At an Asian American and Pacific Islander presidential forum on Sept. 8, Democratic hopeful Andrew Yang eloquently expressed support for affirmative action and talked about how growing up Asian American had made him feel like his “spot in this country is somewhat in question.”
Then, a week later, after clips surfaced of comedian Shane Gillis calling Yang a racial slur, Yang tweeted at Gillis, offering to meet and commiserating about how society has become too vindictive about offensive jokes. He also wrote that anti-Asian racism wasn’t taken as seriously as racism against black people. (Gillis was briefly hired by “Saturday Night Live” and quickly fired after his long history of using ethnic slurs became public.)
“In the same week [Yang] went from being thoughtful and deliberate and nuanced on race to being relatively glib,” said Karthick Ramakrishnan, a UC Riverside professor who runs multiple AAPI data initiatives.
Yang’s candidacy has been intensely polarizing within the Asian American community, in part because he has presented discordant views on race and identity. His Asian dad jokes on the campaign trail about how Asians are good at math have sparked accusations that he’s perpetuating the model-minority stereotype.
So when journalist Jeff Yang invited me to an off-the-record meeting held last week between Andrew Yang and AAPI activists, I thought it could be a valuable opportunity to clarify. I asked if the meeting, which Yang’s campaign sought, could be on the record.
Yang’s campaign agreed. So on Tuesday, about a dozen Asian American writers, activists and media personalities gathered at a restaurant in West Los Angeles. Yang arrived a few minutes late, a “math” pin on his lapel. The meeting was cordial but tense. Yang encouraged us to be as honest as possible with him, even if it meant saying something unfriendly.
Jenn Fang, the founder of a pioneering Asian American blog called Reappropriate, asked Yang if he understood that the model-minority stereotype was used to demonize black people and explained how it often obscured the hardships of many other Asian American groups.
Tanzila Ahmed, an activist and host of the “Good Muslim Bad Muslim” podcast, criticized Yang’s immigration policy views and asked if he thought immigrants needed to assimilate and earn their place in America.
Nancy Wang Yuen, a Biola University sociology professor who writes about representation in Hollywood, asked him point blank if he was trying to make white people comfortable at the expense of Asian people.
Yang, to his credit, listened carefully, showed self-awareness and adopted an apologetic tone, though he stopped short of offering an apology.
He described his tweet comparing Asian racism with black racism as “inartful and imprecise” and said he should have worded it differently. Comparing black and Asian struggles was not productive, and he shouldn’t have done it, he said. He doesn’t have a formal campaign committee to help him craft responses on issues of race.
And he expressed pain at the idea that some Asian Americans were ashamed at the way he’d portrayed their culture. He admitted that a campaign built on memes and social media wasn’t a great venue for discussing race.
“I’m a person of our community who I believe understands the concerns of the community and wants very deeply and passionately to represent them to the best of my ability,” he said. “The best of my ability will never be perfect or ideal.”
Yang sees himself as “consciously Asian American.” He started an Asian American student group at Columbia Law School, and he attended Brown University with Ramakrishnan. During an orientation for students of color at Brown, Ramakrishnan recalled, Yang stood up to raise the subject of racism within the Asian community.
But Yang also pushed back on our concerns. He defended his appeals to Trump voters, saying “it’s going to be up to us to learn how to share the country with them.” He said he respected the role that activists were playing by condemning Gillis, but said his responsibility as a presidential candidate was to build bridges.
He said he didn’t believe his jokes about Asians and math and doctors were harming anyone, and if he believed he was causing harm, he’d stop. He’s trying to feel more natural on the campaign trail and not second-guess himself, he said, by way of explanation.
And he asked us for the benefit of the doubt. As an Asian American outsider presidential candidate, he believes he has to make as wide an appeal as possible — even if that means cracking the occasional joke about being Asian.
“For me this was and is the best way that I can compete,” Yang said.
Yang and I are both the nerdy sons of Taiwanese immigrants who grew up playing piano, sacrificing our weekends to Chinese school and wearing big square glasses with the dorky nose bridge at the top. We both grew up in largely white communities: Brentwood, Tenn., for me and him in Schenectady, N.Y.
We both were called “chink” and “gook” and various other slurs at school. And we both ended up fighting with our tormentors. And because we weren’t that great at fighting, we both got beaten up a few times.
So there’s something unavoidably familiar to me in Yang, in his less-than-successful haircuts and even in the cringe-y jokes about Asians and math that he uses at rallies. Because growing up Asian in a mostly white town can sometimes make you feel like it’s your job to make people comfortable with who you are.
I share this because though Yang has alienated many members of the progressive Asian American community with his comments, I think his missteps are inalienably Asian American too.
Being Asian American in public in 2019 is complicated, and Yang is part of a long line of Asian American public figures who have upset some part of the Asian American community. The burdens of representation are so varied and intense that I actually can’t think of a single person who has shouldered them perfectly. I struggle and fail to meet them myself, and my conversations with friends, activists and even professors about Asian American identity usually have more questions than answers.
But one of the main reasons these burdens are so intense is because American history and society have flattened all Asian American experiences into the model-minority stereotype. And those distortions affect not just the way we’re seen by society, but also how we think about ourselves.
The model-minority myth, for example, contributes to academic pressure and high rates of depression and suicide among Asian American high-schoolers. And because Asian American groups vary widely in educational attainment, wealth and status, it obscures hardship and struggle in Southeast Asian, Filipino and Pacific Islander communities, and prevents those communities from receiving needed resources.
For a lot of Asian Americans, that myth has become a suffocating haze of false stereotypes and unfair expectations that we’re forced to clear up before we can be ourselves.
With three Asian American candidates — Yang, Kamala Harris, and Tulsi Gabbard — all competing for the Democratic nomination, it’s more important than ever that we know what this term means.
Some of the origins of the model-minority stereotype can actually be traced to Los Angeles in the shadow of WWII when Japanese Americans were hostage to the whims of a racist society.
After the attack on Pearl Harbor, anti-Japanese sentiment was stronger here than in any other place in the nation. More than half of the letters sent to the federal attorney general’s office in 1942 calling for Japanese incarceration originated in Los Angeles County.
Japanese Americans, facing an existential threat, engaged in what historian Scott Kurashige called “a traumatic search for an identity to fit the increasingly narrowed parameters of Americanism.”
The community, concentrated in Los Angeles and forming the majority of the Asian American population at the time, emphasized cultural traits that would impress white elites. They focused heavily on entrepreneurship, respectability and patriotism in a futile attempt to counter growing wartime perceptions of Japan as a nation of aggressive, warlike and savage people.
White racism was essential in creating the model minority. In the 1960s, white elites and a white media began to emphasize the model-minority qualities of Asian immigrants as an excuse to ignore the demands of black activists for equal rights. Asian stereotypes of success were used to promote negative stereotypes of black people and Latinos.
The New York Times, the Los Angeles Times and Time magazine all wrote glowing features about the Japanese community, whose success, they concluded, seemed to disprove racism’s very existence.
In Yang’s campaign, “Math” is both a campaign slogan and a humorous chant at rallies. But for the children of those early Japanese and Chinese immigrants, STEM fields like engineering and accounting were emphasized as a shelter from anti-Asian racism because, in these jobs, they could prove their value beyond a doubt.
Today the term “model minority” dominates the way Asian Americans talk about their racial experiences, and it’s used in a lot of different ways. But historically, it has been an ultimately futile reaction to racism by the powerless and disenfranchised based on trying to earn acceptance from the powerful.
Seeing Yang up on the Democratic primary debate stage should have been a thrilling milestone for me as a fellow Taiwanese American. But when I heard him use model-minority stereotypes to describe himself, it was hard to feel proud.
A Taiwanese American man had made it to the platform of the Democratic primary debates without formal support from the party. He had out-polled, out-raised and outperformed many professional politicians, some of whom had openly laughed at him. He had started a national conversation about a universal basic income, commanding rallies of thousands all around the country with his charisma.
And yet he still felt that the most practical use of his identity on a national stage was as a joke. He was a powerful man on a powerful stage, powerless to be himself.
At Andrew Yang’s rally in MacArthur Park last Monday, I met a wide variety of Asians who were not offended by the candidate’s presentation of Asian identity.
Jeff Yang, a math major, said he had made a lot of the same jokes that Andrew Yang made on the campaign trail. He thought the candidate handled Gillis thoughtfully, but he’d rather talk about Andrew Yang’s policies, and highlighted the Democracy Dollars proposal, which would give every citizen a $100 voucher to give to their favorite candidate.
Bonar Mangunsong, an Indonesian immigrant, drove all the way from San Bernardino to attend. He’s been in the country for 20 years, but this will be the first election he’s voted in. He was so excited that he even brought his cousins visiting from Indonesia so they could get a look at American democracy in action.
Mangunsong, a physician’s assistant, said he got excited about Yang’s campaign after watching a YouTube video about Yang by the Fung Brothers, an Asian American comedy duo. He feels like Yang is actually tearing down the model-minority stereotype.
“Seeing him run makes me want to go out and prove to everyone that Asians can do anything, that we’re not just doctors or lawyers,” Mangunsong said.
George Kochi, a Japanese American art curator whose father was held in an incarceration camp, said he understood the criticisms of Yang’s jokes. Growing up, he was encouraged to pursue careers in science and math and felt a lot of pressure to “whitewash” himself. But Kochi said he’s part of a generation where embracing stereotypes was a way of blunting their power.
“If you got picked on, instead of getting angry, you embrace it, and turn it around on them,” Kochi said.
Most people I talked to, when asked, admitted that they wished Yang was more careful in his conversations about race.
“Perpetuating the model-minority stereotype is not a good thing,” said Elton Keung, 31, who owns a boba shop in San Gabriel. “But he pushes Asian America forward and creates precedents even if he isn’t that good at talking about race.”