I have a hard time talking about racism with my mom. I’m sure a lot of us don’t enjoy talking about anything political with older family. It’s often awkward, clunky, rarely productive. I think what upsets me most, though, when I confide in my mother about racist incidents, is that her response is almost always the same. It’s always that I should keep quiet and move on. I need to focus on myself, be hugely successful, and prove them wrong. Because that’s what she did, continues to try and do. And maybe this was how she got through immigrating in the early 90’s, but it’s not how any of us should be forced to deal with racism today.
Last week, former Democratic candidate Andrew Yang wrote an op-ed for The Washington Post titled, “We Asian Americans are not the virus, but we can be part of the cure.” In the piece, Yang admits to feeling, for the first time in a long time, self-conscious of being Asian. He cites the rise in hate crimes and the inflammatory language of saying this is the “Chinese Virus.” But then, he goes on to say that telling people “don’t be racist towards Asians” will not be enough. Instead, he cites how Japanese Americans fought in WWII, despite the internment camps. He calls on Asian Americans to prove our worth:
“We Asian Americans need to embrace and show our American-ness in ways we never have before. We need to step up, help our neighbors, donate gear, vote, wear red white and blue, volunteer, fund aid organizations, and do everything in our power to accelerate the end of this crisis. We should show without a shadow of a doubt that we are Americans who will do our part for our country in this time of need.”
This is, for so many reasons, an extremely destructive message to send out. Too often, the burden of dismantling racist structures is put on the people of color who are most at risk. Specifically, in Asian American communities, opinions like Yang’s reinforce a certain kind of model minority trope. A misguided racist stereotype that Asian Americans manage to “overcome” racism by playing by the rules, ‘working hard.’
If anything’s been made clear by these past few months, it’s that racism against Asian American communities has never truly faded away. As Health Policy Researcher Mathew Lee dissects in his piece on the rising hate, the “model minority” can be flipped into a “yellow peril” at any moment. The model minority myth not only pits people of color against each other, it touts the destructive idea that there is a tangible way of earning enough brownie points to be treated as an equal in a racist system.
Keeping your head down and proving your “American-ness” does nothing to question or dismantle the oppressive systems and rhetoric at play. If I’m being very generous, it’s a band-aid solution at best. Because, sure, maybe if we were all somehow quiet and submissive enough that all racists forgot about us for now, there will always be another crisis where those in power will want a minority to blame. It doesn’t matter how many American flags Asian Americans have up on walls, how much we donate, or help neighbors. It will never be enough for people who refuse to see us as equals, only as the Other. It’s not on us to prove anything.
Asian Americans are being verbally and physically attacked. Hate crimes are projected to continue rising. Chinatown is disappearing. It’s unbelievably disappointing that a mainstream Asian American leader’s advice is to basically just pull ourselves up by our bootstraps. While Yang may think if we’re quiet and submissive, loud only to show blind patriotism, history shows that it will never be enough. Japanese Americans literally fought for a Wartime President that sent Japanese Americans to internment camps, and yet here we are in 2020, once again painted as a dangerous foreign threat.
I hate that Asian businesses are disappearing. I hate that spaces that have been a comfort for me, are struggling to survive these uncertain times and being forced to shut down. Despite what Yang may think, this could not have been prevented by Asian Americans being extra patriotic, or whatever it is Yang thinks we’re lacking in. Being ‘well-behaved’ and submissive only creates more model minority myths, not real progress.
Real progress is never so easy, so neat. It often times means speaking out, making people uncomfortable, dismantling the old systems rather than trying to navigate within them. Asian Americans are donating, helping their communities, funding relief efforts. But it’s because, like everyone else, we want to do whatever we can. We care about our communities, but don’t ever mistake this for some kind of performative patriotism, we have nothing to prove.
If you’re in any place to donate, check out the GoFundMe campaign to save New York’s Chinatown.