The Molded Minority

The Molded Minority

In the discussions of racism and its impact in the United States, people often commonly refer to the racial relationships between White and Black Americans. In history textbooks, we study in depth the discriminatory practices and laws perpetrated by Whites and Blacks through slavery, Jim Crow, and mass incarceration. In modern political debates, we speak of reparations and affirmative actions to equal the glaring disparities between these two races. It’s easy to focus on the obvious forms of inequality between them, but in doing so, we tend to forget how racism impacts other minority races in America. Today, we may not think of Asian Americans as being discriminated against or being treated unfairly by American society – after all, we Asians have the highest rates of education, the highest household income, and tend to live very affluent lives in the US, even compared to White Americans. Asians have become what is known as the “model minority”, a term given to us to illustrate how historically oppressed minorities can “pull themselves up by the bootstraps” and achieve educational and financial success if they choose to do so. This term is often weaponized against other minorities, particularly Black and Hispanic groups, as a way of proving how anyone can make it in America, regardless of their historical background. I will first explore the theories of racism by DuBois, Itzigsohn & Brown, and Fields & Fields; demonstrate how these terms apply and affect Asian Americans throughout US history; and explore how modern Asians are caught between the model minority myth and xenophobic rhetoric.

Firstly, we must analyze the theories surrounding race and how they impact oppressed demographics. Sociologists Itzigsohn & Brown, in their book, The Sociology of W.E.B. DuBois: Racialized Modernity and the Global Color Line, explain DuBois’s theory of racialized modernity as a critique of how modernity, a generally progressive term used to refer to the contemporary historical period, is tied to colonialism and its related racial division. During DuBois’s life, from 1868-1963, he witnessed colonialism in Africa, the invention of whiteness, and the global oppression of entire societies based on racial lines. It is along these racial lines that White colonizers were able to subject their will and power over the other races they invented and oppressed, among them Asians and Asian Americans.

DuBois coined the term “racialized subjectivity” to refer to how people understand and feel about themselves through a racialized perspective, often perpetrated by White people. The color line, “the division of people according to racial classifications,” is the centerpiece of how racism is enacted upon marginalized groups. By dividing people based on race, and applying stereotypes or expectations onto those races, White people are able to subject them to inhumane treatment while justifying their actions; Black people were viewed as inherently inferior and needing the guidance of the White man to civilize them, which acted as justification for centuries of slavery. For Asian Americans, White people depicted them as savages, rat eaters, and living in crowded and dirty conditions that warranted them second-class citizenship in the US, if they even got to become a citizen at the time. This justified multiple acts of violence and massacres in Asian communities, as well as the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. Denis Kearney, a labor leader in California, utilized these racist sentiments to portray his support for the Exclusion Act – “These cheap slaves fill every place. Their dress is scant and cheap. Their food is rice from China. They hedge twenty in a room, ten by ten. They are wipped curs, abject in docility, mean, contemptible and obedient in all things.” Here, it is exemplified how the color line, which divides people based on race and applies inaccurate stereotypes through a White man’s perspective, allows racism to be put into action through policy based on these classifications. Though African Americans and Freed Blacks at the time faced tremendous inequality and discrimination, Asian Americans faced none the better.

Secondly, sociologist and historian Fields & Fields state in their book, Racecraft: The Soul of Inequality in American Life, that “Racism is first and foremost a social practice, which means that it is an action and a rationale for action, or both at once.” The authors argue how racism is not simply just a state of mind or a feeling, it must be put into action and have a real-world effect. The tenants of racism rely on the assumption that race is objectively real, and is inherent in every member of a specified race without exception. The irrational and subjective nature of how race is defined is often used to great extent to conjure any justification for discriminatory treatment against Asian Americans and other minority groups.

Against Asians, this is best exemplified by the aftermath of the murder of Elsie Sigel in 1909; following the murder, a Chinese person was suspected, leading to the entire Chinese community being blamed for the incident. Author Huping Ling writes, “The murder of Elsie Siegal…portrayed Chinese men as dangerous fo ‘innocent’ and ‘virtuous’ young white women. This murder led to a surge in the harassment of Chinese in communities across the United States.” Here, we see how Fields & Fields’ perspective of racism played out in American history; first, racism, as an action and as a rationale, was utilized to both enact and justify physical aggression upon Chinese communities. In addition, the racist justifications used in this example were applied to every single Chinese community in the US, demonstrating how racism is used to essentialize Chinese people as being inherently dangerous towards White women. In conjunction with DuBois’s color line, we can see how race is utilized as a tool, often by White people, to justify the heinous actions committed against minorities, which stems from their subjective opinions rather than objective reality.

Finally, in his work, Of Our Spiritual Strivings, author W.E.B. DuBois describes his concept of “double-consciousness”, a “sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others.” DuBois describes double consciousness through the perspective of an African American – since White people continuously impress their beliefs and expectations of Black people onto Black people, African Americans are forced to live their lives in two perspectives: one from their own individual standpoint, and the other from the standpoint of White people. This leads to a conflict in identity, between what one is and what other people believe one is. This is especially relevant for Asian Americans, who are torn between minority status and “honorary Whites”. Asians are caught between these two juxtapositions, being simultaneously a model minority that has achieved great economic success, and an “othered” threat established by Sinophobic rhetoric. On one hand, Asian Americans are more similar to White Americans in terms of educational and employment outcomes, sometimes even exceeding their averages, but on the other, Asian Americans continue to be a minority and are treated like one on a recurring basis. The common racist remarks and attacks that extend to this day reinforce the minority status of Asian Americans, despite the efforts of some Asians to detach themselves from this association.

An example of this is in the San Gabriel Valley, a region in Los Angeles with a majority affluent Asian population. Here, in response to the concern of White people regarding the increased density and influence of Asian culture, some Asian homeowners resisted these concerns, but many did not: “Like their white neighbors, some Asian residents held racist, classist, and anti-Asian views… [they] were afforded degrees of privilege and a proximity to the privileges of whiteness their co-ethnics did not receive…” In the San Gabriel Valley, we see how Asians adopt the perspective of the dominant White class in order to bring themselves closer to the privileges possessed by White people. In doing so, they refuse to accept their minority status and embrace the privilege thus afforded to them. Here, the difference between Asians who choose to assimilate and those who resist White pushback exemplifies the struggle of double consciousness in Asian American communities.

Today, Asian Americans continue to face racial discrimination based on the color line. This is notably demonstrated through Donald Trump’s presidency, in which the trade war with China fueled Sinophobic sentiments. Since the start of the trade war, Chinese nationals have been blocked from entering the US due to these essentialized race-based fears. Foreign students and academics have been barred from entry due to fears of espionage and political interference. NYT foreign correspondent Jane Perlez wrote about how “The Trump administration… warned biomedical researchers at American universities to beware of Chinese spies trying to steal information from their laboratories,” a similar Sinophobic rhetoric shared by proponents of the Chinese Exclusion Act over a century ago. Even to this day, Asians, especially Chinese Americans, are continuously discriminated against for no other reason than their ethnicity, a modern-day reference to the application of racism as described by Fields & Fields. In our trade war, we have applied stereotypes and unfounded accusations against an entire nation of over a billion people for political purposes, leaving individuals and ordinary families to fend for themselves against an entire society who know nothing about them other than the depictions they’ve been given.

This rhetoric has only intensified since the COVID-19 pandemic. Donald Trump, despite being warned by the WHO not to do so, utilized xenophobic references to COVID-19 in an official capacity. Terms like “Chinese Virus”, “Wuflu”, and “Kung Flu” incited violence towards Asian Americans, with 58% of Asian Americans stating that “it [was] more common for people to express racist or racially insensitive views about people who are Asian than it was before the coronavirus outbreak.,” according to the Pew Research Center. In addition, 95% of Asian Americans who reported a hate crime to AAPI “viewed the U.S. as more dangerous for them.” Other than physical attacks and racist remarks, racism has also been put into action through legislation. In 2023, SB 147 was tabled by the Texas Senate, which would prohibit “certain aliens or foreign entities” from acquiring real property in Texas, including those who are “an individual who is a citizen of China”. A similar bill found more success in Florida in 2023 when Ron DeSantis signed it into law, preventing Chinese citizens from buying land in Florida. Though the ordinary Chinese immigrant has no interest in upending the American political system and simply wants to own a home to pursue the American dream, White lawmakers, armed with their inaccurate stereotypes and internal prejudice, continue to perpetuate discriminatory legislation against a people who simply want to search for a better life.

Throughout all these examples, we continue to see history being repeated through the perpetuation of the color line in today’s society. Still, Asian Americans face prejudice based on inaccurate stereotypes perpetuated by the White majority, which seeps into legislation that codifies their discrimination into law. Though DuBois has been dead for over 50 years, his theories still remain relevant today. The color line is still in effect as it was centuries ago, and the White dominant class is free to impress its racialized stereotypes and assumptions in order to justify the irrational and heinous acts of violence and discrimination on a group that barely constitutes 7% of the country’s population. The racism described by Fields & Fields is still being demonstrated, as both an action and justification. The action can be seen through the innumerable acts of violence, racist remarks, and discrimination against Asian Americans. The justification can be seen through the portrayal of Asian Americans as untrustworthy, diseased, and a general threat to American society. Though American society has made tremendous progress in moving towards equality across races, the same kinds of racism that existed in the 19th century still persist today, albeit in a different and less pronounced form.

With all this being said, I believe that it is important that Asian Americans recognize their status as minorities in the US, and accept it rather than reject it. Acceptance does not necessarily entail degrading oneself to a lower social position or indulging in self-hate; rather, it is an opportunity for Asian Americans to uplift themselves and recognize that a better society is possible – a society where all races, including Asian Americans, can be treated equally without prejudice on the basis of their skin color or unfounded stereotypes. Such a world can only be achieved if we recognize our current minority status, and realize that despite our social and economic achievements in comparison to other races, we are still not given the equality we deserve. We can reject our minority status and embrace the opinions of the White dominant class, which might gain us a few privileges that put us next to White people in the racial hierarchy, but in the end, we are still forced to begrudgingly tolerate the numerous mistreatments perpetrated against us in order to avoid descending into the perceived racial underclass in America. It is not shameful to identify with other marginalized communities, and in fact, I find strength in it. Showing the rest of the country that minorities can be successful should not be a tool used against other minorities to oppress them; rather, we can assist them in achieving the economic and social status they deserve after the same centuries of oppression we endured in America.

(photo credit: Andrew Ratto licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.)

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Rally_for_Asian_American_Women_in_Chinatown_%2851107948029%29.jpg

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