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QUESTION: I think a lot of Asian Americans, especially recent immigrants, feel like the model minority idea fits their experience - achieving the American Dream through hard work and no handouts. I can understand how it might make other minority groups look bad, but it also helps Asian Americans gain a certain amount of acceptance and respect. Why should they sacrifice something that benefits them?
RINKU: The model minority idea seems to work well in the short run for some individuals, but in the long run it has severe shortcomings and can actually backfire on us. For example, if you buy into the model minority image, it becomes very difficult to organize or advocate for changes that benefit people who don’Äôt fit that image. Some Asian immigrant communities suffer severe racism and poverty. For example, nearly 40 percent of Bangladeshi, Pakistani and Vietnamese families in New York City live under the poverty line. One in four Asian children in New York City lives below the poverty line. In fact, millions of Asians in the United States require public assistance - social security, welfare, food stamps or health benefits - in order to survive. If you hang on to the model minority image as the primary truth of your community, then you end up abandoning not just other people of color such as Blacks and Latinos but also these components of our own communities who need government assistance and public programs in order to get through life.
Now, many professionals and middle-class people feel immune from the threat of poverty. But the model minority image also limits our social and cultural existence. A great example is the recent rise in racial profiling among South Asians, Arabs, and Middle Easterners, as well as the expansion of racial profiling beyond law enforcement into housing, surveillance of people’Äôs political activities and of what people are reading. An Indian woman in California was detained by the police on a routine traffic stop. She had some Saudi Arabian money in her purse that became visible to the police, so they took her in for no good reason and interrogated her on the basis of her being a Muslim, which she wasn’Äôt. In Oakland, some Southeast Asian high school kids were turned in to Homeland Security by their social studies teacher. And of course the most famous instance of civil liberties violations involving Asians is the Wen Ho Lee case.
So even though for many individuals it looks as if the model minority image is protecting and helping us, there are many, many examples of the ways in which it isn’Äôt. And if we agree that that’Äôs the truth of our community, then we can’Äôt fight the ways in which we’Äôre actually being mistreated and discriminated against.
FRANKLIN: People who succumb to the temptation to use this myth to defend themselves and secure passage in white America - whether it’Äôs in the corporate world or social circles - are beholden to the notion of white supremacy. And that does some really bad things to your identity and your soul. I think you never get out from under when you buy into that. For example, I recently met a young Asian man from Chicago. He attended what I assume is a privileged, mostly white school with not many Asians. Some of the white athletes thought it would be funny to form a Ku Klux Klan group, and he and his Asian American friends were flattered to be invited to join. That’Äôs kind of an extreme example of what I mean, but it’Äôs really sad to see.
MONAMI: I would add that working class Asians have an entirely different perspective of the model minority myth because the reality is that we can work hard and never achieve the American Dream - buy a house, own property, buy a car. It’Äôs really dangerous to think that if you work hard you get rewarded, and if you don’Äôt get rewarded or you don’Äôt have wealth, you must not work hard so you don’Äôt deserve it. Because that’Äôs not how it works, especially in a capitalist society like this. Poor and working-class people work extremely hard to survive, such as immigrants who are working six or seven days a week in sweatshops and service industries, driving cabs, struggling to feed their family with small welfare checks and sweeping streets without pay as ’Äújob training’Äù. We’Äôre working under a very exploitive system.
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