Wednesday, April 8, 2015

You're the Model Minority until You're Not

As a Chinese American, I know that my racial identity occupies a space in the cultural imagination somewhere between white and black. I know that white supremacy often works in my favor to give me privilege and the benefit of the doubt. I know that the world is this way until it isn't.

Peter Liang, who is also Chinese American, must know this too. On February 10, a grand jury ruled to indict the NYPD officer for killing Akai Gurley, who is black. Liang and his partner were in the stairwell of a public housing complex when Liang discharged his weapon and hit Gurley, who had entered from the floor below. The ruling followed three controversial grand jury decisions not to indict white officers Darren Wilson, Sean Williams, and Daniel Pantaleo for the deaths of Michael Brown, John Crawford, and Eric Garner, respectively. Because of this apparent racial double standard, the Coalition of Asian-Americans for Civil Rights plans to protest Liang's indictment later this month and has called for national rallies on that day in support of Liang. "Officer Liang is being used as a scapegoat," says Doug Lee, co-chair of the CAACR. Other Asian American organizations support the indictment, leading to some confusion over what justice looks like in this case. But there should be no confusion: Peter Liang should stand trial. Liang's supporters are asking for the same standard that exonerated Wilson, Williams, and Pantaleo. It is a racist standard.

Among other things, the story of Peter Liang and Akai Gurley is the story of contrasting stereotypes. By the mid-1960s, Chinese Americans began to be systematically associated with so-called "positive stereotypes." In 1965, President Johnson signed the Hart-Celler Act, better known as the Immigration Act of 1965, on Liberty Island in New York City. This act abolished the racist National Origins quota system that had favored European nations, replacing it with one that privileged immigrants with professional work skills as well as those reuniting with families. As immigration from China steadily rose, public interest predictably turned to Chinese America. In 1966, the conservative U.S. News & World Report published a profile of Chinese American communities on both coasts. "Success Story of One Minority Group in U.S." lavishes praise upon Chinese Americans for their commitment to improvement and success despite prejudice and other hardships. The article is an early and important blueprint of the "model minority" stereotype of Chinese Americans and Asian Americans in general.

My students sometimes aren't sure how to feel about "positive" stereotypes of Asian Americans. What's wrong with being known as educated, hard-working, and law-abiding? The problem with positive stereotypes is the same problem with negative ones: the dominant group gets to decide what they are. It decides who gets to be a part of the favored racial group and why. What this means is that you're the model minority until you're not. The history of Chinese Americans is a crash course on the social construction of race in America. Stereotypes come and go. From the beginning of significant Chinese immigration during the California gold rush to the present, Chinese Americans have been racialized as undesirable or desirable depending on circumstances at home and abroad. The Exclusion era, the World War 2 era, and the Korean War era all racialized Chinese Americans differently according to the historical needs of white supremacy. It took the Civil Rights Movement to shift the social meanings of Chinese Americans once again. Like negative stereotypes, the model minority stereotype is also a tool of white supremacy.

The model minority stereotype has always been less about praising Asian people than it has been about shaming black people. From its lede, the unsigned "Success Story of One Minority Group in U.S." is interested in more than the state of Chinese America; it aims to compare Chinese Americans to black Americans. The article lists off the admirable qualities of a monolithic Chinese American community: low crime rate (especially among juveniles), strong work ethic, traditional family structures, value on education, low public assistance usage, etc. However, comparisons with black communities quickly become conspicuous:
  • At a time when it is being proposed that hundreds of billions be spent to uplift Negroes and other minorities, the nation's 300,000 Chinese-Americans are moving ahead on their own--with no help from anyone else.
  • What you find, back of this remarkable group of Americans, is a story of adversity and prejudice that would shock those now complaining about the hardships endured by today's Negroes.
  • "The Chinese people here will work at anything. I know of some who were scholars in China and are now working as waiters in restaurants. . . . [T]hey're willing to do something--they don't sit around moaning."
  • Even though Chinese-American teen-agers in New York City . . . are a source of growing worry to their parents, statistics show that those youths still cause far less trouble for the police than others do.
  • "[I]t must be recognized that the Chinese and other Orientals in California were faced with even more prejudice than faces the Negro today. We haven't stuck Negroes in concentration camps, for instance, as we did the Japanese in World War II."
This closing point about Japanese Americans in an article ostensibly about Chinese Americans makes plain that the state of black America is the true focus of the writer. Only two years after the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the publication of the article coincided with a turbulent period of the Civil Rights Movement, one marked by large-scale civil unrest sparked by police brutality in Watts, Harlem, and many other communities.

Chinese Americans weren't the only Asian American ethnic group to be racialized in opposition to black Americans. In 1992, Los Angeles became a flashpoint for tensions between black Americans and Korean Americans. Heightening the injustice of the acquittal of the officers who brutalized Rodney King was the trial of Soon Ja Du. Store video caught owner Du killing teenager Latasha Harlins, a black customer, in cold blood. Du was sentenced to probation. In the days to come, the violence of the LA uprising hit Korean American communities hard, with over half of Korean-owned businesses suffering damage. The spectacle of armed Korean Americans encamped on the rooftops of their stores told the story of a race war compatible with white supremacy. For some, Korean Americans became the poster children for white supremacy, defending their hard-won property from "problem" minorities lacking their work ethic and respect for the law. Although half of those arrested during the uprising were Latino, the "black-Korean" narrative framed the conflict and drew attention from the racist structures oppressing all three groups.

White supremacy spins the tale of the model minority because it is a story of American meritocracy. As late as 2014, the rags-to-riches model minority stereotype was the core talking point Bill O'Reilly used to rebut the argument that white privilege is real. O'Reilly cites Asian American rates of education and income that exceed those of all other groups, including white Americans. But the conflation of "Asian American" and "model minority" identities masks the poverty of many ethnic groups within Asian America. Coverage of the LA uprising tended to cast Korean American immigrants as successful entrepreneurs despite unique institutional barriers that produced wide economic disparity within the community. In 2010, Hmong Americans had the lowest per capita income of any racial/ethnic group, including Latinos. As the story of meritocracy, the model minority stereotype can disempower Asian Americans themselves by linking low social status to cultural deficiency. Positive stereotypes are a two-way street.

Today, model minorities can be too good to be true. Highly-skilled immigrants from India and China make possible the Asian demographic O'Reilly describes, and industry demand for them is so great that tech firms must enter a lottery for their H-1B visas. Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-AL) questions whether the perception of a perpetual shortage of tech workers is, in fact, accurate. The "Silicon Valley STEM Hoax," he claims, is a ploy of American tech firms to hire lower-paid foreign labor instead of home-grown American labor. This fear of cheap foreign labor, mostly Asian, is not new. The economic "yellow peril" stereotype that defined 19th-century Chinese immigrants conjured the problem of an endless stream of labor against which the white workingman could not compete. The devastating solution to the problem was the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act, in effect until 1943. While Sessions' concerns are, by all accounts, marginalized, they do illustrate how readily the assets of the model minority--hard work and frugality--can be reimagined as deficits. New yellow perils. You are the model minority until you are not.


The only logic of white supremacy is to sustain itself. Every way that people of color have been racialized and will be racialized is in the support of white supremacy. This is the purpose of racial stereotypes. The CAACR claims that because Peter Liang is Chinese American, he is being treated differently from Darren Wilson, Sean Williams, and Daniel Pantaleo. But this possibility doesn't mean Liang shouldn't be tried. It just means that he does not have the privilege that the white officers have. They should have been tried too. Those supporting Liang only because he is Chinese American should know that they are not fighting racism. If the CAACR truly desires justice, it will not lobby for Liang to be treated the same as the white officers. To do so would be to ask for an ad hoc dispensation from a racist system. The model minority stereotype was also an ad hoc dispensation. Other Asian American organizations such as the CAAAV understand this and support the indictment. Akai Gurley and Peter Liang had much in common, but this is the most tragic: their lives in the balance, they were who white supremacy needed them to be. All of us would do well to remember that.

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

What Comfort Tells Us about Racism

As a kid growing up in Texas, I didn't like it when my parents spoke Cantonese in public spaces. Too loud to me, their voices made me uncomfortable. The white people around us who screwed up their faces must have felt the same way. Their discomfort probably had to do with not understanding the words, the ugliness of the sounds, or both. These strangers and I had something in common: the need for their comfort. When my parents kept on talking, seemingly oblivious to the scene they were creating, they left me wondering why they didn't care as much about the white people around us as I did. In time, I gained an awareness of what comfort says about the state of internalized white supremacy in ourselves and others.

Especially for adult, middle-class white Americans, white supremacy cultivates a sense of entitlement to comfort. Their discomfort disrupts the equilibrium of the racial status quo, manifesting as annoyance, impatience, or something more serious. Consider what happens when a white person is openly called out for making a racist remark. Even at a time when the proper feeling is shame, the need for comfort dials up different, confrontational feelings. Too often, the response is defensiveness or anger. Robin DiAngelo coined a term for this condition: "white fragility." In a recent interview, she critiques how even discussions of racism need to be as comfortable as possible:
In my workshops, one of the things I like to ask white people is, "What are the rules for how people of color should give us feedback about our racism? What are the rules, where did you get them, and whom do they serve?" Usually those questions alone make the point. It’s like if you’re standing on my head and I say, "Get off my head," and you respond, "Well, you need to tell me nicely." I’d be like, "No. Fuck you. Get off my fucking head."
White fragility is a valuable and productive way to understand how internalized white supremacy precludes critical conversations about racism and deforms relationships.


White supremacy socializes white people to expect comfort, but it also socializes people of color to give comfort to white people. We know that our safety and security may depend on the white people around us being comfortable. Thus, consciously or unconsciously, we do not do things that would discomfit white people if we can help it. Perhaps the most common method for giving comfort is simply not bringing up racism in conversation. Or remaining silent or not showing anger if the topic of racism does arise. In 2014, musician Pharrell Williams famously proclaimed himself a "new black," meaning that he "does not blame other races for our issues." Oscar-winner Common asked other black people to forget about past injustices while extending a "hand in love" to white people. Isaiah Washington advised Chris Rock to "adapt" to racial profiling by police by driving less-flashy cars. And Bill Cosby used to have enough moral authority to tell young black men to pull up their pants and speak good English. The head-scratching persistence of the thing known as "respectability" politics owes to nothing more than the racist idea that black people should not make white people uncomfortable.

Non-white comfort is a trigger for racism. Because white supremacy polices non-white comfort, people of color are not allowed to be comfortable on their own terms. Being noticed as too comfortable can be dangerous or deadly. Teenager Jordan Davis and three friends were in a parked SUV when Michael Dunn asked them to turn down their loud music. When they refused, Dunn fired ten rounds at the vehicle, killing Davis. College student Martese Johnson was beaten by ABC agents after exiting an off-campus bar during St. Patrick's Day festivities in Charlottesville. In Pine Lawn, Missouri, sagging pants can get you fined. Three weeks after he fled Iraq, Ahmed Adnan Ibrahim Al-Jumaili was shot and killed outside his Dallas home while photographing his first snowfall with his family. Craig Stephen Hicks, the man who murdered Deah Shaddy Barakat, Yusor Mohammad Abu-Salha, and Razan Mohammed Abu-Salha in their Chapel Hill home, had once appeared with a rifle at the door of two of the victims to complain about the noise they made playing a board game. Non-white comfort does not usually inspire such violent responses, but all negative responses originate from the common wellspring of white supremacy. Why?


People of color comfortable with one another decenter whiteness from any given social situation. Nothing makes this dynamic more apparent than the absence of English. My parents rarely gave a second thought to speaking Cantonese in public because they didn't grow up in the US as I had and weren't as socialized to give comfort to white people. For many immigrants, speaking your native language is comforting. However, the mere presence of certain languages other than English can annoy or even antagonize native-born Americans of all races. Such a response is a symptom of xenophobia and internalized white supremacy. Why else should another language in our midst concern us so? Intolerant responses to other languages reveal how much comfort depends on an expectation of centrality in a diverse world. For instance, some people get upset when they suspect that they are being talked about in another language. They are probably wrong, but would it matter if they were right? What would truly change in the nature of the relationship between you and the woman trimming your toenails or you and the man serving you dim sum? There is a word for the condition of thinking that everyone around you is talking about you. Paranoia. And then, is the consciousness that wants them silenced truly your own?

Even seemingly supportive or derivative responses to non-white comfort can betray an origin in white supremacy. To illustrate this point to my students, I show them a video entitled Light in the Shadows, which features a diverse group of women discussing the forms of racism in their lives. A white woman named Penny Rosenwasser admits that she is envious of how women of color can be so comfortable together. Intended as a compliment, her remark leads to an unexpected response. "I think that white people get upset when they see us comfortable," says Intisar Shareef, a black woman. "Because I think that challenges their notion of superiority in this world." In other words, Shareef explains, white supremacy in America has taught white people that people of color should not have things that they themselves do not have. How else do we explain a white woman envying the camaraderie of black women as black women? Iggy Azalea and white belly dancers are cautionary tales reminding us that white culture will appropriate whatever it envies or finds lacking in itself.

No one is entitled to comfort. The reality is that people of color experience discomfort as people of color as a regular and predictable part of their lives. This feeling of nominal discomfort is so normalized that finding yourself comfortable in a diverse setting can be a warning signal. Intisar Shareef describes such a moment and what she makes of it.
A couple weeks ago at a staff meeting at the college that I work at, there was something going on that I disagreed with, and I spoke out. And people said, "Oh, she's just bizarre." And that's just another way of labeling me as different. At first I was offended by that, and then I said, "Hmm, I am bizarre, given the environment that I was in, and proud to be it. . . . I really begin to question myself when I go into these arenas and I'm fitting in. I have to figure out, "Why am I so comfortable?" I really do. There's a lot of work that we have to do, so if I get real comfortable then something is not going on with me.
Shareef is right that when we experience comfort in institutional spaces not committed to antiracism, we should absolutely check ourselves. It is not that people of color should never feel comfortable nor fit in. It is just that it is all too easy to assimilate to white supremacy culture. If we understand that white supremacy shapes our institutional policies and practices, why should we ever be comfortable managing our little part of the system? What have we been conditioned to overlook, and why? For all of us, regardless of race, discomfort in diverse settings is a boon companion, alerting us to the danger of white supremacy in and around us. Discomfort is the canary in a coal mine. It is what keeps us awake.