Erasure, Ignorance, and the Model Minority Myth
By Rena Chen, Grade 11
This is the edited transcript of the speech delivered by Rena Chen on behalf of the Asian Mythbusters Project at the Committee for Equality, Diversity, and Inclusion’s teach-in session on April 15, 2021.
Before we begin, it is important to understand that racism against Asians is fundamentally different from racism against other people of color. The root of racism against Asians, whether it be violent attacks or unintentional slander, stems from erasure and ignorance.
As our name, the Asian Mythbusters Project, suggests, we are dedicated to busting myths regarding AAPI. Many of you may be familiar with the most obvious one: the model minority myth. Our lovely coordinator here has even suggested that we speak about this. And we have obliged.
It goes like this: Asians are privileged. Asians don’t face racism. Asians are wealthy. Asians are smart.
Let’s tackle this one by one.
One, Asians don’t face racism. Ladies and gentlemen, I wouldn’t be here to speak to you today if we didn’t face racism. I will go into this later on in the presentation.
Two, Asians are wealthy. Think “Crazy Rich Asians”. The thing is, the numbers say otherwise. In fact, 12.3% of Asian Americans live below the federal poverty level. In 2014, Asian Americans represented 17.9% of people living in poverty in New York City and had the highest poverty rate of any racial or ethnic group at a whopping 29%. To make things worse, Asian Americans are often underrepresented in data and surveys. According to the Pew Research Center, there is a high margin of error when sampling Asian Americans given their small population and wide diversity in smaller samples. Even in large surveys, limited English proficiency and high linguistic and ethnic diversity make it difficult to have a representative sample of Asian Americans.
Three, all Asians are smart. You know the stereotype. Chinese kids are human calculators. Hardy har har. This is not true. Not only is it false, but it is harmful. When society places such a high expectation on you, it hurts to fall short. I have some Asian friends who aren’t geniuses, who aren’t good at math. Sometimes they feel ashamed or even a little useless. This is like the Asian version of toxic masculinity.
It seems like my work here is done. We’ve done the mythbusting, so it’s time to go home. No. It would be irresponsible of me to leave it like this. Let me explain how the model minority myth is harmful.
If you take it at face value, this is a very positive image. Up until recently, I was even proud of it. Why, then, is it a problem?
The problem is exactly this: People think that Asians have everything. People think that Asians don’t have any problems, not to mention racism. This mindset has resulted in erasure and ignorance.
The sad reality is that Asian Americans simply get ignored. The history of racism that we have faced in the US has been simplified to the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 and the Japanese internment camps. Most Americans are not aggressive racists but silent bystanders. Anyone who has ever been to an anti-bullying workshop knows that bystanding is harmful. We can attribute the weakness of the response to racism against AAPI to this bystander mentality.
This is because numbers are power. As we have seen in any civil rights or social justice movement, such as the recent BLM movement this summer, you need widespread support and activism to get your movement on the map and to make progress. When most activists for AAPI are Asian, and we don’t have a strong non-Asian ally base, there is not much we can do.
Some of you may call me a pessimist. While it is true that we have had some successful movements, you cannot deny that we have been largely ignored by others until recently. I’d say that the crisis hasn’t reached mainstream media until the Atlanta shootings. It is no coincidence that this teach-in was scheduled now, not several months earlier. The fact of the matter is that every successful civil rights movement needs strong support and large publicity. We do not have this. This is what we call erasure.
Furthermore, the gross simplification of one of the most diverse racial groups in America has resulted in widespread ignorance. When you remember that the model minority myth itself is false, the situation gets even worse.
However, the model minority myth is not the only cause of ignorance. I have talked a lot about the positive perception of Asian Americans, but it is time for me to address the flip side.
I’m sure we’ve all seen racist caricatures or cartoons of Asian people. The “Corona Ching Chan does a lil dance” video from the early pandemic still sits fresh in my mind. This translates into actions. The Japanese internment camps. The Chinese Massacre of 1871. The 3,800 Asian hate incidents just last year.
Before I break this down for you, know this: ignorance causes hate. Think of irrational xenophobia like the Red Scare. Let’s examine each of these examples.
I first presented the Japanese internment camps. As most HSAS students know, the American government imprisoned Japanese Americans in these internment camps after the bombing of Pearl Harbor under the premise that all Japanese Americans were loyal to the Japanese and were therefore prone to treason and espionage. This is ignorant. These people were true Americans—American citizens, even. Some had never even been to Japan before. This ties into another big assumption that all Asians are the same, but that’s a whole other story that I won’t go into today.
Then, I mentioned the Chinese Massacre of 1871. 18 Chinese people were killed in Los Angeles in a riot, and none of the murderers were convicted of any crime. What caused these murders? Ignorance.
In 1869, “The Los Angeles News” and “The Los Angeles Star” started publishing editorials against Chinese immigration that described Chinese people as “inferior and immoral”. These articles did not cause Asian hate, but they reflected the public attitude towards the Chinese. Do these ideas sound familiar?
Some of you may be thinking of Trump’s stance on immigration. “These people are taking our jobs.” “They’re dangerous.” “They’re criminals.” “They’re un-American.” Every single one of these statements is false and ignorant. Such xenophobia is irrational and rooted in little to no factual evidence. Ignorance strikes again.
Finally, I gave you this shocking statistic: there have been 3,800 Asian hate incidents just last year. This huge spike in Asian hate crimes is in response to COVID-19. As logical racists have concluded, the virus originated from China, so naturally it is every Asian Americans’ fault that we are in this mess. This is ignorant. We are not responsible for the Coronavirus. We did not bring it to the US. We are not vectors of the disease. We do not deserve this kind of punishment.
Now, some of you may be thinking, “Aren’t we here to talk about the model minority myth?” You’re right. Allow me to explain how such a seemingly positive perception of Asians has resulted in this extreme hate.
As I’ve explained earlier, the model minority myth leads to erasure. As a result, these crimes don’t receive much attention from the media. When these crimes are not condemned, when these crimes go unreported, the criminals are emboldened. They don’t face the consequences. Who cares if I punch an Asian? Again, it’s the same issue of bystanding.
Listen closely: bystanding is endorsing. Do not be a bystander to Asian hate. Do not endorse Asian hate. It’s that simple.
The Atlanta shootings brought this issue to national attention, but that is only the tip of the iceberg. Even now, I could argue that the attention is waning. If we don’t do anything, we are going to be forgotten again until the next great tragedy.
It is time to make change. We cannot stop fighting. We cannot stop forcing people to see the crimes that have been committed against Asian Americans. Here at the Asian Mythbusters Project, one of our main series is the Anti Asian Attack Alert, or the Quad A. If any of you check out our Instagram page, you will notice a sea of red, although we are starting to mix in some new colors. These are summaries of recent Asian hate crimes. We try to post as soon as we get the news.
I am in charge of combing the news to find these articles. Now, I’ll let you in on what goes on behind the scenes here at AMP. Every day, and I mean every day, I will find a news article about an Asian hate crime. Sometimes I’ll find two. Sometimes I’ll find three. Every. Single. Day.
I was already fairly educated on the subject before we started AMP, but this deep research shocked me. To read about hate crimes committed against your race every single day is heartbreaking. To know that you could be the next victim, to know that your family could be the next victim, to know that your friends could be the next victims, is terrifying.
My family lives in constant fear of being attacked. We are the only Asian household in our neighborhood. We have installed extra locks on our bedroom doors. We have purchased two hiking sticks and a dagger. We are constantly on high alert when we go outside. Whenever my mom sees anyone approaching her, she starts running, just in case. My partner Olivia has had similar experiences. She told me the other day that her mother learned some self defense moves and is teaching her family how to protect themselves. This is no way to live.
What are we doing to respond to these problems? As I’ve said before, the foundation of anti-Asian racism is ignorance and erasure. The Asian Mythbusters Project was founded to address these two problems. As our name suggests, we bust myths. We aim to post a large mythbusting or educational post once a week to combat such ignorance. To overcome erasure, we post our Quad A series pretty much every day, given the sheer quantity of Asian hate crimes.
We are only a team of two highschoolers. Our actions alone cannot erase Asian hate. Like I said, numbers are power. We need widespread support and a strong base of Asian and non-Asian people. This is where you come in. Follow us on Instagram at asian_mythbusters_project. Share our posts. Like our posts. Maybe drop a comment. I hate to sound like a YouTuber begging for subscribers, but we need your help. Anyone who is familiar with Instagram story dynamics knows that sharing informative posts is a great way to disseminate information.
Of course, we do not speak for all Asian Americans, and we are not the only outlet of education on the matter, but we are definitely trying to help. Beyond AMP, we ask you to use your own voices to help. Even if you are not Asian, your words and your actions are still invaluable. At the end of the day, will you be another silent bystander and endorse Asian hate, or will you do something to help us? That is up to you.