Updated: Dec 31, 2020
Violence and discrimination against Asian Americans has a long and detailed history in our nation. Off the top of my head, I can name the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act, Mark Wahlberg beating a "Vietnam fucking shit" (his words, not mine) in 1988, and most recently, the Sam's Club stabbing of a Burmese family in Midland, Texas in March, 2020 (TSG, 1997). And of course, there are more nuanced examples, like the fetishization of Asian women in cinema and everyday microaggressions at the grocery store.
This isn't to paint Asian Americans as victims, however. According to Jeff Guo of the Washington Post, "Between 1940 and 1970... [n]ot only did [Asian Americans] surpass African Americans in average household earnings, but they also closed the wage gap with whites." In fact, in 2017, white men earned 80 percent on average of what Asian men earned — with black and Hispanic men trailing over 20 percent behind (BLS, 2018). Not to mention, of all racial groups, Asian Americans are most likely to live in metropolitan areas with above-average costs of living, so naturally, Asians in this country must be pretty well off, right?
On the contrary, this problematic perception of Asian Americans has persisted since the Cold War era. Author and historian Ellen Wu explained, "Political leaders, journalists, social scientists — all these people in the public eye — seemed to suddenly be praising Asian Americans as so-called model minorities" (Guo, 2016). To subvert racism and prevent discrimination, minorities have historically attempted to portray themselves as law-abiding, assimilated citizens. Take Japanese Americans during and after World War II, for example. In a time of internment camps, many young Japanese American men went on to prove their patriotism by joining the war effort. And as a first-generation American, I myself can attest to my parents' efforts to seem as friendly and American as possible to our neighbors and even strangers, from hanging a flag by our front step to scoffing at the broken English of newer immigrants from their same country.
This isn't to force us back into that model minority myth, however. Politicians (especially those right-leaning) have notoriously pointed to these statistics to dispel accusations of socioeconomic disparity and privilege and to shake fingers at "under-achieving" racial groups (blacks and Hispanics). As Guo explains, while the Asian American advantage might be due to higher schooling, this perceived privilege lacks meaning when taking into account patterns of living. Because Asian Americans are historically newer immigrants, they tend to cluster in coastal and metropolitan areas where the cost of living is higher, which actually negates those higher earnings. Having adjusted for this disparity, Guo found that median household incomes were basically on par with whites.
What bothers me most about Guo's findings (and those of other researchers) is the generalization of "Asian American," which is in no fault to these authors or researchers themselves. The phrase, which originated only some fifty-odd years ago, encompasses an enormous group of people — in terms of both number and diversity. East, Southeast, and South Asians vary so starkly in terms of culture and legacy, and the term "Asian" even conjures up a very different image in the American versus the British mind. Most significantly, Asian ethnicities have immigrated to the U.S. at varying points in history and for different reasons, which can not be discounted when discussing socioeconomic achievement. While one group may have fled a war as refugees, others may have come seeking economic opportunity. When such vast differences exist under the umbrella term of "Asian American," just how shaky do the grounds for these reports and statistics become?
Southeast Asian underperformance, for example, has commonly been overlooked because of that term and its 'model minority' connotations. With the exception of Vietnamese Americans, the 2000 U.S. Census revealed that the proportions of Southeast Asians ages 25 and up with bachelor's degrees were actually lower than that of blacks and Hispanics. This deficit can be attributed to structural barriers of living in immigrant households (ie. low income and discrimination) and cultural legacies of emigration due to war. Though, ironically enough, the proportion of Vietnamese Americans more closely resembled that of East Asian American counterparts.
As Malcolm Gladwell explains in his 2008 novel Outliers, there's actually a substantial explanation behind the stereotype that "all Asians are good at math." Gladwell attributes this to mono-syllabic counting systems, which are common in many Asian languages and allow children to learn arithmetic more efficiently. This isn't the only advantage of being "Asian," however. While European crops, for example, were susceptible to wind and weather, the cornerstone of East Asian cuisine (rice!) thrived based on the farmer himself and his decision to get up early every morning — success of his crop wasn't left up to fate. This very philosophy is reflected in Confucian sayings and left a very useful cultural legacy for these particular ethnic groups to thrive when forced to rebuild their lives in a foreign country.
Sure, the perks of being Asian American, and more specifically, East Asian American, might not be real in the way some right-wing politician may allege, but in many ways they are: subtly, historically, and definitely in the rhetoric that pits us against other minorities. We may be confined to stereotypes and affected by our immigrant legacies, but how do these limitations shape up to those of other groups? As important as it is for Asian Americans to defeat the barriers of race, it's time we recognize how we may benefit from that same thing,
Commonwealth v. Wahlberg. 070183, 6. (Superior Court Dept 1988). Retrieved May 18, 2020, from http://www.thesmokinggun.com/file/back-day-marky-marks-rap-sheet-0?page=5.
Guo, J. (2016, Dec 29). The Asian American ‘advantage’ that is actually an illusion. The Washington Post. Retrieve May 18, 2020 from
Guo, J. The real reasons the U.S. became less racist toward Asian Americans. The Washington Post. Retrieved May 18, 2020 from
Kim, R. (2016, Dec 12). Ethnic Differences in Academic Achievement Between Vietnamese and Cambodian Children: Cultural and Structural Explanations. Taylor & Francis Online. Retrieve May 18, 2020 from
U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. (2018, August 29). Asian women and men earned more than their White, Black, and Hispanic counterparts in 2017. Retrieved May 18, 2020 from