Stop using Asians as role models

Asian-Americans get touted as a "model minority" for their hard work and cultural assimilation, Jeff Yang says.

Story highlights

  • Duke professor sparked controversy with comments on Asian-Americans
  • Jeff Yang: History has shown how fragile Asians' status as "good Americans" truly is

Jeff Yang is a columnist for The Wall Street Journal Online and contributes frequently to radio shows, including Public Radio International's "The Takeaway" and WNYC's "The Brian Lehrer Show." He is the co-author of "I Am Jackie Chan: My Life in Action" and editor of the graphic novel anthologies "Secret Identities" and "Shattered." The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

(CNN) When I was growing up, one of the things that always made me crazy was my parents' habit of constantly praising other kids in my presence: "Oh, remember Olivia Chang? Did you know she's going to be performing at Carnegie Hall next month? Original composition! She wrote it herself!" Or "Mrs. Lee's son George will be attending Oxford University next year. And he's only 14!" These exclamations would invariably be followed by silence and an evaluating look at me, intended to communicate my utter inability to match the performance of these other children.

If you're reading this and you're Asian-American, you'll probably recognize this as a common motivational technique among Asian immigrant parents -- and one that rarely achieved the intended results of lifting my aspirations to meet these kids' stellar standards.
Jeff Yang
On the contrary: These words made me resent my mother and father's failure to see value in what I was doing in life. (I was making a horror movie about a demonic cult secretly controlling my middle school. And I'd gotten one of my Dungeons & Dragons characters, a half-elf ranger, up to level 13!) These words prompted me to refuse to practice piano, which I hated, in disgusted realization that I'd never be as good as Olivia Chang. And they made me want to punch George Lee in the face. Which is a shame since he was actually an OK guy.
    I was reminded of all this by the controversy that erupted this week when online comments made by Duke University professor Jerry Hough about an editorial published by The New York Times came to light.
    The Times editorial "How Racism Doomed Baltimore" highlighted the historical, institutional forces that have turned Baltimore, a city that is two-thirds black and the sixth most segregated city in the nation, into a volatile petri dish of poverty, endemic violence and urban despair.
    Hough had a heated response to it that drew a firestorm of reaction on the essay's discussion thread -- generating a wave of outrage as well as more than 220 "recommends" to date.
    "The blacks get awful editorials like this that tell them to feel sorry for themselves," he wrote. "In 1965 the Asians were discriminated against as least as badly as blacks. ... So where are the editorials that say racism doomed the Asian-Americans. They didn't feel sorry for themselves, but worked doubly hard."
    The comment, from a tenured professor at a leading institution of higher education, sparked uproar among those who correctly pointed out that the statement disingenuously ignores the uniquely oppressive circumstances under which African-Americans arrived in the United States. While other groups experienced hardships in the course of immigration, no other population came to this nation as chattel property. And then there was the corrosive legacy of segregation, Jim Crow and broad-based discrimination that continued long after the end of slavery, and that still overshadows black life in America today.
    But Hough's comment is problematic on another front as well, and it's one that references an ugly old trope that's gained fresh momentum in recent years: The positioning of Asian-Americans as a "model minority" that African-Americans should emulate if they want to rise out of the circumstances this nation has imposed upon them.
    Look at the Asians, goes this line of argument. They've done what needs to be done to succeed here -- they've worked hard, they've embraced this nation in all of its upwardly mobile glory. They've also integrated with America, by which those espousing this view typically mean "white America," as can be seen by the rest of Hough's comment in which he points out that his Asian students have adopted a "very simple old American first name that symbolizes their desire for integration" while "virtually every black has a strange new name that symbolizes their lack of desire for integration." And he also suggested that Asians at Duke actively engage in interracial dating with other races, while blacks avoid doing so out of fear of "ostracism from other blacks."
    There are so many ways that this kind of praise is actually damnation.
    For a start, it suggests that assimilation and cultural erasure are the only means to succeed in America. It dismisses those who don't succeed in the precise ways that white America defines as success as failures, and blames them for their inadequacy and laziness. And it sets America's striving masses against one another -- dividing communities that should by all rights be finding common cause and fighting shared ills. The net effect is that in times of unrest, anger is redirected away from an unjust establishment and toward closer and more immediate targets for rage.
    We who grew up experiencing the same kind of language from our parents should be wary of it when we encounter it as adults. The sad thing, though, is that many Asian-Americans -- too many -- not only accept these false terms as factual, they actually embrace the hype. It's a core rationale fueling the drive by some Asian-Americans to strike down race-based affirmative action, for example.
    The fact is, not every Asian-American is Olivia Chang or George Lee. And those who are shouldn't encourage mainstream efforts to turn us into false icons of seamless social integration, not when history has shown how fragile our status as "good Americans" truly is.
    It's worth remembering that the wedge that splits the wood is what ultimately takes the brunt of the blows from the hammer.