Updated: Sep 1
The Success Frame For Everyone Makes No One Win
By Megan Balani
“Asian Americans are genetically superior to African Americans in school”. This idea is based on the false premise that there are inherent biological differences across races. There is an assumed hierarchy, with white people being on the top, Asian Americans in the middle, and African Americans at the bottom. This hierarchy perpetuates the myth that Asian Americans are a model minority and that African Americans are inferior to them. The model minority myth needs to stop in order to prevent creating more tension and separating Asian Americans from African Americans. We are ignoring the systemic issues that limit minorities from working and receiving proper treatment. This tension started in the 60s, and it continues to exert an influence in my community today by creating different forms of separation.
The main intention of the myth is that the White elites are afraid that the country is becoming too “Black” or “Indian”, and this is viewed as a threat to White power (Helg, 1990). One way to maintain that power is to create a hierarchy of who is considered to be white, and who is not. In Bonilla-Silva’s “The Latin-Americanization of Racial Stratification in the USA”, people are divided into two groups: Honorary Whites, and the Collective Black. Bonilla-Silva claims there are “honorary whites,” a group of East Asian people (Japanese, Korean, Chinese) that are considered honorary due to their lighter skin color, feasibility to travel to Asian countries, and access to similar educations. The other category is the collective Black, including Cambodians and Laotians (Bonilla-Silva, 2002).
Even amongst Asian Americans, there is discrimination towards darker-skinned Asians (Cambodians, Laotians) and African Americans. As an Indian American, I grew up hearing negative stereotypes about dark-skinned people through the media and family. I was told to avoid spending time in the sun to avoid turning dark. Asian Americans are often discouraged from marrying an African American, due to feared stereotypes regarding their lack of education, their lack of family unity, and difficulties in maintaining employment.
This sort of conditioning is not unusual. In 1966, the publication of “Success Story, Japanese American Style” in the New York Times, and “Success of One Minority Group in US” in the News and World Report promoted the idea that racial differences should not be an excuse to achieve success in America. According to Jennifer Lee and Min Zhou in “What is Cultural About Asian American Achievement?”, the claim that Asian people achieved success despite their race shows the white perspective that it falls to personal responsibility for members of each marginalized group to assimilate into the American success frame (Lee and Zhou, 14). This pits Asian Americans against other minority groups, such as African Americans and Latino Americans.
Asian American cultural values are compared to that of African Americans. According to Lee and Zhou, neoconservatives and people in the Asian American community believe that their cultural values cause lower rates of incarceration, delinquency, and teenage births (Lee and Zhou, 10). Living “the right way” eliminates their ability to understand why people from other racial backgrounds receive certain treatment. If someone in the community has a negative view of African American culture as a collective, they have an opportunity to establish their group’s positionality.
The comparison between African Americans and Asian Americans creates a hierarchy that separates those who are able to achieve success within the Asian community and those who are not. Lee and Zhou also claim that their interviewees measured “their achievements against ethnoracial heterogeneous peers, whose educational and occupational outcomes were similar to, or worse than theirs” (Lee and Zhou, 19). If Asian Americans do not fit the success frame created by their parents, putting others down will continue to perpetuate the idea that their way of life is “more correct”.
According to Blumer’s “Race Prejudice as a Sense of Group Position”, one path of assimilation into the white middle class is via selective acculturation and ethnic resources. This is meant to increase ethnic capital (Blumer, 1958). The issue is that certain groups within the Asian American community are able to access resources such as public education; the heterogeneity among the races is overlooked. Asian Americans who are fairer-skinned are separating themselves from those who are darker, such as Cambodians, Hmong, and Laotians (Blumer, 1958). These three ethnicities don’t have the same level of access to ethnic resources in American society (such as education), and therefore they may experience higher poverty levels. Asian Americans with darker skin have the highest levels of poverty in comparison to African Americans.
A common argument is that Asian Americans deserve to be higher on the hierarchy and that African Americans are not going through life correctly. This is the reason why African Americans don’t receive any resources from the government.
According to Lee and Zhou, the idea of Asian Americans being successful receives backing from the scientific community and in the political world. In the political world, US politicians “pointed to individual, familial, and cultural differences and deficiencies among poor African Americans, rather than the gross structural inequalities that produced them”. They also wrote about Asian Americans as the antithesis to poor African Americans (Lee and Zhou, 11). In Bonilla-Silva’s “Racism Without Racists”, he would say this is naturalization, which is a frame that allows whites to explain away racial phenomena by suggesting they are natural occurrences (Bonilla-Silva, 2004). Their argument against African Americans is a way of hiding the structural inequalities that disproportionately affect both the Black and Asian communities.
White society monitors Asian Americans and accepts those with lighter skin and an education and gives them the resources to appear as if they are whiter.
Skin color itself is not the main thing that sets white people apart from non-whites - it is the rights and privileges that protect them, and the resources they receive to create their own lives. Having this mentality of who is allowed to be white was created by white people in order to maintain their “purity” while exploiting other races. This false superiority is continuing to rob even more people of color of the resources they need to survive, such as education. As a result, African Americans are put down because neoconservatives and Asian Americans claim that African American culture shaped their people to be the way they are. By putting Asian Americans on a pedestal, claiming they are superior to African Americans due to their education and ability to assimilate into the mainstream culture, we are ignoring the systemic issues that limit minorities from working and receiving proper treatment.