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.
Two years ago, three off-duty police officers killed Ethan Saylor, a man with Down syndrome. Frankly, I’ve said all I feel that I can say about Saylor. You can read what I’ve written here. In short, I believe his death was an act of police brutality for which no one has been willing to hold the three deputies accountable.
It is not so much that police officers are involved in violent exchanges, or that they may take wrong actions, purposeful or not. Law enforcement officers are human and flawed and our nation is polarized, to expect any kind of utopia in our current times would be naive. Perfection is not the goal, and I accept that.
What I cannot accept is that law enforcement in our country is increasingly above reproach.
A court case has been weaving its way through the system that has the potential to allow the police to be held even less accountable than they already are. San Francisco City Attorney Dennis Herrera thinks that the ADA does not apply to police interactions. Despite that a moderate panel on the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled against Herrera (read: it was not some kind of “liberal activist” panel), the Supreme Court has decided to review the case. An effort under the hashtag #carenotkill is pushing Herrera to drop his case, and many groups have signed onto the effort.
Stop for a moment and consider what this could mean. Have Down syndrome and take longer to process an officer’s request? Doesn’t matter. Are deaf and don’t respond when verbally called by an officer? Doesn’t matter. Have limited mobility? Have a mental health condition? None of it matters if the ADA does not apply to the police. The police could be legally protected from citizens should they harm an individual by failing to take into account his or her known disability.
I know it is unpopular to question cops in this country. I know that we want to think of cops as selfless heroes, paragons of righteous public servitude. I’m sure the majority of police officers want to be that, as well. But look, they are human beings. Human beings who get scared, have biases, and get angry. The answer to that is not to rubber stamp everything they do. The answer to that is to create standards for officer conduct. Our country endows our police force with many, many tools. We, as a society, give law enforcement the power to lay hands on their fellow citizens. We arm our officers with weapons. We legally protect them in times of doubt.
Where then, is the other side of that coin? Why are police so often investigated in-house instead of by an independent agency? Why is it nearly impossible to get a criminal indictment against a police officer? The ADA is the force behind things like wheelchair accessibility, inclusive education, and equal access to healthcare. These are essential rights. I don’t think it is so far flung for the ADA to also apply to police officers before they decide to use force against this country’s disabled citizens.
So on the two year anniversary of Ethan Saylor’s death, let’s think about how many others have been harmed or killed at the hands of our country’s law enforcement. Some officers have been held accountable, others have been practically applauded. Michael Brown. Eric Garner. Kelly Thomas. Teresa Sheehan. Antonio Martinez. Kajieme Powell. Brian Sterner. Rachel Thompson. This list can go on nearly indefinitely, because they are not isolated freak incidents. There is a steady level of unnecessary police violence that we can’t even measure because most law enforcement agencies resist efforts to monitor their use of force. There are too many protections for bad police officers who are left to poison the system. The most marginalized amongst us suffer most, but cases like Michael Bell’s show that no one is completely immune. Law enforcement in this country needs higher and better enforced standards, not fewer.
We cannot change the past, but what will we say in its aftermath? Will we fail to ask more from the men and women charged to protect us, even from ourselves? Will we continue to accept that a disproportionate section of the largest minority group in our country are destined to die?
Get involved. #JusticeForEthan. #CareNotKill
Sometimes I spend time worrying about my infant son’s future. My son with Down syndrome. My son with a disability. My son, a human being.
Among the things I worry about is that the world will see him as nothing but a problem. An anomaly, a special circumstance, some thing to be “handled” and “managed”. I worry that people will take one look at him and hold him up to a stereotype, and he’ll never have a chance to be fully human. If he matches the stereotype, everything he says or does will be a foregone conclusion. If he deviates from the stereotype, he’ll be nothing but an even greater abnormality.
My fears became reality today. Read the rest of this entry »