Author: Cheryl Sun
As Asian Americans, we are often upheld as the model minority. We are perceived as well-educated, successful, and used as a shining example for how to overcome racism in America.
While there may be certain privileges with this association, it is a flawed and dangerous perception — most of us encounter discrimination regularly, whether as simply as feeling “other” or as extreme as anti-asian violence. We set out to explore the topic of Asian Americans as the forgotten minority, and how it impacts our experiences in academia and the workforce.
Although racial inequality exists everywhere, it can vary depending on where we are from and our upbringing. Across the nation and even within the same state, there are vastly different subcultures.
While California as a state is highly diverse, certain communities within the state are less so. Linda Akugatawa, the President and CEO of Leadership Education for Asian Pacifics (LEAP), is the daughter of Japanese immigrants and grew up in Southern California. “My identity as an Asian was a little bit different… not so much as being Asian in a predominantly white community, but it was being Asian in a predominantly Mexican American community.”
Out in the Midwest, race and ethnicity look different as well. Dr. HoChie Tsai is the Founder of taiwaneseamerican.org and President of Taiwanese American Foundation in Chicago where he grew up. There were few Asian Americans in the suburbs throughout his childhood, “I always felt like I was different, I knew that I was different, I was always the lone Asian in the class.”
It can be hard to feel in touch with our own culture growing up in the US, as Dr. Tsai experienced with respect to his Taiwanese background. “That sense of appreciation for your own culture, you don’t feel it as much when you are in those high school, grade school settings because everyone else thinks of you as different.”
For Dr. Dawn Lee, current Equity and Inclusion Consultant and Faculty Director at De Anza College, growing up was a unique experience in two very different spaces, “I was raised in SF through and through, public school educated, and I spent summers in Tucson. So I lived this very bicultural life.”
The sense of belonging is a tough topic, a balance of holding onto culture while finding our place in America. It is often through exposure to educational or professional institutions coupled with growing that we begin to question and explore our ethnic identity.
Despite early exposure to two drastically different communities, Dr. Lee said she did not talk much about ethnic or racial identity until Asian American Studies class at UC Davis. “It totally blew my mind — It was simultaneously so uncomfortable as well as so familiar. Like wait, I think I’ve experienced racism, and sexism! … but I didn’t didn’t recognize it for what it was when it happened, and I couldn’t stop it, I couldn’t stand up for myself.”
In a similar sort of breakthrough, Dr. Tsai entered the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign as there was a surge of Asian Americans entering the space. He got involved with the Asian American community and Taiwanese student groups which were largely overlooked at the time. “… It was the safe space, the home away from home. It was being able to feel like, in this huge university, there was some place, some people, somebody, that understood me without me having to explain myself.”
Dr. Doris Ching, former VP of Student affairs of the UH Mānoa and former Interim Chancellor of UH West O’ahu, had very little experience with anti-Asian discrimination having spent nearly all her life in Hawaii. She recalls one particular incident in 1997 at a large national conference in Chicago, “A young student affairs professional, amidst all the excitement… came up to me and said, ‘You have to help us. We feel so isolated, and so discriminated against on our campuses’… I was stunned. I was astonished.”
Most Asian Americans have no shortage of experiences with racism and discrimination. With COVID-19, this past year in particular has only intensified anti-asian sentiment and violence.
Dr. Lee likens the current climate of what people are going through as similar to what she went through in Asian American Studies class. The anti-Asian hate and crime, according to Dr. Lee, are the more extreme versions of discrimination we have seen all along, “They’re making connections with their experiences and realizing… and when we hear stories [about Anti-Asian violence]… that profoundly hits home for many of us. That is the literal manifestation of how many Asians and Asian Americans have felt when we try to talk about these things.”
Dr. Amefil (Amy) Agbayani is a former Assistant Vice Chancellor for Student Diversity and Director of the Office of Student Equity, Excellence and Diversity (SEED) at UH Mānoa. She reflects that as Asians and Asian Americans have become more visible, the onus of the pandemic is put on us, “Because of the very strange COVID-19 experience… what it did is to amplify inequality, amplify problems… they have sort of permission to look for scapegoats.”
According to Dr. Agbayani, these challenges are the same ones we have faced all along, “These issues are very long standing concerns and very familiar. Discrimination, lack of representation, leadership positions, being seen as the perpetual foreigner, not American, lacking leadership skills, politically apathetic… and being the model minority.”
Dr. Tsai uses the word “conditional” to describe Asian American assimilation, encapsulating the idea that we do well and fit in only when we reflect the model minority. Yet this quickly goes away in challenging times, “There are people who are looking to blame folks like us and can’t tell us apart, so we all are victims… The caveat is that now, with the pandemic, people losing their jobs, mental health issues surfacing, looking for blame for COVID because it came out of Wuhan, China. Suddenly we are the scapegoats again.”
As the model minority, Asian Americans are painted in broad strokes as smart, successful, and hardworking. Being seen as such can negate our individuality and diversity, holding each of us to one blanket standard.
The perception of the model minority myth is prevalent to the point that we are convinced of it ourselves. Dr. Lee says, “we are “often told, ‘Oh, what do you have to worry about? Asians are so well off, so well educated’… you know, totally gaslit.”
Asian American individuals are falsely assumed to come from a background where higher education is the norm, which can be damaging to those who do not comply. Akugatawa says she is the first in her family to go to college. “If you’re not that model minority, from a mental health perspective it can be really hard. If you’re not smart, if you’re not wealthy, if you’re not well educated, does that mean you’re less than?”
There is also the stereotype that Asian Americans largely pursue mathematics, engineering, or medicine which Dr. Tsai addresses, “Knowing that everyone is different with different attributes, different skillsets, different interests, it’s just so unfair if you are not inclined to do that math and engineering or remember things like the biological facts set up to go pre-med. What if you are an artist? What if you are more into literature and reading? These are things that create unrealistic expectations for Asian Americans.“
There are 22.6M Asian American and Pacific Islanders in the nation, representing the fastest growing ethnic racial group according to Dr. Agbayani. However, this category is made up of at least 19 ethnic groups with vastly different status and backgrounds. “Asian Indians, Chinese, Japanese, and Filipinos, have significantly higher socioeconomic and educational status than the general US population and other AAPI groups. Native Hawaiians, Micronesians, Laotians, Cambodians, and others are significantly worse off than the US population.”
The concept of model minority is also damaging to our relationships with other races and ethnicities. Historically, the term has been used to regard Asian Americans as having attained educational and financial success relative to others. “Externally, it creates wedges between other community groups and other people of color. It’s the history of it — it was used to essentially put down other minority groups,” Dr. Tsai said.
Akugatawa emphasizes this point as well, that Asian Americans are forced to be an example for other groups, “It paints a picture that is often very one dimensional of us and also discounts what other communities… are also doing… that get erased or masked because we’re getting held up as this community model minority… it also pits us against each other.”
The idea of Asian Americans as the forgotten minority is especially apparent within academic and professional institutions. The perception that we do not experience racism, do not face discrimination, and therefore do not need attention can be highly detrimental.
Asian American students can often be overlooked as not needing help. Akugatawa said, “It’s kind of like the whole squeaky wheel thing. If we’re not speaking up and asking for help it’s easy to be forgotten. Because people assume well you’ve got it, you’re okay, you can take care of yourself. We don’t have to worry about you because we have all these other kids we have to worry about.”
In speaking with younger colleagues, Dr. Ching finds that not only students but faculty members are experiencing the same hardships. “Student affairs professionals are supposed to nurture students, but how can they nurture when they themselves do not feel nurtured?”
Dr. Tsai calls out the importance of institutional structures within schools and universities to support and educate Asian Americans. “That’s why you need the curriculum of Asian American studies, so you can start to understand and know why you felt different all those years you were growing up. From there, you can actually start to explore all the history or the strength of our culture, all the values, the identities, the things that we were always uncomfortable with before.”
The notion of the forgotten minority carries on after academia into the workforce, where Asian Americans continue to be seen as self-sufficient and overrepresented. While we do not have problems getting a job, once in the job there are challenges moving up into leadership roles. Akugatawa questions, “Are you telling me with all the Asian employees you have, that maybe one, maybe two, are capable of being in executive leadership are you really saying that? … it says to me, what are you not doing to develop your Asian leaders?”
Dr. Agbayani comments on the misconception that Asians are unable to be effective leaders. “There is a stereotype they see that we don’t have leadership skills, we’re not verbally aggressive enough, and that there’s only one definition of leadership or how to communicate — and that is to be very loud mouthed and in your face.”
While there are significant barriers facing Asian Americans in the workplace and otherwise, Dr. Lee reminds us the pressure to break through the glass ceiling should not be on us alone. “If you position yourself as someone trying to break through the glass ceiling, that responsibility for the most part is on you… in your institution, there are structures that are in place that create those barriers. So even if you try to get past those barriers, sometimes there’s only so much you can do because those systems were designed not for you, not for your success.”
Though there may not be an immediate solution to the complex problem of model minority, there are ways we can better navigate this reality. Getting to know our identity, asking for help when we need it, and finding a community that understands us are some examples of concrete steps we can take.
Recognizing that it may be against our nature and upbringing, Akugatawa encourages us to speak out and ask for support when we need it. “We’re kind of left on our own. And sometimes we do it to ourselves because we’re like, ‘We got it. We can do it ourselves.’ And we take pride in that because it’s what our parents tell us. But there’s nothing wrong with asking for help and asking questions.”
Dr. Lee clarifies that quietness is not culturally characteristic to Asian Americans, but rather “… because of the way we’ve been silenced… Silence is not natural, silence is not inherent in Asians. We’re quiet not because we’re Asian, it’s by the way we’ve been silenced and the way we’re not listened to.”
In speaking out and starting a dialogue, Dr. Agbayani reminds us that the discussion about race in America needs to involve everyone. “We have to have discussions on racial justice that does not exclude Asian Americans. And we also have to make sure that our past bad relationships with each other even within the AAPI community — there are lots of tensions there — and pitting us against African Americans and other groups — we have to stop that, and understand we should be supporting racial justice.”
Working with other minority groups in tandem is equally important. Dr. Ching emphasizes, “We need to have AAPI groups working with other racial groups and doing things in unity. Not an easy thing, this is a very very difficult thing… But we need to work at that.”
Dr. Tsai recommends finding a supportive community to network and build relationships. “It’s important for young people, Asian Americans in general to develop themselves and find the places and spaces where they can truly maximize their own potential… whether it’s online, or in community organizations and therefore be able to find others that embrace you for your uniqueness and your strength.”
Beyond all this, Asian Americans need to better understand and develop ourselves. “It’s important to do the work to understand who you are and your identity. Not just your ethnic and racial identity, but also intersectional,” Dr. Lee said.
The results of doing the work and embracing our individuality can be rewarding. Dr. Tsai tell us, “When you get comfortable with who you are… then you can actually achieve so much more with your life. I encourage young people to look inside and know that they are beautiful people inside with amazing talents and skills and potential.”
The first step in overcoming the obstacles associated with being Asian American is awareness. Understanding the concept of model minority, how to navigate it, and knowing you are not alone in the journey.
To build your network and get to know like minded individuals, we encourage our readers to connect with Asian Student Achievement (www.learnasa.org). Take a look at our Job Board to stay up to date on new opportunities posted by companies seeking diverse candidates. Also, consider our 1-on-1 Career Coaching or Workshops for easy and remote learning. ASA is here to help you succeed in all your academic and professional pursuits.