Asian American racial justice protestors in New York City in 2014, focussing on two people in the foreground holding up cardboard signs that read "minorities must stand together #solidarity" and "Asian silence = Asian consent #solidarity", challenging the model minority myth
Knowledge

From Yellow Peril to Model Minority: Asians Resist!

I’ve handed back my ‘model minority’ card.

I once believed that keeping my head down and focusing on academic and professional achievements could secure me comfort and stability.

While I pursued this single-minded goal, Black and Indigenous people were being murdered in the streets of my neighborhood.

How could I stay quiet and play nice while I bear witness to these “times of explicit racial violence”?

The model minority myth is the belief that Asian people as a group are hardworking, law-abiding, academically high-achieving, and docile individuals predisposed to socioeconomic success than other people of color.

This stereotype may appear complimentary to Asians but is in fact designed to put down other communities of color and suppress and deny our sustained struggles for social justice.

The model minority myth also places tremendous pressure on Asian Americans/Canadians/Britons/Australians to succeed academically and professionally that can have a damaging effect on our health and wellbeing.

A busy street with multiple people walking across the foreground, focused on an Asian woman in a beige trenchcoat leaning against the wall checking her phone, representing the pervasive construction of Asians within the model minority myth
Photograph by Bohdan Maylove

Another danger with the model minority myth is that it sells the illusion to Asians that if only we’re well-behaved enough, we’ll be accepted into white society and share in equal opportunities and power. This promise tries to keep us in line and complicit with anti–Black and Indigenous oppression.

In this post, I’ll recount the history of Asian immigration, sharing some examples from the United States, Australia, and Canada to trace how Asians were initially constructed very differently from the model minority — derided instead as the ‘yellow peril’.

After decades where we were banned from citizenship and migration through racist immigration laws, governments finally allowed very controlled numbers of middle-class professionals to re-enter the West. The birth of the ‘model minority’ stereotype here was deliberately crafted to drive a wedge between cross-racial solidarity among communities of color.

To bust the model minority myth means that we must hold firm to our collective histories of resistance. More importantly, we need to reject assimilation into white culture and commit to fighting with, uplifting, and loving Black and Indigenous folx.

History of Asian Immigration

The histories of Asian immigration in Australia and the United States are quite similar. Many of the earliest migrants arrived from China in the 1850s during the gold rush after the Opium Wars with Britain devastated Chinese people and the country’s economy. In the late 1850s, some Chinese gold prospectors left the Fraser River Valley in San Francisco and settled in Canada.

Most of the early Chinese immigrants came from rural areas in southern China around the Pearl Delta region. They labored under brutal and dangerous conditions first as miners and then later as railroad builders.

They faced intense racial hostility from all levels of society. White workers were threatened by the competition they posed from who they considered an inferior race. Violent anti-Chinese riots regularly claimed migrant lives.

Yellow Peril

In the late 19th Century, Asian migrants became known as the ‘yellow peril’ (also referred to as the yellow torrent or tide, the yellow hordes, and the yellow agony). These terms reflected anxieties from the white population of Asian migrants as a ‘debased race’ that threatened both white jobs and white racial purity.

Their anxiety led to the creation of fictitious figures like Fu Manchu, the iconic Chinese villain that crossed literature, film, comics, radio, and television. And yes, that’s Christopher Lee in yellowface in the trailer to The Face of Fu Manchu (1965) below.

The idea of Asian (especially Chinese) people as immoral and corrupt reflected white people’s growing resentment and distrust toward them.

White backlash against Chinese migrants pressured the government to pass laws such as the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882 and the Geary Act of 1892 which extended bans on Chinese immigration.

The success of these laws also fueled similar movements in the United States to restrict the immigration of other people of color including Japanese, Indian, and Middle Eastern people.

Chinese migrants and their American-born descendants who were already in the United States were denied citizenship until 1943 until America needed to boost national morale during World War II.

In Australia, the Federation of Australia was celebrated with the passing of the Immigration Restriction Act of 1901. This signaled the start of the White Australia policy, which sought to maintain white (specifically Anglo-Celtic) racial dominance.

Canadians had restricted Chinese migration since 1885 through severe taxation. In 1923, they passed The Chinese Immigration Act which effectively banned almost all Chinese migrants from entering Canada.

While images of the yellow peril have largely faded from view from the late 20th Century, the language of pollution and danger is replete around symbols of China, such as the contamination of ‘toxic’ Chinese-imported consumer goods.

In Australia, persistent fears of an invading yellow peril can be seen in public discourses around the rising number of Chinese international students enrolling in local universities and the Chinese investors in the Australian property market.

Of course, the ‘China virus’ and the ‘kung flu’ proved how firmly white nations still held to the yellow peril image. The COVID-19 brought to the fore that Asians will always be held at arm’s length as ‘forever foreign’.

An old sepia photograph showing Chinese migrants walking down the street underneath lanterns, highlighting the rich history of Chinese migration to Western countries
San Francisco (circa 1896–1911) courtesy of the Library of Congress

The Model Minority Myth

Immigration laws finally began to loosen from late 1943 in the United States, when the government allowed 105 Chinese migrants to arrive per year.

Canada was forced to repeal their immigration restrictions four years later when they signed the United Nations’ Charter of Human Rights. The Canadian Chinese Exclusion Act contravened the UN Charter.

The White Australia policy wouldn’t be renounced until 1973.

As these three countries shifted towards multicultural national identities, the hostility towards Asian people also evolved into more subtle and covert forms.

The dominant myth now of Asian migrants is that of the ‘model minority’.

In the United States, Asian migrants are typically regarded as middle-class high-achievers predisposed to academic and professional success.

Race scholars such as Sumi Cho have challenged this ostensibly complimentary construction, exposing the ways the model minority myth is cited by political leaders to delegitimize the social movements of primarily Black and Latino social justice activists.

The mythologized successes of Asian Americans are cited by politicians as the ‘proof’ that racial barriers are non-existent while pitting the different communities of color against one another.

Whites love us because we’re not black.

Frank Chin, cited in Robert G. Lee (2010)

In countries like Australia and the United Kingdom, the model minority stereotype more commonly constructs Asian people as introverted ‘nerds’ who may have some technical capabilities (e.g., as accountants, bankers, and takeaway restaurant owners), but devoid of individuality and incapable of creativity or innovation.

So-called compliments of our technical skill, diligence, or work ethic often serve to paint Asian people as a homogenous horde set on the steady yet sterile pursuit of material wealth.

This clip from Adam Ruins Everything below summarizes how the model minority myth developed in the United States and why it hurts both Asian Americans and other people of color.

My Story

In This Bridge Called My Back, Mitsuye Yamada contributed an unforgettable essay called ‘Invisibility is an unnatural disaster’.

She shares the reaction from her white students and colleagues when they’re confronted with Asian Americans’ anger towards racial injustice. She quotes one of her students after their class read an anthology called Aiiieeeee! by Asian American writers:

It made me angry. Their anger made me angry, because I didn’t even know the Asian Americans felt oppressed. I didn’t expect their anger.

When Yamada filed a grievance at her work, her colleagues were as annoyed and perplexed as her student. She writes:

They all seemed to exclaim, “We don’t understand this; this is so uncharacteristic of her; she seemed such a nice person, so polite, so obedient, so non-troublemaking.”

I’ve also felt as though many of the privileges I initially enjoyed in my career were granted because the people in power assumed that as an Asian woman, I would be grateful, deferent, and obedient. I was recruited, promoted, and invited into privileged spaces because I was assumed to be non-threatening.

Early in my career while most of my journal articles were still ‘in the pipeline’, under review for publication, my presence could be more easily tolerated.

When I researched gender equality, this could be accepted in academia because many readers interpreted my work as being about advocating for elite white women leaders. Elite white women could then imagine me as a sidekick, someone whose sole purpose was to serve them and their power.

As I began publishing my anti-racist critiques, some people who had deemed themselves my friends, mentors, and advocates saw my writings as a betrayal. That perceived betrayal was not due to any direct harm I caused with my actions, but that simply my role as an anti-racist scholar contravened their ‘model minority’ fantasies of me as a docile servant.

Like Yamada, they couldn’t understand why I was angry about racism. Why I had seemingly stopped being polite, obedient, and nice.

Related: 5 Must-Read Intersectional Feminist Books for Beginners

Busting the Model Minority Myth

Over the years as more and more migrants from all across Asia settled in countries like the United States, Australia, and Canada, Asian migrants realized that they could be stronger when they stood together.

Spurred by the Black Liberation Movement, “Asian American” became a self-claimed identity label to inspire the diverse Asian diaspora to organize around a common political identity during the 1960s.

This was and remains a challenging process because “Asia” spans an enormous range of ethnicities, languages, cultures, and religions and have had their own histories of colonial and political struggles.

From an intersectional perspective, Asian people are also crosscut by power structures such as class, gender, sexuality, and dis/ability. Asian men are subordinated differently from Asian women. Many light-skinned middle-class professional East Asian migrants who were migrated from the 1970s brought along their class prejudices and saw themselves as superior to the multigenerational migrants and refugees.

Jeff Chang, an Asian American activist during this time, shares powerful insights into the formation of Asian American political identity:

There was a time when the term ‘Asian American’ was not merely a demographic category, but a fight you were picking with the world.

Australia in comparison never equaled the United States with Asian Australian racial justice organizing. In many ways, we struggled to develop a shared identity in solidarity with one another. It’s still rather common to see Asian Australians identify via our nationalities such as “Chinese”, “Vietnamese”, or “Korean”.

Yet Asian Australians have far from resigned ourselves to model minority status.

Collectives like the Asian Australian Alliance and Asian Australian Studies Research Network and publications like Peril Magazine prove that the spirit of Asian Australian resistance is very much alive.

COVID-19 highlighted for many of us that subtler stereotypes like the model minority only barely covered the racial resentment that has been simmering since we were considered the yellow peril.

The model minority myth promised many of us that if we would only behave — keep our heads down, work hard, remain deferent — we’ll share in on white power and privilege. Some Asian migrants invest in the project of assimilation to secure their safety and survival.

grace lee boggs asian activist
Photograph by Kyle McDonald

Asian Badasses* throughout History

Rather than accept white fantasies of the model minority, we can dismantle this myth by looking towards actual Asian people in our society and our struggles for social justice.

Asian people have always fought for our rights. Chinese gold miners who faced continual assaults and harassment from the locals organized, shared information and resources, petitioned local authorities — and when that failed, protested.

In 1975, a young Chinese man called Peter Yew living in New York City’s Chinatown tried to intervene when he witnessed a police officer brutally beating a 15-year-old. As a result, he was beaten himself on the spot, taken back to the police station, beaten and arrested on charges of resisting arrest.

That May, Chinatown rallied together to protest Peter Yew’s treatment. Shops and factories closed down for a day with signs in windows reading, “Closed to protest police brutality”.

Around 15,000 citizens took to the streets and rallied outside the New York City Supreme Court.

In the United States, there are examples like Ela Bhatt, Channapha Khamvongsa, Grace Lee Boggs, Patsy Mink, Yuri Kochiyama, and Helen Zia whose resistance we should know.

Writers like Erin Chew (founder of the Asian Australian Alliance) and scholar-activists like Tseen Khoo (founder of the Asian Australian Studies Research Network) offer important commentary on race relations in Australia. Artists like William Yang tell important stories about cultural identity and gay liberation in Australia.

* I appreciate that “badass” is a problematic term that reproduces the glorification of violence and domination. In this case, I deploy it as a way to counteract the model minority myth where Asians (and other people of color) are appropriated and stereotyped as passive, obedient, and docile.

yuri kochiyama asian activist
Illustration of Yuri Kochiyama by Dignidad Rebelde

Conclusion

It seems outwardly complimentary at first. The model minority stereotype constructs Asian migrants as respectable and hardworking professionals.

For many of us, being treated as the model minority felt like social acceptance. Some of us took it as a personal responsibility to assimilate into white culture in hopes of finding equal opportunity and success.

The rise of anti-Asian hostility during COVID-19 shows that racial resentment and disgust towards Asian people were always simmering beneath the surface.

This post has explored how the ‘model minority’ is a pernicious and problematic myth designed to deride racial justice movements and drive a wedge between cross-racial solidarity among people of color.

Not too far back in history, Asian migrants were subjected to brutal acts of exclusion, suppression, and violence. The model minority myth erases this vital history as well as the people who resisted the injustice.

To bust the model minority myth, I’ve celebrated the memories and legacies of Asian American and Asian Australian activists. The few names listed here barely scratch the surface and I invite you to follow your own rabbit holes of research and share with me the people who you think I should feature here.

For those of you who, like me, identify as Asian, I hope the stories of our collective activism throughout history in this post inspired you to reconnect with your politics.

Learn More

My friend, Dr Mei-fen Kuo, is one of the leading historians of Chinese migration in Australia. Her accomplished book, Making Chinese Australia: Urban Elites, Newspapers and the Formation of Chinese-Australian Identity, 1892–1912, explores the lives of Chinese migrants during the bitter start of the White Australia policy.

Shawn Wong, Frank Chin, Jeffery Paul Chan, and Lawson Fusao Inada (2019) Aiiieeeee!: An Anthology of Asian American Writers (3rd ed.)

Lynn Fujiwara and Shireen Roshanravan (2018) Asian American Feminisms and Women of Color Politics

Tseen-ling Khoo (2003) Banana Bending: Asian-Australian and Asian-Canadian Literatures

Madeline Y. Hsu (2017) The Good Immigrants: How the Yellow Peril Became the Model Minority

Karen L. Ishizuka (2018) Serve the People: Making Asian America in the Long Sixties

Featured image by Marcela McGreal

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