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QUESTION: The model minority myth creates a strange situation for Asian Americans, where we are held up as an ideal minority yet at the same time, we’Äôre invisible and don’Äôt have much cultural or political power. How do gain influence over the way we are perceived and at the same time, make real gains in terms of cultural and political power?
RINKU: I would say that it’Äôs complicated because the different perceptions and realities of Asian Americans contradict each other. One might be forgiven for wondering well, if this is true, how can this also be true? The first thing I’Äôll say is that what gets you the status as an ideal minority is that you don’Äôt complain. Problematic minorities complain and ideal minorities don’Äôt. They just carry out the role they’Äôve been given and keep to themselves. They don’Äôt make an effort to change the new culture that they’Äôre in, or they limit their interventions to the cultural arena and don’Äôt make them politically or economically. What that amounts to is that in order to be considered an ideal minority, you stay quiet, you’Äôre self-contained, and you’Äôre not too noticeable as a pain in the nation’Äôs backside.
There is a contradictory perception that even without complaining we exercise disproportionate power. That we are CEOs of companies at high rates, that we control government and business institutions and educational institutions at rates that we actually don’Äôt. I’Äôm not saying that there aren’Äôt some disproportionate numbers of Asians in nominal positions of power, but that is related to immigration policy decisions that were made in the 1960s, as Monami pointed out earlier.
I think if we want to change the amount of power we actually have, we have to collectivize Asian individuals into Asian communities and then into Asian constituencies that can effectively boycott a company or vote someone in or out of office. In a democracy the way you get change is to say something, raise your voice, complain. Of course, democracies are complicated just like other kinds of political systems. There’Äôs always a push and pull between institutions doing whatever they’Äôre doing and people who want to change those institutions. The only real way and the ideal way to do that in a democracy is through organizing and raising a political voice. And in order to do that we have to act like we’Äôre a constituency as opposed to millions of individuals with separate interests.
FRANKLIN: I’Äôve been watching this for a while now. Organizing and building constituencies clearly are going to be necessary. The one place where Asian Americans have already generated this sort of political clout and some would say even dominance is Hawaii, the state I grew up in. Unfortunately, if you look at that setting, it’Äôs not all that comforting. Because not only are there concerns from native Hawaiians about East Asians, Asian Americans don’Äôt seem to be doing any better at providing social justice.
We do have to find a way to be at the table more in national and other state and local scenes. But I think both Rinku and Monami have really good caveats, that while this process is going on, the demographics are going to change. There will be more Asian Americans in positions of power, there will be more Yao Mings and Ichiros, and the images will change gradually. At the same time, there is a real need for people to remain conscious of the communities and to make sure that it’Äôs not a matter of one front group displacing other people and maintaining the same inequalities that exist now.
MONAMI: The best way to counter a myth about being uncomplaining, complacent, perfect, and deserving of privilege versus other people who are not is to organize for equitable distribution of resources, and access to resources for all people. And to do things that the model minority myth says Asians are not supposed to do, such as holding our leaders accountable, holding institutions accountable, protesting, , expressing dissent, demonstrating, building alliances with African American, Latino and Native American communities. Doing things proactively and organizing our communities to do those things that this myth says that we’Äôre not supposed to do. And doing it for the purpose of really building equity for all people.
RINKU: Let me just add one more thing. I think it’Äôs a real challenge to do our power-building work in a way that doesn’Äôt reinforce the model-minority image, just because we’Äôre always trying to create a contrast to it. I’Äôm concerned about us arguing against this image by setting up a different one that’Äôs just as rigid. The goal is to stay focused on our contributions and then to reflect on how they’Äôve been received and treated and changed by the larger culture of the United States. For that purpose, for example, I think it’Äôs so important that someone like Franklin is at the Smithsonian. I hope you’Äôll forgive me, Franklin, for using you as an example, but his position there is clearly related to the organizing movements and justice movements that came out of Asian communities.
I also think that all communities are diverse. Asian communities are diverse, African American communities are diverse and white communities are diverse. So that’Äôs why I push hard for us to have to develop the language that really talks about the big unifying ideas within which people can carry out, can exercise their diversity. I don’Äôt think we should try to force everyone to be the same in order to push a unified line. And I’Äôd much rather see us struggle to come up with the policy ideas or the cultural statements, the opinion editorials, or the books that acknowledge and let our diversity be, but that struggle to find the bigger notions that we can all agree with.
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