My Asian Journey – Rejection and Reconciliation
for March 7, 2021
I am half Japanese and half a whole blend of Western European ties. My father is a third generation Japanese-American from a small farm in eastern Colorado. My mother has light hair, hazel eyes, and a southern drawl that comes out with certain words when she is tired.
For the majority of my upbringing I considered myself white. My mom is white. Most of my friends were white. I ate “white” foods like cream of chicken casseroles and consumed “white” culture like singing along to Britney Spears with my classmates.
Yet despite my genuine love for a good midwestern meal and pop queen flair, I was constantly confronted I am Asian. I fielded questions about why I was not in orchestra, if I used forks or chopsticks at home, last night’s math assignment answer, and whether I was adopted. Hearing those questions with a few bing bong jokes was just a standard school week for me. I thought if I downplayed my Asianess and ignored those comments I would be awarded this freedom, unlocked by my white side, to be rid of the Asian stereotype. I wanted to be loud. I wanted to be bad at math. I wanted to do something impractical because that would be unexpected.
The concept of the “model minority” was popularized in 1966 by sociologist William Pettersen (Cheng) with a story placed in the New York Times titled, “Success Story, Japanese-American Style” (Pettersen). This is now seen as one of the most important writings on Asian Americans and was integral in solidifying the Asian stereotype as we know it today. Pettersen describes Japanese Americans as “industrious” and “law-abiding” (Chow) stating the Japanese focus on family structure and hard work allowed the Japanese to overcome discrimination and achieve success in the United States (“Model Minority”). And thus was the creation of Asians as the model minority.
This is now a well researched and debunked myth. Scholars have argued that the statement Asian Americans are “doing well” is over generalized and inaccurate. A deeper dive into data reveals a host of disparities including a vast range of inequalities experienced within Asian countries like Asians having both the highest median income of any racial group and largest income gap of any racial group (“Model Minority”) (Chow) (“The Model Minority Myth”). Janelle Wong, the director of Asian American Studies at the University of Maryland, College Park takes a closer look and states two fundamental flaws with the model minority myth:
1. It ignores the role that selective recruitment of highly educated Asian immigrants played in Asian success
2. It makes a flawed comparison between Asian Americans and other groups, particularly Black Americans
Within the broader race discussion, the creation of the model minority has been used to argue racism, including 400 years of systematic oppression, can be overcome with hard work and strong family values (Chow). Many state the intended purpose of the model minority was to drive a wedge between racial groups (“The Model Minority Myth”). Claire Jean Kim, a professor at University of California, Irvine put it simply, “It [the model minority theory] was immediately a reflection on black people: Now why weren’t black people making it, but Asians were?” (Chow).
Racial entanglements have obscured American history since its founding. Events in 2020 like the murder of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor and the recent spikes in anti-Asian hate crimes were not a surprise to POC communities (“Anti-Asian Violence in US Demands Response”). However, these recent events have led to an increased willingness to learn about the plight of different minority groups. Although the low-level racism I experienced does not amount to centuries of slavery, oppression, and dehumanization that the black community has endured, Asian discrimination has remained an undercurrent in American society. And as long as we perpetuate self-serving white narratives like the model minority myth, Asian discrimination will remain an undercurrent in American society.
I often wonder if I am the person I am today because I tried so hard to beat the Asian stereotype. Perhaps I would have loved to play the violin. Maybe I would have found a fulfilling career in STEM. As I have gotten older I have increasingly embraced my Asian heritage and I ask myself this question, “If I can be anyone, would I still be me?” My mind flashes back to the years I so desperately wanted to fit in with my peers. I have struggled to find a voice to speak out because I benefited from the model minority myth. The discrimination I felt happened in elite environments where people expected me to be smart and respectful. I struggled because I felt my story was not valid or important compared to another “real” person of color. As I’ve reconciled my experiences and realized my thinking was influenced by systematic racial bias, I recognized all I can do is speak my truth, even if it’s only to myself, as a reminder that we are here, we matter, and we will be heard. – Kristin Tanabe, Legacy Collective Partner & Advisory Board Member
- “Anti-Asian Violence in US Demands Response.” Human Rights Watch, Harvard University, 13 2 2021, www.hrw.org/news/2021/02/12/anti-asian-violence-us-demands-response.
- Cheng, Anne Anlin. “What This Wave of Anti-Asian Violence Reveals About America.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 21 2 2021, www.nytimes.com/2021/02/21/opinion/anti-asian-violence.html.
- Chow, Kat. “Model Minority’ Myth Again Used As A Racial Wedge Between Asians And Blacks.” NPR, NPR, www.npr.org/sections/codeswitch/2017/04/19/524571669/model-minority-myth-again-used-as-a-racial-wedge-between-asians-and-blacks. Accessed 19 4 2017.
- “Model Minority.” University of Washington, University of Washington, 2011, https://depts.washington.edu/sibl/Publications/Model%20Minority%20Section%20(2011).pdf.
- “The Model Minority Myth.” The Practice, Harvard University, 26 3 2019, thepractice.law.harvard.edu/article/the-model-minority-myth.
- Pettersen, William. “Success Story, Japanese-American Style; Success Story, Japanese-American Style.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 9 1 1966, www.nytimes.com/1966/01/09/archives/success-story-japaneseamerican-style-success-story-japaneseamerican.html.