Earlier this year, Donald Trump signed an Executive Order that effectively prevented Muslim refugees and non-US residents, from coming into the country. If you recall, there were large protests in airports all across the country.
Despite being a registered Republican at the time, I adamantly opposed what quickly became known as “The Muslim Ban”. But when the protest day arrived, I choose not to go. The Philadelphia International Airport was just 25 minutes away from where I lived. But it was Sunday evening and after a long day at church, I was simply too tired.
Looking back, that was a mistake.
I have always believed that social justice is a Christian responsibility. It’s not that I believe in some kind of Social Gospel. It’s that I believe the true Gospel always has social implications.
I have already admitted that a big reason why I didn’t go was laziness. But there is another powerful cultural and historical reason that influenced my decision not to attend. And this is what I want to spend the rest of this post talking about, ie, the model minority myth and its damaging effects.
Asian Americans as a rule do not politically protest1
Asians typically do not protest on the scale that some other minorities groups tend to do. And the reason may be historical.
Asian Studies scholar Ellen Wu explains in her most recent book that post WWII Asians found it politically expedient to avoid using political protests. Instead, they chose to portray themselves to the rest of America as being well assimilated, hard working and politically non-threatening.
On pg 161 she writes:
“The insinuation was that hard work along with unwavering faith in the government and liberal democracy as opposed to political protest were the keys to overcoming racial barriers as well as achieving full citizenship.”2
The insinuation that she is talking about was the beginnings of what became known as the model minority stereotype.
The Myth of the Model Minority Stereotype
The stereotype, as it applies to Asian Americans, is that Asians are the model for all other minorities in terms of how to achieve the American dream. To be socio-economically successful in America, one simply needs to what all Asians do: work hard, live by conservative values, invest in education and never complain.
The problem with this is that it’s actually a myth; a piece of 1960’s propaganda. What’s worse is that buying into it does great harm to both Asians and other minorities.
Here’s what I mean.
The model minority stereotype gives people the erroneous idea that simply through hard work and persistence, anyone can overcome any obstacle that stands in the way of socio-economic advancement.
While there are quite a few stories of Asians going from rags to riches using this method, the stereotype fails as an accurate descriptor because it doesn’t account for: 1.) the fact that Asians have the highest rate of poverty than any other minority group and 2.) how Asians have a larger wealth disparity between the “haves” and “have nots” than whites.3
In other words, the model minority method for success is a high risk/high reward-double edged sword. For those few that it works for, it REALLY works. But that success also comes at a great cost.
A Destructive Myth
First off, the myth drives us to be self righteously judgemental. If you are successful, in your mind it’s because you earned your success through hard work, perseverance and “moral living”. But by that logic, if other people, asian or otherwise, did not “make it”, the reason most likely is because they simply didn’t work hard enough. Even if we do help such people, we would do so more out of pity, and not because we see a lack of privilege or similar injustice.
Secondly, the myth establishes an impossibly high standard that prevents those who are subject to it from asking for help for fear of appearing weak or “unworthy”. Simply ask any Asian what an Asian fail is. Or better yet, see how Asian Americans tend to be plagued by a myriad of mental and emotional problems and yet are the least likely out of any group to seek help.4
Thirdly, the myth causes Asians living in poverty to miss out on getting the help that they need simply because people who might be in a position to help, are blind to their plight because of the myth.5 The thought process then becomes, ‘other minorities are worse off than Asians, so they take priority in receiving our help’.
It’s harmful effect on other minorities
Furthermore, this myth hurts other minorities. Although it was originally invented by Asians as a way to defend ourselves against xenophobia, it was quickly commandeered by white politicians as a way to specifically counter Black pleas for equal rights and an end to racism. The idea was that if Asian people were able to “pull themselves up by their bootstraps” without help, then Black people should be able to do so as well. If they cannot, they (according to those politicians) have no one to blame but themselves.
Wu points out that Asian Americans had more agency in the formation of the myth than they are normally credited for.
The Civil Rights Movement took place between 1954-1968. During that time, Black leaders organized public protests in hope of gaining civil rights.
Whether it was intentional or not, Asian American’s refusal to engage in public protests stood in stark contrast with the African American Civil Rights Movement. And this contrast was quickly seized upon by white leaders who used it to paint (and thus dismiss) Black protesters as wrong-headed trouble makers.
In some sense, Asian Americans seemed to have gained acceptance by White America because our model minority myth could be used as a kind of weapon against Black people. .
Lastly, the myth makes us work harder than we need to.
Education has always been a priority in Asian American circles. Asian parents have typically understood that there aren’t too many avenues for Asians to advance in this country. For example, Jeremy Lin and the retired Yao Ming are the only Asian Americans to have some sustained success in Professional Basketball. And only recently has there been a surge of Asian American representation in American movies and television. But by in large, it still remains true that the only avenue open to Asians for socio-economic advancement is education.
But this has also led to another serious problem that the model minority myth causes.
A recent study came out that showed how Asians typically have to score 140 points higher on the SAT to get the same consideration as a white person.6 What has been happening is that each school only has so many slots for students. And because Asian Americans put so much emphasis on education, there are more of us desperately trying to get one of those slots. But this leads to Asians being overrepresented in any given college. What elite private colleges do to curb this overrepresentation is simply make the acceptance requirements for Asians comparatively higher and more difficult to attain than for other ethnicities.7
And as the Asian population, which already is the fastest growing demographic in the US, grows, the requirements are only going to get harder and harder.
As I said earlier, the model minority myth’s ethos of “pulling ourselves up by our bootstraps” requires an insane amount of hard work that is ever increasing. The kicker for me is that for some reason we asians think this is normal for us.That somehow this is simply “just the way it is”.
Walter Brueggemann has an insight on the Exodus story that might challenge our “bootstraps” mentality.
“In the narrative imagination of Israel, the gods of Egypt are stand-ins for all the gods of the several empires. What they all have in common is that they are confiscatory gods who demand endless produce and who authorize endless systems of production that are, in principle, insatiable. Thus, the mention of “Egypt” brings the God of Israel into the orbit of socioeconomic systems and practices, and inevitably sets this God on a collision course with the gods of insatiable productivity.”8
In plain English, this world, just like Pharaoh, demands endless productivity. It then goes on to try and convince us that our workload, as well as the frenetic pace we need to be on to accomplish it, is somehow the most natural and normal thing for us. To even suggest alternative arrangements to the workload is to invite charges of being lazy (Ex 5:7). But the reality is, it is NOT NORMAL.
The Sabbath was designed in part to teach us not to enslave ourselves by putting our identity or hope in our work. Merely practicing it can be an act of (Spiritual) activism.
And if we believe in the principle of Sabbath (or better yet the Lord of the Sabbath Himself), then not only would we realize that this workload is abnormal, we would also see that it’s morally wrong. And part of seeing our responsibility towards other minorities in this country involves us understanding this.
To phrase it yet another way:
The Bible is not against honest hard work any more than it’s against a few sips of wine. But drowning yourself in either will erode your strength and your soul. And this isn’t just true of evil illegitimate work. It’s all work that is in view.
Brueggemann points out that in Ex 31:17 God was working by creating the world. As per the Genesis 1 narrative, the work that He did was good. But when God rested, He “re-souled” Himself (Hebrew: nifal Nefesh). In other words, there is something about work, even good work, especially if we keep doing it without rest, that degrades and diminishes our personhood. We “impersonalize” ourselves. Celebrating Sabbath helps us step back from work and not let it define or consume us and instead undoes the damage that unending work does to us by having us rest and “re-persons” our soul.8
I began this post with a story about why I didn’t protest in behalf of Muslims. I said it was because I was tired. The irony is that when we say no the work of the world and instead do the work of God (John 6:29), we find our rest.
- That statement is hyperbole. There are many significant examples of Asian American organized protests. The latest in my memory is a protest in NY over NYPD officer Peter Liang’s conviction for killing an unarmed Black man in Brooklyn some time last year. There are also a good number of Asian Americans throughout the past 50 years or so who were involved in politics and many more who actively fought for social justice.
- Wu, Ellen D. (2013-11-24). The Color of Success: Asian Americans and the Origins of the Model Minority (Politics and Society in Modern America) (p. 161). Princeton University Press. Kindle Edition.
- An example of this is that In NY, Asians make up a little over 11% of the population. But we take up well over 60% and in some cases 70% of student slots in its public “magnet” High schools. While White enrollment remained steady, Black and Hispanic enrollment significantly shrunk. For recent (2017) statistics see: http://nypost.com/2017/03/08/asian-kids-dominate-admission-to-citys-elite-high-schools/
- Brueggemann, Walter (2014-01-31). Sabbath as Resistance: (p. 2). Westminster John Knox Press. Kindle Edition.
- “That divine rest on the seventh day, moreover, is recalled in the commandment of Exodus 31: 12– 17, wherein God is “refreshed” on the seventh day. The God of Israel (and of creation) is no immovable, fixed object, but here is said to be depleted and by rest may recover a full sense of “self” (nephesh).” Brueggemann, Walter (2014-01-31). Sabbath as Resistance: (pp. 6-7). Westminster John Knox Press. Kindle Edition.