We are a few days away from the end of Asian/Pacific American Heritage Month 2023. In recent years, more corporate attention — and therefore, attention, generally — has been given to this observance. My podcast app recommends shows starring Asian American & Pacific Islander (AAPI) hosts. Retailers of all shapes and sizes highlight brands and products from AAPI creators. Your go-to streaming service curates shows or movies featuring AAPI stories for you to watch during the month of May.
You might think: Wow, look how far we’ve come. The month of May is yet another corporate affirmation of that line from our congregational covenant: We celebrate the beauty of our diversity. May is joining the ranks of February (Black History Month) and March (Women’s History Month) and June (Pride) as society-wide acknowledgements of identity and diversity.
There is value to these celebrations, as commercialized as they are. To me, the value of Asian/Pacific American Heritage Month lies, quite simply, in the confirmation that Asian Americans exist.
You see, it isn’t always clear that we exist.
For generations, white supremacy has made an extraordinary effort to erase the existence of Asian Americans. First it was the scapegoating. Then it was the exclusion and lynchings. More recently, it’s been the model minority myth.
The model minority is a mythical construct dreamed up by sociologist William Peterson in the New York Times, January 1966, in an article that painted a stereotype of the industrious, rule-abiding, family-oriented Asian American, positioning Asian Americans in direct opposition to prevailing stereotypes of Black Americans. It was strategic, and it was intentional — an explicit castigation of Black Power movements of the 1960s: if Asian Americans can rise out of quotas and concentration camps to middle-class success through discipline and self-sufficiency, then Black Americans, you ought to do the same.
The model minority myth is insidious in its racism, rendering invisible those Asian Americans overwhelmed by the burdens of poverty, denying the racialized experiences of Asian Americans, and positioning Asian Americans as a racial threat — all while denigrating other groups of color.
The model minority myth is another manifestation in a long history of white supremacy pitting Asian Americans against Black Americans to uphold white power. These roots run deep. Plantation owners imported Chinese laborers to the American South as a strategy to avoid paying wages to newly-emancipated persons. This year, the Supreme Court will hear a disingenuous high-profile lawsuit led by a white man named Edward Blum who actively recruited Asian Americans to be the face of his efforts to dismantle affirmative action once and for all. In our own community in 2019, we participated in a racialized fight over redistricting in Howard County Public Schools. In the words of the playwright Frank Chin in 1974, “Whites love us because we’re not black.”
The model minority myth of the 1960s declared that Asians are prime for assimilation while Blacks are too outspoken, too militant, too politicized, too radical, to be assimilated into white society; today, the model minority myth views Asian Americans as white-adjacent, honorary whites, thereby erasing the existence of Asian Americans entirely.
This is why in our nice white suburban liberal religious community, I can be told by congregants that I am not a person of color. This is why I hear congregational leaders refer to our all-white staff and leadership. “If only we had more diversity,” they tell me to my face. The unspoken message: you don’t count.
If this congregation is to fully embrace its stated goal of “taking actions that dismantle racism and other oppressions in ourselves, our institutions, and the broader community,” as our Beloved Community resolution says, then cultural appreciation during the month of May is not enough.
I think it’s great that you watched Turning Red and Everything Everywhere All at Once (We have Asian American superheroes now!). It’s cool that your kids love boba and mango sticky rice. I’m glad you had fun at your colleague’s Indian wedding in New Jersey. Your appreciation of an entire continent’s cultural offerings is simply fantastic.
But if we are to dismantle systems of oppression in ourselves and our institutions, then we must first examine ourselves and identify those very systems of oppression that exist around, among, and within us, beginning with the pervasive, insidious influence of the model minority narrative that flourishes in suburbs like Howard County, rendering Asian Americans non-existent and preserving them as merely a construct, an idea, a pawn in the game of white supremacy.
This Asian/Pacific American Heritage Month, we must decide: Will we allow Asian America to exist?