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The Model Minority and Privilege

The Oregon Encyclopedia

The conversation around white privilege is becoming more and more common place in the American rhetoric. More than ever, being frank, honest, and aware about one's privilege is an absolute necessity. This, I feel, may be the only way to find balance between being ignorant or hurtful and being overly politically correct. Over the past few months I have been reflecting a lot on my position as a half Asian female. In many ways, especially as a child, I felt very other. Now as an adult, I can see very clearly how I have experienced not only certain privileges Asian people have, but the privilege, above all, of being white. In fact, nearly all of the judgment and exclusion I have felt in my life is related to sexism, not racism.

So, what about Asian privilege? Asian people definitely experience certain privileges over other minority groups. In fact, Asians have long been considered a model minority around the world and have therefore existed "under the radar" in many ways.

The term model minority popped up in the American dialogue during the second big wave of Asian immigration into the US during the 1950's and 60's, but can be traced back to the first wave of Chinese immigration during the gold rush and construction of the transcontinental railroad. Chinese workers accepted 1/3 the wage of whites for longer days and more strenuous work. The American government and people constantly wavered between appreciating the Chinese work ethic and despising their otherness. In Iris Chang's The Chinese in America, a historical and fascinating read that I highly recommend, the dilemma of the Chinese (and more broadly, Asians) in the US is discussed from the beginning of their experience in the US. Even in the first few pages in the introduction, the term is defined as being both appreciated and limiting; "the term refers to an image of the Chinese as working hard, asking for little, and never complaining. It's a term that many Chinese now have mixed feelings about."

Every label slapped on an entire group of people is limiting; not only does it discourage growth, but it conflates many different people and experiences into one. However, the label of "model minority" carries definite advantages over other minority labels correlated with violence, poverty, and savagery.

A beautiful passage, also in the introduction to The Chinese in America, first caught my attention with its profound description of the immigrant experience:

“There is nothing inherently alien about the Chinese American experience. In the end, the Chinese shared the same problems as all other immigrants - universal problems that recognized no borders: The eternal struggle to make a living and provide their children with food, shelter, and education. The exhaustion of striving to sustain cherished values in the changing world. The loss of a place once called home. And yes, the initial reluctance of all people in a new land to drop their cultural habits and risk new associations - only to discover, years later, that they have already done so.”

While I agree with Iris Chang that there is a deep, broadly shared immigrant experience, I think there is an inherent experiential difference that Asians have. Not only is the dispersal of wealth in Asian American communities versus other minority groups staggering, the association with violence versus African American and Latino American communities cannot be ignored. Don’t get me wrong, Asians certainly look other, as have been treated as such for centuries - but I argue that based on skin color alone (perhaps excluding Asians that have darker skin), Asians have experienced privilege above other minority groups.

Perhaps there are pieces of the model minority title that do indeed have their roots in Asian, and specifically here, Chinese or Confucian culture. The Chinese value education above all. Most of the early Asian immigrants were or became merchants upon touching down in the US, starting laundry services, restaurants, and wholesale companies. Humility, filial piety (ultimate respect for one's elders), and order have been interwoven into Asian culture for thousands of years.

There are power structures and hierarchies that exist in people's home countries even before they immigrate. These structures and hierarchies are intensified upon landing in the Western world. No matter how we speculate any these circumstances, being open to an often uncomfortable conversation about privilege is absolutely necessary if we are to connect to one another and progress forward in social and political issues. Confronting one’s privilege is not something to be ashamed of, nor guilty of - these feelings of guilt and shame are what keep us from being honest not only with others, but with ourselves. No experience should be demonized - especially when we, so-called progressives, claim to pride ourselves on being tolerant and believing in true equality. We cannot let the “politically correct” culture of late reach too far in either direction and hault our progress; we are NOT color blind, we are NOT inherently judgment-less. Even on a biological level, we are programmed to categorize and notice differences. This in and of itself is not the problem. Excluding others based on these differences and judgments is the problem.

Being too afraid to admit our ignorance and ask questions, and exclude those with different opinions, especially from academic situations (from university commencement speeches, for instance) impedes progress. Our lives cannot be without hurt, conflict, and offense - these are, in fact, at the very core of the shared human experience. If we cannot face our own privileges - and ways we are underprivileged - how are we ever to empathize and understand others? How are we to create a world, country, or for starters, a community in which we are all truly equal?

Photo from The Oregon Encyclopedia

Quotes from The Chinese in America, by Iris Chang. Pg. 10 and pg. 16, respectively

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