Asian-American Dilemma: Good News Is Bad News

Our binary way of thinking about race prevents us from openly discussing the challenges that still exist

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Justin Sullivan / Getty Images

Pedestrians walk by an American flag mural in Chinatown on June 19, 2012 in San Francisco, Calif.

Last week, the Pew Research Center released a report called “The Rise of Asian Americans,” offering a portrait seemingly full of good news. Asian Americans, Pew said, are on the whole more educated, affluent and happier than other Americans. They hew more strongly to family values and an ethic of hard work. And, quietly, these 17 million Asian Americans have surpassed Hispanics as the largest and fastest-growing cohort of immigrants to the U.S.

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The report made headlines everywhere: “Asians Top of the Immigration Class” was a typical, if somewhat ham-handed, one. The leading advocacy groups for Asian Americans were silent for a beat. Then they decried the report. It was “disparaging,” “shallow,” “disturbing.” It perpetuated a patronizing stereotype of Asians as dutiful nerds, a “model minority.” It overlooked the true cultural diversity of the Asian population and obscured the struggles and pain of countless Asians.

Rarely in either the Pew report or in the advocates’ response was this possibility raised: both the good and the bad could be true at the same time.

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Welcome to race in America. It may be 2012, and we may have a black President, but public discussion of race remains inexorably, insanely binary. American race talk used to be literally black-and-white, leaving no room for other colors. Now the problem is it’s figuratively black-and-white. For all our rainbow multiculturalism, there are still basically two choices — in or out, mainstream or opposition, powerful or powerless. Sometimes the labels white and black are used, but they signify more than hue or actual demography — they signify polarity — and any cognitive dissonance must be resolved to one or the other.

This is why those Asian-American advocates felt they had to blast the Pew report. When forced by the media to choose between telling an achievement story or an injustice story — Is yellow white or black?they felt compelled to choose the latter. That’s understandable. There is privation and injustice in Asian America — from high poverty among Hmong refugees to forgotten elders in Chinatowns to the health struggles of Pacific Islanders — and if activists privileged enough to have a voice use it to express complacency or self-congratulation, then they aren’t doing their job. Moreover, Asian Americans rightly resist being used by whites to criticize other groups who aren’t deemed “model.”

Yet this binary is a box. It limits the freedom of Asian Americans to call progress progress, or to discuss openly the causes of the challenges that persist. It makes it harder to unpack the fact that in Asian America, as in America at large, widening inequality and the cult of meritocracy has created more anxiety for both winners and losers. It means we all keep speaking a language of race when we are trying to communicate about issues of class.

Consider Chinese Americans, the largest Asian-American subgroup. Pew tells us that on average the 4 million Americans of Chinese descent have both more college attainment and more poverty than other Americans, both higher incomes and less optimism about race relations. As China grows stronger, Chinese Americans are going to be cast as both valuable bridge-building citizens and aliens of uncertain loyalty. Are we ready for both?

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We may be. Last week, as the Pew report and its backlash broke, two other Asian-American story lines unfolded. First was the commemoration of the 30th anniversary of the killing of Vincent Chin, a Chinese American who was beaten to death in Detroit by resentful white autoworkers who assumed he was Japanese. Those assailants never spent a day in jail. Meanwhile, thanks to Chinese-American Congresswoman Judy Chu, the House of Representatives last Tuesday passed a historic apology for the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act, the “yellow peril” law that for decades banned the immigration or naturalization of people from China.

Both good news and bad. Complexity is here, and it’s not going away. If we must have a binary in our reckoning with race, then, let it be between those who know how to navigate complexity and those who don’t. And let Asian Americans be at the forefront of the first group, showing their compatriots how to embrace diversity and contradiction: how to be truly American.