Asian-Americans Chafe Against Stereotype of ‘Model Citizen’


At first, it might seem a curious complaint:

The image of the Asian-American as a “model minority” has been “a favorite theme of American journalism now for 15 years, if not longer,” says William Wong, associate editor of the Oakland Tribune. “There doesn’t seem to be a lot of effort made by media to cover . . . the underbelly, the downside of the Asian-American experience.”

Blacks and Latinos frequently criticize the media for paying too much attention to the underbelly of their communities. Why would anyone object to being depicted the way Asian-Americans are widely depicted in the media--as industrious and intelligent, enterprising and polite, with good values and strong families, equally successful as children in school and as adults in business and medicine and science and engineering and. . . ?

The answer, Wong says, is that stereotyping, whether negative or positive, is “a psychological noose. . . . It denies our individuality.”


All stereotypes are inevitably “caricatures,” says Helen Zia, managing editor of Ms. magazine; caricature “keeps people in ignorance"--and ignorance may breed neglect and resentment. Or worse.

Asian-Americans are successful--even wealthy? They are polite--even passive? Hmmm. Sounds as if they would make good targets for a mugging.


As the New York Times pointed out in October, there is a “growing and disturbing trend of subway attacks against people of Japanese, Chinese, Korean, Filipino and Vietnamese descent.”


* Poverty rates among Chinese, Korean and Vietnamese families in the United States are much higher than for whites, but because Asian-Americans are generally perceived as being successful, they often find it difficult to obtain necessary social services and may be denied access to affirmative-action programs.

* Asian-Americans who do poorly in school or need psychotherapy or fail in business may find their shortcomings especially difficult to accept, and especially embarrassing. After all, as Asian-Americans, they are supposed to excel. When they do not, they are “doubly burdened,” says Diane Wong, executive director of the Asian American Journalists Assn.; already outsiders as Asians in America, they now feel isolated from their own community.

* Some Asian-Americans students, feeling isolated from their peers by the “model minority” myth, may deliberately minimize their intelligence in an effort to fit in and win acceptance.


Zia says the media may be reluctant to probe beyond the “model minority” myth because “people don’t want to hear about yet another minority with problems.” Criticized for presenting too much “bad news,” journalists may subconsciously see the Asian-American story as “good news"--a chance to write about success rather than failure.

Language and culture barriers also inhibit the presentation of a more complete picture.

Most journalists “don’t have the background to know what questions to ask,” Zia says.

K. W. Lee, editor of the English-language edition of Korea Times in Los Angeles, says that when he was assigned to write about the civil rights movement for the Charleston Gazette in the 1960s, he realized he could not do so intelligently unless he learned more about blacks.


“I lived with them,” he said. “I read their literature.”

Most white journalists have not done that kind of homework on Asian-Americans, Lee says.

Handicapped by ignorance and uncertainty, people often fall back on stereotypes. Hence the “model minority.”

Writer Frank Chin calls the “model minority” portrayal of Asian-Americans “the racism of love,” but its effects are more often the former than the latter.


Just as some anti-Semitic behavior has stemmed from a portrayal of Jews as having an “unnatural” advantage over non-Jews--a special “cunning” or a “gift” for making money--so Asian-Americans worry that whites who think that they have a special advantage or special skills will mistreat them.

Already this mistreatment has taken the form of quota systems at prestigious colleges, and beatings and shootings in several cities. A recent poll showed that more than twice as many Americans think the security of the United States is threatened more by the economic power of Japan than by the military power of the Soviet Union.

No wonder. On two successive days late last month, Page 1 headlines in the New York Times said: “Japanese Portables Threaten American Lead in Computers” and “Japanese Expected to Take Over Another Major Hollywood Studio.”

Though still less than 3% of the U.S. population, Asian-Americans are the fastest-growing ethnic group in the country. They provided more than 40% of all immigrants in the past decade, during which time their population increased almost 80%. That growth--combined with the burgeoning economic strength of Japan, the purchase of many U.S. businesses by the Japanese and the success of many Asian-Americans in traditional American enterprises--has alarmed some whites. To them, Asian-Americans are “alien usurpers,” taking jobs and college positions from the “true-blue Americans” to whom they “rightfully belong.”


In 1982, Ronald Ebens, a former Detroit auto worker, clubbed Vincent Chin to death outside a suburban Detroit nightclub after--according to some reports--mistaking Chin, a Chinese-American, for a Japanese, yelling racist remarks at him and blaming people “like him” for the recession in the U.S. auto industry.

Ebens, who denied making racist remarks and insisted that Chin provoked the attack, pleaded guilty to manslaughter and was sentenced to three years’ probation and fined $3,700. The Asian-American community was outraged by his light sentence and by his subsequent acquittal on charges of violating Chin’s civil rights. Asian-Americans were also angry over what they perceived as a dangerous omen--scapegoating, a common element in racist behavior--and they have been equally alarmed by manifestations of that behavior elsewhere.

A gunman killed five children from Southeast Asia at a Stockton elementary school. White and Vietnamese fishermen have clashed in California and Texas. Blacks have boycotted Korean greengrocers in several cities.

No one is suggesting that if the Stockton gunman had read three insightful stories about Asian-Americans in his local newspaper, he would have become a social worker instead of a mass murderer. But critics do say the press could help alleviate rather than exacerbate racial tensions if they provided more enlightened reporting, rather than simply perpetuating stereotypes.


The New York Times has published several stories examining the stereotype and related issues, and a few other publications have done stories here and there--USA Today, on Page 1, last month, for example.

Leonard Downie, managing editor of the Washington Post, illustrates the problem when he tries to explain why most of the media do not provide more and better coverage of Asian-Americans:

“These are just quiet people who come here, go to work and go to school and do a good job and don’t ask for coverage and don’t make themselves very visible in the community.”

So what kinds of stories might the media do about Asian-Americans?


Like blacks, Latinos and American Indians, Asian-American journalists say the media should work harder to include them in the routine, daily news coverage and not do stories on them only when it is a specifically Asian-American subject. Asian-Americans say journalists should also distinguish among the many, different communities--Chinese, Japanese, Vietnamese, Korean, Filipino, Cambodian--rather than lumping them all together as Asian-American.

Perhaps more important, Asian-American journalists say, the media should do more stories that do not just say “what” in potentially divisive terms but tell “why” in potentially enlightening terms:

* Why do Asian-Americans have a higher average household income than any other group? Answer: In part because most live in urban centers in California, Hawaii and New York, where salaries are higher, and because many have more than one job and live in families that have multiple wage-earners.

* Why do some Korean merchants seem cold and hostile, refusing to directly place a customer’s change directly in the hand--a charge that helped trigger the black boycott of Korean greengrocers in New York early this year. Answer: “In the Confucian-steeped Korean culture, a smile is reserved for family members and close friends,” says C. Connie Kang, assistant metropolitan editor of the San Francisco Examiner. “Expressions such as ‘thank you’ and ‘excuse me’ are used sparingly,” and strangers do not generally touch each other, not even to return change in a business transaction.


* Why have Asian-Americans generally been more successful in the United States than many blacks and Latinos? Answer: Multiple explanations, among them a longstanding reverence of and opportunity for education in Asian societies, and the likelihood that immigrants from Asia are among the better-educated, more successful members of their native societies. Their decision to emigrate is a process of self-selection, completely different from the enforced migration and slavery of blacks or the flight from poverty of many Latinos.

For all the stories about boycotts and quotas and takeovers, “The press is not sophisticated about immigration,” says Rodolfo Acuna, a professor of Chicano studies at Cal State Northridge.

Indeed, John Ogbu, an anthropologist at UC Berkeley, says there is an important distinction between the immigrant experience of “voluntary minorities,” such as many Asians, Cubans and certain Central and South Americans (“those who have more or less chosen to move . . . in the belief that this change will lead to an improvement in their economic well-being or to greater political freedom”) and “involuntary minorities,” such as most blacks, Latinos and American Indians (“people initially brought into the United States through slavery, conquests or colonization”).

“Involuntary minorities” may perceive the “social, political and economic barriers against them as part of an undeserved oppression,” Ogbu says, and many may adopt “survival strategies” that incorporate distrust of and rebellion against white institutions and behavior patterns.


Ogbu explained his theory in the journal Daedalus this year, but there has been little such analysis in the mainstream press.

In covering the conflict between Korean greengrocers and black customers, for example, the media often failed to point out that many of the Koreans who opened those stores may have been among the “most confident, the most enterprising . . . the bravest Koreans,” says John Lee, a Korean reporter at the Los Angeles Times.

In fact, 75% of the Korean greengrocers in New York had college degrees before coming here, and to them, becoming a shopkeeper is not an entrepreneurial dream come true but “dashed dreams, a step downward in status,” as Ronald Takaki, professor of ethnic studies at UC Berkeley, wrote in the New York Times last summer.

The frequent failure of the media to point out such information leads to unfair comparisons between Koreans and blacks as ghetto businessmen and contributes to escalating racial tensions.


Wong is also concerned that this has enabled “nefarious demagogues” and “self-serving politicians” to invoke the “Asians made it; why can’t blacks?” argument to “put down . . . African-Americans and Latinos” and to “dismantle affirmative-action programs” for these minorities.

Wong says the “yawning ignorance” of most white journalists about Asian culture and about “the complexities and diversity in the fast-changing Asian-American community” is largely responsible for making this possible.