Holding an Ontological Mirror Up to The Model Minority
(16 min read)
THE CULTURAL AND POLICE REPRESSION OF ASIAN AMERICAN MEN
“This is the success story of a success story.”
― Ellen Wu, The Color of Success: Asian Americans and the Origins of the Model Minority
The Model Minority role the U.S. government offered to Yellow Men and Women in the late 1960s was a Devil’s Bargain. Previously, Asian Americans were highly visible to the State: witness the passage of People vs. Hall, the Page Act of 1875, the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, Lum v. Rice, the Gentlemen’s Agreement, the Taft-Katsura Agreement, Alien Land Laws (fun fact: the 626 enclave of Chinese-Americans in Los Angeles is centered around Alhambra, where Chinese Americans were first legally allowed to purchase property), the Cable Act, the War Brides Act, the Mixed-Marriage Policy, and so forth and so on. The sheer blunt trauma, police brutality, and structural violence necessary to enforce these codes and strictures on human behavior were part and parcel of their formal codification. After all, the State had one clear explicit aim and purpose: the eradication and ethnic cleansing of the Yellow Race from this country on the grounds of National Security, which it still has not ceased. In 1964, FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover had the entire Chinese American community surveilled and wiretapped under the premise of protecting America from foreign spies while sending FBI agents knocking on every door¹⁹ ― an eerie parallel to current-day FBI Director and Trump appointee Christopher Wray’s claim that all Chinese people pose a “whole-of-society threat” to the U.S. in 2018²⁰ in the midst of a sinophobic trade war.
With the racist aggression and imperialist invasion of our homelands during the Cold War in the 60s, however, American “liberals” needed a way to legitimate their proxy war with the Soviet Union and China on the international stage²¹. They adopted the aegis of Human Rights in order to advance their neo-imperialist agenda with a concurrent “buffing up” of political and civil rights abuses and racial discrimination at home ― particularly of Asian Americans, who were too tiny of a demographic due to restrictive immigration laws to pose a real numerical internal security concern upon the loosening of their racial restrictions. The deal was this: you keep your mouth shut and play your part, and the State, the source of all your woes and injuries and oppression, will close its All-Seeing Eye towards you.
Of course, invisibility to the State brings its own set of problems, now private. The Model Minority Sigil is meant to cloak us all underneath a veil of secrecy (well, except the young women, who remain firmly planted in the white male gaze), in order to protect us from blatant and open discrimination. However, it does nothing to modulate the actual racism of the private sector which the State inculcated in decades past and continues to sow for political reasons. In these realms of civilian and industrial life, where we spend 100% of our time unless we make runs for public office or serve in the security forces, our safety and well-being is also contingent upon us conforming to the racial stereotype: meek, cowardly, subservient, silent, loyal, diligent, asexual, and patriotic. And what are the consequences of such conformity for Asian men?
According to a study done by William & Mary faculty and students in 2015²², “Gendered race in mass media: Invisibility of Asian men and Black women in popular magazines”, it’s total erasure. The researchers examined a series of photos in six popular American magazines and found that Asian men (and Black women) were persistently underrepresented. Joanna Schug, an assistant professor who helped lead the study, said: “The study is the first to show that not only are black women rendered “invisible” in media depictions, but Asian men are, too. I think we’re showing evidence of gender-based stereotypes on a cultural level and not just a psychological level.”
The idea of the study originated from research done on interracial dating and marriage patterns, which found that statistically, black women and Asian men were not generally the “preferred” partner in interracial couplings, no matter the racial combination (according to Schug, “the effect is even more pronounced for Asian and black couples [than Asian-white couples], which are much more likely to be between an Asian woman and a black man” due to gendered stereotypes).
The study also built on previous research conducted by Schug, in which she showed in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology that people (in this case, non-Asian undergraduates) were less likely to remember statements made by Asian men. Our invisibility is not simply visual, but auditory. Furthermore, when asked in another study to write a short story about a typical college senior, participants were more likely to think of an Asian woman when asked to imagine an Asian character (as opposed to a white man when asked to imagine a white character); add mental transparency, too. This is the power of Hegemonic Stereotyping ― a stereotype will endlessly reproduce itself in the minds of citizens in a society unless actively addressed.
Interestingly enough, these results present an unusual inversion of the expected findings of intersectional invisibility theory, which posits that overlapping marginalized identities (for example, ‘Black’ and ‘Woman’) can compound to produce greater invisibility. Asian men, however, are only oppressed along one axis, racially, and yet the results demonstrate that we are actually less visible than our female counterparts. Intersectionality theory alone cannot account for this, which is why we must take gendered racial stereotypes into account.
As Monika Gosin, the other lead researcher in the William & Mary study, says: “Asian American scholarship has pointed out that [Asian men] don’t benefit from male privilege in the same ways as white men because there’s a stereotype that their maleness is not enough. It was always about maintaining a particular power differential, and to do that, not only is race used but sex too.” Many of the stereotypes that people hold manifest themselves through media, and “that’s how a lot of people learn stereotypes.” Of course, the U.S. government refuses to regulate this aspect of corporate media behavior, in essence sanctioning and condoning the symbolic violence it commits towards Asian men as a privatized mechanism of discipline and control. A public “non-agenda” is also an agenda. Silence is complicity.
This cultural erasure, in partnership with marginalization by the State, often has quite negative and pernicious effects, the most notorious of which is the utter disavowal of Asian male merit (dehumanization) in American society, as well as a total blind eye by the public to atrocities committed against us such as the 1871 Chinese Massacre in Los Angeles²³, the largest mass lynching in American history, which almost nobody has heard about. Our abilities and capabilities are useless (we are only good as cogs, and the better we are, the more cog-like we are²⁴); only our resources ― dollars or cultural artefacts ― are worth appropriating:
“In Cheng’s (1996) studies on masculinities in organizations, college students had to select among their classmates people who would serve as leaders for group projects and what values they needed to possess. He found that all the leadership values students were looking for were based on hegemonic masculinity. What naturally followed was the selection of mostly White men to be group leaders followed by White women who emulated masculine behaviors. Of all the racial and gender groups, Asian American men were the least likely to be chosen for leadership positions within their class. Students cited meritocracy to rationalize their decisions. However, when Cheng analyzed all the selected leaders based on merit alone, the Asian American men were more qualified than the students who were selected.”
― Yen Ling Shek, Asian American Masculinity: A Review of the Literature (2007)
What happens if we choose not to conform, but break the stereotypes ingrained into us by Model Minority? Well then, the public exercises its private hegemonic biopower. According to a University of Toronto study²⁵ conducted by Jennifer Berdahl and Ji-A Min, a study demonstrated that participants held descriptive stereotypes of East Asians as being competent, cold, and submissive, while another showed that the most valued expectation of East Asians was that they “stay in their place”. In their main study, Berdahl and Min showed that when East Asians violated these stereotypes by exhibiting leader-like qualities or demonstrating warmth and friendliness, they suffered a backlash from their colleagues at work. Berdahl then went on to state that managers and coworkers should be wary of this tendency against East Asian employees that exhibit leader-like behavior: “The bias lies within observers and it’s ultimately their responsibility.” Of course, but who’s policing them?
This privatization of the policing of Asian Americans to conform to the Model Minority image crops up everywhere, even in sports. According to the Asian American Psychological Association: “Racial/ethnic minorities who break stereotype are more likely to be bullied. Asian American student athletes were more likely to be bullied, whereas sport participation was an insulating factor for White and Black students”²⁶. Of course, my man Jeremy Lin knows this tale all too well²⁷. This private pattern of vigilante “disciplining” of the Asian American individual is how White American civil society neutralizes “abnormal” cultural threats to its Hegemony, without the watchful eye of the State needing to intervene.
What happens if we grow tired of our cultural repression, and demand political action from the State? Well in that case, all bets are off, and we suddenly are once more caught ― naked, vulnerable, and conspicuous ― in the harsh gaze of the dread American Police State. In 1969, at the height of the Yellow Power movement, Alex Hing²⁸, a UC Berkeley dropout, founded the New Red Guard Party. The New Red Guard Party was a radical association of struggling and unemployed young Chinese American men that formed in the pool halls of the San Francisco Chinatown. Alex had long been active in the Sixties Movements, having been involved in local restaurant workers’ unions, African American voter registration drives, and the Southern Poor Peoples’ Campaign. He modeled the New Red Guard Party after the Black Panther Party, as an armed paramilitary Marxist-Leninist-Maoist organization²⁹ engaged in revolutionary struggle.
The New Red Guard Party provided both community service and community support, serving dim sum to Chinatown seniors in lieu of the Black Panthers’ breakfast while also bolstering the Third World Liberation Front Strike at San Francisco State College, which eventually led to the creation of Ethnic Studies. The Red Guards also initiated a successful community petition to save the only tuberculosis testing center in Chinatown and joined a coalition of other leftist movements to promote better education, prevent the destruction of low-cost housing, and oppose American imperialism in Vietnam, while calling for the U.S. government to recognize the People’s Republic of China. For this, Alex was invited to the Black Panther Party-led delegation to Socialist Asia in 1970. He also once punched the Chinese-American writer and playwright Frank Chin in the face for calling him a “minstrel”³⁰.
Unfortunately, since they posed an actual significant domestic security concern, the American government cracked down on this cadre of Yellow comrades with its full monopoly of force, and police repression disbanded the New Guard Party in July of 1971. Despite all the material good they had accomplished, the movement itself had failed, also in no small part due to the refusal of Asian American women and the newly burgeoning Asian American petit bourgeoisie that migrated to this country post-1965 to lend their critical support to their working-class and poor brethren³¹. With the help of both cultural and police brutality, the story of the Model Minority was cemented in place and has reigned supreme in America ever since.
THE RING OF KING GYGES
“Our strategy is to strip the problem of all the flesh until we are left with the naked backbone and no further reduction is possible.”
― Per Bak, How Nature Works: The Science of Self-Organized Criticality
The story of the Model Minority and what happened to the New Red Guard Party raises our next, most pivotal, question: What are Asian American men supposed to do in the midst of this precarious, twilight existence, suspended and hovering as we are between zones of visibility and invisibility? If we conform to the stereotype, we are instantly erased into nothingness by American society, reduced to a mere speck or ant that is only called forth to perform calculations or housework and then dismissed to the ether from which we sprang. If we break free of the stereotype, and dare to band together and demand our equal and human rights from the State, we are quickly and brutally monitored, surveilled, incarcerated, and cracked down on. To be invisible, or not to be ― that is the question.
One helpful guidepost might be the story of Gyges³², King of Lydia. Gyges was a real historical figure, but the story of his rise to power is shrouded in mystery, although all records involve Gyges seizing the throne after killing the previous king, Candaules, and marrying his wife, Nyssia. The most famous account comes from the character of Glaucon from Plato’s Republic³³, who recounts the story of a mythical Ring of Gyges to Socrates, to illustrate the baseness of human nature. In his telling, Gyges was a shepherd who lived in Lydia, which is now a part of modern-day Turkey. One day, there was an earthquake while Gyges was out tending the fields, and he saw that a cave had been opened up in a rock face. When he went to explore this wondrous cave, he stumbled upon an old throne with a giant skeleton, wearing a golden ring on its finger. When he pried the ring loose and tried it on, he found that it made him invisible. The next time he was called to the palace of King Candaules to give a report about his sheep, Gyges put the ring on, seduced the queen, killed the king, and took control of the palace.
Gyges sneaking around incognito
It is interesting to note here that in Glaucon’s tale, invisibility ― the ability to move around the World incognito ― is actually a superpower. In fact, it’s the Ultimate Power. The ability to wreak one’s Will across the World, free of constraint and material consequences, is a Siren Song of Temptation that will inevitably lead to Men becoming unjust (at least, in his interpretation). In his rebuttal, Socrates argued that the truly just man is not a slave to his passions, and that the endless opportunities for criminal and coercive behavior offered by the ring would not sway him from his principles. While this may sometimes be the case, recent research shows Glaucon is more likely right ― power has been demonstrably shown to cause brain damage, most notably a loss of empathy for others due to an inability to “mirror” them psychologically³⁴. Experiments have shown that powerful people fare worse at identifying what someone in a picture is feeling or guessing how a colleague might interpret their remarks, which explains the ridiculous display of the oligarchic attendees of the World Economic Forum in Davos crawling around on their hands and knees in 2017³⁵ to mentally “simulate” the experiences of refugees, in order to stir feeling in their cold, rotten hearts for us mere unwashed masses and peasants.
Unfortunately, our invisibility is not absolute, but conditional. The temptation it offers is not Absolute Power, but rather complicity with Absolute Power, meted out on an allotment basis ― Tokenism. This has always been the case for Asians in America. After the passage of the Page Act slowed the immigration of Asian women to America to virtually nothing, the U.S. government neglected to pass anti-miscegenation statutes specifically for “Orientals” in certain states, mostly because their populations were negligible. In order to circumvent their institutional emasculation, Asian men would often try to run across state lines in order to get married. For example, after the Emancipation Proclamation, many Chinese Americans immigrated to Southern states to work on plantations. In 1880, the tenth U.S. Census of Louisiana counted 57% of interracial marriages between Chinese Americans in their state to be with African American women, and 43% to be with European American women³⁶. As long as there’s not “too many” of us, we’re allowed to subsist on the margins, like the Asian children that used to attend White public schools in singles and doubles, until little nine-year-old Chinese American Martha Lum got caught, and Lum v. Rice settled the matter that Asians were collectively to be kept separate and unequal in education, along with Black Americans.
What does subsistence mean? Well, forget about the poor and Brown Asians. Those don’t exist in the American Imaginary, despite their very real existences in the subway stations of New York City³⁷ and in the inner-city ghettos of Southern California³⁸. If, however, you are a petit bourgeois scion of the waves of Asian professional immigration ushered in by the 1965 Hart-Cellar Act, you have a choice to consider. As a “productive”, “normal” member of American Society ― in fact, the most productive, most normal, model liberal bourgeois citizen ― you are afforded a certain measure of social security, as long as you exist within the acceptable confines of certain industry fields and niches: engineering, healthcare, law, and accounting.
The price you pay for this is utter conformity to the racial stereotype ― to never behave in ways that threaten either White cultural Hegemony or White political Supremacy; to help White society reproduce their domination over the Asian American community and other disenfranchised groups through promulgating anti-Asian, anti-Black, anti-gay, and other assorted hierarchy-reinforcing stereotypes; and to either be the meek, docile nerd ― congenitally incapable of neither rage nor erotic passion ― or represent yourself as a loud, macho “exception” that proves the rule. Hell, they may even let you fuck a white girl if you play the part well enough, the dream of every sexually repressed middle-class Asian man who harbors the unjust revenge fantasies of the lustful and ambitious Gyges.
Glenn from The Walking Dead: living the Model Minority dream with his Princess Peach, until he gets his head bashed in with a baseball bat like Vincent Chin
Of course, chasing this elusive token status en masse has been a total and abysmal failure, as chronicled by Kevin Hsu for the Asian American Law Journal at Berkeley Law in his 2007 article “Empowerment, Discrimination, and the Façade of Leadership: Asian American Political Elites’ Failed Assimilationist Strategy”³⁹. The only ones who seem to be getting ahead at all are select Asian women with White men — a tale as old as the War Brides Act and the Mixed-Marriage Policy during Japanese American internment, and as recent as the Joy Luck Club, the entire cast of Crazy Rich Asians, and Jenny Han’s To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before, which is busily reproducing White cultural hegemonic domination as we speak⁴⁰. That means Asian male investment bankers and doctors, lawyers and engineering whiz kids, who all dream of flipping up their collars on their boats one day with champagne, escorts, and “fuck you” money, with a gleaming Benz or BMW in the driveway of their suburban manse and an Irish Stepford Wife at home, have very little to hope and wish for, because the day they metaphysically “make it” isn’t ever coming — since everything has been set up for us to never truly “make it”. Recall that the most cherished expectation of White Americans for East Asians in particular is that we “stay in our place”, and they have both the tools of symbolic hegemony and the security apparatuses of the Police State to enforce it (which they do, constantly).
This requires a radical change in strategy. Perhaps, rather than leaning into the invisibility of the Ring of Gyges, the Temptation of Sin, like Sauron in Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy, we should practice being corporeal, like the good-natured Tom Bombadil, who always stays true to form even when wearing the Ring. In 2015, the U.S. ambassador to South Korea, Mark Lippert, was stabbed in the face and hands multiple times with a kitchen knife by anti-imperialist South Korean activist Kim Ki-Jong, who wanted to protest recent joint U.S.-South Korean military exercises⁴¹. “No War! The two Koreas should be unified!” Kim shouted as he slashed. The drills are an ongoing source of tensions with the North, and unpopular with many in the South, with demonstrations regularly staged against them. Recall that the Pentagon has openly admitted they do not want to see peace in the Korean peninsula because it would impede American imperial ambitions to dominate China and Asia. As the New York Times put it in 2018: “For some American officials, the troop presence in South Korea is not just a deterrent towards North Korea. It also helps the United States maintain a military footprint in Asia and a grand strategy of American” — White Supremacist — “Hegemony”⁴²
Kim, who had previously thrown a rock at the Japanese ambassador in 2010, obviously became extremely embodied and visible to the State through his actions, which landed him in a jail cell for 12 years in South Korea. Yet he was only a sign of things to come. Fueled by the election of President Donald J. Trump, and the increasingly belligerent and bellicose turn in U.S. relations with the Korean Peninsula, a rising tide of anti-U.S. sentiment, particularly in regard to its meddling in Korean affairs, is cresting. In July and October of 2018⁴³, the statue of General Douglas MacArthur in Incheon was set on fire, with protestors calling for the immediate withdrawal of all U.S. forces in South Korea and for peaceful reunification. “Demolish the idols of the occupying forces! Denuclearize the World! Banish the U.S. Army!” The 61-year-old pastor who set it alight is currently in police custody, another visible casualty of the State.
Such spontaneous outbursts of direct action tear the relatively translucent Band-Aid of the Model Minority image off our faces and lay bare our Human Soul to the World — unquenchable in the face of the violent ferocity of the Anglo-American Police State — the World’s Greatest Tyrant – and the incessant mockery of all-powerful White Society. While such spiritual eruptions make us vulnerable to State retribution, they also render us three-dimensional, bestowing upon us that spark of joie de vivre and touch of poetic grace that otherwise is malignantly absent from the inscrutable, barren, subterranean depths of our shadowy, necrotic existence on the inconsequential margins of American society. It is in these small interstitial personal struggles for freedom, these Greek contests of agon, that we confront ourselves in the Mirror and the World and sternly demand an answer to Who am I?
This is the Journey of Self-Discovery: the continuous unearthing of how we react to the World and the brute, empirical facts of its Nature, and how we respond to our earthly place in it through a progressive series of real-world situations and interactions. This is our community’s Bildungsroman. Our character is defined by what we choose to be across all these moments in space-time, those few sparkling instances that dare us — in between the vast, sweeping, empty expanses of monotony and mundanity that characterize the majority of our modern, bureaucratic, quotidian lives — to be more than just “normal”. Do we keep trying to prolong that failed deal with the Devil, the mythical illusion of eventual absorption into Whiteness which paves the road to State-sanctioned community extinction⁴⁴ (either through continuing out-marriage or open government persecution as characterized by the Trump era)? Or do we choose a different path: the Hero’s Journey, and dare to embark on a salvific crusade to change the very Nature of the World despite the enormous personal cost and sacrifice involved?
Written by Albert Joon-Ho Hur
[Edited by J]
- The Republic by Plato