Last year in Massachusetts, the “Asian-American community,” as it were, staged protests for a bill they claimed was racist, divisive and unfairly targeting Asian-Americans. Comparisons were drawn by activists to the internment of Japanese-Americans in the 1940s and the legislation was decried as an attempt at “profiling” and a way to sow discord among Asian-Americans even as it discriminated against them based on their race. Funny, then, that the bill in question -- designated H.3361 -- had been introduced by an Asian-American State Rep and was heavily endorsed by many Asian-American organisations dedicated to civic action and fighting for civil liberties.
What was H.3361 about, and why was the response to it so contradictory?
Politicians of color don’t always put forth legislation that helps their folks, but it is strange that a bill championed by civic organisations would be likened to the worst kind of state violence by others. The content of the bill itself strikes one as fairly benign -- directing state agencies to break up, or “disaggregate” their already-collected census-type data into the five largest Asian-American subgroups, instead of lumping all Asian-Americans into a single category. Such classification can be potentially dicey, but surely it’s hard to to argue that acknowledging the diversity of distinct Asian cultures instead of considering wildly different peoples and demographics homogenous is less racist than the alternative.
It is in this diversity that the answer to the contentiousness of H.3361 lies. Simply put, all Asians are not treated equal, something which holds true for Asian history and culture, as well as the relative positioning of various subgroups in the racialized context of the West. Opponents of H.3361 were chiefly East Asian (and principally Chinese-American) while those pushing for the bill were from other Asian backgrounds -- South-East Asian, South Asian and Central Asians, among others. Where many Asians stood to benefit from disaggregation of their data from the collective, shining more light on their needs and issues, East Asian-Americans saw a threat to be quelled. While many Asians saw an opportunity to gain information about intracommunity issues such as poverty, displacement and violence, East Asian-Americans were reportedly concerned with the effects the data might have on affirmative action policies.
This matter of the disaggregation bill thoroughly illustrates the interrelationships between the various Asian Americas. To be blunt, East Asian-Americans have -- within the context of global white supremacy and colorism -- sought to establish a hegemony of their own. They have time and again chosen advancement at the expense of fellow people of color, doing their best to fit into the niche of the “model minority” that white legislators chose to carve out for them in the middle of the twentieth century.
East Asian-American Dominance
Ellen Wu has discussed the advancement of East Asian-American social standing at length. It hasn’t even been a century since the repeal of laws such as the Chinese Exclusion Act, or edicts preventing Asian-American citizens from being naturalised or gaining citizenship. Prior to World War II, Asian-Americans were relegated to farm work and infrastructure, with the Californian railroads principally built off Chinese-American labor. East Asian immigrants were regarded with the same hostility, distrust and revulsion as Middle Easterners and Brown Asians experience today -- thought to be from an alien, invasive culture fundamentally incompatible with “Western civilization.” The Yellow Peril period of East Asian standing was steeped in Orientalism, a rhetoric used doubly to prevent the assimilation of immigrants and to justify state violence against Asian nations.
The postwar period brought with it unique opportunities for East Asian-Americans. Not only was the United States taking laws like the Chinese Exclusion Act off the books -- considering the global stage optics of having such laws against one of their biggest wartime allies -- but the Civil Rights Movement was kicking into high gear. Very suddenly, white politicians had a vested interest in rehabilitating the image of East Asians and East Asian-Americans. It served a dual purpose of curbing (overt) shows of racial animus from a United States that now had an eye on global hegemony, as well as presenting Asian-American minority status as an ideal and a “viable alternative” to the civil unrest and protests led by Black Americans.
A narrative was quickly formed: though levels of education did not increase significantly during this time, East Asian-Americans quickly acquired a reputation as diligent, hardworking and docile, having exemplary “traditional family values” that were, for the first time ever, compatible with “traditional American family values.” It was not anything innate to East Asian-Americans that changed -- just white willingness to curb negative rhetoric and view them as something other than degenerates, criminals and stealers of American jobs. We don’t mean to erase Asian-Black solidarity during Civil Rights, but erasing the tangible ways in which East Asian-Americans (much like the Irish before them) used anti-Blackness and white opportunism to let themselves be used as a political cudgel for social advancement would be far worse. By the 70s, East Asian-Americans were outearning whites in median statistics to an extent that their relative prosperity obfuscated issues of extreme poverty, isolation, and displacement in Asian communities of lower class and browner skin.
“Asian Discrimination” and the Model Minority
Today, the targets of Orientalism are not Yellow, but brown, and often Muslim. American neo-imperialist ambitions, couched in global economic coercion and corporate-driven warfare turned its appetites from East Asia to the Middle and South-East in the 80s to bring its full focus on Islamic nations of the Middle-East and North Africa in the modern day. Rhetoric that would have been familiar to Chinese immigrants in the early twentieth century is now applied to Muslim Asian-Americans -- the perpetual foreignness, the projection of aggression, hostility and subversion, the justifications of military action. This Islamophobia as political currency has enabled the rise of another peculiar model minority -- the Hindu South Asians in America, coming often from upper class, “traditionally” conservative backgrounds both supporting and participating in the GOP and their modern crusade. Politicians like Tulsi Gabbard and Nikki Haley lead the charge to capitalise on these sentiments, supporting a class of Asian-Americans only too willing to import anti-Muslim and elitist, toxic ideals to a new home.
Even amongst East Asians, this praxis of kowtowing to the Model Minority for the promise of social advancement is not a historical relic by any means. To this day East and South Asians continue to throw fellow people of color under the bus, echoing racialized and classed invective to secure their niche in the white supremacist society. As recently as last month, Chinese-Americans led a coalition of Asian-Americans in Irvine, California to protest against the establishment of temporary shelter for the homeless. In a staggering display of apathy, Asian-Americans were proud to display their classist rhetoric and complete lack of compassion for those with less privilege, organising against humanitarian efforts in an affluent, Asian-majority area. The message is quite clear: having got theirs, Asian-Americans of privilege care much more about guarding their meager winnings than about collective action or solidarity. The Model Minority laid bare is not a benefit, a compliment or a quirky manifestation of variegated white racism: it’s an ideology of eschewing liberation in favor of mimicking capitalist white supremacy.
Asian-American “Activism” and Representation
This is why Asian-American “activism” is dogged by such a chronic short-sightedness. It’s why the mainstream movement has a laser-focus on representation: on the proliferation of cis, heterosexual, and Eurocentric-beauty standards conforming Asian bodies in mass media rather than on any tangible issue relating to labor, anti-discrimination, or upliftment. The Model Minority myth is an albatross, a cursed blueprint tantalising Asian-Americans with the promise of whiteness, or a way out of their racialized status, when any such advancement is subject to the whims of the white imperial state and has never been a sincere offer of progress. It has allowed much discussion of the plight of Asian-Americans to be confined to Hollywood discourse and led mostly by cis men, seeking to eliminate the gap in privilege between themselves and white men while maintaining patriarchy and heteronormativity in their own communities. When the white capitalist ethnostate is held up as a goal to replicate rather than an opponent to vanquish, you have a movement with no teeth that is convinced it is radical, when it scarcely has imagination for anything that even resembles freedom. One that harasses, abuses and sidelines people of marginalised genders and sexualities and concerns itself chiefly with the securing of patriarchal power for its least vulnerable instead of protection for its most.
A Male-Dominated Asian-American Web
We see this constantly in online, male-led Asian-American discourse, with Asian men both narrowing the scope of the conversation to their concerns and aspirations and erasing or appropriating the labor of women and others of marginalised gender. A great focus is placed upon policing and scrutinising the actions of women, casting them as complicit with white supremacy while ignoring the myriad ways in which both white supremacy and Asian patriarchy violently harm them. A succinct and ridiculous summary of this mindset can be summed up in this assiduously ignorant comic by Joshua Luna, where the term “racial preference” is not just listed as an actual harm perpetuated by Asian women against men, but actually put on par with “patriarchal misogyny.” That two-word summation of male-driven violence glosses over a staggering amount of violence and harm including sexual and physical abuse, denial of resources and access, and uncompensated exploitation of labor both physical and mental. It puts an entire societal structure designed to beat down and subjugate women on an even footing with the perceived sidelining of Asian men for white men without interrogating either the inherent misogyny of that sentiment or introspecting on why Asian women might be compelled to seek companionship with one set of oppressors over the other.
Sites like Nextshark and platforms like LLAG propagate these binaristic, heteronormative narratives with neither space for Queer and gendervariant voices, nor the inclination to consider them. Rich cultural histories of long-held and revered Queerness, or systems of gender distinct from the white-colonialist gender binary are ignored and discarded in favor of embracing a whitewashed version of Asian masculinity and bravado, couched in Queer- and trans-antagonism. Years of accumulated token privileges and gradual assimilation have brought us to this point -- one where every harmful aspect of whiteness is embraced by the voices with the greatest reach and privilege, resulting in a movement that at best jogs in place.
The Model Minority is anti-Blackness. It is anti-Queer, anti-poor, anti-compassion and frankly, anti-liberation. It is a bribe, a Faustian bargain designed to ensnare Asians as a tool of white supremacy in perpetuity. It is an offer that far too many of us have accepted.
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