By Guest Contributor: Anouk Yeh
On April 1, the Washington Post released an op-ed written by former presidential candidate Andrew Yang, addressing the increased Anti-Asian sentiment in the nation. In the article, Yang stated that in order to combat the rising xenophobia in the nation, Asian Americans across the nation needed to embrace their “American-ness in ways [they] never have before,” arguing that Asian Americans needed to prove their allegiance to the country in order to be viewed as “not the virus.”
Within hours of the article’s release, Yang was met with immense backlash from the Asian American community. Actor Simu Liu, who is set to play the first ever Asian-American marvel superhero, and writer and comedian Jenny Yang both took to twitter to express their disappointment with Yang’s statement, with Liu calling “a slap in the face.”
This disappointment was no understatement, because to Asian American communities across the nation, Yang was not just a politician. Rather, he was a figurehead for the movement to increase Asian representation within higher political government. Although his campaign didn’t successfully make it into the White House, Yang was able to help blaze a starting trail for Asian American leaders to take the national stage.
Yang was the first Asian American to qualify for seven of the first eight Democratic Debates in American history and one of the most highly visible Asian American political figures. The symbolism of his candidacy became an ideal many Asian Americans found themselves rooting for. The fact that Yang, an Asian American man, was able to be not only accepted – but fully supported – by a large portion of the nation was exciting and unprecedented. This acceptance and level of national success is for many the epitome of the Asian American Dream.
However Yang’s recent urge for Asian Americans to prove their “American-ness” in the face of xenophobia reveals the underbelly to the Asian American Dream – that achieving the dream has always been contingent on operating under the “model minority” myth.
The “model minority” myth is a label that characterizes Asian Americans as the paragon of all marginalized communities of color. This label, in turn, creates a classist system between communities of color, purposely pitting Asian Americans against all other marginalized groups.
Numerous studies and empirical accounts have shown the polarizing rift the “model minority” myth creates between Asian Americans and other marginalized communities; however, Yang’s perspective amidst the increasing Anti-Asian sentiment highlights another dangerous, yet overlooked, implication of the “model minority” trope: blind faithful submission to whiteness.
My first vivid memory of this compliance was when I was seven. My dad had taken me grocery shopping at Costco and while he was looking for our grocery items, I was scouring the store for samples.
A few minutes into our shopping, I had already set my sights on a sample station near the pasta aisle. I dragged my father into the growing line. As we were about to grab the last sample, a white lady in line behind us loudly sneered and asked why “some of those people” had the audacity to take the last cup.
I remember looking at my dad and expecting him to say something, to call her out or tell her off, but he didn’t. He simply stepped aside, took my hand and walked away, letting her take the last sample.
Although, then, I wasn’t old enough to fully understand the situation, I could feel that something was uncomfortably wrong. At seven, I had never seen my proud father bend so easily in the face of disrespect.
On the car ride home, I remember asking him why he didn’t say anything to the woman in the sample line. He looked me in the eyes through his rearview mirror and said, “This is their country, not ours.”
Despite being of Taiwanese descent, I felt every bit as American as the woman in the sample line. In that moment, I failed to comprehend why my father was so reluctant to fight against the blatant racism we faced.
It would take years for me to realize my experience in Costco was not a solitary one. Rather, my experience was a phenomenon that manifested itself in various iterations within immigrant communities.
Many Asian American communities thrive on adhering to the “model minority” myth. Through decades of conditioning, we have learned to believe in the idea of its mythical superiority and, more dangerously, that appealing to this white-constructed myth is the sole path to American success.
In turn, our communities have learned to normalize the social ultimatum of either constantly trying to prove our worth or silently suffering the consequences of being unapologetic.
It’s this concept that conditions our communities to believe that we’re always in deficit and that there’s always something we need to prove. It’s this concept that normalizes being treated as “less than.” It’s this concept that lures our communities into believing induction into whiteness is worth the vocal suppression and the wait.
However, if there’s anything this pandemic and the onslaught of xenophobia has taught us, it’s that full induction is never coming, and that telling ourselves we need to prove our “Americanness” is simply playing by the rules of a game that has historically failed us repeatedly.
In his op-ed, Andrew Yang said that Asian Americans need to prove that we are not the virus.
I believe that there should be nothing we need to do in order to prove ourselves and our communities worthy of respect, worthy of walking down the street without fear, worthy of eating at a restaurant without being harmed, worthy of being viewed and treated as individuals outside of a myth or stereotype.
While I believe that Yang’s words carried no intention of malice, I do believe that they were penned in adherence to the expectation of the “model minority.”
Basic human decency is something that should be granted freely. It should and does not require someone to go out of their way to prove their worthiness, allegiance or “American-ness.”
Anouk Yeh is a 16-year-old writer and organizer from the Bay Area, California. She is the executive director of Celebrating Differences, a youth-led nonprofit that promotes special needs inclusivity and awareness, and serves as a delegate for the International Congress of Youth Voices.
Learn more about Reappropriate’s guest writing program and submit your work here.