By Ed Shew, contributor
Every group that has immigrated to America has struggled to fit in while battling the hatred and discrimination from those already established here. First there was the late-19th century “Yellow Peril” and later xenophobic myths that promoted the false ideas that Asians were disease carriers, a threat to the nation and could never truly become American.
Now history repeats itself with the continuing mantra of former President Donald Trump, other political leaders and some media outlets, calling the coronavirus the “Chinese Virus” and the “Kung Flu” — thus stoking anti-Asian hysteria and racist attacks.
Since the pandemic, more than 2,800 hate-crime attacks have been reported against Asians in the United States, ranging from violent attacks and verbal abuses to the vandalizing of Asian-owned businesses. Hate crimes in 16 cities rose by 150% in 2020 against Asian Americans (many of them elderly women). They are an attack against the most vulnerable of an already marginalized population.
The racism of outright hostility or micro-aggression of thoughtless, unintentional racism constantly confronts Asians. Our world minimizes us and, at times, we minimize ourselves. For example, I’ve often been asked. “Don’t you think you’ve been helped by being Chinese?” A couple times during the Vietnam War, I was denied employment and housing. I’ve been stopped seven times for traffic violations in my life — and not once been given a warning, always given a ticket.
Well, I hide my scornful smile. Sweeping generalizations of Asian Americans as the “privileged” and “successful” spit in the face of inequalities that many Asian Americans face daily.
While laudatory in tone, the “model minority” label is not a compliment, and it does nothing but render discrimination against Asian Americans as invisible. The generalized argument — that the success of Asian Americans in the United States is a tribute to hard work, strong families and passion for education — is not always valid. In addition, this perpetuates the myth that racism, including more than two centuries of Black enslavement, can be overcome by hard work and strong family values.
In fact, the model minority label operates as a racial wedge that divides Asian Americans from communities of color while maintaining white dominance in leadership and politics.
A meaningful consequence of the model minority label is its failure to acknowledge socioeconomic and education disparities within and among the diverse range of communities categorized as Asian American. Not all ethnic communities under the Asian American shield are advantaged. Southeast Asian Americans (Cambodia, Hmong and Laos) drop out of high school at an alarming rate. These Asian American subgroups, along with Vietnamese Americans, earn below the national average.
To further highlight, while Chinese immigrants had higher median household incomes compared to the overall foreign-born population and native-born households, at the same time, Chinese immigrants were slightly more likely to live in families with annual incomes below the official poverty threshold (17%) compared to immigrants overall (15%) or the U.S.-born (13%), according to the Immigration Policy Institute in January 2020.
I once viewed the wrongs committed against Chinese as not being comparable to those committed against Black people in America. I was suffering from a second-class oppression. To rank historical struggles by one’s race serves no purpose, but respect is an absolute requirement. It is this same conditioned minimization that sets off the narrative: your experience isn’t valid because you didn’t have it as bad. But comparing who had it worse doesn’t further anti-racism.
While I’m a person of color, it’s hard discussing racism against Asians in America when race is essentially a Black/white issue, and I’m not white, as I’m regularly reminded. For example, I do not know of one Asian who is not wounded when asked, “Where are you from? Where are you really from? Your English is so good.” The questioners do not get it. We are not the perpetual foreigner.
If we are not confronting, we are enabling. We Asians can do better, and we Americans must practice anti-racism and work toward more diversity and inclusion, individually and collectively. We need to uproot and address any form of prejudice or bigotry that prevails in any community. Let’s involve all groups in the discussion. We can’t call ourselves anti-racists until we acknowledge all marginalized people, including Asian Americans.
I acknowledge America was never perfect, but that is no excuse for the present racism from the killing of unarmed Black citizens to the continued genocide of Native Americans. However, my hope is that America will strive for something better.
Brene Brown, Ph.D, says: “Fitting in is being somewhere you really want to be, but they don’t care one way or the other. Belonging is being somewhere where you want to be, and they want you.”
This article originally appeared in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, March 22, 2021 authored by native St. Louisan Ed Shew, a Chinese American, a retired human resources professional and the author of the historical novel, “Chinese Brothers, American Sons.”