I’ve often heard – and even thought – that positive stereotypes had no reason to inspire suspicion; after all, while they may be unfairly reductive, no one is really harmed by having their strengths illuminated. For instance, adolescent Asian Americans bearing the identity of high-achieving, hard-working students is only a boon, right? Why would we question the devastating fallout of such innocuous accusations – excuse me – assumptions?
Kevin Cheng, in The Atlantic, explores the conspicuous (now that he’s highlighted it, of course) absence of Asian Americans (by the way, Americans unqualified means white, just so we’re clear on racial norms here) in the present trend of college campus protests. Stigmatized – yes, stigmatized – as “model minorities,” Asian Americans have been conditioned to view racial inequality in this country as not part of their experience; it’s something They have to deal with it, some Other that doesn’t merit their attention or care. Severing potential minority empathy may be by design; while we might presume the stereotype of the overachieving student benefits Asian students (in the eyes of the people they’re trying to please – the authority figures, their parents and professors), it comes at the cost of connection with their peers, the equally marginalized and exploited. In recent times, rather than express solidarity with the plight of their black peers, Asian students avert their eyes, or rather, are taught to never see anything in the first place. Even if they do see, they’ve internalized the Orwellian art of doublethink; they forget injustice and simultaneously forget their intentional forgetting.
The consequences are unsettling, if, of course, we care about the pain of others that comes with our pleasure and privilege: “By stereotyping Asian Americans as apolitical and high-achieving, the model minority myth maintains white supremacy, flattens the diversity of Asian-American identities, and undermines solidarity among marginalized groups.” Like America’s myth of meritocracy, the model minority myth applies only to the already chosen ones, the presently privileged. It functions to sustain the status quo, which means, (a) to make everyone who benefits from it already to defend it vehemently, and (b) to make everyone who suffers under it to accept it fatalistically. The widespread acceptance throughout the ranks of the oppressed is secured by the ranks. That is, a subtle hierarchy emerges (or is carefully formed and maintained) in which people have just enough power and just enough freedom to live with their conditions; if they can exert this power and freedom on others, which means that (a) they aren’t at the bottom, and (b) they have hope of moving up, then the hierarchy feasts on its own bloodthirst through the manipulation of agents in the system. These agents believe that they are in control and will do anything it takes to preserve this illusion.
Ignorance is the finest ingredient for self-preservation. Ignoring your plight means avoiding my own, or so the American individualistic mentality goes. If it’s your problem, that sucks for you, but that probably means it’s not my problem; in fact, it’s likely your problem because it’s not my problem. I can live with that because I never have to think about it. Doublethink again.
Through such self-deception, which we’ve so aggressively normalized it seems, solidarity is impossible. Why aren’t Asian Americans helping African Americans? Why are the unqualified Americans – whites – doing so little? Surely my silence and ignorance aren’t contributing to the pain of others? That’s not part of our mythology. We are victims; we forget that. We victimize; we forget that even more. And in both cases, we forget that we’re forgetting, and we cling to another dream: if I work hard, I can achieve my dreams.
So what do we do then to make our dreams more inclusive? Only when we share a dream will we establish a reality that we’re also willing to share.