For years, Cayden Mak and the grassroots community groups he works with knew that attacks against vulnerable Asian seniors in Chinatowns across the country were a perennial problem. But he said the model minority myth, a persistent stereotype that paints Asian Americans as inherently successful and problem-free, particularly in contrast to other minority groups, had helped keep the story “from being a big deal before this.”
Mak, executive director of the Asian American organizing group 18 Million Rising, said that the combination of Covid-19 and inflamed tensions around race has finally brought the longstanding issue to the forefront. And after eight people in the Atlanta area, including six Asian women, were killed at three spas, the national conversation has shifted to the unique racism and dangers faced by the Asian American community.
“It’s sad that it’s taken this long and took a global pandemic to get here,” Mak told NBC Asian America. “It’s my hope that now that this conversation can happen out in the open we can start addressing the problem together.”
While some attacks are tied to racial animus, Mak said others are due to cultural stereotypes about Asian Americans that are reinforced in popular culture. “People don’t think Asians will fight back so it’s easy to target people who you don’t think you’ll have consequences for targeting,” said Mak. “The most hard up folks in our communities, like our working-class elders, have been struggling with this for a long time in the shadows.”
Asian Americans of lower socioeconomic status don’t fit the model minority stereotype and are more likely to work in low-wage industries such as restaurants, salons, housekeeping and factories, which can make them more vulnerable. Asian women like the victims of Tuesday’s shootings have historically been susceptible to sexual and physical violence.
Even in America’s most diverse cities, Asian Americans of all backgrounds are on edge, fearful of being verbally harassed, coughed at or spat on, pushed, punched, stabbed or even killed because of the recent surge of racial violence.
Experts believe that the model minority myth has hidden anti-Asian racism for far too long.
“For people to assume we’re OK, that we don’t have any reason to complain, it is frustrating, but it also speaks to the work that needs to be done to really challenge this narrative that’s been built into our society for generations,” said Gregg Orton, national director of the National Council of Asian Pacific Americans, or NCAPA.
Since the onset of the pandemic in the U.S., there were around 3,800 self-reported hate incidents of racism and discrimination against Asian Americans, according to Stop AAPI Hate, a national coalition addressing anti-Asian hate amid Covid-19. Last year, hate crimes against Asian Americans increased by nearly 150 percent according to a recent report.
Officials and politicians are grappling with the current wave of anti-Asian sentiment as new incidents and assaults continue to occur. While not every criminal act against an Asian American is a hate crime or even racially motivated, for many, this recent spate of violence feels racialized and all too familiar.
On Jan. 26, President Joe Biden signed a memorandum to combat bias incidents toward Asian Americans. Last month, UCLA’s Asian American Studies Center and Stop AAPI hate received $1.4 million in funding from the state of California to address the impact of Covid-19 on AAPI communities, including research and analysis into reported hate incidents.
“It’s taken a lot of suffering and work, but I think we are at a point in this country where we can’t look away from the way in which our priority as a society has failed the vast majority of the population, including our own people,” Mak said.
By painting millions of Asian Americans with the broad brush of universal success, academics and activists say damage is done to all members of the community, most notably Southeast Asian Americans, Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders, whose struggles and economic realities are often rendered invisible.
“In the mid-20th century, assimilation and integration were seen as solutions to racism,” said Ellen Wu, associate professor of history at Indiana University and the author of “The Color of Success: Asian Americans and the Origins of the Model Minority.”
“That was very much a liberal way of thinking and that in some ways really was a big change for Asian Americans who for decades had been subjected to the Asian exclusion system of laws and treatments that’s very much akin to Jim Crow in the South.”
Wu said Asian Americans themselves were “very much participants” in creating the stereotype, which helped rebrand their communities “from yellow peril to model upstanding citizens.”
Producer and director Renee Tajima-Peña, who received an Oscar nomination for her pivotal film “Who Killed Vincent Chin?,” said that prior to Chin’s murder in 1982, Asian Americans in the Detroit community thought they were achieving the American Dream.
“Asian Americans periodically get that kind of jolt,” Tajima-Peña said. “Japanese Americans being thrown into camps was a real jolt, when Vincent Chin was murdered that was a real jolt. There’s been widespread racial profiling of Chinese Americans in STEM, and 9/11 for South Asians was a wake-up call — and now we’re having another. At some point any of us who find comfort in that myth should learn our lesson.”
Tajima-Peña said that the model minority myth has been weaponized throughout history, particularly against the Black movement for equality and civil rights, and that the harmful stereotype has covered up acts of solidarity between Asians and other people of color, as well as Asian American resistance.
“The model minority myth is a really powerful drug, but like drugs, it’s toxic,” said Tajima-Peña. “It’s based on a lot of fallacy and myth.”
Historically, Asians in the U.S. were scapegoated for illness, disease and economic downturns since Chinese migrants first arrived in the 1800s to build the transcontinental railroad.
“There are definitely echoes of past events, especially how foreign relations and happenings abroad impact the treatment of Asians within the United States,” said Wu.
Groups like NCAPA and 18 Million Rising are trying to combat anti-Asian racism by being part of a broad multiracial coalition fighting for structural change.
“We have models for how to fight and how to do this work and how to take care of each other,” said Mak. “That’s part of what solidarity is about. We don’t have to come up with these solutions ourselves, some of the blueprints are all around us. We just have to know who to ask.”