The Black-White Binary and the Model Minority Stereotype

The Reverend Laura Mariko Cheifetz serves as the Executive Director of Church & Public Relations at the Presbyterian Publishing Corporation. She received her M.Div. from McCormick Theological Seminary in Chicago, and her MBA from North Park University in Chicago. She is an ordained Teaching Elder in the Presbyterian Church (USA). She enjoys spending time with friends over food, exploring whichever region in which she happens to live, and still believes The Wire is the greatest television show in history.

The Reverend Laura Mariko Cheifetz serves as the Executive Director of Church & Public Relations at the Presbyterian Publishing Corporation. She received her M.Div. from McCormick Theological Seminary in Chicago, and her MBA from North Park University in Chicago. Laura has a chapter in the book “Streams Running Uphill.” She is an ordained Teaching Elder in the Presbyterian Church (USA). She enjoys spending time with friends over food, exploring whichever region in which she happens to live, and still believes The Wire is the greatest television show in history.

Whenever people who are not Asian American tell me I have lots of privilege, I would like that credit to go into my microaggression account. Thanks to my reality as a biracial Asian American woman in the U.S., the weight of microaggressions can sometimes overpower my usually healthy sense of self and place in the world, and I head into what I call my spiral of despair. I have to go read Asian American or Latin@ or Native American feminists to pull myself out of the emotional quagmire. I have to remind myself that I’m not alone.

I have the spent the past couple of months cycling between rage and indifference at Amy Chua, the co-author of The Triple Package: How Three Unlikely Traits Explain the Rise and Fall of Cultural Groups in America and the author of Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother. I’ve been mad because I think her work does not deserve the attention it is getting. I’m mad because I think no amount of cultural gumption will ever overcome systemic discrimination based on race, class, and citizenship, but the latest book by Chua and her husband gives people reasons to overlook discrimination and accuse groups of people of not having the right cultural “stuff.”

But mostly I’m mad because I think what she has done is given more fodder to the model minority myth, driving a wedge between groups who could gain more by working together, but instead play right into the divide and conquer tactics practiced by the system of power and privilege we know as U.S. racism. This latest book just expands and makes more specific the number of groups who get deemed “superior” due to their culture.  And I should be clear I am mad at Amy Chua herself. Yes, AT her. Not at her husband. Because as a woman of color, I think she should know better.

Hello, Model Minority stereotyping. I haven’t been able to escape you since the 1960s.* Have you heard of this? This is one of racism’s finest achievements: the capacity to dupe everyone into thinking that certain minority racial or cultural groups are just inherently superior, regardless of the amount of structural racism facing those groups, and regardless of what the actual data show. This has been so successful that not only do white people often believe it—

“Oh, you Asian Americans are doing just fine. Look at how high your household income is!”

Implication: Racism is over for you!

Implication: You are just so much better than those other people of color, who won’t stop whining about their oppression. Let’s unite against other brown people, even though you’re never getting that promotion.

And the real success? People of color believe it! Too many Asian Americans are totally cool with the Model Minority stereotype:

“At least it’s a positive stereotype.” (I’ve actually had that conversation.)

So do other people of color:

“Asians.” (snort) “Privilege.”

“What we really need to focus on are the needs of African descendants.”

It’s true. When 18millionrising began and hosted a Twitter conversation using the hashtag @NotYourAsianSidekick, it opened the door for other Twitter users to begin posting using the hashtag #AsianPrivilege. Some of the Asian American participants didn’t help, and responded by lashing out against other communities.  While we people of color are in a corner busily accusing each other of having privilege, or being blatantly bigoted, or trying to explain how the data obscure the realities of racism and discrimination, the system of racism that privileges white people is having a party in the middle of the room. This, my friends, is not the Olympics. The only winner is the system.

What the black-white binary does is limit the conversation, narrows our analytical lens, and leads to an incomplete organizing strategy. The Model Minority Myth plays into this binary by marginalizing the fastest-growing racial group from the discussion, and isolates distinct communities of people of color from one another. That’s right: Asian Pacific Americans aren’t black. (I have been accused of not being black. It’s true. I’m not.) And by not being black, we are divided from our African-descent brothers and sisters. The binary and the Myth mean the organizing power of people of color is divided, and we end up primarily relating with white people instead of with one another.

This is exhausting.

I feel exhausted, because now I have the sense that I need to go through an actual data breakdown to prove that Asian Americans should be in this conversation, along with Latin@s and Native Americans. I would like to walk away from this conversation, but I won’t. If I walk away, the system wins again.

So instead of playing into the black-white binary, let’s try something else. Let’s try learning one another’s stories. Instead of comparing our puny pieces of the American story, or the amount of visibility or power or economic influence we have, let’s take a step back to look at the whole picture. Let’s try to determine how we add our collective power and stories together to fight a dehumanizing and bloodthirsty system. Let’s figure out what Native American sovereignty has in common with immigration and criminal justice reform.

* In the 1960s, the narrative emerged that certain immigrant and other minority groups, primarily Asian Americans, were doing great, over and against other distinct communities of people of color.

Categories:Antiracism Analysis, Commentary, Cooperation and Collaboration, Racial Equity, Racial Justice
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2 responses to “The Black-White Binary and the Model Minority Stereotype”

  1. T. Gonzales says:

    If it is a worthwhile goal to complicate/breakdown the Model Minority narrative, what are the ways in which we can do this?

  2. lmcheifetz says:

    You know, this is the tricky part. Definitely ensuring that what we say about race relations to be based on a broader analysis, but also being cognizant that most news about Asian Americans aggregates the data. We can demand that data is disaggregated by our organizations. We can also help explain how data can be deceiving. That is, Asian American household income is high in part because Asian Americans are concentrated in areas with higher overall incomes (like California) and also because the average Asian American household is actually larger than the average white household.

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