Asian Americans are not all alike. Asians came to America from different countries at different times for different reasons. Some grew up in America, some grew up overseas. Some live in poverty, some do quite well, though not quite as well as many imagine – they still make less money than whites with the same education.
Despite all that they have certain common experiences of racism from living in America because they are seen as being alike. And that affects how those who were born in America grow up.
Overall it is like growing up black, going through roughly the same stages:
- race does not matter
- experience of racism
- making sense of your race or ethnicity
- becoming proud of your race or ethnicity and moving forward with a secure sense of who you are
Unlike blacks, however, some Asian Americans can fool themselves into thinking of themselves as honorary whites, as raceless in a sense – like Tiger Woods, in fact, who is half Asian. So it might not be till their late 20s that they go through all these stages.
The danger of not coming to terms with being Asian in America is that it leads to self-hatred and insecurity. If you do not have your own image of being Asian, you will have the white image of what that means, stereotypes and all. That is bad: Whites, in the end, look down on Asians. They do not see them as fully human. That is what the racism is about.
Asians are affected by two main racist stereotypes:
- model minority: Asians as quiet, hard-working, putting their families first and being good at math and science.
- perpetual foreigner: Asians as not truly American even if they grew up in America. Because they “look Asian” they do not “seem American”.
Asian Americans often grow up in white neighbourhoods and become completely White American by culture – in how they talk and act and think – but still they are not fully accepted by whites because of how they look.
Some might wonder what is wrong with being a model minority. It is a good thing, right? No:
- Like any stereotype, it is extremely insulting: it refuses to see a person as an individual. If you work hard and get good grades, for example, it is “because you are Asian”.
- It gives whites an excuse not to take Asians seriously when they complain of racism.
- It is not even true: most Cambodian Americans, for example, never complete high school!
- It puts Asians at odds with blacks and Latinos when both should make common cause against white racism.
Asians are seen as these limited, cardboard beings. That comes across, for example, in the limited way they are shown in Hollywood and comic books. To become fully Asian American you have to overcome the white ideas of what that means.