From Asian Stereotypes to Asian Activism
In February of 1917, Congress passed laws preventing immigration by “feeble-minded persons”, "criminals", persons “mentally or physically defective” or anyone from Asia. Immigration from China had already stopped after a similar Act in 1882. Popular stereotypes at the time depicted Chinese immigrants and other Asian groups as barbarians only capable of simple physical labor who were prone to drugs, violence, and rape.
Seventy-three years later, a Chinese American professor at Yale Law School published an essay about Chinese parenting in the Wall Street Journal affirming stereotypes of Chinese as hard-working, disciplined, and unemotional overachievers. How we make sense of this contrast says a lot about the evolution of race and racism in America.
Similar to racism against Latino immigrants today, discriminatory laws in the late 19th and early 20th centuries followed economic anxiety and depictions of Asians as an invading horde that could never assimilate into U.S. society. Near Chico, CA, where I went to high school, a white mob burned down Chinatown and lynched Chinese workers in 1877.
Fast forward to 1966, when articles in New York Times Magazine and U.S. News and World Report popularized a new stereotype, presenting Japanese and Chinese Americans as a “model minority.” As the model minority, Asian Americans are still irredeemably foreign but are also high achievers – due to our work ethic, emphasis on education, and aversion to standing out or making waves.
It’s true that the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 began to skew immigration patterns by favoring Asian immigrants with more formal education and professional work experience. But Asian Americans have always been and continue to be predominantly poor or working class. And when the stereotype was popularized in 1966, these demographic shifts did not yet take place.
The true root of these stereotypes is their usefulness to maintaining systems of power and privilege. Stereotypes of immigrants rationalize exploitation when our labor is needed and justify exclusion when economic uncertainty calls for a scapegoat. And after the Civil Rights Movement, the model minority stereotype became useful as “evidence” that we live in a society where people get left behind not because of inequality but because of their individual failures.
People of color willing to affirm stereotypes and racism will always have an easy time finding an outlet for their perspectives. Ms. Chua’s essay is the equivalent of a Chinese laborer from California in the early 20th Century proclaiming that Chinese people are naturally amoral and incapable of becoming educated. By affirming model minority stereotypes, she helps distort real Asian American lives and implicitly discredits efforts for social justice.
When a prominent publication like the Wall Street Journal gives space for an Asian American to talk about their experiences with parenting, there’s any number of deserving stories. Like the courageous women in New York who raise other people’s children in oftentimes exploitative conditions and fought to pass a landmark Bill of Rights for all domestic workers. Or restaurant workers in San Francisco Chinatown who raise families while earning less than minimum wage. Or Laotian families battling Chevron because they don’t want their children to get cancer. Or any of the experiences collected by Asian American reproductive justice advocates in an initiative designed to show what our families are actually like.
There are Asian American parents and children living with HIV/AIDS, facing deportation, imprisoned, fighting for worker’s rights – countless stories that don’t fit into the model minority myth and need to be told. But they are not nearly as useful. So instead, with a blind eye towards history, we get an op-ed about strict Chinese parents that is just silly and sad.
To counter the over-reliance of Asian stereotypes in our media, please participate in the Tell Your Story project of the ACRJ.
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