A deadly pandemic is gripping parts of the US. Local health officials are quick to pinpoint the living conditions of Chinatown as a main source of the contagion. Chinese and Chinese Americans are treated as unhygienic and disease-ridden, routinely banned from entering public hospitals, and city officials even propose sending Chinese and Chinese Americans to a detention camp in order to cordon them off from the rest of the public.
However, the year is not 2021. These events took place in San Francisco during the early 1900s as Chinese residents were blamed for the spread of illnesses such as smallpox and bubonic plague throughout the city, because of a fundamental lack of medical knowledge, xenophobia, and racism. Blaming Chinese and Chinese Americans for being vectors of disease is part of a long and sordid history in the US of treating Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders (AAPIs) as foreign and unworthy of police or state protection during times of economic, political, and social upheaval and crisis. For example, to intimidate and exclude South Asian Americans from the workforce of local lumber mills, a mob of 400-500 white men attacked their Asian colleagues, breaking windows, beating people indiscriminately, and forcing hundreds of workers to stay in the basement of City Hall. Known as the 1907 Bellingham, Washington riots, only five men were arrested and were later released. None of the participants in the mob were prosecuted.
AAPIs struggled to obtain full legal rights and protections given fraught relations with the broader American populace and government legislators. This narrative was exacerbated during periods of upheaval and crisis. How does this history coexist with another standing view of AAPIs as “whiz kids” prospering within a meritocratic system through sheer work ethic and grit?
The dual views of AAPIs as the “model minority” and the “perpetual foreigner” are neither opposing or contradictory. They reinforce two fundamental pillars that uphold the existing U.S. racial hierarchy: anti-Blackness and white supremacy.
The model minority myth serves two functions, according to Mike Yepes, MPP ’21:
First, it protects government and societal institutions from accountability for the presence of systemic oppression. It blames the existence of racial inequities on individual behaviors by using other minority groups as ‘evidence’ that success is obtainable no matter what obstacles one faces. Second, it wedges factions amongst people of color by promising some groups proximity to whiteness (i.e., more rights) in exchange for their compliance in marginalizing other people of color, particularly Black people.
The model minority myth serves to inflame tensions between AAPIs and other people of color. Policymakers then use this to justify making cuts to critical social welfare programs – because if AAPIs can “make it” without a government handout, why can’t others? Of course, the model minority myth obscures the fact that the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 privileged immigrants from Asia who had higher socioeconomic and educational attainment relative not only to their country of origin, but also to the native-born US population. For example, more than 90 percent of Indian immigrants to the US come from high or dominant castes.
If the model minority myth serves to categorize AAPIs as “honorary whites” within the American racial hierarchy, the perpetual foreigner motif prevents AAPIs from ever obtaining the privilege of full citizenship and the ease and comfort of simply existing on American soil. Within both historical and present contexts, AAPIs are treated with suspicion and mistrust; AAPIs’ loyalty to the United States is disproportionately questioned, especially during times of war or pandemic. This general atmosphere of xenophobia and racism was perpetuated by the highest office in the land: although President Trump announced a travel ban on China in January 2020 in an attempt to curb the spread of COVID-19, researchers have linked the predominant strain of COVID-19 in New York City to European travelers, who were not initially banned.
The perpetual foreigner motif also manifests itself in the sexual fetishization and exotification of AAPI women. It is not a coincidence that, after the March 16 mass shooting of six AAPI women, some online users were “cracking crude racist jokes about the rampage as a ‘happy ending’ — a reference to the term commonly used to describe a sex act at the end of a massage.” In order to effectively combat anti-AAPI hate, it is necessary to apply an intersectional lens to our current framework and understanding of racial animosity and bigotry towards AAPIs in order to better grasp how AAPI women have become a target for combined racial and gendered attacks and biases.
Given this understanding of how AAPIs are uniquely positioned in the American racial hierarchy, what can we possibly do to move from theory to practice in order to combat anti-AAPI hate? A lot, but it must be carefully done in conjunction and solidarity with ongoing efforts to dismantle anti-Blackness and white supremacy, as these ideologies (and many others) are intertwined and reinforcing. Here is our call to action:
How are we internalizing the model minority myth and propagating anti-Blackness, whether consciously or subconsciously?
- Any calls for an increased police presence in our communities and in BIPOC neighborhoods will not solve the underlying systemic problems that exist. Instead, we should divest from the police and invest in social and supportive services.
- When you, your friends, or your family members make remarks like “we should live here because it’s a good neighborhood and has good schools” – what do you mean by “good”? Is this code for a low percentage of Black and Brown residents?
- We need to build a pan-AAPI identity. Diversity is a strength, but it is not always easy to foster across so many cultures, histories, and lived experiences. For example, AAPIs of East Asian descent should speak up and protest the post-9/11 racial and religious profiling of AAPIs of South Asian descent, and AAPIs who are not of Chinese descent should critique members within their community who use terms such as “kung flu”, or who claim that China created the COVID-19 virus in a lab in order to attack the US.
For non-AAPI identifying folks who want to be allies
- When you witness injustice, speak up, write something, or intervene in a show of solidarity and support – because silence is violence.
- Instead of simply consuming the Western commodification of Asian culture (e.g. K-pop, yoga), reach out and develop meaningful relationships and friendships with Asians and AAPIs.
- Think about ways you may have subconsciously internalized the model minority and perpetual foreigner tropes when it comes to AAPIs. For example, have you avoided dining or shopping in Chinatown because of fears of catching COVID-19?
- Invest time and energy to support the efforts of existing AAPI based social justice organizations and initiatives – click here to learn how.
For the HKS administration
- Support the ongoing efforts of the AAPI Caucus and Equity Coalition to disaggregate AAPI student data by ethnic background. There is widespread socioeconomic disparities across the AAPI ethnicities, and it is difficult for the AAPI community to figure out ways to engage and recruit underrepresented AAPI ethnic groups to apply to and enroll at HKS unless we have disaggregated data.
- Make DPI-385 (Race and Racism in the Making of the United States as a Global Power) a required and semester-long course not just for first-year MPP students, but for all students. The course teaches students about history, public policy, and narrative building, and a course that is longer than two weeks can delve into the intersectionality of race in America with gender, class, sexual orientation, and other social identities.
- Have professors learn the correct pronunciation and names of all students, particularly of BIPOC and AAPI students. When our names are consistently mispronounced or our identities are mistaken, it perpetuates the notion that AAPIs are foreign and the “other”.
- Devise ways to ensure greater racial and gender diversity in the classes, panels, and discussions at HKS that pertain to US foreign policy and Asia, particularly with China. A rhetoric that is consistently anti-Asian can easily morph into fear and hatred for AAPIs.