A new cultural divide

April 25, 2002, midnight | By Elizabeth Green | 19 years, 1 month ago

Asian stereotypes surface in halls

In the midst of a heated discussion, the pitch of senior Justina Hicklyn's voice rises as she spots live evidence to introduce to her argument. It's lunchtime, and she and her friends are sitting against a row of salmon-colored lockers, people-watching. Make that, Asian-watching.

Hicklyn's just been describing a division she's observed among her Asian peers: they're either "urbanized," she says, excusing her generalization, or "smart."

Now, she's pointing out an Asian girl walking down Blair Blvd. That girl, she says, is the urbanized kind. The girl wears tight Parasuco jeans and carries a small black purse over her shoulder. Her face is made up, and a tattoo decorates her arm.

Less than a minute later, Hicklyn, who is black, is pointing out another Asian girl, the "smart" kid. She juggles books and a backpack and doesn't appear to be wearing make-up.

Hicklyn's assessment of the second student as hard-working and socially shy—what some might affirm as the girl's "old school" or traditional Asian identity—is what author and academic Frank H. Wu would term a prime specimen of the model minority myth materialized.

More than any other American minority race, the myth goes, Asians have been successful in all their pursuits, making them the model that others should follow. In an e-mail interview, Wu, whose book Yellow: Race in America Beyond Black and White recently hit stores, called this myth dangerous. At risk: the continued respect of non-Asian Americans for their Asian fellows.

In the halls of Blair, the Asians-as-perfect myth has spawned, in the words of one non-Asian student, the "socially acceptable" practice of casual anti-Asian racism and stereotyping.

"Okay, you know everything!"

One of the leading critiques of the model minority myth is that it unfairly discounts blacks and Hispanics as the failure minorities: if Asians can score high on standardized tests, some ask, what's stopping other minorities from doing the same? Wu worries that this unfair perception could cause substantial resentment of Asians, not to mention a low self-image among those races unfairly deemed inferior.

Senior Ugochi Onwuegbu, who is black, says her observations of her Asian peers' stellar work habits—she describes them as "born to study"—causes her frustration. "Sometimes it makes me so angry," says Onwuegbu, who explains that she sometimes wants to throw up her hands to her Asian peers and confess, "Okay, you know everything!"

But while non-Asians may feel threatened by the success they perceive as nearly synonymous with Asian-ness, Wu writes in his book that the perception of Asian prowess is just that—a perception. A University of Hawaii study of economic prosperity he cites concluded that "in almost every category whites showed advantages over most Asian Americans."

Despite these numbers, white students also report some frustration that they have not achieved the same levels of success they feel their Asian peers have won.

According to junior Alex Hutchinson, that might be why "nonchalant" anti-Asian slurs like "Oh, they're such robot[s]" and "They're so stale," comments which he says aren't uncommon among his friends. "No one really flinches when you say, ‘Man, he's one of those good Asians.'"

Senior Eli Roth acknowledges that the casual comments he admits to making against Asians are unfair. He says that "in a perfect world" he would abstain from slurs. But, Roth continues, "it's not a perfect world, and sometimes you give up a little piece of karma for a laugh."

But even if it gets a laugh, Wu writes, any kind of stereotyping is wrong. Especially given the growing trend he has observed towards more subtle and unrecognized racism, Wu rebukes even the most seemingly harmless stereotypes. "What seems like benign childish jokes to the majority can seem like an endlessly recurring nightmare to a minority," he writes.

A tolerance for intolerance

Senior Mike Fan, who was born in China, can attest to living such a nightmare of small but hurtful acts of racism. But the nightmare is fading. "I'm used to it," he says. "I have experienced stereotypes and racist [behavior] for most of my life." Eventually, he says, there's a breaking point for how much he'll take to heart.

His explanation for the cause of flippant racism: a culture of quiet. "Asians don't tend to speak up for themselves as much as other races," he says. "In my perspective, we're more tolerant of the discrimination."

And because of Asian Americans' general silence, Fan believes, their fellow citizens have become ignorant of what it means to be Asian. "I don't think Americans have enough understanding of Asian culture," he says.

Senior Enoch Chu felt especially misunderstood when, in searching for college scholarships, he discovered that many organizations don't consider Asian Americans, who comprise about three or four percent of the country's population, minority Americans.

And that leaves him feeling jilted. "They're saying every minority here should get help but Asians," Chu explains. But, "There are poor Asian people; there are Asians that drop out of school; there are Asians in jail. We're just as diverse as any other racial group, so don't stereotype."

Two schools?

Senior David Pham, whose jet black hair is cut short everywhere but the front, leaving long bleached-at-the-tips strands to spike down on the sides of his face, is living proof that there is more than one kind of Asian. He calls himself "new school."

People of this school, he says, can be identified by their hip-hop flavor. Being "new school," according to Pham, is also about integrating into American culture. "That's another way to break ice, getting into hip hop," he explains.

But Chu, who says he's not a part of Pham and others' hip-hop-infused subculture, thinks there's more to the "new school" designation than ice-breaking.

It seems to him that those of his friends who have embraced a new style have done so in response to stereotypes like the model minority myth. "A lot of Asian Americans are viewed as book smart, and that's not a cool image," Chu says, "especially for teenagers. So they try to reinvent themselves."

Chu believes this is the wrong way to react to stereotype. What's wrong, he wonders, with being smart? Looking the opposite is like "taking the gains we've gotten and saying, ‘to hell with it.'"

Still others reject the notion that Asians can be classified into clear-cut categories like old and new school at all. "You can't say that all Asians are either this or this," explains senior Michael Li. "People are just who they are."

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Elizabeth Green. Elizabeth Green is seventeen years old. She is also happy to take on the position of editor-in-chief of Chips this, her senior, year. In fact, she has so enjoyed her forays in high school journalism that she is thinking about pursuing a career in the … More »

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