Picture an athlete. Now a movie star. And now a politician. You probably pictured a White man. Or a Black or Latino person. I’m guessing you didn’t picture an Asian American. I know I usually don’t. And I’m an Asian-American television writer who thinks up imaginary people for a living. We Asian Americans don’t have many cultural or political figures of national stature. Or, one could argue, any. And though segments of the Asian-American community, particularly South Asians, have enjoyed economic success relative to other minority groups, few Asians overall occupy C-suite corner offices. Politically, culturally, and economically, in the positions that matter, Asian Americans are almost invisible.
There has been no Asian-American Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, or Barack Obama. In California, Arizona, and a host of other states, Cesar Chavez Day is a state holiday. Who’s the national, towering Asian-American figure who would be so honored? Andrew Yang? There’s no Asian Jay-Z or Beyoncé, no Asian Bad Bunny or Selena. We’ve seen for years how Black actors have been underrepresented at the Academy Awards. Meanwhile, there has been one Asian American nominated for best actor: Steven Yeun, this year, for his role in Minari, directed by an Asian-American filmmaker, one of two such nominations for Asian-American directors in history.
The absence of Asian-American cultural and political figures who imprint themselves into America’s collective consciousness means we are viewed as a race of middle managers, destined to provide technical support and financial advice for White and Black and Latino (but usually White) leaders. Yes, there’s one C-suite position in the org chart where nobody is surprised to see an Asian face: chief technology officer. How did we get here, successful economically but without the commensurate social status? How did we go from “model minority” to invisible minority to hunted minority?
Model minority was the patronizing label first used in the 1980s to describe Japanese Americans, but it soon broadened to encompass Asian Americans generally. At first we embraced the label, because it implied recognition of economic and educational achievements. Soon we understood how demeaning it was: We were “model” in that we were pliant, didn’t get uppity or riot. We showed up, did our job for slightly less pay than our White colleagues, and didn’t complain when we were passed over for big jobs. It was a pat on the head by Whites, praising us for our passivity in the face of continuing racism.
But the label also inserted a wedge between Asians and other minorities—as if Asian economic success made irrelevant the dynamics of racism that still, undeniably, affected Asian-American lives. In the protest movements of the 1960s, Asians, African Americans, and Latinos marched and rallied together. Japanese-American Richard Aoki joined the Black Panthers and rose to the rank of field marshal, speaking at rallies with Bobby Seale and Huey Newton. The multi-ethnic Free Speech Movement and Students for a Democratic Society demanded cultural studies programs for each of the ethnic groups whose histories academia had overlooked. But African-American and Asian-American interests, at one point so closely aligned, soon began to diverge, in part because the model minority conceit chipped away at solidarity.
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