When Kathy Khang spoke at the Asian Heritage Lecture on Hope’s campus last week, she had a point to get across: the model minority myth is based on a limited stereotype and is damaging to Asian American rights and respect. The model minority myth is based on the stereotype of Asian Americans as being a high-achieving, serious, polite and successful group of people. While some of these qualities are positive, her point was that the myth erases individuality and makes Asian Americans seem separate. It creates unfair expectations and pressure. Khang points out that Asia has 4.3 billion people and about 2,300 living languages. “The minority myth flattens that to one story, one dimension,” she said. “We are not one thing.”
Khang also expressed concern that the myth can erase collective memories of racism against Asian Americans. She pointed to the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 and the Japanese-American incarceration during World War II as examples of racism that have not been given enough attention. Some (but not enough, according to Khang) students study these events in high school. However, Khang feels that high school is too late for students to learn about these instances of racism. By putting off learning about these events until high school, the events will not become rooted in students’ collective memory but will blend in with the rush of information being absorbed at that time. To prove her point, Khang showed by question and answer that almost no one in the auditorium knew that there were 10 camps during Japanaese-American internment, that 122,000 Asian Americans were detained and that approximately 7,000 of them were US citizens. “We are not taught our history,” said Khang.
Khang pointed to the often overlooked role of Asian Americans as activists and immigrants. Many in the audience were surprised to learn that the original DREAMer, Tereza Lee, was an Asian American, despite the fact that much of the conversation around the DREAM Act centers around Mexican Americans and other ethnic groups. “Her story was the one that influenced and inspired the DREAM Act,” explains Khang. Lee’s parents fled the destruction of the Korean War in South Korea. Her case was supposed to be heard in court on September 12, 2001, but the hearing was prevented by the September 11 terrorist attacks. Before the scheduled date, 62 votes had been lined up and the act was almost guaranteed to pass. However, the attacks changed President Bush’s position on immigration policy, and ever since then the DREAM Act has failed to pass. Khang also pointed out that the highest number of overstayed visas in the United States are from Asian Americans; yet the conversation around immigration continues to leave out discussion of the challenges faced by Asian Americans.
Khang especially believes that schools neglect to mention the history of Asian American activism. She personally did not find out until her thirties that there were many Asian American civil rights activists in the 1950s and 1960s, an era recognized as being pivotal in the black civil rights movement. One example is Yuri Kochiyama, who advocated for black liberation, reparations for incarcerated Japanese-Americans and support for political prisoners. She worked closely with Malcolm X and sought to unite the Asian American rights movement with the black civil rights movement of the time. When she was a child, her father was detained just after coming out of surgery because he had photos of battleships on his wall at home. He became ill during incarceration and died very shortly after being released. Afterwards, Kochiyama and her mother were relocated and sent to a concentration camp in Arkansas for two years. This experience inspired Lee’s lifelong career in activism and advocacy. Khang said, “You may believe that our people as Asian Americans have no history in activism… and that is a lie.”
Khang not only addresses the racism of the past, but also the causes of racism against Asian Americans today. A lot of this racism is being unearthed by the coronavirus. Khang says of the talk surrounding the virus, “Unless for us as Asian Americans we fight against that model minority myth, we’re going to downplay the racism and violence against our own people.” She pointed out how people have been vacating Chinatown in Chicago because of ignorant fears that they might catch the virus. Even though the virus is on every continent other than Antarctica, it has mainly been connected solely with Asians and even with Asian Americans who have spent their whole life in the United States. Khang adds, “The reality around understanding our ancestry and being able to name the things that are beautiful and good and then also being able to name the injustice and the racism is so important.”
For Khang, the calling to advocacy is informed by her Christian faith. She says, “My faith compels me to appreciate and to love and to learn about the beauty and the diversity of God’s creation, and that means everyone in our histories and our stories. And if we can’t learn that and then stand up for one another, for me as a Christian, we have failed.”