Prejudice Against the Model Minority: What Should Adoptive Parents Do

Dawn Davenport


I just read a wonderful essay, Different Racism: On Jeremy Lin and How the Rules of Racism are Different for Asian Americans, written by an adult Korean adoptee, Matthew Salesses, that set my mind to racing.  He talked about so many issues that make this a must-read for adoptive parents: growing up Asian in a white family and white community (“I was afraid, back then, of myself, as if there were a little Asian person living within me that was corrupting my being, taking me away from the white person I thought I was”) and the impact of going back to Korea as an adult (“[A]fter some time, not like the sudden realization in the mirror but a gradual process, I began to see myself as a person from this country”).  But what really got me to thinking was his discussion about racism in the US (and other countries) against Asians.8715752448_f485f7d9fc_n

Most discussions about race and racism in the US tend to be limited to racisms expressed by whites against blacks.  Racism, overt or subtle, against other races is often overlooked and seldom discussed.  That changed a few weeks ago with the blaring “Chink in the Armor” headline and subsequent firing of the journalist responsible.

Asian Americans have long been considered the “model minority”, and any racism against them seen as inconsequential as compared to racism against other minorities—a high class problem, so to speak.  The shock over the Chink headline has brought to attention the prevalence of outright discrimination against Asians.  As Salesses points out:

The truth is, racism toward Asians is treated differently in America than racism toward other ethnic groups. This is a truth all Asian Americans know. While the same racist may hold back terms he sees as off-limits toward other minorities, he will often not hesitate to call an Asian person a chink, as Jeremy Lin was referred to, or talk about that Asian person as if he must know karate, or call him Bruce Lee, or consider him weak or effeminate, or so on. Bullying against Asian Americans continues at the highest rate of any ethnic group. I remember, when I was taking the Asian American literature course, an article in a major magazine that ran pictures of (male) Asian models above the tagline, “Gay or Asian?” I remember a video that went viral last year in which people explained why men prefer Asian women and why women dislike Asian men. Some of the women on the video were Asian American.

Salesses discussed the overwhelming prevalence of bigotry and racism against Asian Americans.  Our Asian children are likely experiencing some version of this, and I suspect it is harder on Asian boys than girls.  Asian girls are often considered pretty and exotic, while Asian boys are sometimes seen as smaller, weaker, and effeminate.  I think either stereotype is limiting and wrong, but can understand that boys may have it worse.  Again, from Salesses’s article:

There are still incidents from [my childhood] that I cannot get out of my mind. I remember watching, in one middle school class, a video meant to teach us that blackface and sculptures of big-lipped black people and stereotypes of watermelon and fried chicken were wrong. Later that same year, one of my best friends drew a picture of a square with a nose poking off of one side. I knew this was me even before he said it. Sometimes my friends would ask me to do the trick where I put my face against the table, touching both my forehead and my chin to the wood. I thought of this as a special ability, but underneath, I knew I should be ashamed.

I would bet that this friend does not remember drawing me in that one science class. We often drew together. He was in all of my classes that year, as we were allowed two friends to share a similar schedule, and I was the only one who requested him. That he wouldn’t remember this drawing is part of the problem, I know now. He thought of the picture as a joke, though I had never seen him draw caricatures or draw anyone else so simply. Surely a part of him knew what he was doing but didn’t stop him. There was no video to tell him not to—there was no one to tell him not to, even me. I pretended it didn’t bother me.

And then there are the positive stereotypes which have earned Asians the label of “model minority”.  All Asians are smart, industrious, hardworking, respectful and on and on.  Salesses says, “It is hard to call someone who thinks he is complimenting you a racist. But the positive stereotypes people think they can use because of their “positivity” continue (and worsen) the problem.”

Where does this leave us as parents of Asian children?  How do we prepare them and protect them?  I don’t have all the answers, but I firmly believe educating ourselves is the first step.

Image credit: Asia Society

22/03/2012 | by Dawn Davenport | Categories: Adoption, Adoption Blog, Blog | 7 Comments

7 Responses to Prejudice Against the Model Minority: What Should Adoptive Parents Do

  1. Avatar Dawn says:

    Matthew, I don’t know your parents, but I suspect they would be proud of your beautiful essay, but at the same time wish they could have done more to help you along the way. As the parent of adopted Asian kids, I wonder if I’m doing enough to prepare them. They don’t bring it up, but when I do, they say they don’t experience prejudice against themselves as Asian, although they sometimes see it against adoption. I don’t want to over-emphasize the possibility of racism and make them look and see it everywhere, but don’t want the subject to be closed.

    Not long ago, I over heard a conversation between my 16 year old and her best friend, J. They had just received their grades on a biology test. My daughter had done well, but J was not pleased with her grade. She said something like, “Well, it’s easy for you to get good grades cause you’re Asian and they always get good grades.” My daughter laughed, but I was left struggling if and how I should intervene. I said to J that her statement played into a prevalent but false stereotype, and although I knew she meant no harm it was a form of racism. As you would imagine, that statement was a conversation killer. Later, when I brought up the conversation with my daughter she said she thought I had overreacted. I acknowledged that maybe I had, but that I didn’t like generalizations made about groups of people because it had the potential to be dangerous. She gave me a verbal shrug.

    Another issue that makes it harder to handle for adoptive parents is that often the most common time that many transracial adopted kids grapple with their racial identity is once they leave our protective familial umbrella–often when they leave for college when we aren’t around for them on a daily basis. Some kids will share freely with their parents during this time, but many will choose to deal with it alone. Knowing my kids, they will likely not share what is happening unless it’s really bad, so I may never know.

    I’d love to hear your feedback on any or all of the above ramblings.

  2. Avatar Finn-Yao says:

    While the article may be in good meaning, usage of the opportunist term Model Minority is distracting. It wasn’t created based on the merit of Asians, but as a mechanism to discourage the Civil Rights movement by pointing to immigrants and telling many, particularly blacks, that they weren’t trying hard enough. Completely ignorant to obvious facts regarding such laws that favored Asians reluctantly while discriminating such as the Gentlemen’s act, and vast generalization of the more privileged Japanese and their economic success as “All Asians.” Whilst I have no doubt Asians in many regards maintain a better culture that their minority fellows such as Blacks, that could easily be attributed to the utilization of Asian culture in American life and relation to an older culture at home. Blacks in many regards have no relation to a home culture, and the sudden concept of African immigrants have proven to be more educated than Asians on average but no relation to Black Americans. The term Model Minority is crude, and most people use that term with reluctance.

    • Finn-Yao- I used the term to draw attention to just your point. Probably I should have put it in quotes to highlight that I wasn’t endorsing its use. Thanks for your thoughtful comment.

  3. Avatar Nisha says:

    I love your blog! 🙂

  4. It was hard for me to know or at least admit to myself how much racism was going on around me as a child. I think it’s really important to show your kids what racism is, and to show them that you are them for them, that you understand what hurts them, even if they aren’t ready to understand that yet. I never talked to my parents about the things in my essay. I think a kid who deals with this kind of stuff just naturally clams up, and it’s great that you’re sticking your finger in the opening, even if it takes your kids a while to respond. They’ll understand later, I think. It’s so hard to be young and unsure why you feel hurt and why people hurt you.

  5. Dawn, thank you for writing about the essay. I worried a lot about what my parents would think of it. I wonder, often, about their perspective and about how much they noticed and how much more I should have told them about, how much more we could have shared.

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