50 years ago, New York Times writer William Petersen wrote an article titled “Success Story: Japanese Style” and in it, coined the term “model minority.” Today most of us know what this term means, but in case you don’t, here is a fairly good history of the term and its social and political impact for the last half century.
What I don’t think many people pause to consider is that the model minority myth did not flourish because it was true, or that Asian Americans fully embraced it, but rather because it was beneficial to the racist status quo. Who was writing about the model minority? In 1966, not Asian folks.
More importantly, for whom are we modelling?
I think there are valuable lessons here when we consider how disability fits into the mainstream narrative. What does it mean to “overcome” one’s disability? Or to proclaim that we are only disabled in attitude? Or to applaud examples of average daily tasks as inspirational or against all odds?
50 years since its birth, the model minority myth is not exclusive to the AAPI community. This kind of narrowly elevated yet not equal status is a tool used against the disability community as well. In the Down syndrome parenting world, this manifests as pressure for us to “catch more flies with honey” (i.e. Don’t sound too angry or the discrimination your child faces is your fault) or to be thankful that our children are labeled with positive rather than negative stereotypes.
It is true that yelling and screaming at an IEP meeting will likely not get ideal results. Yet, is the frustration invalid? Why does a parent “breaking nice” relegate a child to fewer educational rights? A bigger question: What does it mean to have IEP proceedings (and its required assessments) for only some children and not all? It is also true that cursing the person at the grocery store who used the r-word is unlikely to make them engage in a meaningful discussion of word choice and ableism. Yet, again, is the frustration invalid? A bigger question: Whose responsibility is it to maintain kind and just behavior?
Regarding positive stereotypes,yes, I suppose I would rather my son be approached with a smile under the mistaken belief that he is “always happy” than he be actively shunned. Sadly, it doesn’t work like that. Because by definition, a stereotype is not something any human being can fulfill, all positive stereotypes lead to failure.
In failure, we see the racism or the ableism for what it is, because the penalties for failure are steeper for the model minority than for his other peers. Growing up I learned to be very wary of men who were romantically interested in me for being Korean. On more than one occasion I have feared for my safety after disappointing a man by not being a submissive “good girl.” Ethan Saylor suffered the fatal consequence of not living up to this model minority phenomenon; three years ago, Saylor died at the hands of the police after failing to be docile or sweet after a miscommunication in a movie theater.
These two examples seem wholly unrelated, but I believe the commonality is powerful. Both are examples of how physically and emotionally dangerous it can be for the majority to dictate the attitudes and behavior of a disenfranchised minority, however “positive” those expectations can seem.
As we strive for a more inclusive society, I think there are valuable lessons in the model minority myth for parents in the disability community. Whose standards are we raising our children to fulfill? What is good for us, the parents, and what is good for our children? What do we do when our interests as parents seem to conflict with our children’s? How could our narrative today impact our children tomorrow?
Let’s have the conversation.
Friends, family, and beloved Internet peeps,
I have a guest post on the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center blog today. Check out out. Comment. Share if you’re moved.
Click here to read. Happy Friday!
No, not the giant clothing label. I mean, the gap, that place in between where I seem to constantly find myself.
Recently I was in a conversation about bridging divides, and someone told me that my purpose in life might be to stand in the gap. I find myself often feeling so sympathetic to two seemingly opposite points of view, and I wonder, am I being inclusive or being too relativist? I’ve chewed that over for a few days.
I do feel like I’m forever in a gap. I’ve felt this way ever since I can remember. Growing up as an immigrant, I never felt at home like others seemed to feel. I was eternally confused in my friends’ houses. Why are there so many darn table utensils? Why are their beds so complicated and ruffly? Why do they all wear their shoes on the carpet? Why is breakfast always sweet bready stuff? I can’t say that being in Korea felt like home either, though. My Korean is about as good as a first or second grader’s (and maybe that is a stretch). I have a distinct memory of my cousin teasing me about how dark my skin was (from so many hours of running around in the California sun). Most of all, I couldn’t quite feel comfortable in a place that was so… homogeneous. The San Francisco Bay Area is so diverse, I’d gotten used to seeing every color under the rainbow, every style, every language, all on the streets together. As a result of all this, I never felt like I totally “got” my family, but never felt like my friends “got” me either.
After my sister died, I felt caught between childhood and adulthood. At eleven years old, I’d found my baby sister cold dead in her crib. Hours after the ambulance had taken her away, someone took me to the hospital. I don’t remember walking into the building, or who even brought me. I will forever remember walking up to my mom, holding my sister’s body. My mother said, “She just looks asleep.” Aside from the marks left on her face from the intubation, she did look asleep, and I immediately understood why my mother couldn’t give her body up. It seemed unfathomable that the spark of life could leave a body like that, forever. I grew up a lot that year. That kind of finality, and the resulting wild grief that my parents endured was a lot for an eleven year old. I felt half like the young child that I was, and half like I’d already lived too much.
I’ve grown up between privilege as well. After some pretty working class beginnings, by elementary school I was attending an overwhelmingly white school district that was very wealthy. We, however, were neither white nor wealthy. I very much felt my model minority status. I can’t tell you how many times teachers made comments about “my background” being the reason I did well in school. I assure you, those teachers did not mean my mom and dad’s parenting skills.
Yet, I didn’t feel like I necessarily came from the “wrong side of the tracks” either. This has persisted as I’ve become an adult; I see a lot of wealth and privilege around me, and honestly, I’m never sure if I’m part of it or not. We live in East Oakland, on the edge of what seems like one of the last working class neighborhoods in the entire Bay Area. I can’t deny that there is gang activity and lots of poverty very close to our house. I’m not white, but most of my friends are. We are not experiencing poverty by any means, but we struggle some months. Heck, my husband is a lawyer, and I’m a stay-at-home-mom. We have the choice to eat organic food most of the time. That feels like privilege. Yet, I feel outside of the groups that are considered the most privileged in this country. I’m a brown-skinned immigrant, after all, and I’ve felt the real negative consequences of being made into the Other.
Then… God. After I left Catholicism, I drifted. For a while I thought I was agnostic, but over the years, I haven’t been able to truthfully deny that I do believe. Just like I hear atheist friends say that in their core, they know there’s nothing out there, I feel in my core that there is something out there. No, not men with beards in fluffy clouds. Or even one single divine omniscient being. All I know is that there’s something there. Organized religion, however, all falls apart for me. I just can’t do the dogma, the structure, the rules. Yet, I find myself defending religion all the time. When I listen to people speak about faith and God, it does speak to me. The language might differ, but important messages all sound the same to me whether they come from a place of belief or not.
More recently, I’ve found myself in a gap of Disability Land. I have a hard time even navigating the language I use on a daily basis. I’m a parent of a disabled child. I’m a parent of a child with a disability. I’m a parent. My child has 47 chromosomes. He’s my son. I’m his parent. Words matter, and I struggle in this Disability Land gap. I’ll forever be connected to his disability but will never experience it myself. I am constantly walking the tightrope of my own feelings and respecting his future.
Sometimes, I find standing in the gap lonely. Other people look so confident and secure in their willingness to pick sides, speak so unequivocally, and I wonder if there is something wrong with me that I seem unable to do the same. Other times it is freeing. I get to swim in my current and not anyone else’s. Finally, in my thirties, I’ve discovered that even though it takes more energy for me to be this way, it is better for my heart and soul to do my own thing.
All my life, I’ve had people try to push me one way or another, to pick a camp between Right and Wrong, Should and Shouldn’t, Good and Bad. I worry that others think I’ve got no moral compass, but the fact is that I find it more fruitful to study that gap, stand in the gap, explore why the gap exists, than to pick a side and try to pull anyone else over. Maybe that friend was right. I guess this is where I’m meant to be. Maybe if I stand here long enough, the gap won’t seem like such a gap, just another place to be. Then, we can all stand together.