by Zubeda Newaz
Historically, Asians and Asian-American immigrants were granted the “model minority” status which effectively created divides within the people of color community. By this, I mean inclusive of Black and Indigenous people. White Americans painted all Asian-Americans to be the ‘good immigrants’ because compared to other communities Asian-Americans were ‘making it big’. “During World War II, the media created the idea that the Japanese were rising up out of the ashes [after being held in incarceration camps]…And it was immediately a reflection on black people: Now why weren’t black people making it, but Asians were?”. The prospect of a minority ‘making it big’ introduced a wave of Anti-Blackness. The stereotypes within the Asian community were used as reasons to belittle or question African-American work ethic and more. Systemically and socially, society has always favored the whites and gave them the upper hand to divide other cultures. As Frank Chin writes, “Whites love us because we’re not black.” White people created false ideals of what an Asian-American looks like to demean other marginalized communities of color. The “Model Minority” myth, after the 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act, is inherently anti-black and is harmful to Asian-Americans today as well.
The preferential treatment of Asians over African Americans can be seen to pre-date the immigration law of the 1960s. Seventy-seven years ago, on February 19, 1942, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed an executive order that forced 120,000 Japanese and Japanese-Americans into World War II internment camps. While Japanese families were separated and sent to internment camps, slowly their residences and businesses were all gone. The previously Japanese concentrated neighborhood was now desolate. Building owners had a lot of vacant property to fill. And this coincided with the arrival of many Southern African-American people who came to LA for wartime jobs. Given that Los Angeles offered only 5% of property to African-Americans the empty Little Tokyo was the next stop. By July 1943 three thousand African Americans had moved into Little Tokyo.
People expected Bronzeville to fail—the news predicted racial tensions which didn’t happen. Bronzeville became its own community; they started their own businesses and more. When the Japanese returned, however, Black folks were not displaced. In fact, it turned into a shared space. Although there were racial tensions, Common Ground helped navigate and understand said tensions. Many people were surprised to find that Little Tokyo/Bronzeville lived in harmony. In a podcast, Sande Hashimoto states that once she was back she made her first black friend. She recalls, “sometimes I would go over to her place, her mother would be braiding her hair. And then as soon as she finished braiding her hair, then she says, I’ll braid yours, too. So I said, OK.” Additionally, Ebony magazine characterized the Tokyo/Bronzeville situation as a “Race war that flopped,” as there had “not been a single case of violence, a single disturbance between two communities.” However, that was not the end to racial integration. Slowly, more and more African American people left Bronzeville/Little Tokyo. Organizations like Pilgrim House and Nissei Progressives were created to prevent racial friction, however, the demolitions due to the urban renewal project hindered their impact. Nissei Progressives were focussed on pushing against forced displacement of residents, small businesses, and more within the interracial community. Over time, the areas that were once full of culture were demolished and people were displaced. In the 50s and 60s, the emergence of white families caused a new social stratification. White suburban neighborhoods accepted Nissei more readily without the fear of “invasion.” The narrative that although Nissei’s suffered, they successfully assimilated into America while African Americans suffered not due to discrimination and racism but a “culture of poverty.” And in this way, the “model minority” myth was born. This was the start of 8 America’s majority dividing the minorities. The model minority myth thrived in the 60s and was consistently used as a marker of comparison to other minorities. During the 60s and 70s, newspaper publications, politicians, and community leaders used the model minority to dispel all claims of racism and injustice in regards to socio-economic concerns of African Americans.
The model minority myth followed Asian roles in Hollywood. Prior to this concept, white people had a fear of yellow peril (also the Yellow Terror, is a racist color-metaphor that is integral to the xenophobic aspect of colonialism: that the peoples of East Asia are an existential danger to the Western world), but the narrative shifted slightly. When you look at the movie Flower Drum Song by Rodgers and Hammerstein created in 1961, you get to see the Asian American portrayal during the model minority era. It clearly depicts the hegemonic standards towards Asian Americans. Each character reveals another type of Asian American, but they all hold the Model Minority stereotype. Success was based on how well assimilated they are to White American culture. Auntie Liang works for 5 years taking classes on becoming a citizen of the United States and learning about American culture/traditions. The song “Chop Suey”, an Americanized Chinese dish, is used to display the pride that 10 comes with assimilating American culture into your life. Linda Low and Sammy Fong display the modern Americans, the perfect examples of full assimilation. Mei Li represents the transition that immigrants should follow according to society. She studied film culture and wanted to fit in. Some scenes throughout the movie reflect her assimilation, for example, she asks Wang Ta to kiss her like the woman did in the movie, and refers to herself as a “wetback,” something she learned from films. She is following the American middle-class woman’s dream of trying to find a husband to take care of them. Wang Ta as the college graduate and his little brother as the baseball player fit into the image of American youth striving for excellence. For the time period, this movie provide excellent propaganda for the continued use of the “Model Minority” as the prime example of assimilation.
Mississippi Masala, directed by Mira Nair, challenges interracial relations whilst using the “Model Minority” narrative. The South-Asian community in Mississippi was ostracized in similar ways to the Black community, but only one community was given the means to succeed. It was not being Asian, but the privilege of being not Black. Mina questions and challenges the Model Minority stereotype; her dreams were not to go to college and make it big, but rather she chooses to live life freely. All around her are the perfect Indian families. They are reputable business owners, work in motels and liquor stores, and do not cause any havoc. Mina was the opposite. She did what she pleased. Demetrius, on the other hand, lived his life for others. He gave up his full ride to become an engineer to take care of his father. He started his own business and made a living. This is the work ethic that America considered to be synonymous with hard-working Americans, and by that, they mean White Americans and Asian-Americans. When Mina and Demetrius start to fall in love and try to grow as a couple, both communities pull them away leaving merely a bud in place of what they hoped would be a flower. Mira Nair explicitly shows the South-Asian community’s racism toward 4 the Black community and the hidden remarks. In an iconic scene of the movie, Demetrius and Mina’s father discuss the implications of Mina and Demetrius’s relationship. Demetrius states,
“l know you and your folks can come here from God knows where and be as black as the ace of spades, but you start acting white and treating us like your doormats. l know that you and your daughter ain’t but a few shades from this here [points to face].”
This scene is very direct in showing how Asian-Americans were shown as complicit and partaking in racism. The ending scene is telling of how ultimately Mina’s father did accept the Black community. He is shown embracing a child and looking lovingly into the crowd of happy faces and dancing feet. Mississippi Masala is a film that breaks down stereotypes, opens new doors, and questions the norms of our society today.
Ultimately, the use of media and anti-black rhetoric divided the Asian-American community and other communities of color. Recent articles and social media icons recount the struggles that the “Model Minority” myth put them through as children and as adults in their respective work industries. Asian-American communities are still working towards a stronger union of people of color communities and breaking down the divide created years ago that still exists today.