Lucy Koh
Washington CNN  — 

Cringeworthy, insulting, obtuse: There are many words that accurately describe Iowa Republican Sen. Chuck Grassley’s remarks on Wednesday to Lucy Koh, a Korean American judicial nominee to the US Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit.

If confirmed, she would be the first Korean American woman to serve as a federal appellate judge, and only the second AAPI woman to serve on the 9th Circuit from California.

Grassley’s comments tapped into a long history of stereotyping Asian Americans.

“What you said about your Korean background reminded me a lot of what my daughter-in-law of 45 years has said: ‘If I’ve learned anything from Korean people, it’s a hard work ethic. And how you can make a lot out of nothing,’ ” the senator said during Koh’s confirmation hearing.

Then, Grassley twisted the knife: “So I congratulate you and your people.”

Hard work ethic. A lot out of nothing. You and your people. Swiftly, Grassley’s comments set off backlash, with many pointing out that the senator had conjured the corrosive, age-old “model minority” myth.

Not only does this timeworn narrative strip Asian Americans of dimension and demographic complexity. It also creates conflict between racial groups and makes invisible the very real exclusion and prejudice that Asian Americans face.

Presumably, Grassley meant no offense with his statements, crass as they were. His “​​intent was to be complimentary, not to insult anyone,” per communications director Taylor Foy, who mentioned that the senator’s daughter-in-law is Korean American.

Still, the at times violent anti-Asian bigotry that’s loomed over the US over the past year and a half has made clear the importance of not flattening the experiences of marginalized communities.

“Even if you think you’re being complimentary, assigning any character trait to an entire community is the definition of prejudice,” Rep. Judy Chu, a California Democrat and chair of the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus, told The Washington Post.

“Treating all members of a group as the same invites mistreatment when one person can be held accountable for the actions of someone else. It may not be the same incitement to violence seen in other slurs, but it is harmful nonetheless,” she added.

Chu was one of several Asian American members of Congress earlier this year who urged their Republican colleagues to tamp down their rhetoric following a spate of attacks on Asian Americans.

Notably, Grassley’s comments were troubling for another reason, too – for the distance they put between Koh and her country.

According to a 2020 study, bias against Asian Americans ballooned after conservative media outlets began latching onto “the Chinese virus” and other stigmatizing terms to characterize the novel coronavirus. What’s more, this language supercharged the belief that Asian Americans are “perpetual foreigners,” an idea that can yield even more discrimination.

In drawing a line around Koh and “her people,” then, Grassley, in his own way, was participating in this narrative. Or put a little bit differently: As Koh sought to continue serving the US, Grassley suggested that, actually, this isn’t her country.