Model minorities. Perpetual foreigners. Victims of a blanket stereotype of high achievement and high expectation that conceals complexities and problems. Speaking in commemoration of Asian-American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month, Frank Wu, Chancellor and Dean of the University of California Hastings College of Law, talked about the under-examined, often misunderstood Asian-American experience.
Frank H. Wu, Chancellor and Dean at UC Hastings College of Law, speaks to ETS staff during Asian-American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month
With a wry, amusing mix of facts and personal anecdotes about being Asian American, Wu outlined two damaging stereotypes that Asians contend with: the “model minority myth,” together with the resentment that it can breed, and the “perpetual foreigner syndrome.”
“Even a positive stereotype, seemingly one that should be applauded, can conceal so many negative aspects,” Wu said. “It glosses over real problems. It ratchets up resentments. And it sometimes is used to send a message to other racial minorities.”
The model minority myth is a positive stereotype for Asians that paints them as overachievers whose “tiger moms” demand the best grades and the highest SAT® scores. Musical virtuosos and young geniuses, good at math and science destined to become rocket scientists or concert violinists — Wu says such a stereotype is false flattery and dangerous because it conceals the complexity of the Asian population and whitewashes problems.
The perpetual foreigner syndrome is best described by the questions that many Asians — born and raised in typical American cities — often receive, such as where they are “from,” thus assigning them an identity other than American that must be somewhere in Asia.
This dual identity, Wu noted, is best illustrated in the 1982 case of Vincent Chin, a 27-year-old Chinese-American from Detroit, who was attacked with racial slurs and beaten by two auto workers who assumed he was Japanese and who accused him of taking jobs from Americans.
Even people like Wu who were born here and have lived here all their lives are set apart and pegged as foreigners, something Wu said he has experienced often.
Wu discusses his experiences further in his book, Yellow: Race in America Beyond Black and White, and advances a proposition that addresses the question people often ask about racism: “When does it end, when is it over?”
It's never going to be “over” says Wu, because, like democracy, diversity is a process, not an outcome: “It demands much of us. We want to make progress and we do improve, but problems remain, and if we view it as a process we will not be disillusioned and embittered.”
“We should celebrate the opportunity to make progress,” he says. “If we do, we'll make good on the twin ideals of this nation: diversity and democracy.”
Watch the full address below