The Sunken Place and the Model Minority Myth

By: R. K. Guha

I sometimes wish I could go back in time and be my own guardian angel. I would reach down into that dark place of the Model Minority Myth and pull the younger me out. I would tell myself, “Baby, you got this. The best thing you can do is to ignore these goras.”

* * *

2017’s Get Out is uniquely about the Black experience in America. Everything from stand-your-ground, to backyard auctions, to the performances of white liberal guilt by Rose’s family and friends are authored from real life experience; this is no more true than with the construction of the Sunken Place, which serves as a metaphor for Black helplessness in the face of white supremacy.

As an Indian-American watching Get Out, I knew there was something about the Sunken Place that felt analogous to my own experiences growing up in America. I recalled a similar “expectation” to acquiesce to whiteness, and the tool used to keep people like me subservient: The Model Minority Myth. Like the Sunken Place, the Myth is about white control over Asian Americans. As with racism of any kind, it is about shifting goal posts and double standards.

For me, the conditioning of the Myth began in grade school: teachers offering unsolicited opinions about spices and the cleanliness of India;  and, white students performing their best Apu Nahasapeemapetilon impression as a facsimile for all South Asian culture–all this, while kids like me are expected to remain quiet, to absorb these microaggressions, and to not raise a fuss. Kids will be kids, after all.

The Myth was reinforced at home, too, where the expectation was to focus only on homework, placing into AP classes, and getting into a good college. I was to do all of this, of course, while never spouting a cuss word, never getting into a fight, and never creating a scene. I remember the whistling of the pressure cooker when my mom would simmer a lamb curry; unlike that pressure cooker though, I never got a chance to release that anxiety.

In undergrad, I remember going on a date with a gora who remarked, “I’ve never kissed an Indian guy before,” and later in life, finding so many men on the grid of every dating app who only called for “whites only”. I remember the magazines that didn’t hire me because of my name or because I looked that much more different than the sea of faces in their cube farms. I remember watching white coworkers coast by on mediocrity and get rewarded. I remember being told to try harder, only to reap similar rewards even when I outperformed them.

As I write these words, I smirk. Of course, for folks like me, all  it takes is one white person to pull the lever to activate the trapdoor beneath our feet, and lo! we are suspended in space, our velocity mercy to the agenda of a diminishing status quo, struggling to regain momentum. It is certainly not the Sunken Place, but it is a place akin to such a place.

I was told by my parents to remain quiet, study hard, do well in school, and get a job that lets us continue the tradition of upper-middle class privilege into which we were born. It’s a wonderful trap that promises the illusion of reward: Work super-hard and get a respectable amount of money. I get why the generation before mine played by these rules. Immigrating to the U.S. meant tolerating systematic abuse and shrugging off microaggressions from white people. After all, being new to a country that is already predisposed to hating outsiders who don’t look or sound like the status quo means quickly learning how to best toe the party line and how to minimize the ripples created. This cycle, unfortunately, doesn’t leave room to interrogate inequities. Fundamentally, people like me are expected to anglicize our names, adopt American attitudes, and deliver a work ethic inconsistent with the status quo, for a fraction of the pay.

* * *

I don’t begrudge immigrants who followed this paradigm in order to build a better life for their family and raise kids in a society that’s just a little less disjointed than the motherland’s. They saw that they had two options: Stay in a land where opportunities for future generations seemed finite if unstable; or, roll the dice and gamble on the so-called promised land. Yet, I challenge these parents’ desire for their children, born as American citizens, to comply with this rubric of subservience. If you raise us with the intention of leading lives better than yours, you should expect–no, demand–that we will grow up to fight for equitable and fair treatment at all costs, so that the generation after us is playing a less rigged version of the game that us and you had to.

I was taught to be to be quiet and play by the rules. Speaking up could cause trouble and trouble would be inconvenient. As a meek Indian-American kid, I would grow up to be a meek Indian-American teenager, which would obviously lead me being to the kind of university student who would be quick to find the boundaries of acceptable and be eager to please; this then led to me being the kind of entry-level employee who would be quiet about workplace abuses, racist language, and negotiating for higher pay. A rallying cry left over from the generation before mine: Always remember to please the sahibs, and don’t do anything to upset them!

Placating the sahibs means tolerating and getting used to microaggressions and abuse in common settings, and doing what you need to in order to preserve yourself andyour livelihood — all without rocking the boat.

I see so many of my beautiful Indian peers resisting the model minority trap: They see the shiny lure, the trigger and they steer clear of it. Instead, they make noise about it, and about the possible perpetrators trying to pull one of ours in.

I therefore light a votive candle and offer a moment of silence, for Piyush Jindal, Nimrata Randhawa, Ajit Pai, Raj Shah, and so many others we have seen fall into the Model Minority trap. They saw the shiny lure – political power – and continue to sink. I don’t know if I would use the word embarrassment to describe how I feel seeing them kowtow to a political party that is proud about its racist and xenophobic hopes; if anything, I am sad. I am sad because just as the next generation of Indian-Americans are out there advocating for immigration and openness, we have lost a few of our own – and they’re so far down there, they can’t even hear us screaming out to them, asking them to find their ways back to us.

I get it. Appease the sahib and  you’ll find power. The premise that non-white men and women like us are not capable of deriving power from our own greatness feels foolish. More foolish, though, is the suggestion that we must lean on proximity to whiteness to create power. This kind of power is fickle. This kind of power comes with footnotes and conditions. This kind of power can be taken away at any moment.

Feel pity for people like Pai, Shah, and Randhawa: they may not have understood the terms and conditions of their power completely. They are, ultimately, nothing but modern day equivalents of the Indians who served at the leisure of British colonialists in pre-Partition India.

* * *

My mom and I were watching the Oscars this year and Taraji P. Henson appeared on stage to introduce Mary J. Blige; it was a loving introduction, and you could see Henson exuding pride for Blige’s appearance on the Oscar stage. I turned to my mom and I asked, “Why are Indians not this good at lifting one another up and celebrating each other’s successes in front of white people?”

This act of uplifting is what earned, self-contained power looks like. It is unencumbered by whiteness. It is why when we consider the Sunken Place, we must consider Wakanda, too. Black Panther – the film that spawned the wonderful world of Wakanda – offers lessons for Indians. Wakanda envisions what a world for Black people would look like without colonial poaching. For this reason, the make-believe nation is beautiful; it imagines a world where the law leads with love and equality  The construct of Wakanda is only threatened when external American influence comes to exploit its resources for increased global power and revenge.

I consider what this means for people in my community. The allegory of colonialism is not subtle in the film–and the scars of colonization are felt not only by those living in the motherland, but by all members of the diaspora. This hits a nerve close to me. I sometimes wonder what an India that never ended up under British rule would look like.

* * *

Our proximity to the Sunken Place is a curious thing: Every generation since the Partition still wears the scars of British colonial rule. These scars have trained us to exalt whiteness above brownness and to encourage the mimicry of Western culture. Every new generation inherits these scars, even as  I hope that someday that might fade from our skin.

The allure of the Model Minority Myth remains far too strong. We all hear its twisted siren song. Some of us are even so captivated by its call that we slip and fall and disappear away. While we might light candles for those who are lost, we know there won’t be any bringing them back.

For the rest of us, it’s time to turn away from siren song. I believe we must learn to celebrate one another and to start reclaiming our identity. We must keep the so-difficult-to-pronounce-them-your-white-colleagues-struggle-to-say-it names our parents gave us. We must be aggressive when we lobby for that promotion. We must demand the best; then we must pull out a seat out at that damned table for the next person who reminds us of what we have just endured.

R. K. Guha

R.K. Guha is a writer living in the suburbs just north of Detroit. He remains hard at work on a book of essays and tends to plants in his spare time. He is also an editor of The Aerogram.

Write Back, Fight Back(#WriteBackFightBack) is a weekly essay series sponsored by 18MillionRising, Asian Americans Advancing Justice, and Reappropriate. It features emerging Asian American writers on topics of racial and social justice. New essays will appear every Thursday.

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