“Where are you from?” “No, I mean, where are you REALLY from?” “You know, originally?”
We have heard these questions most of our lives in a variety of settings, including job interviews. Before we get to these questions, however, let’s take a step back.
My name is NaDa Shoemaker and living in America as a naturalized citizen came with its own political implications. Senate Bill 2744, a private bill written and established in my name, was passed during the summer of 1957 allowing me entry into the U.S. for adoption. This passed only because the previous year’s U.S. quota for immigrant entry had not yet been met (as set by the Immigration Act of 1924). The law allowed my entry into a country that was still carrying memories of World War II and the Korean Conflict, with the price paid by many American lives lost. In fact, my own adoptive uncle served in the U.S. Army and was killed at the now North and South Korean border and my adoptive maternal grandfather would have nothing to do with me for several years. So began the unintentional trap of assimilation and acquiescence that is described within the model minority myth.
Yet, to this very day, this set of questions about where I am from, implying that I am not an American of Korean heritage, is altogether too familiar. These same questions are posed to the majority of East, South and Southeast Asian Americans living in the United States. Where does this come from? Why do non-Asian people feel comfortable asking an intrusive, personal question?
My name is Ali Rahimi, and I am a South Asian of Indian and Pakistani descent. As a child, I was aware of my ethnic heritage, but I never felt different than any of the other kids living in the Dallas suburbs in the late 90s. That changed after September 11, 2001. My childhood experience shifted from being just another seven-year-old to sticking out like a sore thumb because of my brown skin and Muslim name. The other kids began asking me where I was from and if my family were American citizens. A couple of them told me to go back to where I came from - as if I wasn’t a born and raised Texan.
That was the first time I felt singled out as an “other.” Nearly twenty years later, I’m still reminded that my ethnicity brings into question my status as a natural-born U.S. citizen. What makes experiences like mine and NaDa’s worse is they go largely unacknowledged, thanks in part to the “model minority” myth.
This Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) Heritage Month, we want to address questions of equity relating to the struggle for racial awareness, recognition and justice among AAPI communities. To do this, we will begin a dialogue about the model minority myth, which is equally as strong today as it was in the past.
The model minority myth is well documented and described in the Learning for Justice article. This myth perpetuates stereotypes that have grown out of the history of Asian immigrants and their roles in America. It combines all Asian people into one collective racial group regardless of the diverse ethnicities included in the East, South, Southeast and Pacific Island Asian communities. The myth disregards and erases this diversity and perpetuates opinions that all Asians are high wage earners, easily achieve academically, and are foreigners given the physical features that visually identify people of Asian descent. It further supports the belief that Asian people are invisible, agreeable and will not push back when faced with acts of intrusiveness, bullying and violence.
The myth implies that through hard work, Asian populations can overcome racism and various inequities to become successful, “model minorities.” It downplays the degree and frequency of racism and injustices we face. As a result, the Asian American struggle goes largely unnoticed.
Additionally, the existence of “model minorities” suggests that there are “non-model minorities” who should look towards Asians as an example of how, by studying and working hard, they too can overcome racial and other inequities. It disregards the systemic nature of these inequities and overlooks the unique struggles of other ethnic and racial groups. Furthermore, it shifts the conversation from those in power needing to dismantle oppressive systems to the oppressed simply needing to overcome them. The most obvious example of this occurred when the U.S. government used messages of the model minority myth to manipulate a belief that the Black community should somehow work harder to overcome decades of systemic racism and acts of violence against them – a message that critically diminishes both racial and ethnic groups and their unique racial experiences.
While the myth obscures incidences of anti-Asian racism, the fact is this country has a history of xenophobia (a dislike or prejudice against people from other countries) against Asian Americans. During World War II, Japanese Americans were forced into internment camps. Nearly 20 years after 9/11, South Asian Americans continue to be profiled as terrorist threats. In the last year alone, we’ve seen an increase in anti-Asian violence and hate crimes as a result of racist, xenophobic rhetoric surrounding the origins of the COVID-19 virus. This anti-Asian bias causes fear and stress and takes a toll on our mental, physical and emotional health.
For a while now, it has felt like these issues and outcomes were invisible to those on the outside looking in. But the long-overdue Stop Asian Hate movement is changing that. The movement brings to attention the historic racism we’ve faced and counters the model minority myth by demonstrating that Asian Americans are willing to speak out against the systems that harm us.
While the model minority myth continues to pervade society, it’s just that – a myth. The truth is that AAPI communities are vastly diverse, and each has its own set of systemic barriers to equity, justice and safety that they struggle to overcome. It’s time we recognize that truth and do our part to reject anti-Asian bias. Think before you ask an intrusive question, do not make assumptions about an AAPI individual when you see them, and self-educate to learn more about the history, heritage and cultural beliefs of AAPI communities.
Below are resources and information to help develop a better understanding of AAPI communities:
Resource sites to learn more about AAPI conversations:
Stop AAPI Hate resources via Stop AAPI Hate reporting center
Act to Change - a nonprofit organization working to address bullying, including in the Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) community
Glossary for Understanding the Dismantling Structural Racism/Promoting Racial Equity Analysis via The Aspen Institute
The real reasons the U.S. became less racist toward Asian Americans via The Washington Post
How Does the Model Minority Myth Feed into Racism?via The Center for Public Integrity
Racism in the USA: Ensuring Asian American Health Equity via The Lancet
* Voices for Healthy Kids is not endorsing, has not vetted or evaluated, and is not responsible for the above resources. The links provided are for convenience only and are not an endorsement of either the entity or resource. Resources do not necessarily reflect the views of the American Heart Association.