from the Vietnam War, my parents wanted to adjust to life in the US and give their children a chance to live the American dream. They worked hard, stayed calm and didn’t cause trouble. My brother and I followed her example: we studied hard, stayed calm, and (mostly) didn’t cause trouble. We were a middle class family living in the suburbs.

But I knew that wasn’t the norm. When I went to college, I moved just an hour north to Los Angeles. Suddenly I was no longer living in a majority-minority community. On campus, in a sea of ​​white faces and Abercrombie & Fitch, it was clear: I didn’t fit in. Still, I studied hard, held back and focused on my career goals.

And I’ve arrived. At my first job, I met Rick (now my husband), a black man with a whole range of experiences different from my own. With only three things in common, we were literally opposites. While I can laugh when I show my driver’s license to prove I was old enough to get in an R-rated movie, he would make it a point to specifically show his military ID to show people along to reassure him of his presence. The need to constantly fight the perception that he was some kind of “threat” was both routine and exhausting for him.

He would say with levity, “Stay out of jail so you can buy me out.” It was partly a joke, but it also felt like it spoke to an underlying racial truth about our relationship — that because I was part of the model minority that borders on privilege, I had to use that status to to defend him if something should happen. And we became close a few times — like when a white woman accused him of assaulting her because she sat in my seat at the movie theater while I was in the bathroom. It took the whole theater crowd, other white people, to defend him when a police officer arrived.

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That was then. In the last five years, my perception has changed. Not only did I have to worry about Rick, I also had to take care of myself. The whole idea of ​​being privileged felt out of place. Finally, when inherently racist terms like “China virus” and “kung flu” were used to describe the coronavirus, it seemed no privilege. Or in the nearly 11,000 hate incidents against Asian Americans counted by the group Stop AAPI Hate between March 2020 and December of last year.

I’d gotten used to not always thinking about what it meant to have my ethnicity in the spotlight, let alone in front of it. Well I can’t avoid it.

It has become clearer to me that the whole idea of ​​the “exemplary minority” is based on a myth – one that is less a celebration of our achievements and more a convenient tool to disguise persistent discrimination and systemic inequality.

In one glaring example, conservative commentator Bill O’Reilly used the statistic that the median household income of Asian Americans is higher than the total national median income to argue against the idea that there is such a thing as white privilege, and so on Systemic racism against blacks and browns simply doesn’t exist. It’s an argument that has been repeated many times.

But this statistic doesn’t tell our full story. The simple truth is that among the more than 22 million people of Asian descent living in the United States, there are crucial differences, and we’re not all doing as well as we might think. Asian Americans are more likely than other groups to have three or more workers per household, which is why the averages seem so inflated. We also often tend to live in some of the most expensive cities in the country. So when you factor in those costs, the obvious advantage in household income begins to evaporate.

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We’re also often raised in conversations about education — as examples of those heads-down, hard-working students who would lash out at any change in race-based affirmative action on college admissions. The thought goes that given how hard we work, we should be upset any time someone else might take our rightful place. But maybe diversity isn’t where our frustrations should be the focus. Perhaps it is the system that favors so-called “legacy” students, who are predominantly white, at the expense of minority applicants.

Match or paste is often used to describe us. A recent report by the advocacy group Leading Asian Americans to Unite for Change (LAAUNCH) found that white respondents viewed Asians as most similar to themselves. Yet in the same report, one in three agreed that Asian Americans are “more loyal to their countries of origin than to the United States.” This questioning of our loyalty is a dim echo of a similar sentiment that provided a false justification for Japanese internment camps during World War II.

Unfortunately, some of our advances are not solely due to what we have done or achieved. That’s because we were less the focus of other people’s anger. As a race, we have been victims of this country’s history of racial violence, including the Rock Springs Massacre of 1885, which killed an estimated 28 Wyoming Chinese miners; and the massacre of 20 Chinese Americans in Los Angeles in 1871. According to a 2016 study by Brown University economist Nathaniel Hilger, the real reason Asian Americans were ultimately able to earn more and had the status of a claiming an “exemplary minority” is that after World War II the American system has simply become less racist towards us.

Now the pandemic has put us back in the spotlight. For some, we are the ones responsible for COVID-19 and all of its effects. Yes, the Atlanta-area spa shootings of 2021, which killed eight people — six of Asian descent — shocked and horrified the nation. But it didn’t end the hate incidents or discrimination we continue to face in subtle and overt ways.

It’s taking its toll — according to a Pew Research Center poll released earlier this month, about a third of Asian Americans say they’ve changed their daily routines because of persistent fears of threats and attacks.

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I’m not underestimating the progress we’ve made over the years, but there’s an underlying foundation of bias that we haven’t fully overcome yet. Yes, we’re well represented in Silicon Valley, but the “bamboo ceiling” still exists when only 6% of us are leaders in the national workforce. Yes, we currently have an all-time high in Congress with 18 members in the House and Senate, but we only make up 3% of those members. And yes, people cheered when Kamala Harris became the first Asian American and first black person to serve as vice president, but that doesn’t solve the experience we all face of being mistaken for another [insert Asian person’s name here].

I am a gay man married to a black man. I will always be one Miscellaneous. Despite my name “Gary”, literally the most American name my parents could think of, I will still be a little bit different. Something about my black hair, almond-shaped eyes, and lightly colored skin leads some people to believe I’m not Yes, really American, despite my native English, LA dress style, and impeccable math skills (OK, that’s a cliché).

We could be your neighbor, your colleague or even your friend. But deep down, we’ll never be quite American in everyone’s eyes. You will see our black hair. You will see our almond shaped eyes. Whenever it suits them, we will not be a role model.

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