Commentary

Model Minority Mutiny: Radicalizing Asian American Students to Stand With BlackLivesMatter

Erin Kim/The Phillipian

 

“An Asian friend of mine said the [Black Lives Matter] protests were Black people being ungrateful.” – @BlackAtAndover 

“An Asian guy who I considered a ‘friend’ decided to discuss his dating preferences by listing, directly to my Black self, every single race he was attracted to. He listed every general racial category I could think of but Black. He did add ‘mixed girls are cute though.’” – @BlackAtAndover 

“The amount of times I felt the need to make jokes about my own Blackness just to make my White and Asian peers feel comfortable is ridiculous.” – @BlackAtAndover 

… 

As Asian American faculty members and advocates for BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Color) students, we found these posts painful to read. They highlight problems of Asian American identity development within the larger system of racism and white supremacy, contextualized in the elite world of private independent schools. Namely, our concerns for our Asian and Asian American students are two-fold: 1) the internalization of anti-Black racism and the model minority myth grounded in a perceived proximity to whiteness, and 2) the erasure of the history of Asian American activism both by mainstream media and from school curricula. These interrelated phenomena uphold the prevalent perception that Asian Americans are exempt from racism even though they have been “dehumanized as an unsavory foreign contaminant — portrayed as uncivilized, sinister, heathen, filthy yellow hordes that threatened to invade the U.S. and ‘mongrelize’ the white race,” says Yonemura Wing in 2008. As educators, we seek to address these historical, social, political, and psychic challenges to multi-racial, intersectional solidarity as a matter of ethical pedagogy. Understanding how these dynamics work, we can disrupt the ways in which white supremacist thinking pits Asian American communities against other communities of color.

William Peterson popularized the term “model minority”  in 1966, attributing the apparent success of Japanese Americans—only 20 years after their wartime mass incarceration and internment—to a supposed intrinsic repository of cultural values, strong work ethic, family structure, and genetics. The term solidified into a stereotype of all Asian Americans, attributing the relative “success” of some Asian American communities to their supposed “apolitical” nature, and pitting them against more “openly resistant” and “discontent” Black communities. As the “model minority,” Asians and Asian Americans are positioned by the dominant discourse as simultaneously a threat to white entitlement as well as alienated from the civil rights struggle for racial and economic justice in schools and communities according to Chou & Feagin’s work in 2015.  Today we must grapple with the fact that Asian Americans caught up in the myth of the model minority have “embodied the most effective weapons in the dismantling of the same progressive and affirmative action programs which they struggled to enact,” in the words of Hsu’s work in 2018

The current generation of writers, scholars, educators, artists, students, and activists builds on this complex history to mobilize a powerful critical discourse and new forms of organizing and coalition-building. In her memoir “Minor Feelings: An Asian American Reckoning,” Cathy Park Hong imagines a “2.0 version” of Asian Americans doing our own work to dismantle anti-Blackness in our communities and reconnect with our predecessors who fought against oppressions. 

Recognizing that academic institutions have been—intentionally or unintentionally—reproducing oppressive structures, we believe that this work starts with helping Asian American youth develop healthy and complicated identities as anti-racist people through the following recommendations.

We propose that we as a campus discontinue the use of the terms “Underrepresented Students of Color” and “Underrepresented BIPOC” in official administrative communications, including the office for Community and Multicultural Development (CaMD), Shuman Admissions Office, Development, Communications, Alumni Engagement, etc. The bifurcation of being “under” or “over-represented” is unscientific and harmful. Implications of being considered  “over-represented” include: 1) the Asian American experience is a monolithic one, 2) students of Asian heritages are not also members of marginalized populations in America, 3) the model minority stereotype is valid, and 4) the racialized experiences of Asian Americans do not matter. Instead, we advocate for clearly naming students’ racial or ethnic groups based on factual rather than perceptual information, and for widespread adoption of the term BIPOC – Black, Indigenous, People of Color, to amplify that Black and Indigenous People’s racialized experiences are different from those of other People of Color. We should continue using terms that signal coalition, rather than division

Increase understanding of the rich complexity of the term “Asian American” amongst adults and students at Andover (Hune, 2020), including as a political identity that intends to solidify a collective consciousness without erasing or minimizing our diversity.  Hune and Chan (1997) defined Asian Americans as people with Asian heritages who call the United States their home. It is a complex identity also because: 1) it connects to a long history of American colonialism, imperialism and militarization in Asian countries, and 2) it offers a charged site where American nationhood invests much of its contradictions, desires, and anxieties” according to Cheng’s work in 2001. 

Andover alumni Ai Jen Poo ’92 says that she is “Phenomenally Asian.” We would like for all our students of Asian heritages to develop this sense of pride in their identity, celebrate their own individuality and fullness of their humanity, and learn to work in solidarity with all marginalized communities. Our goal is to collaborate this coming year with various offices of the school, in addition to CaMD, to create sustainable and differentiated programming for Asian and Asian American students to achieve this vision. 

Sincerely, 

Corrie Martin and Lilia Cai-Hurteau 

Faculty Co-Advisor: Asian Women Empowerment (AWE)