“Those Asian American Whiz Kids” is the title of the August 31st, 1987 cover story for Time Magazine. Six Asian American middle and high school students smile brightly with their backpacks on, holding books or basketballs, looking “All-American” and prosperous and grateful to be able to study and play sports and have the opportunity to achieve the American dream. The story tries to explain the phenomenon of Asian American’s growing success in America, citing arguments such as genetic superiority or “Confucian ideals” as the reason that, “young Asian Americans, largely those of Chinese, Korean and Indochinese backgrounds, are setting the educational pace for the rest of America.” But how did this anthropological study of the “model minority” come to be? When did the discourse change from the “heathen chinee” and the “yellow peril” to that of the “model minority” and the “whiz kids”?
Ellen Wu, a professor in the history department at University of Indiana, recently published a new book, The Color of Success: Asian Americans and the Origins of the Model Minority, in which she attempts to explain how the phenomenon became popular. Doctor Wu spoke at Vassar on Nov. 13, 2014 about her book and the creation of the “model minority” myth.
She began her talk by giving a basic history of Asians in America, focusing admittedly on Japanese and Chinese immigrants.
Southern Chinese immigrants began coming to the west coast during the California gold rush, escaping poverty in their country, looking to make money and return home. They did menial labor for lower pay than white workers which lead to vocational laws that were part of a system of exclusionary laws that affected Asians in America until World War Two.
Wu spoke briefly about a “regime of Asian exclusion”, in which Asians were shut out from meaningful participation in American society.” According to Wu, for the most part, this regime lasted until the second World War, when white supremacy became a political liability.
Wu asserted that the creation of the “model minority” myth relied on the complete restructuring of the American social order. The three major radical changes that Wu cited were the beginning of racial liberalism, the profound self-interest of Asian Americans in securing a better future for themselves and United States foreign relations.
Racial liberalism, a political philosophy implemented during American mobilization for World War II, attempted to assimilate non-whites through government intervention. Intervention included the assimilation of young Japanese American men out of Internment Camps and into the army. The American government believed this act showed trust in Japanese Americans as long as they would loyally serve America. This caused strife within the Japanese American community; sons who were born in the United States fought against Japan even though their parents spoke little to no English and viewed Japan as home and America as the enemy. There were Japanese American men too, who refused to fight in World War II when the American government gave them the chance to do so. These “no-no boys”, as they were referred to, were sent to jail. When they came out they were looked down upon by many other Japanese Americans for tarnishing their community’s image as loyal to America.
This led into Wu’s second radical change that helped create the “model minority” myth—the profound self-interest of Asian Americans in bolstering their status in the United States. Groups like the JACL, the Japanese American Citizen’s League, worked to reshape the image of Japanese Americans. They did this though propaganda posters of white and Japanese soldiers smiling side by side in uniform as well as with stories about Japanese American recovery after World War II which actually tried to paint the interment camps as the best thing that could have happened for Japanese people in America.
The last change Wu cited was United States foreign policy after World War II. The US, trying to assert itself as the leader of the “free world” fighting a battle against communism and fascism, wanted to clean up the image of its race relations at home. Creating the “model minority” myth allowed America to show that race problems at home could be solved and that the American dream was achievable even for marginalized groups.
This is the major problem with the model minority myth: assimilation of Asian Americans into white American culture as the “model minority” immediately pits them against other minorities, Latinos, Black Americans, Native Americans and many more, claiming that it is possible for minority groups to achieve the American dream. Consequently the effects that structural and institutional racism have in keeping those minority groups from gaining fiscal, social, political and personal security in the United States is disregarded and instead these groups are looked at as dangerous and lazy. At the same time, the myth relegates Asian Americans into second place, healthy in society, well assimilated, distinctly not black but also not quite white. The obedient, docile “model minority”. In this way the myth hurts everyone and only works to religitimize power structures in America that have been failing everyone except for whites since the foundation of the country.
Wu stressed that the “model minority” myth was not accepted universally in Asian American communities. Many Asian Americans questioned exactly what were they trying so hard to assimilate into. The answer often seems to be a nation bent on discrimination that continues to move further politically to the right in the name of “freedom and democracy.” Because of this many Asian Americans in the 60s rejected the “model minority” myth which they believed pitted them most frequently against African Americans and supported America’s many systems of structural racism. Grassroots organizations were formed that served as the Asian American counterpart to Black power.
Wu talked about the creation of the “model minority” and how it took hold in the 1960s and 70s, but did not mention where the myth stands today.
“The “model minority” myth has proven to be a very durable stereotype. The myth is used as a bludgeon, a false standard, evidence that our system still works. Ellen’s book does a terrific job of complicating that picture and tracing the myth’s historical roots.” Professor Hua Hsu of the English department said.
Professor Hsu went on to speak about how he understands why many Asian Americans are quick to accept the myth as truth.
“It’s a seemingly positive stereotype, but it only serves to divide different ethnic and racial groups,” Hsu continued. “The narrative of success and achievement also obscures a lot of actual problems within the Asian American community, particularly concerning mental health.”
In the Time article this idea of “obscuring actual problems” is perfectly clear. In the first personal story that the article recounts, Satia Tor, a Cambodian immigrant is praised for winning an essay contest about his experiences, the title of his essay: “Cambodian Boys Can’t Cry.” The story doesn’t delve into this title. In his picture for the article, Satia Tor looks hauntingly at the camera in a cardinal Stanford sweatshirt, on the wall behind him is a poster that reads, “A Trauma Of Our Times.” His “haunting memories of the horrors he has witnessed” will always be overshadowed in the story by his perceived success in America. “Those Asian American Whiz Kids” is the title of the August 31st, 1987 cover story for Time Magazine. Six Asian American middle and high school students smile brightly with their backpacks on, holding books or basketballs, looking “All-American” and prosperous and grateful to be able to study and play sports and have the opportunity to achieve the American dream. The story tries to explain the phenomenon of Asian American’s growing success in America, citing arguments such as genetic superiority or “Confucian ideals” as the reason that, “young Asian Americans, largely those of Chinese, Korean and Indochinese backgrounds, are setting the educational pace for the rest of America.” But how did this anthropological study of the “model minority” come to be? When did the discourse change from the “heathen chinee” and the “yellow peril” to that of the “model minority” and the “whiz kids”?