This story is from the archives of UCLA Today, a discontinued publication.

The burden of being 'white' in America


Are Asian Americans becoming “white”? For many public officials, the answer must be yes, because they classify Asian-origin Americans with European-origin Americans for equal opportunity programs. But this classification is premature and based on false premises. Although Asian Americans as a group have attained the career and financial success equated with being white, and although many have moved next to or have even married whites, they still remain culturally distinct and suspect in white society.

Many in the media have dubbed Asian Americans the “new Jews.” Like the second-generation Jews of the past, today’s children of Asian immigrants are climbing up the ladder by way of extraordinary educational achievement. One consequence of this “model-minority” stereotype is that it reinforces the myth that the United States is devoid of racism and accords equal opportunity to all, fostering the view that those who lag behind do so because of their own poor choices and inferior culture.

Celebrating “model minorities” can impede other racial minorities’ demands for social justice by pitting minority groups against each other. It can also pit Asian Americans against whites. There are two other less obvious effects. First, the stereotype holds Asian Americans to higher standards, distinguishing them from average Americans. “What’s wrong with being a model minority?” a black student once asked in a class I taught on race. “I’d rather be in the model minority than in the downtrodden minority that nobody respects.” Whether people are in a model minority or a downtrodden minority, they are still judged by standards different from average Americans. And second, the model-minority stereotype places particular expectations on members of the group so labeled, channeling them to specific avenues of success, such as science and engineering.

New stereotypes can emerge and un-whiten Asian Americans, no matter how “successful” and “assimilated” they have become. For example, Congressman David Wu, D-Oregon, once was invited by the Asian-American employees of the U.S. Department of Energy to give a speech in celebration of Asian-American Heritage Month, which is celebrated in May.

Yet, he and his Asian-American staff were not allowed into the department building, even after presenting their congressional identification, and were repeatedly asked about their citizenship and country of origin. They were told that this was standard procedure and that a congressional ID card was not a reliable document. The next day, a congressman of Italian descent was allowed to enter the same building with his congressional ID, no questions asked.

Ironically, the ambivalent, conditional nature of their acceptance by whites prompts many Asian Americans to organize pan-ethnically to fight back — which heightens their racial distinctiveness. So becoming white or not is beside the point. The bottom line is: Americans of Asian ancestry still have to constantly prove that they truly are loyal Americans.

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