It made me pause. I had no idea where to begin. And I realized mostly because I probably hadn’t sorted it all out in my head yet.
If we start at the beginning, the issue lies in what it means to be a “person of color.” Logic would say that it would be anyone that is “non-white.” If that’s the case, then, yes, we are folks of color. But I think most people would probably take issue with that being a satisfactory answer. Are Asians somehow different than other people in that category? It’s not like we’re like Black folks. We’re over-represented in academic institutions. We are the model minority!
I lied. I didn’t start at the beginning. Why does the term “person of color” exist anyway? Why has the dichotomy of “White” and “non-White” been chosen? Why not “Latino” and “Blacks, Whites, Asians, etc.” The United States and its current power structure was founded by white, European culture. That is the norm that was set from the beginning. The point is, “people of color” is a political identity, held by the common experience of living outside the dominant group.
And while racial minorities, women, and LGBT folks have made impressive gains since that time, the fact of the matter is, most of that power still lies in the hands of straight, white men. They are still the norm. They are still the default.
I think that where Asian folks sometimes struggle is that our story is different from other folks of color. Our land was not stolen. Our ancestors were not enslaved (though we do have a history of being exploited for labor). We don’t share a border with the modern day United States. And our experiences of being non-White in this country are different. We’re not stereotyped as violent. We’re considered the model minority and over-represented in academic institutions. The mainstream understanding of Asians is that we’re successful. To put it bluntly, people don’t know if Asians are people of color because “Hey, we’re doing so well, we might as well be White!”
I know this to be true: people naturally look out for their own. Whether through overt racism or simply having a higher level of comfort, the phenomenon of nepotism is hardly questionable. We might be over represented in medicine, but we’re underrepresented in almost every other place.
Overall, white America still sees us as “other.” How many times have you heard “Where are you from?... Well, where are you REALLY from?” Or how about the replacement of all the Asian guys in the movie “21” with mostly white actors? Or how, earlier THIS year, a politician proposing that Asian folks all adopt American names that are “easier to handle” for voting and paperwork? And the number of times that I’ve watched older, Asian folks get talked at like they’re mentally deficient because they have an accent? And Lisa, a past coworker of mine who has a bachelor’s degree in hospitality from an American institution but still makes less than $1,000 a paycheck in an area whose cost of living is one of the highest in the country. Management says that her Vietnamese accent is too strong, but our French, white, male, straight Director of Food and Beverage has an accent so thick that I have to ask him to repeat himself several times a day? Or the fact that even compared to black folks, a benchmark that people use to mark discrimination in this country, we’re underrepresented in politics and even in academic leadership where we’re supposed to be the most successful! [Committee of 100's 2009 report: full, key results, someone telling you the point.]
What would happen if a terrorist cell in Asia bombed somewhere in the States? Would hate crimes rise based on simple physical characteristics? We’re on the safe side of “other” right now, but I don’t think it’s necessarily permanent. Even among liberal folks who are supposed to be better at this race stuff, why I hear so much about boycotting Chinese goods due to human rights violations but nothing about the myriad of other countries that do so as well?
I will make another accusation. I’ve noticed a trend: it’s the Asian folks who were born in America and are highly educated (the “model minority”) that question our belonging to the “people of color” political identity. “Yes, we are culturally different, but we are not oppressed.” So let’s look at the “model minority” stereotype for a hot second. Where did that phrase come from? It was coined in the 1960s during the civil rights movement through anecdotal research (I know, a contradiction in terms). It was used by the government then (and currently, in my opinion) to fracture folks of color and to argue that racism should not be a barrier to success. In other words, this idea of all Asians being the “model minority” is this weird, political, inaccurate myth that’s been completely fabricated. [even wikipedia agrees. or here. or here.]
And it’s been to our detriment in so many ways.
The one that upsets me most is that we buy into it. In the midst of our personal successes, we, members of the “model minority,” those of us who are fortunate enough to have made it to medical school, have forgotten and been shielded from others in our community. We’re in our own little bubble and have left unrecognized the folks that are not ourselves and not our family members. But we could have been them and they could have been our blood.
Who will look out for the folks that comprise these statistics if we don’t? Does the fact that a visible portion of our population has been successful mean that we’re institutional equals? Because I don’t believe that my congressman sees it that way. I don’t think he imagines folks that look like my family when he pictures his constituents.
Real racism against Asian folks exists. It manifests itself differently than for other communities of color, but it exists. And sometimes I worry that not only has the mainstream decided that this is not the case, but also that we believe it as well.