The Remodel Minority Series: An Interview with Dr. Sarah-SoonLing Blackburn (Part 2)

This virtual live interview was conducted on December 10, 2022, by Sahasra Tummala and Sreeja Surisetti with Dr. Sarah-SoonLing Blackburn and transcribed by Sreeja Surisetti.

Sreeja Surisetti: From an educator’s perspective, how do you believe other educators could help combat the model minority myth in educational settings?

There are a few things. One, I think we as educators have to know what’s happening to begin. So I’ve heard from a lot of teachers that they don’t know much about these particular stereotypes because they didn’t learn about them in school. If I ask somebody, “What did you learn about Asian History or the immigration system when you were in school?”, most people say “not much, very little at all”. And so if you don’t have much knowledge, all you have left are the things you see in the media, movies, and TV. Until very recently, the vast majority of those things just replicated those stereotypes. How many Asian or South Asian doctors or IT professionals do you see when you turn on the TV? Those are the primary things that you are seeing.

So if you don’t have more complex examples, that’s going to be in your mind as the truth for everyone in that group. Educators need to recognize that there are deep historical patterns and reasons that these stereotypes exist and the negative implications of those. One is how that hurts individuals, so this idea of even a good stereotype is still harmful because to be told “All Asians are good at math”, but if you don’t match that narrow little stereotype, that can be personally harmful.

It can be harmful at a group level. To say “all Asians are good at math because some Asian people came from parents recruited for those industries ignores the fact that there are many students who have, for example, a refugee background. So, that kid has a different experience than the high-income family that came on an H-1B visa. Sometimes, educators don’t know that. They are not differentiating between the different needs.

The last thing is that way it affects other kids. So as an educator, it’s our responsibility to serve ALL of our students, and if I say this one group is the best at a certain skill, I’m saying these other groups are not as good at it. I’m creating a racial hierarchy, which can cause me to harm both the kids who are at the top of this false hierarchy and the kids seen as being not as good at that. So, again, in general, when we have these stereotypical views of these students, we don’t understand who they are and what their needs are.

Sahasra Tummala: Accounting for your specialization in how the model minority myth perpetuates anti-Blackness, do you feel the model minority myth also extensively impacts African-American students?

Yeah, a lot of the stereotypes are used against black people. So when people say things like, “Oh, the Asians are so well-behaved. why can’t other groups be like that?” That’s a really negative and harmful stereotype. Or they’re saying that “Oh, the Asians pulled themselves up by their bootstraps, look at how well they’re doing. Other groups just must be lazy.” These are arguments people make which wipe away the fact that maybe this Asian family was brought over from a very high-income place, not the same thing as a reckoning with centuries of enslavement, Jim Crow laws, segregation, and all of these historical issues that black Americans contended with and continue to contend with.

Yet, Asians and black Americans are held up in opposition to each other quite a lot. For example, if you go on Twitter right now, you will see someone saying, “There’s no such thing as racism, look at how good the Asians are doing. Look at how accepted they are. People just need to stop talking about it” That is such a superficial understanding and an almost intentionally obtuse understanding of what is happening because if you scratch beneath the surface, you see one, Asian people have not always been well accepted in this country, more times in this country there have laws restricting Asian people being here than the opposite. Two, comparing one group with a very different story from another group creates a completely false comparison and, at the end of the day, drives a wedge between these groups. So, one of the reasons this model minority myth has been so lasting is how useful it is in justifying other forms of discrimination and racism.

Sahasra Tummala: Do you believe the model minority myth plays a role in disguising events in which laws have restricted Asians in the United States? 

Yeah, I do. The way we think of the model minority myth today is quite new. It has its roots that started in the World War II era, so before that, most Asian people in the United States were Chinese Americans for a whole range of various reasons. For most of our history, we had the Chinese Exclusion Act on the books up until that point. So it started in the 1800s, but not until the 1940s was it repealed. That law explicitly names one entire ethnic group and says that they are excluded. Now, what happened in the 1940s? We get to World War II, and in World War II, one of the people on the other side is Japan since the US is against Japan. The biggest country in Asia that we Americans need to be our allies was China. Well, would China want to be our ally if we had these laws that explicitly exclude Chinese people? If all of our propaganda is anti-Chinese?

So the rhetoric started to change. You see shifts in propaganda right away. You would start to see, “Oh the great upstanding loyal, noble Chinese people! They’re the ones that are going to be our allies.” And from there, you start to get this model minority stereotype to grow and grow and grow. It starts to cover up the prior injustices, the years of violence, and the years of laws that explicitly targeted Asian people, but it also starts to wipe away recent things like the Japanese internment camps, for example. People would say, “Oh yeah, we did that. We incarcerated those Japanese people but look at how good and hard-working they are! They got over it right away! They’re doing fine!” to brush it under the table.

During the Cold War, which happened after World War II, the Soviet Union tried to get global clout and understanding. So, one of the arguments they used was, “look at how racist the United States is. The US talks about how freedom-loving they are but doesn’t think about all of their racial problems. Look at what’s happening with African Americans.” That was a very powerful argument they were making because it was easy to see that the US has had issues with racism in this country.

So again, the model minority myth becomes a very convenient thing to say. Now, the US says, “No, look at how well these Asians are doing! We don’t have any racism!” Throughout history, the model minority myth continued to obscure racism against other groups and Asian people. I think it’s true today too, with the rise of anti-Asian hate with Covid-19. There have been times when it got much media attention, and then it goes right back under the surface. Think about post-September 11th, when the South Asian community was in fear and had a lot of negative attention and attacks. That got national attention for a minute, and then it went right back under the surface again because this model minority idea is so powerful.