Picture an athlete. Now a movie star. And now a politician. You probably pictured a White man. Or a Black or Latino person. I’m guessing you didn’t picture an Asian American. I know I usually don’t. And I’m an Asian-American television writer who thinks up imaginary people for a living. We Asian Americans don’t have many cultural or political figures of national stature. Or, one could argue, any. And while segments of the Asian-American community, particularly South Asians, have enjoyed economic success relative to other minority groups, few Asians overall occupy C-suite corner offices. Politically, culturally, and economically, in the positions that matter, Asian Americans are nearly invisible.
There has been no Asian-American Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, or Barack Obama. In California, Arizona, and a host of other states, Cesar Chavez Day is a state holiday. Who’s the national, towering Asian-American figure who would be so honored? Andrew Yang? There’s no Asian Jay-Z or Beyoncé, no Asian Bad Bunny or Selena. We’ve seen for years how Black actors have been underrepresented at the Academy Awards. Meanwhile, there has been one Asian American nominated for best actor in history, Steven Yeun, this year, for his role in Minari, directed by an Asian-American filmmaker, one of two such nominations for Asian-American directors in history.
The absence of Asian-American cultural and political figures who imprint themselves into America’s collective consciousness means we are viewed as a race of middle managers, destined to provide technical support and financial advice for White and Black and Latino (but usually White) leaders. Yes, there is one C-suite position where nobody is surprised to see an Asian face in the org chart: chief technology officer. How did we get here, successful economically but without the commensurate social status? How did we go from “model minority” to invisible minority to hunted minority?
Model minority was the patronizing label first used in the 1980s to describe Japanese Americans but soon broadened to encompass Asian Americans generally. At first we embraced the label, because it implied recognition of economic and educational achievements. Soon, we understood how demeaning it was: We were “model” in that we were pliant, didn’t get uppity, certainly didn’t riot. We showed up, did our job for slightly less pay than our White colleagues, and didn’t complain when we were passed over for the big jobs. It was a pat on the head by Whites, praising us for our passivity in the face of continuing racism.
But the label also inserted a wedge between Asians and other minorities—as if Asian economic success, itself not nearly as universal as some mainstream media outlets would have you believe, made irrelevant the dynamics of racism that still, undeniably, affected Asian-American lives. In the protest movements of the 1960s, Asians, African Americans, and Latinos marched and rallied together. Japanese-American Richard Aoki joined the Black Panthers and rose to the rank of field marshal, speaking at rallies with Bobby Seale and Huey Newton. The multiethnic Free Speech Movement and Students for a Democratic Society demanded cultural studies programs for each of the ethnic groups whose histories academia had overlooked. But African-American and Asian-American interests, at one point so closely aligned, soon began to diverge, in part because the model minority conceit chipped away at solidarity.
Pitting minority groups against each other has always served ruling majorities. America in the 21st century has embraced that tradition by making access to meritocratic educational institutions a scarce resource to be fought over by competing minorities. From the University of California system to New York City’s specialized high schools, the proposed revamping of admissions standards away from standardized testing toward assessments that weigh racial backgrounds would reduce Asian-American enrollment. For the Asian-American community that long ago recognized the tool of standardized testing as a means of gaining entree to America’s elite institutions, the effect of these policies, in New York and California, is to pit Asian interests against African-American and Latino interests.
And why wouldn’t other minorities simultaneously be suspicious of the majority’s favorite minority? Wesley Yang, the essayist and author of The Soul of Yellow Folk, says that when Asian parents fight back, they are viewed as “White supremacy adjacent, when they are actually for Asian supremacy.” The result is many Asian Americans feeling estranged from the national social justice movement even though we haven’t approached anything like cultural or social equality with White Americans. Asian-American academic success has become the anecdote some White Americans can use to argue that we live in a meritocratic system rather than a caste system. “They reason that if Asian Americans can succeed in this system,” Lok Siu, professor of Asian-American studies at the University of California at Berkeley says. “Then the system must be fair.”
And so, we came to 2020 and the pandemic caused by a virus that jumped the species barrier in Asia. The subsequent anti-Asian sentiment, propagated in part by the then-president of the U.S., caused numerous incidents of anti-Asian verbal and physical assaults, some of them by Black Americans. “The Asian community has become a source of blame,” wrote student Milind Singh in the Princeton Spokesman, his high school newspaper. “Such a nation cannot exist in a world where people are beaten in the streets for something that happened on the other side of the planet.” According to Stop AAPI Hate, a group that tracks discrimination against Asian Americans, there have been more than 3,800 such incidents since March 2020. The Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at California State University, San Bernardino, reports hate crimes against Asian Americans increased 149% in 2020 from 2019. On March 17, in the worst example of anti-Asian violence in the U.S. in many years, eight people, including six Asian women, were murdered by a White man.
Most smaller incidents go unreported. Even in my own life, during the first lockdown, I was accosted walking a few blocks from my house in my predominantly White suburb of Los Angeles by a White man riding an electric bicycle. He rode alongside me for a short distance, telling me I was in the wrong place. I ignored him, assuming he’d mistaken me for someone else. He then cut me off on the sidewalk, and only when I asked him, in my unaccented English, “What the f— are you doing?” did he seem to realize I was not whomever he thought I was and rode away. It wasn’t until I got home and told my wife what had happened and how perplexing the whole experience was that I recognized I’d been subjected to racist harassment. She had to point out the obvious.
I wasn’t beaten by a cop. I wasn’t shot in the back. I haven’t experienced anything like the terror that young African Americans face when dealing with law enforcement. I’ve never felt I was in grave physical danger during an interaction with police, and I recognize that as a form of privilege. But it shouldn’t take the mass murder of Asian Americans to make the case that we too are victims of racism. “No matter who you are, even if you are an executive or manager, you are still subjected to possible violence for being Asian American,” says Siu. “So no matter how much upward mobility you attain, you’re still seen as Asian American.”
Around the time of the social justice protests over the murder of George Floyd, a curious dynamic began to emerge over the term Bipoc—black, indigenous, and people of color—and just who was covered by the abbreviation. I’d always assumed that Asians were included in “poc.” Why wouldn’t we be? We were, after all, “of color” if you go by skin pigment. But the etymological evolution of Bipoc over the summer to focus specifically on descendants of slaves and victims of European and American colonialism meant excluding specific groups, among them some Asian Americans. The reasoning is, in part, that our economic and educational success means we’re no longer oppressed enough, so to speak. I began to notice spokespeople for social justice movements and even prominent celebrities urging justice for Black Americans and Latinos but conspicuously leaving Asians out of their demands. Political scientist Claire Jean Kim calls this process “racial triangulation,” an insidious evolution that’s resulted in Asian Americans being both “White” and “other.”
And perhaps it’s true, our social justice needs don’t seem as urgent compared with our fellow minorities. We weren’t being shot in the streets—or not as often anyway. But that can’t be the standard of inclusion. My own experiences with discrimination have generally been more subtle, not physically endangering. Here’s another: During a disagreement with a producer on a television show I was writing for, the producer told me I should be happy with the credits I was getting as I was an “affirmative action hire,” which wasn’t true. Television writing doesn’t have an affirmative action program, and while studios do have programs to promote racial diversity in writing staffs, I wasn’t the beneficiary of such a program. It felt as if the producer were simply reminding me that I was other, different, less than, and therefore should be grateful for what I had, even if it was less than I was entitled to.
I tried to make sense of that exchange and still, to this day, don’t understand why the producer, who’d been a friend, decided to put me in my place in that manner. But I’ve begun to suspect that when I can’t figure out why something negative is inexplicably happening to me, it may actually be racism. Asians, like African Americans and Latinos, still have to work harder for promotions and raises than White Americans.
We’re in this struggle too, and recent events have been a stark reminder. We want to be part of this conversation without being accused of appropriating another race’s platform, as often happens on social media when Asian Americans try to join the discourse around Black Lives Matter. That also means that Asian Americans must not fall for White American praise and assume that means we are beneficiaries of the status quo. Because when it matters, we just aren’t. We have our own historical legacy, from Chinese laborers brought here in the 19th century who lived in conditions similar to chattel slavery and who were denied virtually every human right, including the right to reproduce, to Filipino farm workers in California and Japanese Americans in internment camps in the 20th century. My Japanese mother, Fumiko Kometani, when she emigrated to America in 1960, herself didn’t know that history. When I asked what she would have done had she known, she said she would never have come to America.
Racial triangulation has meant we have evolved from model minority to forgotten minority. What could raise our national profile? Perhaps this next generation of Asian Americans will assume those C-suite and cultural C-suite positions that will make it impossible to ignore us. Right now, we don’t have the cultural and political leaders who could demand, and receive, a seat at the table for conversations with White Americans on one side and Black, Latino, and indigenous leaders on the other. In a recent interview with the Atlantic, author Cathy Park Hong made the point that “because we’re invisible, the racism against us has also been invisible.” One partial remedy: cultural and political leadership of the Jay-Z- or Obama-level, national figures whose swagger demands to be seen. (Kamala Harris, we see you.)
I was a magazine journalist and novelist for decades before becoming a television writer. Three of the last four shows I’ve worked on were set in Asia. Yet all three showrunners were very talented White males. (I’m worried that even pointing this out might cost me jobs.) Imagine three shows in Black settings. Would the networks, production companies, and, more importantly, the Black community, let that arrangement pass without comment? Until that changes, until the showrunners, movie stars, and political leaders are also Asian Americans, we will continue to be patted on the head as the model minority or excluded from the social justice movement for being already sufficiently privileged. Sure, we have Awkwafina, Jeremy Lin, Eddie Huang, and they’re each stars in their own right. But come on, much of America has never heard of any of them. It will take a true political and cultural hero, someone who strides the globe like that greatest Asian superstar of all, Godzilla, to galvanize our own community and demand attention from the larger American community. I am confident he or she will emerge. Right now, somewhere in this land, the future media company Asian-American mogul is raising capital or rising up the corporate hierarchy. The future politician and film director and pop star are writing or dreaming the project that will make them the transformative figures who will embody the change we so desperately need them to be.
They won’t magically solve our problems. But they will finally make us impossible to ignore.