Recent events, from Occupy Wall Street to Rep. Scott Garrett’s (R-N.J.) comments on
“other” ethnicities’ work ethic, have catalyzed important discussions
on inequality and prejudice in the United States. However, the popular
discourse, from editorials to social media coverage, often overlooks
one growing population: Asian Americans.
Asian Americans encounter relentless stereotyping in popular culture,
wide disparities in educational achievement and income, and high rates
of bullying in
school and on the internet. Yet these instances often garner little
attention outside of the Asian American community. This broader
ignorance of issues related to this diverse population poses significant
obstacles for the community to legitimize of its claims to inequality
and in creating public awareness of said issues.
Compounding this breach are stereotypes, particularly the model
minority myth. This seemingly ubiquitous label purports that Asians are
predisposed to achieve educational and economic success in America.
Supporters cite socio-economic statistics such as the 2005 median yearly
income, which was $61,594 for an Indian American male as compared to
the overall male median of $41,965. Such statistics fail to note that
Asian Americans were one of the first immigrant groups to have a large
percentage of its members come to the United States having already
achieved professional status or educational and economic resources.
This myth of inherent ability has serious consequences for
inequality. The model framework ensconces a greater ignorance of the
real issues faced by the population while downplaying its successes.
For instance, in pop culture, Asian impressions often fail to garner
the same universal rebuke as other racially tinged jokes — even when
those jokes are performed by white actors. Such instances add to the
forever foreign construction of Asian Americans. Saturday Night Live’s
depiction of presidential candidate and former U.S. Ambassador to China
Jon Huntsman speaking in a generic “Chinese accent,” an attempt to mock
the public fascination with this ambassadorial credential, helped
underline society’s greater orientalization of Asians. Soon after,
comedian Stephen Colbert’s Chinese character (Ching Chong Ding Dong)
appeared to make his guest, Huntsman himself, squirm in the spotlight.
While significant in its own right, the inequality debate also tends
to focus on the disparities across major groups (blacks and whites, rich
and poor), and not within them. Yet, again, the model minority myth
obscures the realities of divergent living standards and educational achievement within a highly diverse sub-population.
Still, despite this slow rate of inclusion into the popular
discourse, there have been some positive signs of change. For instance,
one well-covered news story points to San Francisco, a city over 21%
Chinese, where Japanese American candidate Jeff Adachi may become the first elected Asian American mayor in the city’s history.
And in pop culture, the international fashion chain Forever 21 has come under fire for its culturally insensitive Oriental Girl necklace. Petitions for the stores’ removal of this stereotypical image are slowly picking up steam.