Answering questions about race and Asian Americans – Pt. I

written by Love Isn’t Enough guest contributor Jennifer; originally posted at Mixed Race America

[Editor's note: Over on Mixed Race America, Jennifer is tackling questions from students about Asian Americans and the politics of racialization. The queries were the result of a workshop Jennifer recently led at a private university. We'll share her fascinating posts here--a little out of order.]

So I’m continuing to answer some questions from some great students I met while doing a workshop on race at Private U. last week. In my previous blog post, I answered 2 questions and now I’m going to tackle another two.

1) How is having “Asian” become another overachieving racial group, like white, different from “Latino/Hispanic” or “Black? being so?

Hmmmm… I think that there are maybe 2 questions being asked (or implied). One is the assumption that Asian Americans are an “overachieving racial group” who are like “whites” (or Caucasian Americans). The second is that Asian Americans and Caucasian Americans, because of their “overachieving” status are different from “Latino/Hispanic” and “black/African American.”

So first a word about terminology for newer readers of this blog. I never capitalized or use quotation marks around racial groups (yeah, I know, I just did above, but it was more in quoting from the question) like white and black Americans. And I pretty much use African American and black interchangeably, like I use white and Caucasian interchangeably. I do capitalize references to geographic spaces, hence Asian American. And I also use interchangeably Native American and Indian American (which is capitalized, I know–in general we capitalize those phrases like we capitalize Latino). I should also note that the question didn’t ask about American Indians, a notable omission this time of year; unfortunately Native Americans are often left out of the conversation on race because folks think they aren’t statistically relevant or they appear to be invisible. And finally I don’t use the term “Hispanic”–which is a government word used to describe people whose ancestry is from South America and the Caribbean of Spanish origin. I use the term “Latino,” instead, because I think it recognizes the hybridity of influences (beyond Spain) of people who are of Latin American and South American and Caribbean heritage.

OK now on to the question. I guess I’d want to rephrase it–why are Asian Americans and white Americans PERCEIVED as overachieving, and by distinction, why AREN’T African Americans/Latinos (and I’d add American Indians) PERCEIVED as overachieving (and by implication are often believed to be the opposite–lazy/not hard working, not successful).

Because I think it’s about perception. The model minority myth that haunts Asian Americans declares that Asians in America are an overachieving “model” minority. But there are several problems with this myth. First, all stereotypes are damaging, in my opinion, because they are 2-dimensional portraits of people. Second, it’s not true–not all Asian Americans are uber-smart/throwing off the Econ curve/science nerds. I, myself, squeaked by with a B- in pre-Calculus (and that was my last math class in high school–I took stats in college). I we WERE this incredible minority, then I pose this simple question: why aren’t there more Asian American university and college presidents? If we are so good at school, wouldn’t you think that we’d make it to the highest rank in the field of higher education? If we’re so good at math and with money, why aren’t Asian Americans dominating in the ranks of CEO’s of U.S. Fortune 500 conpanies? And if we are so high achieving, why aren’t we more visible/public? How many famous Asian Americans can you actually name (and I mean Asian AMERICANS.

Finally, believing that Asian Americans are high achieving, like white Americans, implies that black and Latino Americans are not–that they are NOT the model minority (and I suppose I should note that while we see many white Americans who are high achieving, I suspect that there are also many white Americans who aren’t).

I guess what I’m saying is that in our current society when white American heterosexual hegemony predominates, this means that white Americans get to be rendered a fully human and individual whereas other racial minorities somehow have to “represent” or speak on behalf or act on behalf of the entire race.

2) Given that each “Asian American” group is so distinct is it accurate to classify them all into one group? Is that group too heterogeneous?

Short answer: yes. The term “Asian American” isn’t a very efficient or even in many cases effective phrase to encompass a group as large as the disparate and diverse ethnicities that comprise the racial label Asian American. However, I use it and I think we need to use it and think about it because of the ways that people of Asian ancestry have been racialized and subject to institutional forces of racism (and oppressed by white supremacy/white privilege) throughout U.S. history.

In other words, racial categories exist because the system or racism needs racial categories to exist. It’d be great if we could get rid of racial categories, but that time won’t happen until we can get rid of racism (see my post on this topic on the right sidebar “Getting Rid of Race“). I know folks want to see it as the other way around, but the truth is, the system of racism needs racial categories. So until we can get rid of racial inequities I don’t think we get rid of racial categories.

Will the category of Asian American mutate? I think it already is. And I think depending on who you talk to, they either feel affinity with this category or they soundly reject it-and I think that’s as it should be–I mean, I may believe and understand racism and racialization as a historic and institutional process that has power at its root, but my parents, who identify strongly with being Chinese (or Chinese American) may not believe that they have anything in common with their Vietnamese or Filipino neighbors. And so they may not feel like they need that label and may reject it.

And honestly, whether someone identifies as Asian American or with any racial category or not, doesn’t matter to me. What matters to me is that we work towards ending systems of inequity, racism being a big one to tackle–so we need as many folks on board with this project of any and all racial/ethnic categories to work on ending this form of oppression.

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About Tami

Tami Winfrey Harris writes about race, feminism, politics and pop culture at the blog What Tami Said. Her work has also appeared online at The Guardian’s Comment is Free, Ms. Magazine blog, Newsweek, Change.org, Huffington Post and Racialicious. She is a graduate of the Iowa State University Greenlee School of Journalism. She is mom to two awesome stepkids and spends her spare time researching her family history and cultivating a righteous 'fro.
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