The Black-White Binary and the Model Minority Stereotype

The Reverend Laura Mariko Cheifetz serves as the Executive Director of Church & Public Relations at the Presbyterian Publishing Corporation. She received her M.Div. from McCormick Theological Seminary in Chicago, and her MBA from North Park University in Chicago. She is an ordained Teaching Elder in the Presbyterian Church (USA). She enjoys spending time with friends over food, exploring whichever region in which she happens to live, and still believes The Wire is the greatest television show in history.

The Reverend Laura Mariko Cheifetz serves as the Executive Director of Church & Public Relations at the Presbyterian Publishing Corporation. She received her M.Div. from McCormick Theological Seminary in Chicago, and her MBA from North Park University in Chicago. Laura has a chapter in the book “Streams Running Uphill.” She is an ordained Teaching Elder in the Presbyterian Church (USA). She enjoys spending time with friends over food, exploring whichever region in which she happens to live, and still believes The Wire is the greatest television show in history.

Whenever people who are not Asian American tell me I have lots of privilege, I would like that credit to go into my microaggression account. Thanks to my reality as a biracial Asian American woman in the U.S., the weight of microaggressions can sometimes overpower my usually healthy sense of self and place in the world, and I head into what I call my spiral of despair. I have to go read Asian American or Latin@ or Native American feminists to pull myself out of the emotional quagmire. I have to remind myself that I’m not alone.

I have the spent the past couple of months cycling between rage and indifference at Amy Chua, the co-author of The Triple Package: How Three Unlikely Traits Explain the Rise and Fall of Cultural Groups in America and the author of Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother. I’ve been mad because I think her work does not deserve the attention it is getting. I’m mad because I think no amount of cultural gumption will ever overcome systemic discrimination based on race, class, and citizenship, but the latest book by Chua and her husband gives people reasons to overlook discrimination and accuse groups of people of not having the right cultural “stuff.”

But mostly I’m mad because I think what she has done is given more fodder to the model minority myth, driving a wedge between groups who could gain more by working together, but instead play right into the divide and conquer tactics practiced by the system of power and privilege we know as U.S. racism. This latest book just expands and makes more specific the number of groups who get deemed “superior” due to their culture.  And I should be clear I am mad at Amy Chua herself. Yes, AT her. Not at her husband. Because as a woman of color, I think she should know better.

Hello, Model Minority stereotyping. I haven’t been able to escape you since the 1960s.* Have you heard of this? This is one of racism’s finest achievements: the capacity to dupe everyone into thinking that certain minority racial or cultural groups are just inherently superior, regardless of the amount of structural racism facing those groups, and regardless of what the actual data show. This has been so successful that not only do white people often believe it—

“Oh, you Asian Americans are doing just fine. Look at how high your household income is!”

Implication: Racism is over for you!

Implication: You are just so much better than those other people of color, who won’t stop whining about their oppression. Let’s unite against other brown people, even though you’re never getting that promotion.

And the real success? People of color believe it! Too many Asian Americans are totally cool with the Model Minority stereotype:

“At least it’s a positive stereotype.” (I’ve actually had that conversation.)

So do other people of color:

“Asians.” (snort) “Privilege.”

“What we really need to focus on are the needs of African descendants.”

It’s true. When 18millionrising began and hosted a Twitter conversation using the hashtag @NotYourAsianSidekick, it opened the door for other Twitter users to begin posting using the hashtag #AsianPrivilege. Some of the Asian American participants didn’t help, and responded by lashing out against other communities.  While we people of color are in a corner busily accusing each other of having privilege, or being blatantly bigoted, or trying to explain how the data obscure the realities of racism and discrimination, the system of racism that privileges white people is having a party in the middle of the room. This, my friends, is not the Olympics. The only winner is the system.

What the black-white binary does is limit the conversation, narrows our analytical lens, and leads to an incomplete organizing strategy. The Model Minority Myth plays into this binary by marginalizing the fastest-growing racial group from the discussion, and isolates distinct communities of people of color from one another. That’s right: Asian Pacific Americans aren’t black. (I have been accused of not being black. It’s true. I’m not.) And by not being black, we are divided from our African-descent brothers and sisters. The binary and the Myth mean the organizing power of people of color is divided, and we end up primarily relating with white people instead of with one another.

This is exhausting.

I feel exhausted, because now I have the sense that I need to go through an actual data breakdown to prove that Asian Americans should be in this conversation, along with Latin@s and Native Americans. I would like to walk away from this conversation, but I won’t. If I walk away, the system wins again.

So instead of playing into the black-white binary, let’s try something else. Let’s try learning one another’s stories. Instead of comparing our puny pieces of the American story, or the amount of visibility or power or economic influence we have, let’s take a step back to look at the whole picture. Let’s try to determine how we add our collective power and stories together to fight a dehumanizing and bloodthirsty system. Let’s figure out what Native American sovereignty has in common with immigration and criminal justice reform.

* In the 1960s, the narrative emerged that certain immigrant and other minority groups, primarily Asian Americans, were doing great, over and against other distinct communities of people of color.

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Let Us Not Stand Silent

Jessica Vazquez Torres, Core Organizer Trainer

A native of Puerto Rico, Jessica Vazquez Torres identifies as a “1.5 generation Queer ESL Latina of Puerto Rican descent.” She works as a consultant and core/organizer trainer for Crossroads. Jessica holds a BA in Criminal Justice and Masters degrees in Theological Studies and Divinity. She lives in GA with her spouse and two Shih-Tzu’s.

Bearing the weight of truth that challenges human assumptions is something Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. did well.  If the photos and grainy videos show the whole story, he was a man who could stand in the face of great and difficult problems with aplomb, and speak with passionate certainty about grim reality and hope.

In the United States we have done Dr. King a great disservice by imprisoning him to one speech, a marvelous and uplifting speech about a dream, but nonetheless one that obfuscates his evolution as a nonviolent resister and thinker.

Exactly one year before his assassination, April 4, 1967, from the pulpit of Riverside Church in New York, Dr. King spoke at a meeting of Clergy and Laity Concerned about Vietnam calling for an end to the war and articulating the implications of failing to take such a bold step. He titled his remarks, A Time to Break Silence.”

Dr. King’s journey to this powerful speech was a difficult one.  The movement he was leading appeared to be unraveling. There was tension and dissent among the ranks over whether or not the struggle for African-American civil and economic rights should be connected to the struggle to end U.S. military operations in Vietnam.

Close allies like Whitney Young were concerned that to take on Vietnam was to jeopardize all the work they had done on behalf of African-Americans.  Younger movement leaders like Stokely Carmichael were also challenging the core principles of the civil rights movement as articulated by King.  In their frustration at the slow pace of change, significant members of the younger generation of civil right organizers and revolutionaries were abandoning the idea that non-violence could bring change.  While chanting “Black Power,” Carmichael and other emerging civil rights leaders were calling for armed confrontation of racist Whites, the use of violence when necessary, and Black separatism.

Those concerned with preserving the focus of the civil rights movement of issues of race primarily and class secondarily, pleaded with Dr. King to remain silent.  Those concerned with the disproportionate drafting and loss of African-American men in the war and the U.S. efforts to disrupt the movement for self-determination in Vietnam pleaded with Dr. King to speak.

In between these two pulls Dr. King struggled until the harrowing images from Vietnam, the piled bodies of U.S. soldiers and Vietnamese women and children, and the obvious links between war, poverty, and racism could not be avoided anymore. Early in his speech at Riverside Church King offers this confession, “Over the past two years, as I have moved to break the betrayal of my own silences and to speak from the burnings of my own heart.”[1] He then follows this acknowledgment with a powerful and urgent plea for the soul of his nation.

We still have a choice today: nonviolent coexistence or violent co-annihilation. We must move past indecision to action. We must find new ways to speak for peace in Vietnam and justice throughout the developing world, a world that borders on our doors. If we do not act, we shall surely be dragged down the long, dark, and shameful corridors of time reserved for those who possess power without compassion, might without morality, and strength without sight.  Now let us begin. Now let us rededicate ourselves to the long and bitter, but beautiful, struggle for a new world. This is the calling of the sons of God, and our brothers wait eagerly for our response. Shall we say the odds are too great? Shall we tell them the struggle is too hard? Will our message be that the forces of American life militate against their arrival as full men, and we send our deepest regrets? Or will there be another message — of longing, of hope, of solidarity with their yearnings, of commitment to their cause, whatever the cost? The choice is ours, and though we might prefer it otherwise, we must choose in this crucial moment of human history.”[2]

No longer able to ignore the links between war, poverty and racism nor the movement of the Spirit of the God in whom he believed, King begins to push the civil rights movement in a radically different direction.  Resting in his conviction that the Creator desired a reordering of society, King challenged his nation and those gathered at Riverside Church to find the moral courage to make a choice: These are the times for real choices and not false ones. We are at the moment when our lives must be placed on the line if our nation is to survive its own folly. Every man of humane convictions must decide on the protest that best suits his convictions, but we must all protest.”[3]

Dr. King knew that when he linked the struggle for civil rights with the struggles against poverty and war, he would bring discomfort into his life.  He knew that when he began to name the unholy trinity of U.S. materialism, militarism, and systemic racism people would resist.  But he also knew there was no alternative.  He knew that for freedom to ring in every mountain, valley, and corner of his beloved nation, he had to link these social sins.  And so must we.

The dream of Dr. King we love to cite will remain an elusive fantasy until we too link systemic racism with corporate greed, militarism, and the rampant materialism of our times.  In the last month alone our congress has acted not to extend unemployment benefits for millions of Americans while also ensuring corporations can continue to profit as the poor and vulnerable struggle.  Homeless shelters are filled with women, children, and men.  Those seeking jobs have stopped searching, resigning themselves to permanent unemployed status which means they are of no account.  Our public school systems are failing to educate the poorest and criminalizing those who fail to conform to our common core curriculums.  Our prisons are filled to the brim with non-violent offenders who are not being rehabilitated while the companies that own the prisons revive de-facto forms of Jim Crow.   And all along the stock market thrives.

Bringing about, working toward, honoring the dream of Dr. King demands that we see the connections linking systemic forms of oppression.  It demands that we speak out when it is unpopular; that we take stands not just on matters of racial discrimination but against xenophobic and homophobic legislation as well as the military and prison industrial complexes that destroy life.

Do we have it in us to speak? Do we have it in us to protest? Do we have it in us to raise our collective voice to speak out against systemic forms of oppressions like racism, sexism, classism, and heterosexism, just to name a few, especially when part of speaking out is naming our complicity in this social ills and oppressions?

Dr. King said toward the beginning of this powerful speech, “the calling to speak is often a vocation of agony[4] because “the human spirit [moves with] great difficulty against all the apathy of conformist thought within one’s own bosom and in the surrounding world. Moreover, when the issues at hand seem as perplexing as they often do in the case of this dreadful conflict, we are always on the verge of being mesmerized by uncertainty.”[5]

Let us not be mesmerized by the conundrums we face.  At stake is the soul of this nation. Let us not stand silent.

[1] Martin Luther King and James Melvin Washington, I Have a Dream: Writings and Speeches That Changed the World ([San Francisco]: HarperSanFrancisco, 1992), page 136.

[2] Ibid, page 151.

[3] Ibid, page 153.

[4] Ibid, page 136.

[5] Ibid, page 136.