In my last blog, I explored white resistance to the idea of “white privilege” in discussions about racism, post-Ferguson. I wrote that in late August, Bill O’Reilly questioned the existence of “white privilege,” and that I wanted to examine that but that I also wanted to look, this time, at how he introduces a question about “Asian privilege” to discredit the idea of “white privilege.” O’Reilly rattles off a bunch of statistics about unemployment, high school graduation, single-parent homes, and household income to show that every time, blacks were the least successful, whites in the middle, and Asians the most successful. O’Reilly then asks sarcastically, “So do we have Asian privilege in America?” He goes on to argue that Asian Americans are the most successful people in the US because they take personal responsibility, they overcome obstacles, they work hard, and their families stay together.
First, I want to be clear that various writers have already responded to O’Reilly’s reference to “Asian privilege”; there have been several excellent critiques, including “Bill O’Reilly’s ‘Asian Privilege’ Disgrace” by Marie Myung-Ok Lee of Salon, “What Bill O’Reilly Gets Wrong about Asian Americans” by Kevin Wong, also of Salon, and “Bill O’Reilly and White Privilege” by Charles Blow of the New York Times.
Second, I would like to add to this conversation by connecting O’Reilly’s comment to a larger pattern in our culture. O’Reilly is hardly the only person perpetuating this stereotype. We often hear comments about Asian American students being better at math than anyone else, and that’s just another manifestation of the same damaging stereotype.
So, what exactly is the problem here? What’s wrong with celebrating Asian American success? In fact, that’s not really what is going on here. O’Reilly was using Asian Americans as a weapon against blacks, and that is the fundamental divide and conquer phenomenon that I am trying to examine, raise awareness about, and ultimately dismantle with this blog.
To begin, O’Reilly’s words reinforce the stereotype of Asian Americans as the “model minority.” While a “positive” stereotype might not seem like a big deal because it’s positive, that very mindset just makes it all the more damaging because it goes under the radar. This stereotype was created in the late 1960s and clearly continues to be perpetuated to the present day. Many scholars have demonstrated this phenomenon, including Frank Wu, Neil Gotanda, Mari Matsuda, Sumi Cho, Robert Chang, Angelo Ancheta, Helen Zia, and Robert Lee. The media latched on to the notion of the “model minority” starting in 1966 (not coincidentally, the height of the black power movement), when two prominent news articles established the success of two groups within the Asian American community, Japanese Americans and Chinese Americans respectively, at the expense of other racial minorities. On January 9, 1966, the New York Times Magazine published an article titled “Success Story, Japanese Style.” Consider the words used to describe Japanese Americans here: “better than any other group in our society,” “exceptionally law-abiding,” acting with “perseverance” and “unaided effort,” with a “family life both strong and flexible.”
On December 26, 1966, U.S. News & World Report published an article titled “Success Story of One Minority Group in U.S.” Again, consider how the very beginning of the article establishes the notion of the model minority: “At a time when it is being proposed that hundreds of billions be spent to uplift Negroes and other minorities, the nation’s 300,000 Chinese-Americans are moving ahead on their own—with no help from anyone else.” The article reinforces this idea throughout with words to describe Chinese Americans like: “obedient,” “model of self-respect and achievement,” who “depend on their own efforts—not a welfare check” with “traditional virtues of hard work, thrift and morality.”
These articles unabashedly established Asian Americans as the “good” minority. And, if there is a “good” minority, there must be a “bad” minority. Both of these articles identify the “bad” minority and so does O’Reilly, but many other references to Asian Americans as the model minority are silent on the flip side of this stereotype, leaving unspoken the identification of the not-so-model minority that Asian Americans are being compared to. However, just because it’s invisible doesn’t mean it isn’t there. That’s the particularly insidious dynamic of this stereotype.
The stereotype of the model minority is shockingly powerful. In one move, it can perpetuate these powerful ideologies about race and class: anyone who works hard can be successful, our society runs on a meritocracy, racism is pretty much over, the federal government does not need to get involved in addressing racism (because it’s pretty much over), Asian Americans are a homogenous group who don’t experience any serious problems, anyone who continues to complain about racism is simply not working hard enough and spending too much time complaining, and we all just need to move on.
Such a stereotype denies the existence of racism against Asian Americans. And if there’s any doubt that such racism continues, just take a look at Deepa Iyer’s piece from the other day on “13 Years After 9/11: A Reflection on Resilience,” which discusses the serious challenges that Asian Americans continue to face.
I’ve written about the model minority myth, its origins and its continued persistence in our media and popular culture, in much more detail in my book project (still in need of a publisher). This stereotype does not get enough attention, and it is often still taken for granted as the truth rather than as a divide and conquer strategy that perpetuates systemic racism and the status quo. We need to raise awareness about this divisive stereotype, dismantle it, and build coalitions around common interests.