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dumpyourpenfriendThe perpetual foreigner stereotype in America is applied mainly to Asian Americans. No matter how long they or their families have lived in the country, they are still not seen as True Americans, they are still seen as foreigners. That is why people are surprised at how good their English is and ask them, “Where are you really from?” – where New Jersey does not count as an answer.

Please note: Asians born in America speak perfect English with an American accent. For most of them America is the only country they know. It is their country too. They are every bit as American as white people.

The girl pictured in the Virgin ad that says “Dump Your Pen Friend” is not from Japan or anywhere in Asia: she is American – at an American barbecue, no less. If that surprised you, then you were applying the perpetual foreigner stereotype to her, as did Virgin.

This is not some small point.

For example, General John DeWitt, in charge of defending the western American states during the Second World War, said this:

A Jap’s a Jap … The Japanese race is an enemy race … It makes no difference whether he is an American citizen, he is still a Japanese…  we must worry about the Japanese all the time until he is wiped off the map.

And so Japanese Americans, despite being native-born citizens charged with no crime, lost everything they could not carry and were sent to live in prison camps during the war. Even the Supreme Court thought their race mattered more than their citizenship.

Japanese Americans have been in America longer than most Italian, Polish and Jewish Americans. So, if anything, they should be seen as less foreign, but they are not.

Another example: Vincent Chin, a Chinese American engineer, had his brains beat in and was killed by two white men in Detroit in 1982. One of them had been laid off by Chrysler and blamed Japan. But Chin was not Japanese. He was not even Chinese: he was American!  But despite that neither white man served any time in prison: they got off with a fine of $3,000 and three years’ probation. The judge said of Chin’s killers: “These weren’t the kind of men you send to jail.”

Two ideas underlie the perpetual foreigner stereotype:

  1. America belongs to white people.
  2. Race and culture are pretty much the same thing.

Race, how you look on the outside, is seen as a good sign of how you are on the inside.

khanIn America the stereotype is mainly applied to those with East Asian roots, but lately, since 9/11, Muslim Americans are increasingly seen in this light too, so much so that their citizenship does not always grant them the protection and rights that it should.

The stereotype is assumed by those who call Obama a secret Muslim. Colin Powell made the excellent point that even if Obama were Muslim, so what? Plenty of Americans are Muslims, many have even fought and died for the country. If they are not True Americans, no one is.

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The model minority stereotype (1966- ) is how many in America see Asians, what I will call those whose family came to the country from East Asia (though much of this applies to South Asians too). They are seen as doing well in school, not causing trouble and so on.

Although it might seem like a good thing, many Asians hate being seen that way. Because it is not true. Because Asians are just people, not some strange stereotype cooked up in the minds of white people.

To see just how cooked up it is, notice how it is always the opposite of the stereotype for blacks:

black men Asian men
ill-mannered well-behaved
brainless brainy
cool nerdy
good at sports bad at sports
do not like to work hard-working
do not care about their children family-oriented
violent peaceful
break the law make little trouble
have little education have good educations
poor well-to-do
succeed by preferences succeed by merit
black women Asian women
ugly pretty
loud-mouthed quiet
bossy submissive

That is pretty strange when you consider that the stereotypes about blacks have very little to do with Asians but everything to do with the ugly history of race in America, with whites trying to cover up their crimes against blacks.

The model minority stereotype comes from whites trying to blame blacks for their condition. It lets white people believe that Asians come here with nothing and, even though they are not white, they still make it. So there must be something wrong with blacks!

By holding this stereotype, whites are not patting Asians on the back – they are patting themselves on the back!!

It is a fact that Asians in general have better educations and make more money than even whites. That is because many came to America to get university degrees and stayed. They did not pull themselves up from the bottom – they started near the top!

But it is also a fact that Asians are more likely to live in poverty than whites. Some Asians started out at the bottom and many of them are still there, like Cambodians, Laotians, Hmongs and some of the Chinese. One of the most violent parts of Manhattan is Chinese. Some of the poorest people I have ever seen in America are Hmongs.

And even well-to-do Korean Americans, say, still experience racism. Even when they are born in America whites still see them as foreigners: they are always Asians, never just plain old Americans. Whites do not trust them with important positions. Why? Like with blacks, whites see them as being “not like us”, meaning that in a bad way.

I think in time Asians will come close to being like Jews: in the white American mind they will go from “not like us” to “not quite like us”. They will come to understand that you can be a true-blue American and still look Asian. But Asians will never get closer than the Jews so long as whites are racist: unlike Jews, Asians cannot hide where they came from.

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