Asian American Identity: More than the Model Minority

Many would argue of all the minorities, Asians have it good. People would never explicitly say it, but when one thinks of a people group struggling against stereotypes and disadvantages, Asians are usually attributed with smarts and success. Asians have ‘positive’ stereotypes of reaching for success and being smart. That is the heart of the issue I want to address. The majority of conversations about diversity and acceptance nowadays in media and online have become so restricted to blacks versus whites.

Now, I understand there is injustice and oppression and in no way intend to diminish the struggle, but it is so disheartening to attend talks and summits devoted to diversity and only hear the black voice represented.

There are over 18 million Asians in the United States, yet their voices are rarely heard. Asians are sorely underrepresented in Hollywood, tech firms (highlighted later) and even diversity as a whole. For instance, until the premiere of the TV show “Fresh off the Boat” in early 2015, it had been 20 years since a network created a show centered on an Asian American family. If you look at leading roles in American films, Asians fall into the category of brainiac nerds or anecdotal sidekicks.

So what gives? Why are Asians so poorly represented in American culture?

I believe it can be largely attributed to a historically held belief — perpetuated throughout culture and the media — that Asians have it “good.” The Asian struggle to be seen as more than one-dimensional sidekicks is blanketed under a veil of financial/educational success and believing they have already gotten all they deserved.

In 1987, Time Magazine published a cover page article titled “Those Asian-American Whiz Kids.” The article featured statistics of the number of Asian Americans in top-level degree programs at schools like Harvard, Brown, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and the University of Calif., Berkeley (UCB). It features opinions from white-American scholars explaining why Asians excel and how they “feel an obligation to excel intellectually.”

In 2014, Time revisited the article, but this time, presenting a controversial thought that “Asians are excluded from the idea of diversity.” The article then highlights the overwhelming number of Asian employees in lower level jobs at tech companies like LinkedIn, Yahoo, Google and Facebook, but the extremely underwhelming number of Asians in upper management. For example, out of 100 lower level employees, LinkedIn has 60 Asians, but out of 100 leader positions only 28 are Asian. The article then continues to discuss how hurtful the original article was to Asian American immigrants. At the time, the statistics and numbers of succeeding Asians perpetuated stereotypes that Asians only knew how to operate a computer and it inspired negative sentiment and jealousy.

Many young Asian Americans interviewed in the article felt trapped in a box and believed people saw them as one-dimensional nerds.

Another alarming fact the article cites is in an Associated Press article that found many Asian Americans stopped checking “Asian” on college applications in order to avoid quotas at certain universities. Sadly, I have done this as well because I had friends — Asian and white — tell me universities had quotas.

Are these claims true though? The article provides some serious issues that an average Asian American struggles with.

From personal experience, I can attest to many claims in the article. I am Asian American; born in Seoul, South Korea and adopted by white parents in Washington state. Diversity and identity are things I have struggled with all my life. I never quite fit in with my white friends and I never fully fit in with my Korean foreign exchange friends. Growing up, I attended a dominantly white Christian school from elementary all the way through high school. I spent much of my early years trying to fit in, but kids always found ways to make sure I remembered that I was different. Never did I find something I could naturally relate to; rather I had to adjust myself to relate to things like my friends and the shows I watched. Growing up you never really notice these things, but once I reached high school I really started to feel isolated and different. By the time I started my freshmen year at Biola University, I thought I would for sure feel a change and acceptance, but when diversity came up, I again had to adjust and assimilate myself, just this time to the standard black versus white debate.

I say these things, not for attention or pity, but if I felt this way growing up, millions of other Asian Americans have to have felt it too. I believe more shows like “Fresh Off the Boat” need to come out, there need to be more movies with Asians in the lead roles, more Asians need to be hired into leadership positions and society as a whole needs to recognize and reject the idea that Asians are the “model minority.”

Most importantly, for growth to happen Asians must take the first step. We need to step out and shirk off the comfortable roles we’ve filled and reject all stereotypes, especially the one’s deemed “good.”

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