May 4: The Culture Canard of the Model Minority Myth | #APAHM2015 #ReappropriateRevisited

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For this year’s AAPI Heritage Month, I will take each day to pull one of my favourite posts or pieces from the archives highlighting some aspect of AAPI history and heritage, and add to it a short commentary and reflection. I invite you to check back every day for this #ReappropriateRevisited month-long feature!

With the rise of the #BlackLivesMatter movement has come a series of important protests and uprisings, drawing attention to the persistent abuse that Black men and women face at the hands of police. Yet, even as mainstream attention is forced to focus on Blackness, a dubious narrative invariably also emerges: one that would pit Blacks against the supposedly more well-behaved and upwardly mobile Asian Americans. It took mere days for the media to distract from a larger discussion of Blackness and racial justice by focusing instead on Black-Asian tensions, told most recently by NPR through the lens of Asian American victims of Black protest movements.

Jeff Yang takes on this tired trope of Asian Americans distractingly pitted against Blacks in the struggle for Black uplift in his most recent editorial for CNN. His piece reminds me of David Shih’s recent viral article on the history of the Model Minority Myth, and its importance with regard to the Black Solidarity movement.

Meanwhile, for today’s ReappropriateRevisted, I pull from the archives one of my favourite pieces that I’ve written for the site. This post also dismantling the Model Minority Myth with relation to the Right’s stereotype of choice: Asian American cultural predispositions for academic achievement. It also ponders the question as to why some Asian Americans so deeply embrace this particular brand of the Model Minority Myth.

The Culture Canard of the Model Minority Myth: how racial gaps in academics aren’t due to cultural pathology

This past week, Bill O’Reilly was his usual raging asshole self when he set out on his Fox News show “The O’Reilly Factor” to debunk the notion of White privilege. The essence of his argument? Asian Americans are doing great socioeconomically even though we are not White. Therefore, racism must not really exist, and the root of the problem for African Americans must be a cultural pathology.

To bolster his argument, O’Reilly pointed to racial disparities between Blacks, Whites and Asians in graduation rates, unemployment rates and median family income to conclude that African Americans have essentially invented a mythological White privilege as an attempt to avoid taking “personal responsibility”. O’Reilly argued:

Just 13 percent of Asian children live in single parent homes compared to a whopping 55 percent for blacks and 21 percent for whites. So, there you go. That is why Asian Americans, who often have to overcome a language barrier, are succeeding far more than African-Americans and even more than white Americans. Their families are intact and education is paramount.

In essence, Papa Bear provides a textbook example of Asian Americans used as the wedge minority by the White mainstream to berate African Americans (and implicitly other academically disenfranchised minority groups) for not bootstrapping their way to socioeconomic success. It can’t be racism; it must be some deficiency in Black culture to blame, right? After all, the Asians can do it, why can’t the Blacks?

Asian Americans are no more racially exceptional than African Americans are racially pathological.
Asian Americans are no more racially exceptional than African Americans are racially pathological.

That a (White) conservative pundit would use the Model Minority Myth to insinuate a Black cultural pathology is nothing new. The Model Minority Myth — which, let us remember, is a myth — was invented for this explicit purpose: its first appearance in the American political zeitgeist was in a 1960’s New York Times Magazine article (“Success story: Japanese American style”) as a reference to Japanese American immigrants who overcame discrimination through alleged “perseverance”, in stated contrast to African Americans who were focused on overcoming discrimination through political action (i.e. the Civil Rights Movement). In other words, the Model Minority Myth has always been a fiction invented by Whiteness and has always been used as a cudgel to denigrate, belittle, or dismiss African American efforts to agitate for political equality, while simultaneously appropriating and limiting the roles that Asian Americans can politically inhabit.

The Model Minority Myth is an overt and potent tool of white supremacy used to justify structural racism against virtually all communities of colour (including Asian Americans). For many of us who identify as descendants of the politicized Asian American Movement, dismantling the Model Minority Myth has been of tantamount importance.

Thus, it comes as a surprise when I come across Asian Americans who would not only internalize the myth of the Asian American model minority as articulated by the likes of Bill O’Reilly, but who actually vocally take up its anti-Black logic as their standard. Earlier this month, I invited blogger Byron Wong (BigWOWO.com) onto the Reappropriate podcast to discuss affirmative action; over the course of that conversation and through later comments,Byron blamed cultural differences between Black and Asian communities for observed racial disparities on commonly used tests for college aptitude like the SATs. That perspective has been taken up on his site by both Byron and several of his regular (self-identified Asian American) readers: in a lengthy post and subsequent comment thread, Byron argues that Asians are culturally predisposed to academic pursuits (Blacks, he argues, are culturally predisposed to athletic achievement) and that African Americans should learn how to Tiger parent from Asians to correct the racial disparities in academics.

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