I Am Not Your Fucking Model Minority

We must abandon this dangerous and insidious remnant of colonialism.

Photo by Akira Suwa

My father is a naturalized U.S. citizen. He came to this country in 1967 from Nara, Japan. He met and married my mother in 1969, in Florida. Five years later, they gave birth to my older sister.

“Oh, bless your heart! Did you get her from Vietnam?”

My tall, blonde-haired, green-eyed mom would hear this frequently from Southern busy-bodies peering into her stroller to find a tiny infant with black hair and almond-shaped eyes. It’s amazing how a seemingly innocent question, even in a post-Vietnam America, could erase my mother’s biological parentage in just the span of six words:

Did you get her from Vietnam?”

They meant well.

They always do.

Me, aged 3 or 4

I have been called every anti-Asian racist name in the book. Like many of my fellow Asian-Americans, it started on the playground. Nearly 40 years later, I’ve learned to let (most) of that baggage go and none of the racist attacks hurled at me in my life are worthy of re-uttering back into the Universe.

Except one.

When I was 16 or 17, working one of my first summer jobs at a South Jersey mall , I helped an older white man buy his first new pair of jean shorts in a decade. He shared with me about his years of working in construction, how he wanted something nice for himself. Walking to the register with armfuls of denim, he said something that stopped me in my tracks. “Hey, thanks for your help,” he started.

“You Orientals, I’ve always said you’re good people.”

My face grew hot, my ears turning red. I felt in every fiber of my being how wrong his words were, how objectified and fetishized I became in a single breath. I’d been called many things but never “Oriental” before. It felt strange and dated to be referred to in that way. All I could picture were those WWII propaganda cartoons that reduced and dehumanized Japanese people to nothing more than buck-toothed, cross-eyed enemies of the state.

Still gobsmacked, I merely managed a bewildered smile and mumbled a quiet “thank you” as I placed his purchase on the counter.

“You Orientals…”

He meant well.

They always do.

I don’t have the time or emotional bandwidth to care why anyone commits acts of mass murder, because it doesn’t matter: they’re still murderers. But if you murder eight innocent people — six of whom just happen to be AAPI—do not try to tell me this isn’t about race.

(I also have no time for your “I don’t see color” bullshit, either. Because no matter what a murderer says or doesn’t say about why they murdered someone else, I guarantee you he absolutely saw the color of the faces of the eight terrified people whose lives he stole.)

I challenge anyone to look at this list of victims, to remember and honor these lives lost and tell me this isn’t about race: Daoyou Feng, Delaina Ashley Yaun Gonzalez, Hyun J. Grant, Suncha Kim, Paul Andre Michels, Soon C. Park, Xiaojie Tan, and Yong A. Yue.

I do not care about why he murdered who he murdered. What I do care about are the consequences of his choices, irrespective of reason — and that we live at a time when things like this have been enabled to happen thanks to hundreds of years of systemic white supremacy.

Let’s talk about what it really means to be an Asian-American growing up with the myth of the “model minority.” For starters:

I am not a fucking “model minority.” I’m a human being.

I have value and worth. I deserve compassion, dignity, and kindness.

The American cultural mythos of the “model minority” is toxic, insidious, and rampant. It perpetuates racial injustice that harms every member of the Asian-American community, even though most who use it “mean well.” The inherent othering baked into the term — when paired with the unspoken comparative to which “model” a “minority” must strive to be more like — is deeply rooted in Whiteness and structures of white supremacy.

I am tired of being othered.

I’m tired of the xenophobia centered within the concept of the “model minority,” what drives all those well-meaning Southern ladies who just want to know where that white lady really got that little Asian baby from. Because the reality of a white woman marrying a Japanese man and bearing his children was apparently too much for them to comprehend or accept.

I’m tired of being asked, “Where are you from?” and “New Jersey” is not a satisfactory-enough answer.

My college graduation at The College of New Jersey (2004)

“No but like, where are you really from?” they usually ask me.

“Um, Voorhees? I mean, that’s where I was born,” I usually reply.

They press on: “No, but like, what are you?”

I’ve lost count how many times I’ve been asked that question in my life, answered it, and thought that entire exchange was perfectly acceptable. This is white supremacy and colonialism at its most insidious: in innocent pleasantries directed at Asian-Americans that are neither innocent nor pleasant. It’s always about the ulterior implication that I might be a secret foreigner who doesn’t belong here.

Worse, it’s that last question that’s always bothered me most: being asked “what” I am — not who I am — like I’m some kind of biracial mongrel who must prove her pedigree to their prying questions. I realize now (at nearly 40 years old) that every time I’ve had this interaction, I have allowed people to dehumanize me to satiate their own curiosity, rooted in white supremacist values, intentional or not — and I’ve let it happen over and over and over.

Because I’m Asian and that’s what polite Asian girls do.

Lately, I’ve been thinking about a Japanese proverb I’ve heard used in many contexts:

“The nail that sticks out gets hammered down.”

(It explains a lot about the stress I’ve probably caused my dad growing up, because boy howdy—have I been one sticky nail.)

I think about victim-blaming narratives in the media: Why hasn’t the AAPI community been more vocal? Why haven’t we stood up for ourselves more?

Photo by David Longstreath via AP (May 2, 1992)

If you have to ask those questions, you haven’t been paying attention.

We are. We have.

Consider that as we still grieve, mourn, and process the racist murders of our Asian sisters in Atlanta, we have some historical PTSD around Japanese-American internment camps we’re still working through. We have generational PTSD from the Chinese Exclusion Act we’re still grappling with more than a century later. The trauma from the 1992 Los Angeles riots, when Korean-Americans banded together to protect their homes and livelihoods, is still fresh. We’ve been dealing with all of this, even before rising violence against Asian-Americans in the last year.

All of this has been brought to you by The Model Minority™ with generous support from Colonialism© funded and fueled by White Supremacy®.

All of this has happened — and will continue to happen if we do nothing — because generations of people, Asian-Americans included — have bought into this warped logic that decisions to other, dehumanize, and exclude Asian-Americans in the name of propping up a “model minority” have always been for the greater good of the white majority. It was never about raising us up.

The Model Minority has always been a tool to subjugate.

But they meant well.

They always do.

Keiko Zoll is a mom, aspiring public servant, non-profit communications professional, and consumer startup co-founder. Follow her on Medium, Twitter, and LinkedIn.

Storytelling for social good: Humanize. Ignite. Persist.

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