IU Professor Describes the Origins of the Asian ‘Model Minority’ in the U.S.

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by Helen Hu

Ellen Wu says Asians in America have gone from being “the yellow peril” to “the model minority.”

Ellen Wu says Asians in America have gone from being “the yellow peril” to “the model minority.”

The story of the Chinese and Japanese in the U.S. is one of ups and downs, ranging from hostility to acceptance.

It’s also a story about a huge shift in image. Over several decades, these Asians have gone from being “the yellow peril” to “the model minority.”

True to the stereotype, many Asians are hard workers, are law-abiding, value family ties and excel at school.

But the “model” image, which Asians have actively fostered themselves, hasn’t always had positive effects.

It may have made Americans see Asians in simplistic ways, says Ellen Wu, author of the recently published book “The Color of Success: Asian Americans and the Origins of the Model Minority.”

But isn’t “model minority” a “good” stereotype?

“I would never say stereotyping is good,” says Wu, an assistant professor of history at Indiana University Bloomington. “In my research and personal observations, Asian Americans have to be honest [about that].”

Wu—a first-generation Chinese whose parents came from Shanghai and Hong Kong—says it’s still unclear whether Asians are accepted as simply Americans or that people see them as diverse individuals that have different cultural views and come from multiple economic levels, ethnic groups and countries.

Wu’s book shows that Asians—her book focuses mostly on Chinese and Japanese—have traveled a long, hard road in the U.S., facing slurs, housing and job discrimination, indigence and the persistent feeling that they had to prove their loyalty.

Historically, the warmth toward Asians or lack thereof has been largely due to relations between the U.S. and their countries of origin. That persists to this day, Wu says.

“Yellow peril and model minority both reflect a kind of fear,” she says.

Wu notes the lesser-known aspects of Asian American history, like the young Japanese men in internment camps during World War II who identified with Blacks and Hispanics.

Wearing “zootsuits,, drinking, gambling and chasing women, they caused fits among their elders and federal officials who wanted Japanese to not just assimilate, but assimilate in the right way—as Whites.

But wariness toward Japanese Americans gradually eased as they joined the war effort. A group called the Japanese American Citizens League, which called for “hyper-patriotism and military service,” Wu says, may have helped things along, but was seen by many Japanese as going overboard.

Chinese Americans had an easier time because China was an ally, but they still had to fight in the courts against immigration restrictions. Madame Chiang Kai-shek’s tour of the U.S. in 1943 was popular, boosting the regard for Chinese in the U.S., and San Francisco’s Chinatown raised thousands of dollars for the Red Cross and U.S. defense bonds and Chinese war relief.

But once the Communists, led by Mao Tse-tung, took over mainland China, Chinese Americans again felt jittery because the U.S. saw communism as the enemy.

Chiang and the Kuomintang—the dominant, corruption-ridden party in China and U.S. ally that was overthrown by the Chinese Communists—were not liked by many Chinese Americans. Those who sympathized with the Communists were harassed and deported.

Looking ahead, could China’s rise as a global force affect how Chinese Americans are regarded?

“Absolutely,” says Wu. As China gains power, “it’s not far-fetched to think there might be some real consequences in the way Chinese Americans are treated.”

Southeast Asians began coming to the U.S. after the Vietnam war. Although they have faced poverty, language barriers and other difficulties, some fear their needs are overshadowed by the model minority image.

During the civil rights era, the image of Asian Americans as a quiet minority that became successful without making waves was used by some politicians and journalists to make African-Americans look bad by comparison, and to denigrate their push for equality. Many Asians were dismayed by this reasoning, saying they never had to endure the atrocities of slavery or the same degree of racial hatred.

“Sources show Asian Americans themselves very much pushed the model minority myth, [but] not necessarily to discredit others,” Wu says. “The kinds of arguments they made were meant to convince Americans they’re not the yellow peril.

“It makes people very uncomfortable to admit that they were complicit in anti-Black politics,” Wu adds. “It’s not necessarily something people are proud of.”

So how can Asian Americans move beyond stereotyping? Wu says they have to get into positions of power and produce “counter-narratives.”

To some degree, Asians themselves have reinforced stereotypes by going into science, engineering, medicine and law—careers seen as lucrative and stable.

But Asians are becoming recognized in Hollywood and sports, says Wu, citing basketball star Jeremy Lin. “He was a turning point.”

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