In the United States, issues of race are often defined along the lines of Black and white, especially since the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement is forcing many individuals to confront the ways systemic racism is ingrained in our society. However, our country has never been inhabited by only those two groups, and the ways in which both Black and white America have interacted with other minorities offers further insight into our nation’s history. This is exemplified by the complex issue of Asian Americans as racialized subjects and the histories of both anti-Blackness and anti-racism solidarity within this community.
During the height of the Civil Rights movement in the 1960s, the labeling of Asian Americans as the “model minority” emerged as a white supremacist tool to create a rift between Black and Asian American communities. The term first appeared in a 1966 New York Times Magazine article commending Japanese Americans on their rise in socioeconomic status only two decades after their internment, while also pitting them against the “problem” Black minority.
The model minority myth posits that Asian Americans are more successful due to a combination of hard work, educational attainment, and inherent law-abiding natures. It rests on the belief that Asians were able to overcome racism and achieve the American Dream, while other minority groups have failed to do the same. Author Frank Chin categorizes this myth as a form of “racist love,” confining an entire community within the bounds of an “acceptable” stereotype rather than a blatantly xenophobic stereotype such as the Yellow Peril. It is because of this adversarial dichotomy that Asian Americans have difficulties coming to terms with political identities such as POC or WOC, and why some may reject these terms altogether.
Furthermore, the model minority myth not only drives a wedge between marginalized communities, reinforcing a structure of assimilation to white society as the primary goal for people of color, but it creates a monolithic identity for Asian Americans. “Asian American” as a term is incredibly heterogeneous and cannot encapsulate the depth and breadth of identities within this racial category. There are clear inaccuracies that emerge from lumping populations together. For instance, as of the early 2000s, poverty rates among Southeast Asian Americans are much higher than even those of “nonmodel” minorities. Despite the popular image of Asians immigrating to become technology executives or graduate students, each Asian family here has its own immigration story, often beginning with people overcoming poverty, struggling against bigotry, and fleeing war or even genocides.
In order to reconcile this division the model minority myth has created, Asian Americans must embrace anti-racism solidarity that has existed in this community for generations, while actively confronting anti-Black sentiment. While rarely mentioned in history textbooks, Asian Americans and Black Americans have a long-standing relationship of fighting together for our civil liberties. Creating solidarity with the Black community can be traced back to the late 1800s when Frederick Douglass denounced the Chinese Exclusion Act.
Cooperation continued during the Civil Rights movement, which introduced Asian Americans to new ways of thinking about justice and equality. Asian American students rallied alongside Black student organizers as part of the Third World Liberation Front, demanding an educational curriculum designed for and taught by people of color. We are not exposed in our formal education to the efforts of Asian American activists like Yuri Kochiyama, whose decades’ worth of activism was just beginning when she met Malcolm X, or Grace Lee Boggs, who was an extremely vocal Black Power movement activist. Although Boggs is fully Chinese American, her FBI files describe her as “probably Afro Chinese,” reinforcing the racial divide. Even the term “Asian American,” coined by UC Berkeley students Emma Gee and Yuji Ichioka in 1968, was inspired by the Black Power Movement as a means to establish anti-racist political power.
Asian Americans owe so much to the Black struggle for freedom from gaining birthright citizenship to the ability to be educated about and share our culture to many of our civil rights and liberties. Asian Americans have purposefully been touted as a middle-person minority, stuck within a hierarchy of racial minorities imposed by white supremacy, which further heightens tensions with both dominant and oppressed groups. This de-minoritization excludes Asian Americans from the POC community, resulting in a lack of feeling of belonging to any community.
It cannot be ignored that education and hard work did not on its own uplift Asian Americans within our society. It was those efforts in concert with other Americans treating Asians with a little more respect than they gave to other minority groups. The alignment of the abolishment of former anti-Asian immigration laws with the passage of the Immigration and Naturalization Act of 1965 and the emergence of the “model minority” myth is no coincidence. Yet despite these advancements in status, Asian Americans continue to experience discrimination, hate crimes and racial violence, xenophobia, and other indicators of racial marginalization in the US. These incidences only serve to remind Asian Americans that they cannot simply wait for white supremacist systems to bestow privilege upon them, but rather they must work with other BIPOC to enact long-lasting systemic solutions. The spike in anti-Asian attacks this year due to the COVID-19 pandemic are proof that Asian Americans still experience racism and cannot be shielded by the myth of a “model minority.” There is power in Asian Americans standing up in solidarity with Black Lives Matter, but also for the myriad of issues affecting BIPOC in this country. It is a recognition that the racist structures keeping our communities down may look different in Black communities than they do in Asian American communities, but it is still the same system rooted in white supremacy. The only viable way forward to bridging the perceived current divide between Black and Asian American communities is to dismantle the white-serving systems that pit people of color against one another.