As the covid-19 virus spreads across the United States, there has been a significant increase in instances of virulently racist verbal harassment and physical violence towards Asian people—undoubtedly because of the racist association so many people have made between China and covid-19. In fact, Jezebel wrote our first blog about anti-Asian racism in the time of coronavirus back in January, weeks before the federal government took any decisive action surrounding the health crisis. And naturally, the racists are getting bolder and bolder. Just earlier this week, a Lululemon art director was fired after sharing a link to a wildly racist “Bat Fried Rice” t-shirt on Instagram.
On Wednesday, John Cho wrote an opinion piece for the Los Angeles Times on anti-Asian racism in the midst of the covid-19 pandemic. Sure, his main competition was that awful and clueless op-ed that former presidential candidate Andrew Yang published in the Washington Post earlier this month, but still, Cho made some good points.
Asian Americans are experiencing such a moment right now. The pandemic is reminding us that our belonging is conditional. One moment we are Americans, the next we are all foreigners, who “brought” the virus here.
Like fame, the “model minority” myth can provide the illusion of “raceless-ness.” Putting select Asians on a pedestal silences those who question systemic injustice. Our supposed success is used as proof that the system works — and if it doesn’t work for you, it must be your fault.
Cho also shared an anecdote about the press tour he went on with co-star Kal Penn after the duo starred in the very popular Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle back in 2004. It was just a few years after 9/11, and on almost every single flight they boarded, Penn would be pulled aside for a “random” search when the pair was going through security. On one occasion, Penn was having his bag searched at the exact same moment when a white friend who was traveling with them realized he’d accidentally brought a massive hunting knife in his bag through security—without being stopped, of course.
How FUNNY. (And by funny, I mean racist.)
But perhaps the most insidious effect of this myth is that it silences us. It seduces Asian Americans and recruits us to act on its behalf. It converts our parents, who in turn, encourage us to accept it. It makes you feel protected, that you’re passing as one of the good ones.
And because the stereotypes may be complimentary (hardworking, good at math), it makes people — including us — think that anti-Asian sentiment is somehow less serious, that it’s racism lite. That allows us to dismiss the current wave of Asian hate crimes as trivial, isolated and unimportant.
One of the most insidious parts of the racist “model minority” myth is the ways that it self-reinforces. The illusion of the model minority is predicated on the false idea that assimilation can help protect individuals from racism. Of course, this isn’t true, but therein lies the power of the American melting pot mythos. If people of color can be convinced that the key to no longer experiencing racial discrimination is “good” behavior, then hopefully they can also be convinced not to resist their own persecution. Since resisting the violence of institutional racism would, of course, be “bad” behavior.
As my Jezebel colleague Esther Wang already pointed out, there is no amount of performing “American-ness” or patriotism that will protect Asian-Americans from experiencing racism and discrimination. The fixation on belonging fails to recognize the reality that for people of color, any so-called acceptance will always be conditional. Racism doesn’t skip over any of us.