As an Indian American woman, I have all too often come across members of my community shaking their heads at black people and dismissing the black struggle. I have watched the adults in my life rub Fair & Lovely cream on their faces with the hopes of looking less dark, mock black accents, language and culture, avoid predominantly black neighborhoods and subtly imply that our Asian American communities are somehow above our black counterparts — after all, Asian Americans do boast an above-median household income level and the highest average SAT scores, all while facing racial discrimination in everyday life. Some ask, if we can do it, what is the black community’s excuse? Why can’t they pick themselves up by the bootstraps and elevate their socioeconomic status?
We Asian Americans have bought into the harmful model minority myth that continues to plague discourse about racial relations. The stereotype that we are all bookworms with superior math skills on our way to becoming the next generation of doctors seems like a compliment on the surface level, but a more nuanced understanding of the topic reveals its harmful nature. It is not only extremely damaging to Asian Americans to lump all subcultures into one stereotypical category, but it is also often used by white America as a weapon to put down other racial groups, particularly black people.
In a 2014 opinion piece, conservative commentator Bill O’Reilly uses the success of Asian Americans to debunk the notion that black people have a more difficult time succeeding in America due to their skin color. He claims that, due to “intact” families and higher education levels, Asian America succeeds, while African American leadership “provides excuses for failure.” This logic is echoed by many, including members of my community.
However, what we fail to acknowledge is that racism is not uniform. Yes, I have had to deal with casual racism, cultural barriers, identity crises and other forms of discrimination growing up in this country. But I have never feared for my life the way my black friends do. I can go on a run without being mistaken as a thief then chased and killed (Ahmaud Arbery). I can get ticketed for a minor traffic violation without being thrown to the ground and jailed (Sandra Bland). I can play loud music without being fatally shot (Jordan Davis). I can hold a bag of Skittles without people suspecting I am brandishing a weapon (Trayvon Martin). I can enjoy a day in Central Park without having the cops called on me (Christian Cooper). I can simply exist, without being perceived as a threat to anyone’s safety, unlike my friends in the black community.
My mother and father came to this country to enter the workforce as a doctor and a software engineer. Like most immigrants, they traveled to America with hopes of better opportunities for themselves and their future families. As a result of the 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act, the United States saw an influx of Asian immigrants and gave a high preference to exceptionally skilled workers. My family and I were predetermined to succeed in this country, although we had to face racial and cultural obstacles to do so. While my experience is not the same as all Asian immigrant families, it must be acknowledged that black America has faced unique, institutional atrocities that our struggles cannot compare to.
The first group of African slaves arrived in the United States in 1619 (however, African slavery had been established through the transatlantic slave trade during the 15th century). Slavery was abolished in America after the Civil War in 1865, which was followed by a long period of racial segregation. Historians mark 1954 as the beginning of the end of segregation. Three hundred thirty-five years of blatant oppression and 66 years of “freedom” — although it is naïve to think black people were actually liberated. Terror from hate groups such as the Ku Klux Klan, police brutality, mass incarceration, a corrupt criminal justice system, the school-to-prison pipeline and other forms of systemic racism continue to trap black people in a disproportionate state of poverty that we Asian Americans do not, and will never, have to experience.
We cannot draw comparisons between our struggles and those of black America. It is insensitive and ignorant to hold the view that black people are to blame for their own low socioeconomic status, given the institutional racism that they have faced for over 400 years. We cannot deny that we hold privileges that they do not. This is not to minimize or erase our own struggles, which are undoubtedly vast and grueling, but rather to acknowledge that the obstacles we have faced in America are very different. In recognizing these differences, we can dispel the many preconceived biases of black people that exist within our circles and contribute to fighting racial disparities in this country.
We may feel our older relatives, friends or community members’ anti-black comments are harmless. We tend to sigh and say “it’s not worth it,” walking away to avoid an argument. But no matter how insignificant these comments may seem, they all stem from the underlying narrative that black people are dangerous and inferior — the same sentiments that led to the killings of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, Tony McDade, Nina Pop and so many others, which have gained national attention over the last few weeks. Asian American police officers have also been involved in cases of police brutality directed toward black individuals. Former police officer Tou Thao, a Hmong American, was among the cops who stood emotionlessly while Derek Chauvin murdered George Floyd. Nouman Raja, a Pakistani American, was responsible for the killing of Corey Jones in 2015. We must not underestimate how dangerous anti-black feelings can be.
As writer Frank Chin said of Asian Americans in 1974, “Whites love us because we’re not black.” It is time we stop buying into the model minority myth. It is time we reject it as a form of flattery. It is time we stop letting people use us to put other racial and ethnic groups down. It is time we hold each other accountable and work on our biases. Most importantly, it is time for us to stand in solidarity with our black brothers and sisters in the effort to fight against racial injustice in America.