Why Asian Americans Don't Attract Sympathy

It’s the perception that matters.

I have had one of those moments of synchronicity. It generated an epiphany about Asian Americans and civil rights. I have a new hypothesis about why Asian Americans have such trouble winning over others to their cause. Here are three experiences related to Asian Americans, over the course of three days: one presented the question; another suggested an answer; and the last offers an example.

The question. An Asian American who likely was subjected to racial profiling (if it wasn’t that, it was pure stupidity) that almost, but did not quite, ruin his career asked me why Asian Americans do not seem to attract the support of others in such situations. Xiaoxing Xi, a respected physicist, was accused of espionage, subjected to prosecution that threatened to put him into prison for the rest of his life, only to have the charges dropped once the government realized it did not have any evidence to support its allegations. As a scientist, he is genuinely perplexed. 

The answer. The next day, I heard a speaker about the Japanese American internment explain her concern about the precedent set by race-based incarceration. Lorraine Bannai has written a book describing the life of Fred Korematsu, a modest, soft-spoken California who challenged the order that he report to “camp” despite having committed no crime, losing before the Supreme Court but being vindicated decades later with overturning of his conviction and awarding of the Presidential Medal of Freedom. She used a phrase to describe the population of less than 125,000 who were associated by ancestry with an enemy nation: “vulnerable minorities.”

Asian Americans are regarded as perpetual foreigners, not equal members of this nation. We also are “model minorities,” exceeding expectations about our station in society.

That is the key. Even those who care very much about social justice are not much moved by Asian American complaints about discrimination. My hypothesis is that Asian Americans are not regarded as “vulnerable minorities.” It’s just the opposite. We are too powerful to bleat about bias.

The conventional analysis is not wrong. The usual response of Asian American activists is that race has been deemed exclusively black and white. That is changing. Demographic trends cannot be denied.

Asian Americans are regarded as perpetual foreigners, not equal members of this nation. We also are “model minorities,” exceeding expectations about our station in society.

Whatever else, however, Asian Americans are not “vulnerable minorities.” We are assumed to be privileged, not poor. It’s the perception that matters.

The truth is Asians are not a minority. In global terms, Asians have been dreaded as the “Yellow Peril” ever since Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany popularized the image of Oriental hordes. On college campuses, Asians — which to the eye includes Asian Americans, Asian immigrants, and foreign nationals — are overrepresented, even a plurality where there is no majority.

The status of average Asian Americans, who include refugees who have fled genocide (in its strictest sense) and communities no better off than other people of color, is confused with the handful of high-profile Asians, the wealthy who can buy luxury real estate and exotic sports cars as investments or for their children. The image of starving Asians, the beneficiaries of charity campaigns, belongs to the forgotten past, even if rural hardship remains very much the lived present.

Americans are anxious. Asians will overtake us. That, not incidentally, raises the awkward problem of who are the “us” when it comes to Asian Americans. White, black, and Hispanic Americans (everyone other than Asian Americans) likely are not comforted if the Asian neighbor who builds the bigger house, right up to the property line, happens to be a naturalized citizen.

A generation ago, it was envy and fear of Japanese. Now, it is distrust and paranoia about Chinese. (Or, in the most lurid version of the threat, a Sino-Islamic alliance.)

Anyone who looks at anime would notice that the characters typically have oversize eyes, anything but slanty or shut — as if they were not only Caucasian but highly caffeinated.

The feeling, which is not without a plausible foundation in fact, covers military, economic, and cultural spheres. It extends from intellectual property protections to athletic victories by young female Korean golfers. Asian Americans are too good. A non-Asian person who feels forced to learn how to use chopsticks feels embarrassed. Her humiliation is all the greater at the prospect of having to speak Chinese to qualify as cultured. That the opposite occurs regularly passes without comment.

In the context of racial competition, Asians are a rival. That excuses the teasing and the taunting of the school playground that foreshadows the micro aggression and glass ceiling of the adult workplace. It’s fair, because Asians could do it right back. They are on the rise.

Some Asians, to be sure, would agree. They are unfazed by bigotry. They are confident of their own superiority. They share the expectation that they soon will be dominant.

The example. Snapchat, the popular social media app, offered a “yellow face” filter that impart selfies a caricatured look of slant, shut eyes. It then withdrew the option. The explanation was no offense was intended; it was an homage to anime.

I accept the company’s story in a sense. I don’t doubt that a decision maker believed, perhaps still does, that there is nothing wrong. They know themselves: they are not ignorant racists; they believe in diversity, and they have a sense of humor. 

That attitude is what allows them to discount the effect of their actions. Since they are themselves good people, and Asian Americans are not a “vulnerable minority,” it’s all good fun. Only a few people who tell the joke are accustomed to being the butt of it. Our era is sarcastic, ironic, snarky, so it’s all the same anyway.

But if you take the interpretation seriously, the insensitivity is compounded by absurdity. Anyone who looks at anime would notice that the characters typically have oversize eyes, anything but slanty or shut — as if they were not only Caucasian but highly caffeinated. Perhaps the Asians drawing these figures, which enjoy universal appeal, have internalized an aesthetic standard hostile to their own appearance. Eyelid surgery, anyone?

My point is not that Asian Americans should portray themselves as victims. Dr. Xi is not agitating to become a spokesperson for persecuted scholars. Japanese Americans on the whole tried to assimilate, leaving behind literally and figuratively Manzanar and Tule Lake. Contrary to what critics of the civil rights movement suppose, people don’t want to talk about the worst parts of their lives. All of us want to control our destinies.

For Asian Americans, the challenge may be to show we are akin to others if not kin. We are like Shylock in Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice, who insists that he, too, bleeds. We have played a role establishing the principles of our democracy. We aspire to the same ideals.

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