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The Spectrum: Why I refuse to identify as the ‘model minority’

Henry Cao, Columnist

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This essay is part of The Spectrum, a weekly forum in our Opinion section for marginalized voices to share their perspectives. To submit a piece for The Spectrum or discuss story ideas, please email spectrum@dailynorthwestern.com.

During my formative years, I learned the rules of the game. To succeed in American society, I must reflect the ideals of the white community even though I’m not white. Throughout my childhood I saw my parents, Chinese-American immigrants, struggle to assimilate with American culture, despite arriving in America seven years before I was born.

Institutional racism against Asian Americans has happened for centuries. The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 placed heavy quotas on Chinese immigration, essentially limiting the influx to skilled, male laborers. Just two months after the Pearl Harbor attack, President Roosevelt signed an executive order that relocated all Japanese Americans to internment camps. The problem now is that my community is expected to be silent about social justice, which makes it appear anti-black, anti-Hispanic and makes it harder to portray accurately in the media.

Over time, it dawned on me that unless I made a conscious effort to fight institutional racism toward Asian Americans, I would be seen as a perpetual outsider just like my immigrant parents were. Without a fundamental change in America’s racial consciousness, my process of assimilating into American culture will only end at the grave.

As a Chinese American, I constantly feel the pressure to maintain the status of the “model minority,” defined as a historically marginalized group that has obtained economic success and social acceptance by embodying industrious and conservative values. To deviate from any institution — especially the legal system — will consign an Asian American of East-Asian descent to the realm of “Yellow Peril.” This term claims that East-Asian Americans are perpetual foreigners in America who have inferior cultural practices and hold lower moral and ethical standards. Consequently, many Asian Americans feel pressured to embody the “model minority” stereotype.

Nonetheless, the “model minority” mystique is not a title that I proudly wear; it is a shield used by some members of the white community to deflect criticism of their inadequate treatment of all marginalized groups.

Moreover, Asian Americans are denied fair treatment despite their achievements. Recent developments have exposed the double standards that Asian Americans face. My community is given broad economic rights, evidenced by its relatively high median income. However, it is not treated the same as its white counterpart in the legal arena. The shooting of Akai Gurley by Officer Peter Liang is a recent example of this.

On February 11, 2016, Liang, an Asian-American man, of the New York Police Department was convicted of manslaughter and official misconduct in the shooting of Gurley, a 28-year-old black man. This conviction has been criticized by the Asian-American community for using Liang as a scapegoat for all of the other white officers who were not convicted for shooting unarmed suspects. Liang was found guilty even though white officers Darren Wilson, who killed Michael Brown, and Daniel Pantaleo, who killed Eric Garner were not even indicted. In response, thousands of Asian Americans have stormed the streets in furious protest.

Personally, I am not surprised by the response of the Asian-American community. Many older Asian Americans, including ones who I know, doubt the criminal justice system provides impartial justice for all Americans. My parents shared their reservations against the criminal justice system when I was younger. I did not believe them at the time, but now it is more urgent for me to join my community and face the shortcomings of our institutions. The white community controls a vast majority of the criminal justice system, meaning it bears the sword and the gavel. A single group of people cannot wield so much power. Rather, it must be shared by the people from all identities.

The fact that my parents and countless other Chinese immigrants fled an oppressive regime in China only to confront a new system of oppression in America is a disgrace. Our society needs to judge people by their character, and not by the color of their skin. This is a vision that many white people, such as Abraham Lincoln, and people of color, such as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., have died for. How many more people have to sacrifice themselves in order to elevate restorative justice and healing in America?

I wonder what kind of history my children will inherit. Will they learn that our community finally stood up to unfair societal standards, or will they learn that we remained silently complicit with our role as the “model minority?” I want Americans to know that the “model minority” is being strangled by antipathy toward ourselves. I implore my community to take a serious look at the “model minority” label and take initiative to define its own merits of achievement. This will be a big step toward confronting institutional racism against Asian Americans.

Henry Cao is a Weinberg sophomore. He can be reached at henrycao2018@u.northwestern.edu . If you would like to respond publicly to this column, send a Letter to the Editor to opinion@dailynorthwestern.com.

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