Gathering Places


Wednesday, May 2, 2001

When the ‘model
minority’ meets
Fu Manchu

A recent national poll disclosed startling statistics about the American public's views of Chinese Americans. It seems that a quarter of Americans hold strong negative views about Chinese Americans; almost half believe that Chinese Americans passing information to the Chinese government is "a problem" and almost a third believe that Americans of Chinese descent are more loyal to China than to the United States.

Indeed, 68 percent had either consistently negative or somewhat negative views toward Chinese Americans, and those statistics reflected public opinion before the U.S. surveillance plane incident with China. Moreover, organizations such as the Japanese American Citizens League report that racial slurs against Chinese Americans skyrocketed after the incident.

For Japanese Americans, particularly those incarcerated during World War II, these attitudes about ethnic backgrounds making one a "security risk" are eerily familiar. As the child of parents interned just because they were Japanese Americans, and the son of a 442nd Regimental Combat Team veteran who fought in France and Italy, in part to free his family from captivity, these poll results are more than just curiosities.

Nor are they part of ancient history. A Chinese American scientist, Wen Ho Lee, was accused last year of spying when he did only what others did in downloading information from a confidential computer file.

Japanese Americans would be foolish to feel secure in thinking that this time we are now the "good Asians" as opposed to the "bad Asians." The poll suggested that the prejudice against Chinese Americans is only a subset of prejudices against Asian Americans generally. It confirms what many scholars and community leaders have been saying: A majority of the American public persistently and consistently views Asian Americans as "foreigners."

Perhaps even more interesting is another finding by the poll that reveals fascinating insights about the nature of racial stereotypes and the complex character of American racism itself. The same poll said that Americans, by large margins, believe that Chinese Americans have strong family values or place a high priority on education. Thus, the seemingly contradictory Asian American stereotypes of the "model minority" and the "sneaky and untrustworthy foreigner" appear to exist simultaneously in the American psyche.

In reality these stereotypes are the opposite sides of a single coin. "Smart" becomes "cunning;" "quiet" becomes "sneaky;" "family oriented" becomes "clannish." Irrespective of the character of the stereotypes, they are artificial constructions that oversimplify a fantastically diverse segment of society. Racial stereotypes --whether they are "good" or "bad" -- are convenient and often serve political ends. Both stereotypes of Asian Americans have been politically expedient for various interests, raised and lowered depending on the issues of the day.

For example, scholars and community leaders have pointed out that the "Asian foreigner" stereotype has historically been used for scapegoating, while the "Asian model minority" stereotype has been used to support arguments against affirmative action.

Moreover, in places outside of Hawaii where the dominant population has little personal contact with those of Asian descent, stereotypes become the only basis for knowledge.

Thus, the phenomenon disclosed by the poll leads to two lessons.

First, there is no such thing as a "good" stereotype. All stereotypes about communities still struggling to attain a full measure of equality are dangerous and demeaning precisely because they are usually constructions created by majorities about minorities.

The same power that allows a dominant majority to make seemingly positive constructions about other populations, also enables it to construct negative views as well, and to affirm the "good one" means one has little basis to protest the "bad one."

Second, and perhaps more importantly, the poll results dictate another conclusion, particularly for those of Asian descent. It should remind us that merely "trying to be good" is not sufficient to counter the racism against us. It is necessary for us to speak openly and publicly against the attitudes and actions that marginalize all people who have not attained a true place at the table in society.

It is the desire to keep others down that is fundamentally at the heart of all racism -- that which we commit and that which we suffer.

In the end, that kind of struggle for justice marks a true "model minority."

Chris K. Iijima teaches at the
William S. Richardson School of Law
at the University of Hawaii at Manoa.

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