That guy from Duke and the model minority myth

In Ohio, there’s a phrase we’d use to talk about Professor Jerry Hough: “God love him.”

It’s different than the Southern “Bless his heart,” which has a little bit of syrup and a little bit of venom, and is sometimes used to a person’s face.

In Ohio, as my friend Tami pointed out, we say “God love him,” through clenched teeth, conveying our exasperation and the fact that only God could.

Jerry Hough, if you missed the story, is the guy who said Black people are inferior to Asians. Not just “the guy who,” though. “The Duke University political science professor with three Harvard degrees who.” And not just “said.” Actually, “posted in a six-paragraph long comment on a New York Times article.”

The noteworthy opener, referencing the New York Times piece “How Racism Doomed Baltimore,” reads as follows: ““The blacks get awful editorials like this that tell them to feel sorry for themselves.”

The part where my people come in (Asians, not Ohioans), though, is here: “Every Asian student has a very simple old American first name that symbolizes their desire for integration. Virtually every black has a strange new name that symbolizes their lack of desire for integration. The amount of Asian-white dating is enormous and so surely will be the intermarriage. Black-white dating is almost non-existent because of the ostracism by blacks of anyone who dates a white.”

According to the News-Observer, the comment concluded, “It was appropriate that a Chinese design won the competition for the Martin Luther King state (sic). King helped them overcome. The blacks followed Malcolm X.”

 

For today, I’m not taking on Mr. Hough. You can always tell a Harvard man…you just can’t tell him much. (See what I did there? Since I went to Hopkins, that’s a classic illustration of “punching up.” More on that later.)

What I’m interested in is what the Asian response should be.

 

Mr. Hough’s comment illustrates really well why in some of the introductory anti-racism work I do, Asian Americans will sometimes say, “if the worst stereotype about me is that I’m better at math than other people, why should that bother me?” In other words, I win with the model minority myth; why would I give that up?

Rather than answer that myself with a long-winded lecture on how communities of color are pitted against each other and can never achieve full liberation while participating, even unwittingly, in our brothers’ and sisters’ oppression, I’m going to share a couple of my favorite Model Minority Mutineers’ perspectives on how

 

I really love the comedian Dhaya Lakshminarayan. (Do not miss her show Nerd Nation on May 30, selling out fast! I wish I were going to be in town!) I often say of her that part of why she makes me laugh is that she doesn’t rely on cheap caricatures of her parents like some children-of-immigrant comedians. (Much like my parents, hers are so rich for entertainment value without resorting to stereotypes.) The other reason is she makes me laugh without punching down. Her response to Professor Hough is this:

dhaya

Forgive me if I’m overexplaining, but Dhaya decides to point out (a) the inaccuracy of his statements (because her name is Dhaya — not an integrationist name), (b) the fallacy that Euro-American=White=Normative (hers is not a “simple old American name” which Mr. Hough points out is desirable), and (c) that it is problematic to assume that names or efforts to assimilate equate to success, and that Blackness indicates a lack of success.

But it’s funnier when she does it.

 

There was a panel discussion today about #BlackAsianSolidarity at the Schomberg Center. The moderator started by talking about the end of the movie Do the Right Thing, where the Korean shop owner, trying to convince the Black people who had broken the windows of the pizza shop not to do the same thing to his store, “I’m not White! I’m Black!” She asked the question what it means to be neither White nor Black, what it meant to be Asian American in America.

The panel was shaped by ChangeLab’s call for a Model Minority Mutiny this past October, when Soya Jung noted:

The racial invitation that white elites offered to Asian Americans went something like this: “If you come here and assimilate into this anti-black settler state, if you behave properly, we will let you hustle for your prosperity. You won’t be white, but you might get close, and at least you won’t be black. You’ll be the poster child of the American Dream, and together we will squash the insurgency underfoot that threatens our collective fortunes.” [In smaller print: We might occasionally spy on you, round you up, and detain you; and some of you will have to stay in crappy jobs and housing. But it’s all to keep the Dream alive.]

I am really grateful for this analysis because for a few years now I’ve been wrestling with the tension between a conviction that drove me to anti-racism work, encouraged by the model of anti-racism training I went through (which has evolved and nuanced considerably over the years but is trapped in amber in my own memory), and between the more complex reality of my lived experience.

The conviction that drove me to this work is this: systemic racism negatively impacts all people of color (Asian, Latino, Indigenous, and Black) and advantages White people. In light of this, people of color need to know each other’s stories and have each other’s backs, without getting hung up on whose oppression is worse.

My lived experience was this: my experience of oppression was totally different than that of my Black brothers and sisters, not just in quality but in kind. Marginalization and invisibility weren’t the same thing as denigration and persecution.

Rinku Sen captured what I struggled with really well last year in her article in the Nation, “As People of Color, We’re Not All In the Same Boat.” Here’s the portion that resonated most for me:

At the beginning of my career, I’d often tell diverse groups of people, “We’re all in the same boat”—that is, we’re all hated by the same people, and our fortunes will rise or fall together. This rhetoric resonated, at first. For a couple of years, members would focus on their commonalities rather than their differences. But eventually, fissures would emerge, usually over the benefits of our organizing. Whose demands got priority? Whose social networks got the most attention? Who got the few organizing jobs that our groups generated?

I came to realize that the “same boat” argument didn’t hold up. Racial hierarchy is not a binary in which all whites occupy the lead boat and all people of color occupy the one left behind. Instead, it’s a ladder, with groups occupying different rungs of political, economic and cultural power. The gaps between rungs can seem minor—a few cents on the dollar at work, a few blocks’ difference in where you’re able to live—but to those who are affected by them, they don’t feel like being in the same boat. And blacks often find themselves on the bottom rung.

This is not to say that there isn’t plenty of discrimination directed against Asians, Arabs, Latinos and Native people. But studies revealing the depth of anti-black bias abound—basically, people would prefer almost anyone other than blacks as neighbors and employees.

Racist ideology relies on maintaining hierarchies, and these hierarchies play out in our own political spaces, too—even when we intend the opposite; even when we think we’ll be immune because we’re people of color ourselves.

So for those of us who are model minorities pawns in this racial hierarchy that we have inherited, sometimes without even having recognized it, what does it look like for us to participate in an alternative a Model Minority Mutiny?

  • It starts by recognizing that the Model Minority Myth limits our potential as well as helping us avoid uglier forms of racism. (If you don’t believe me, you may not yet have encountered the Bamboo Ceiling. Wait a while.) It also involves recognizing that the privilege we have is conditional on how White we are experienced as being, since in America, Whiteness is the substitute for what is normative, no matter how insistent people are that “American” and “White” are not synonyms. (Mr. Hough’s comment about normal old American names illustrates this point well.)
  • It means doing what Dhaya did: publicly rejecting the ridiculous assertion by Mr. Hough that Asians are better than Blacks because that assumes all Asians are the same, and that all Black people are the same. And ideally, it means making people laugh at the ridiculousness while you do it.
  • It means connecting with groups like 18 Million Rising who advocate for Asian and Pacific Islander rights but don’t do so at the expense of our Black brothers and sisters, including standing with our Black brothers and sisters when they invite us to.
  • It might mean engaging with Asians for Black Lives, advocating for Black lives, Black power and Black resistence as allies who recognize that our liberation is wrapped up in theirs, and that we in the Asian American community have to do some serious work on the ways that we participate in and benefit from the culture of anti-Blackness we stepped into when we (or our forebears) landed on these shores.
  • It might mean joining with the #IAmNotYourWedge campaign (or Asians for Affirmative Action), the Asian American group exposing the ultra-conservative White man who is pushing the agenda of “Students for Fair Admissions,” suing Harvard on the grounds that affirmative action robbed some Asians and Asian Americans of opportunities to study at the school. (Wall Street Journal columnist Jeff Yang has a great op-ed on this, and 18MR has a petition!)

A ministry colleague of mine forwarded the article about Professor Hough to me saying, “Have you seen this b***s***?” I hope to keep working hard enough at fighting the model minority myth with people of all races that people will always think, “Sandhya needs to know about this; she would be PISSED,” because they know that I recognize that anti-Blackness hurts all of us, even when it looks like it’s helping Asian Americans.

I just wish I could make it funnier.IMG_3555

 

 

Comments (2)

  1. Bianca Louie

    Thank you for writing this! For articulating the complex lived Asian American experience of being pawns, benefactors, and victims of an oppressive anti-black system. Hope to connect with you sometime.

  2. Sandhya (Post author)

    I would love that, Bianca. Thank you.

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