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The model minority myth

April 7, 2017

This piece represents the opinion of the Bowdoin Orient Editorial Board.

For 22 years, Bowdoin has been celebrating Asian Heritage Week. This month, we’re celebrating Asian Heritage Month, which has doubled the number of programs held at Bowdoin. The month of May is nationally recognized as Asian/Pacific Heritage Month and intends to celebrate the important histories and cultures of diverse Asian communities and Asian American individuals.

This week, Helen Zia, a well-regarded activist and journalist, pointed out the urge to declare racial privilege through one of two lenses: black or white.

During Zia’s talk, she brought up a memory from when she was in high school in the 60s. She was standing outside talking to two of her friends–one black and the other white. At that moment—the crux of historical civil rights activism—they asked her what it was going to be: “So, Helen, are you black or are you white?”

Often, Asian and Asian American students are confronted with questions about their place in racial power structures. Some ask, can I be a person of color if I am a “model minority?” “Do I benefit from privilege that puts me outside of the category of ‘oppressed minority?’” “Can I have white privilege despite historical subjugation at white hands?” Asian people can feel excluded from each group.

These questions weigh more heavily on biracial people, as they can simultaneously benefit from white privilege and face oppression, while still having difficulty identifying as white or Asian.

Asian students are often lumped into the category of white privilege beneficiaries as “model minorities.” Their supposedly “model” status acts as a reference to their socioeconomic status. For example, Asians are often associated with high-paying industries such as engineering or finance, which creates the pervasive, false impression that Asians do not suffer from serious oppression.

Today, Asians are often not acknowledged as a historically marginalized group. However, the history of Asian oppression in the United States is significant. This includes the first racially based immigration ban, the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act, harmful caricatures in media like that in “The Insidious Dr. Fu Manchu,” as Zia mentioned, and political discrimination in the form of Japanese incarceration during WWII, to name just a few. Asians continue to face discrimination on a daily basis in the form of microaggressions, as illustrated in the widely seen photoshoot organized by ASA earlier this year.

Our broader inability to recognize Asian identities is further complicated by the vast umbrella term of “Asian.” Frequently, East Asian identities dominate the conversation, leaving South Asian, Middle Eastern and biracial people feeling excluded or somehow “less Asian.”

Asian Heritage Month offers the opportunity to recognize the full breadth of Asian cultures. It is also an opportunity for Asians and Asian Americans to discuss their experiences and celebrate their achievements. Everyone should engage with Asian Heritage Month, be it through the Origami, Calligraphy and Tea event in the Craft Center, Panda Bear Tales at MacMillan House or the Evening with G Yamazawa, a spoken-word artist.

This editorial represents the majority view of The Bowdoin Orient’s editorial board, which is comprised of Julian Andrews, Harry DiPrinzio, Dakota Griffin, Jenny Ibsen and Meg Robbins.

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