The Origins of the Asian American Model Minority Myth

color-of-success-350Historian Ellen Wu’s The Color of Success: Asian Americans and the Origins of the Model Minority just might be the best examination of the roots of the model minority stereotype in print.

More than just a connect-the-dots documentation of the rise of the model minority myth, The Color of Success succeeds at putting the myth in a much broader social and political context, positioning the model minority as a critical, even necessary, lever of white supremacy, resting upon and taking drawing its power from the fulcrum of anti-black racism. What’s more, it succeeds at making this history feel personal and present in contemporary social relations. For me, a person who lived through or in the immediate aftermath of the events documented in the book, The Color of Success felt like a piece of personal history.

During the 1960s, the formative years of my youth, model minority myth making was so ubiquitous that nearly everyone around me, and most especially Asian Americans, just accepted it as the truth. No doubt the enthusiasm among many Asian Americans to accept model minority stereotyping was a reflection of the fact that the menu of choices where stereotypes were concerned appeared to be restricted to either “model minority” or “yellow peril.” And the stakes were high. The “yellow peril” stereotype had been used to justify wars in Korea and Vietnam, the mass internment of Japanese Americans during WWII,  anti-communist persecution of Chinese Americans under the McCarran Act, and no small amount of racial exclusion and terrorism.

Growing up in Hawai’i only made matters worse. I didn’t just see the telecasts from Vietnam on TV, I lived in the staging site for that war, surrounded on all sides by military bases full of soldiers who looked at us like we were every bit as much the enemy as the Viet Cong. Moreover, winning statehood for Hawai’i’ in 1959, just a few years before I was born, required no small amount of myth making concerning Hawai’i’s “Asiatic majority,” not to mention the intentional marginalization of Native Hawaiians for whom statehood was yet another demoralizing chapter in a centuries long history of illegal and near genocidal colonial domination.

In order to assuage racist fears of a yellow peril takeover of (white) American culture and politics, statehood advocates presented Asian Hawai’i residents as bi-cultural brokers between east and west who were, nonetheless, as American as pizza and chop suey, and ironically equipped by our indelibly foreign cultures to be ideal Americans. The contradictions, though obvious, were mostly ignored, not just by white Americans but by many Asians.

The Color of Success provides a detailed account of where all of that confusing, contradictory, and ultimately dehumanizing myth making came from. It presents a critical swath of Asian American history, from WWII through the 1970s, during which some Japanese and Chinese American leaders tried to secure citizenship for members of their communities by engaging in P.R. campaigns and sponsoring  research designed to convince the public that they, and by extension Asians in general, were less prone to delinquency and promiscuity, and more committed to family, education, and country than others by dint of culture. Japanese Americans in particular were so successful in this effort that by the 1980s, during the U.S.-Japan auto wars, the notion that Japanese culture made adherents better, more industrious workers, especially on mass production lines, inspired a craze for all things Japanese, from ancient samurai codes to flower arranging.

scot nakagawaBut the model minority stereotype had a downside. The myth of the model minority painted Asians as decidedly not black in the American mind, inadvertently promoting the idea that blacks were Asian Americans’ opposites; a “problem minority,” spoiling the American dream by refusing to simply ignore racism and quietly pull themselves up by their bootstraps. Today, the myth is more popular than ever, and as important to the reproduction of racial injustice in the 21st century as the 19th century “rags to riches” novels of Horatio Alger were to the suppression of dissent against extreme gilded age class exploitation and 1% excesses in the beginning of the 20th century.

This book is a must-read for all who are interested in Asian American history, critical race theory, and the roots of color blind racism in the U.S.

Scot Nakagawa
Race Files

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