Asian Americans, MLK, and the Model Minority Myth
I’m embarrassed to admit it, but growing up Asian American, my appreciation for Martin Luther King, Jr. was based on the fact that his birthday gave me a day off from school rather than his contributions to civil rights. Everytime we celebrated this day and heard countless retellings of his story at school, my respect for him was mixed with feelings of dissonance. I used to ask myself, “African Americans have MLK, Jr., but who do we have?”
During my teens and even into my college years, I bought into the “Model Minority” myth and believed hard work can take you anywhere you want in this country, regardless of your race or ethnicity. Others who did not benefit from the system simply lacked the willpower or ambition. I used to believe that President Obama was proof for this.
But even a cursory reading of Asian American history proves that this is simply not the case for everyone. The exclusionary laws of the late-19th and early-20th centuries severely limited the immigration of Asians and other non-White ethnic groups into our country.
In 1922, Asians were grouped alongside African Americans as people of color and were victims of segregation under a Supreme Court ruling. Until post-WW2, it was assumed that Asians were simply unqualified for U.S. citizenship. By the 1960s, countless riots and lynchings all across the country destroyed not only African American lives, but also Asian Americans lives. To add insult to injury, Vice recently reported that a white sociologist named William Petersen conjectured the “Model Minority” myth (a false narrative many Asian Americans continue to believe in) during the Civil Rights Movement to divide and conquer ethnic minorities and perpetuate White supremacy.
Much has changed since the 1960s. Immigration quotas have been abolished, the segregation of Asian Americans has been outlawed, and systemic racism toward Asian Americans no longer grips the American imagination. But this begs the question, is there an individual(s) that can be credited for the progress Asian Americans benefit from today? Is there an Asian American MLK, Jr.?
During the Civil Rights Movement, many Asian American activist groups were offshoots of the Black Power Movement while prominent figures often supported some form of socialism/Marxism.
But more importantly, the Asian American community lacked a voice that merged a robust Augustinian anthropology of body and soul along with a nonviolent civil disobedience. Indeed, what Asian Americans were really missing in the 1960s was a distinct Asian American Christian voice. Too often, Asian Americans see MLK, Jr. as someone who fought for African American rights, and not as someone who is a part of our legacy too.
Asian Americans Christians are greatly indebted to our African American brothers and sisters for leading the way, for the sacrifices they have made, and for the progress they have accomplished for all minorities. In other words, the benefits all minorities enjoy today are, by and large, the fruit of African American civil rights activism. But this is rarely acknowledged in Asian American communities.
So how can we move forward? How can Asian Americans begin to rightfully honor our African American brothers and sisters? What steps can we take to join them in their continual struggle for justice and equality, not just for African Americans but for all people in America?
Give Honor to Whom Honor is Owed.
The time to recognize the sacrifices the African American community has made for Asian Americans is long overdue. Some Asian Americans have tried, but it is far from the our cultural norm. Some Asian Americans still celebrate national holidays from our mother countries whose histories and languages we barely know, and yet we fail to properly appreciate people like MLK, Jr. in our new home country whose impact on our lives is much more tangible.
We must remember that today’s generation of Asian Americans are able to thrive in this country, not because of willpower or ambition, but because of the path that was paved by the blood and tears of African Americans.
Rejoice With Those Who Rejoice, Weep with Those Who Weep.
Every step of progress made by African American activists benefits all minorities, while every instance of abuse towards the African American community endangers all minorities. Racism takes no exceptions, and neither should our celebration of the progress that’s made by others.
Reject the “Model Minority” Myth.
The “Model Minority” myth seeks to tame Asian Americans and put us in our place. It creates an artificial “us vs. them” mentality that divides minorities and weakens our unified ability to influence society. It actually reinforces “the bamboo ceiling” that prohibits Asian Americans from becoming central arbiters of power in our society.
As reported in the Pacific Standard, the “Model Minority” myth reinforces the discriminatory belief that Asian Americans are only useful as long as our influence on the community is minimal, but the moment our achievements set the standard for White Americans to follow, we are looked upon with disdain.
Start the Conversation With Our Parents’ Generation.
As more and more Asian Americans are waking up to the plight of African Americans in our society, we have also seen the need to respectfully engage our parents’ generation to the social construct that sets an uneven playing field to different people of color. The Letters for Black Lives initiative is just one helpful resource to start that conversation.
The eschatological banquet gives us an image of the unity in diversity that will one day characterize the people of God. In Christ, our brotherhood and sisterhood transcends bloodlines and nations. And yet, our glorified individuality and diversity will contribute to the multiplicity of beauty that is based on Christ’s righteousness.
Therefore, as people who are in union with Christ, Asian American and African American Christians are closer in identity and heritage than with non-believing people of the same color. Therefore, your pain is our pain, your joy is our joy, and your heroes of faith are our heroes of faith. And vice versa.
May our mutual Christ-honoring love and appreciation for one another be the unifying force that finally heals our land from the sin of racism. As the Detective Mike Lowrey once reminded his partner in the movie, Bad Boys, “We ride together, we die together.”