Tang: Though a ‘model minority,’ Asian-Americans still face racism

Tina Tang, Columnist

In early September, American poet Michael Derrick Hudson made headlines when his poem was published in the “Best American Poetry” anthology using an Asian pen name. In his bio for the anthology, Hudson admitted that his poem was rejected 40 times under his real name and only nine times under his pseudonym, causing him to claim, “I’m nothing if not persistent.” This blatant act of yellow-face was made even more offensive by the author’s audacity to take pride in his action. It is as if the literary world’s attempt to include more marginal voices is somehow to blame.

It’s easy to see how Hudson believed it was unfair that Asian-American voices were given more consideration in publishing poems. Asian-Americans are sometimes referred to as a “model minority,” and centuries of oppression and discrimination are often forgotten in the eyes of Americans. In many Americans’ minds, racism is no longer present at a time when Asian Americans have the highest median household income and the highest university degree attainment rate in the nation.

A couple weeks ago, The New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof attempted to attribute Asian Americans’ success in America to Confucian values and its emphasis on education. This assumption is problematic because it overlooks the diverse identities and experiences of Asian Americans. Although some East Asian groups have higher median household incomes than the national average, many Southeast Asian immigrant communities, such as Cambodian-Americans and Hmong-Americans, still live in poverty and struggle to even attain high school diplomas. The lack of data on Asian Americans makes it easier to make this type of assumption and to overlook the myriad of struggles facing Asian-American communities.

Being the “model minority” may mean doing well in school, but Asian-Americans are still a minority. In the workplace, Asian-Americans face the ever-present bamboo ceiling, a barrier similar to the glass ceiling that impedes their advancement in the workplace. Employers often exclude Asian-Americans from executive positions. In 2014, only 10 of the Fortune 500 CEOs were Asian-American.

Most importantly, Asian-Americans and Asian-American issues have been noticeably absent in the political arena. Other than Jeb Bush’s comment on “anchor babies,” the 2016 presidential candidates have barely discussed Asian-American issues. Of the 535 members of the 114th American Congress, only 11 are Asians or Pacific Islanders. These politicians make up 2 percent of the U.S. Congress, whereas Asian-American and Pacific Islanders make up almost 6 percent of the American population.  Perhaps one reason for this lack of representation is that Asian-Americans, especially East Asians, are often told not to “rock the boat” even when they face discrimination and racism.

During my first quarter at Northwestern, I felt incredibly homesick. Despite having attended international schools all my life and being no stranger to American culture, I struggled to adjust to living in a predominantly white society. At first, I would laugh along to comments about my home country in an attempt to fit in, but soon I began to feel funny in the pit of my stomach anytime a classmate made a dig about China. In my frequent Skype calls home, I often asked my mom how I could keep up with my American classmates. “Just keep your head down and work hard,” my mom would respond. “Ignore the comments. You don’t want to stand out.”

But I often wondered at what point I should speak up. At what point does a comment go too far? At what point do Asian-Americans stand up and fight for better representation in business, in politics, in media? At what point do we rock the boat? Asian-American activists have been much more vocal with their demands in recent years, but discrimination and underrepresentation show that there is always more we can do.

Tina Tang is a Weinberg junior. She can be reached at [email protected]. If you would like to respond publicly to this column, send a Letter to the Editor to [email protected].

The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of all staff members of The Daily Northwestern.