Conditional Acceptance: Thinking Beyond the Model Minority Myth

Ever since I was a little girl, I’ve always been interested in politics. Even though I spent most of my childhood moving between America and China, when I imagined giving my acceptance speech it was always on the steps of Capitol Hill. Call it a West Wing-fuelled fantasy of me, a loud Asian American girl bringing a diorama of the White House for career day in 7th grade at Shanghai American School with my favorite presidents peeking out of the windows and me stepping out of the front doors.

 

Don’t get me wrong, I wasn’t completely unaware of the fact that, perhaps I didn’t look like most Presidents before me. But growing up as an Asian American in Asia put me in the unique position of being able to, for the most part, conceive of my national identity as solely American. Race never factored into my grand plans for my future because everyone viewed me as a “laowai” or foreigner due to my un-accented English and Western education. In a way, I even took secret pride in the idea that somehow I was better than the “locals” in Shanghai. Growing up as an Asian American in China, where most of the students at Shanghai American School were also Asian American, I was never made to feel “othered” and didn’t feel as saliently the sting of discriminatory Asian stereotypes.

After coming to Wellesley for college, I begun to see what my parents had meant when they told me that “the way I perceived myself was not the way others perceived me”. People still marveled at my “perfect English” but this time it didn’t make me feel good. When people in China made that comment, I felt special because it reminded everyone that I was American. Ironically, when people in America made that comment, it reminded me that they couldn’t really see me as one of their own. That my fluency was somehow an abnormality. My first summer here, I worked on the political campaign of a local community leader running for city council, Suzanne Lee. Once, when I went canvassing with her in Southie, someone asked her why she felt like there needed to be two Asians on city council. At this time another Asian American was also running for city council. I wondered how she could even have asked Suzanne that after Suzanne had talked extensively with this person about her vision for education reform and reinvestment in public spaces. Suzanne was very gracious, and explained that her intimate knowledge and connection to the Chinatown community was an asset because it showed that she already knows how to be community leader and cares about those that she represents. She urged that person to let her be a representative of Southie as well, and show that her passion and dedication as a public servant, included but was not limited to the Chinese community.

In the end, she didn’t win—the other Asian American candidate did though. While I was relieved that at least there was one Asian American person on city council, I was discouraged by the fact that it was the Asian American candidate who had less direct ties to the Asian community in Boston. What I learned is that success as an Asian American comes with conditions and qualifiers. When I was working on Capitol Hill, I was allowed to be proud of my Asian heritage, but only when I didn’t express my anger that there wasn’t more representation. Once I did, my race became a threat, because I no longer fit into the model minority narrative. Even in liberal spaces, people are uncomfortable when you point out the ways in which they have failed. What I didn’t realize was, my admission into the American political establishment was contingent on me understanding and following a set of rules that were not explained to me in the episodes of the West Wing. Apparently, righteous anger was reserved only for white men like Josiah Bartlett, the rest of us are expected to be happy just to be allowed in the door. It was exhausting to try and play the game by standards that were unspoken but crucially important.

The past three years since I’ve moved to Boston for college have been for me, a rapid and often uncomfortable lesson in the way racialization happens in this country. It’s shown me how, in many ways, white supremacy has always been present in my life. As much as I’d like to believe that I was introduced to racism in America, it was always present, even in Shanghai. I was proud of the aspects of myself that were Western and the people around me reinforced that feeling of superiority because they too valued being “Western” over being “Eastern.” This past winter break when I went back for five weeks, I began to see white supremacy all around me. From the white faces in the billboards in Shanghai to the whitening creams sold in department stores. I saw how much being white was valued, in beauty standards, in academic standards, in cultural standards. Even though China is a pretty nationalistic place, there is an underlying sense of inferiority that pervades the Chinese people I know. I remembered how my parents always made comments on the Chinese people’s lack of “civility” and their lack of culture. Despite the government’s anti-American rhetoric, going overseas to an American university is still seen as a mark of honor.  Growing up, I always thought of these experiences as more related to class rather than race.  But after moving to Boston, I’ve begun to see how those are intrinsically tied together, and how white supremacy knows no national boundaries.

To some extent, we are all exposed to that false narrative that race doesn’t matter. How can something that we don’t talk about matter after all? But it does, because it affects people’s lives in very real ways. As I’ve become awake to the forces which racialized me, I can see those same forces at play on other groups. I can see how the history of this country has profoundly shaped the way we view race today. When I was working on the Hill, while I couldn’t find any Asian mentors, the staffers who were the friendliest and most supportive of me were the black women in the office. Through their stories of being stopped and frisked, or being constantly disrespected as senior advisors, I began to be awakened to systems of oppression that work to silence other people of color. I was awakened to my responsibility as a person of color to support other people of color. I’ve realized that the overarching structure oppressing all of us is not the individual stereotypes assigned to each racial group, but rather white supremacy. The assumption that to be normal is to be white, and that is the standard everyone else is striving towards. And “whiteness” is not about one particular skin tone, or even one country, but rather centuries of philosophies, literature, colonization, and violence that have served to convince not only white people but also people of color that to be white is to be civilized.

The anger that we as people of color feel is valid, the frustration of realizing that the American Dream so beautifully presented was not made with you in mind. Right now, race is being talked about in America through the Black Lives Matter movement and all that it’s inspired in a way that has been unseen since the Civil Rights era. This has the potential not only to disrupt white supremacy in America but also all around the world. As Asian Americans, it is our responsibility to make sure that we are a part of that movement, and that narrative. Both as allies supporting our black brothers and sisters and through developing a consciousness of our own. We have so much to bring to the discussion of race in this country.  Because so many of us are immigrants, we have ties to communities all around the world. We have to start recognizing that our power comes not from being acknowledged by the institutions in this country that were created to shut us out, but from forming alliances across racial and national boundaries. Only then do we have any hope of overthrowing the structures and institutions of this world that we did not consent to be controlled by.