"What is a Model Minority?" Why? Radio episode with guest Emily S. Lee
4:14PM Mar 15, 2022
Jack Russell Weinstein
model minority myth
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Hi, I'm Jack Russel Weinstein host of why philosophical discussions about everyday life. On today's episode, we'll be asking what a model minority is our guest Emily Lee, please visit by radio show.org For our archives show notes and to support the program. Click donate on the upper right hand corner to make your tax deductible donation to the University of North Dakota secure website. We exist solely on listener contributions. There's a Doonesbury comic strip from during the Ford administration that goes like this. Uncle Duke, a drug addled narcissist modeled after a Hunter S. Thompson is being sent to China as a diplomat. He's explaining to someone why he was chosen over someone else. The president, he says his toughening up he will not be duped by the reds. It's his own record. Duke explains. That makes him an ideal diplomat saying, I've shown I know how to work with minorities. While Duke continues his rap, the guy he's talking to just stands there puzzled thinking minorities. It's a brilliant moment. As Duke goes on to explain that the Chinese are in his words, and especially tricky people, the reader is forced to come to terms with a word that purports to mean one thing, but actually communicates another. A minority is supposed to be a small subset of a larger group of people. But even in the mid 70s, China had the largest population in the world. Politically, the term minority isn't a numerical designation. Even if in 1975, China had had fewer people than say, India, they'd still be their own country, a sovereign state beholden to no one. So the term minority couldn't have met someone who loses a political battle either. China makes its own decisions. So what does Duke mean by the term, physical features, he thinks that the Chinese are minorities, because they look different than he does. And they all look differently to him in similar ways. As much as North America and Europe are politically diverse regions both are liberals and conservatives seem to hold uncle Dukes worldview. White is the term that we use to designate the folks that get the most attention and people of color is the phrase that has come to denote everyone else. Somehow, whatever skin shade someone from Thailand has or from Ecuador, or from the Ivory Coast, they're all considered part of the same group. They're all non white. Now, maybe, maybe we could explain this if we thought of the two terms as code for colonizers in the colonized. But this doesn't really work either. If we're about colonialism, the former Soviet Bloc countries would all be considered non white, and Ukrainians would be losing the residual whiteness as we speak. And not for nothing. China itself was never colonized. Although they did invade Vietnam Korean part of Myanmar, there's no scenario in which Duke is right, the Chinese are not minorities.
The same could not be said for Chinese immigrants. Of course, once someone becomes a naturalized American, they are numerically and politically a minority member in the United States. But they're not identified by their particular country of origin, at least not by the media and the census. Chinese immigrants are called Asian Americans, a category that includes people from Japan, Korea, Vietnam, India, the Philippines and other countries. Russia, which is an Asia is not included in the list. But Mongolia, which is between China and Russia is it's all pretty confusing. Maybe this wouldn't matter if all I was talking about was demographics. But that's not what the word minority is supposed to do. As a cultural and political term, it's supposed to tell us not where someone is from, but how we're supposed to feel about them. If you're a conservative majority member, you're supposed to be suspicious of minorities, a liberal one, you're expected to celebrate their proximity. If you're a conservative minority member, you're supposed to see someone of a different minority background is corrupting your own. And if you're a liberal minority, you're supposed to claim that you're all in it together. And that because you're all non white, you're all basically the same. Now, this is overly simplistic, of course, there's lots to take issues with in my taxonomy. But my central point is that the term minority is as much an emotional sign point as it is a measure of power, and more often than not, it inspires negative emotions, not positive ones, except in one particular case, the term model minority, a model minority is group that is deemed particularly economically successful, an outlier from the rest. Asian Americans are the most commonly cited example of model minorities. And this is what we're going to explore today. Is it good to be a model minority? Is it a compliment? Should all immigrants aspire to such designation? The answer to all these questions is probably no. On today's episode, we'll talk with our guest about the experience of such a label not from the outside but from within. She'll talk about what it means to be an Asian American philosopher, a Korean American philosopher, and not just in regards to the philosophical concepts she explores, but also how being categorized as a model minority affected her academic life. Not surprisingly, autobiography is central to understanding the experience of the marginalized. At the heart of our discussion will be the tension between the individual and the community, and authenticity and culture. With this in mind, I will caution myself out loud to remember that because the term minority pushes us to think of group members as interchangeable, because we've all been raised to see all Asian Americans as the same as Uncle Duke did. I have to be careful not to see our guest as an official spokesperson for anyone other than herself. If she represents anyone, its philosophy the same as me. Whatever the value of the majority minority dichotomy may be, it runs deep in our culture and needs to be explored. And now our guest Emily s. Li is professor and chair in the Philosophy Department of California State University, Fullerton. She's the author of numerous articles, and editor of two volumes specializing in philosophy of race, phenomenology and feminism. Emily, welcome to why.
Thank you for having me.
If you'd like to participate, share your favorite moments from the show and tag us on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook. Our handle is always at y radio show. That's why ra di o sh O W, you can always email us at ask email@example.com Listen to our previous episodes for free, learn more and donate at y Radio show.org. Okay, so, Emily, that was a lot there. Am I making too big of a deal about the term minority? Am I being an obsessive philosopher? Is does it really have that kind of baggage? Or Or should we just move on?
I'm Jack, I want to say that I really appreciate it your introduction, I think you've actually phrased it incredibly well. And if you are being too much of a philosopher, I think you're being a philosopher in the end, in a good way in the right way. Really. I really appreciate your characterization. Situation really.
Is this something that when you talk about you face skepticism, I know that in the beginning, feminism was sort of thought of as not real philosophy, folks who were academics in the 1960s and 70s, their work was dismissed. Is this happen when you talk about philosophy of race and minority? Or is the academy ready to deal with all of the complexity?
I think it depends on the circles much like the the the dichotomy that you set up between conservatives and liberals, among both the white and the minority populations. I think it sort of depends where you are in that framework. There is a small, but dedicated group talking about philosophy, race, and taking philosophy race very seriously. And but the majority of the philosophers, I would say at least 50% Do not think that it's really philosophy and or are kind of suspicious of it. They might relegate it more to ethnic studies, or American Studies or sociology, and not necessarily philosophy. But so I guess I think it depends on the audience group.
What's the argument that the critics put forth? And what's the weakness of that? What where did they get it wrong?
Well, I think the main concern is philosophy aims to have analyzed or discuss that which is more universal. And I think inherently an philosophy of race is a denial of just universal theories or aiming towards that would tend to be most generalized and instead and towards more of a specified and more specific knowledge. I think, inherently even in political philosophy, especially, including John Rawls, his book, theory of justice, he aims to universalize and or generalize as much as possible and philosophy of race specifically goes against that in that we make, we try to theorize the specific races and the specific experiences and how that challenges a Universalist understanding of how human beings are living in this world.
When I teach my 300 level, social political philosophy class, which is basically John Rawls and his critics, John Rawls was a philosopher in the early 1970s. I always talk about how the the sort of the question of contemporary political philosophy is, do we focus when we're when we're concerned with diversity do we focus on when Every one has has the same, or do we focus on difference? Do we focus on this universality that you reference? Or do we focus on particularity? And I'm assuming that philosophy of race is taking the second position, right, that diversity means focusing on difference not similarity. Am I interpreting that correctly?
I would agree with you to the for the most part, except that, more recently, I've been trying to theorize I have at least one article entitled identity indifference. And that was inspired by Luma. Net I ns workqueue, talked about how too much of an emphasis on difference may relegate people to to be neglected and are treated as subhuman. So I've been trying to think about both that we do have things, there are some universal elements as human beings, and that emphasizing that may be as politically important as emphasizing some of the emphasizing the differences we have as well. I think prioritizing just the universality may result in the neglect of our differences, but I think over emphasizing our differences may end up isolating us from each other and not caring about each other. So, so I've been trying to think about locating our universal shared common humanity, as well as acknowledging that we do have differences.
That term sub humanism is so powerful, how, how literally, do we take that term? How serious should we you know? I mean, is it as horrifying as as it sounds?
Well, it's a term was initially introduced by Charles mills and invoke the racial contract, which I'm sure you're familiar with. It is a response to great John Mills is yes, it's a it's a response to John Mills is a theory of justice. And not only did Charles Charles Mills was, was sensitive enough to follow it after the sexual contract, which was written by Carol, and her last name is slipping me. But after Mills, his book, there is the sexual contract and the ratio contract and it's in the ratio contract that mill forwards the idea that the blacks were relegated to the subhuman, as those who cannot participate in society, precisely based on their looks. And I would take that seriously. Well, mill said that that was a reason why that blacks were really, you know, was justified to enslave. So I think I take the word very seriously. I think it explains a lot of present day circumstances as well, in terms of justifying the different economic and political stances of African Americans.
Mel's book is fascinating. And it's actually pretty accessible. It's short, it's direct. And one of his theses is that when people talk about the social contract, they they like to talk about it in terms of individuals making an agreement to be self governed, but what the what the social contract really was, what the racial contract is, is an agreement about white supremacy and agreement about what it means to be white what it means to have power over over black people what it means to be black. And so that itself is dichotomous, right? There's the white and black. So So does that mean that Asians Asian Americans, however, we want to call the term Are they not parties to the contract at all?
Well, that's interesting. I do wonder if Charles noses racial contract prioritize the relationship in the West in terms of between whites and blacks? Right, because I do think that at least in in Asian countries, there is more of an I think, there there might have been a social contract among Asians there. I think it is in the the migration or the immigration over that the concept of Asian American uncomplicate Mills his analysis, right, because I guess I'm I'm thinking that, at least to the extent that there are Asian countries, that perhaps there were contracts among among the Asians, right. So, yeah, I think it's only when Asians immigrated over and became Asian Americans that one wonders, where do they sit within Mills's racial contract? I mean, the best way I can think of understanding that is that Asian Americans history in the United States is that there are times when they were relegated as the same as African American there. They were Chinese were designated as black and our history to and and other times relegated as yellow and being slightly different from blacks. But having most of the, there are a lot of laws and rights that were similar to African Americans. And then I think it's only recently that people are suggesting that they may be like Jews and have become white. So yeah, so the racial categorization of Asian Americans have changed historically.
Can you have the concept of Asian or Asian American without the concept of East and West? I mean, when you look at the history of particularly, the commercial progress of the world, the east and west are much more intertwined than then people say, and of course, right now in the world, America wouldn't exist without China. China wouldn't exist without other countries, etc. India certainly is a part of it. Is, is the notion of Eastern pneus. Essential to Asian Ness, or can they be examined as as different ideas as different concepts?
Yeah, I was just thinking about that, because I keep thinking about Elaine Tim's book, she has a book called East to America. So that's from the perspective of Asia, that it's actually the United States, that's Easterners and not Asia, being as being west. So I think context matters in terms of determining who's east or west. So I'm trying to think about how that complicates your your question. And I guess the the term east and west are not absolute is is is what I'm suggesting. I do think that there is still a distinction being made by the difference between the, I guess what we call now the the West and the the developed West, as opposed to the east. So I do know that Asian Americans are trying to challenge that dichotomy of designating one group as East or one group as West. I'm not sure if that answered your question.
Yeah, no, you you really anticipated my next one, which is, which is that? Is east just a reference to direction traveled? Or is it itself such a laden term? Because you use the word developed? Right. I mean, South Korea is as developed as you get Japan is as developed as you get. I mean, I've spent time in Beijing and Shanghai, and they're, you know, international cities. And so what is the laden this of East? And what would we, I don't know, what would we get? What would we learn by considering America as part of the east coast as opposed to America as part of the West?
Yeah, yeah. I think that even the designation of Asia as the East has everything to do with the initial state where Europe was trying to expand out of its borders, I don't know if it was for searching for spice or, or just searching for, you know, to transcend or borders, or, or, or, I mean, there, there are myriad reasons of why Europeans were expanding out. And I think that the initial designation of Asia as the East had to do with the Europeans being able to write history, right and dominate what we call knowledge at this point. They are the ones who had an epistemic priority and determine what what is knowledge and, or what is true. And I think it's from that initial, explore exploratory and are colonizing moves that Asia became designated as the East at the United States God designated as the West. But at this point, as we refer to all of the, the West has developed and, and east as developing, even as you say, it is correct that yeah, South South Korea, and large parts of China, large parts of India are incredibly well developed. And I think depending on one's class level, in each of these, you get as much of the amenities to being developed.
This is an unfair question asked right before the break, but I use the phrase epistemic authority and you and you talked about how it means, you know, deciding what truth is, and of course, epistemology is the study of knowledge. When we talk about America versus Asian and school systems. Asian school systems are often talked about as is focusing on memorization and technology and math and science. And, and that's why quote, they're ahead of us whatever that means is that part of the foreign notation of people is, is classifying a different body of knowledge and a different kind of education, also a form of othering, or is that just debates about schooling and its people choosing what they want to prioritize for their own funding,
I would have to say the latter. I mean, there, there may be a kernel of truth that perhaps memorization is as a as a tool is used in the school systems. But I would not think that it's the entirety of the educational system in in Asia. I was just thinking about this, because I was at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. And every single time I go there, there seems to be a modern Chinese art exhibit there. And I am just totally fascinated by their, their modern art, it's really quite brilliant. And I cannot imagine that an entire country that has been educated to only memorize could come up with some of the, the modern art that we were seeing there. It rivaled anything we are doing here in the United States. And I felt the same way when I was in parts of South America, Mexico City, especially had this amazing modern art. And I think that kind of, of the art, the modern art just showed a lot of political and conceptual thinking on political awareness of the current situation in terms of the relationship between the United States and China, I can't imagine that such some kind of conceptual art could have arisen if their entire education system was all about just memorizing so. So I completely agree with you that I think it's the latter in that a describing Asian Asia's education system that was part of the colonizing a part of the othering of these countries. And I highly advocate, at least, shunning that. I just cannot imagine that all the population groups are subject to that. Only that kind of education 24/7.
That's a super compelling transition. And when we get back, we're going to talk about culture. We're going to talk about assimilation, we'll dive directly into the question of what a model minority is and what that and how that affects people. But before that, you're listening to Emily Lee and Jack Russell Weinstein on why philosophical discussions but everylife We'll be back right after this.
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You are back with wide philosophical discussions about everyday life. I'm your host, Jack Russell Weinstein. We're talking with Emily Lee about the concept of model minority and minorities in general. And then looking over Emily's biography, I discovered a very fun coincidence that she and I went to the same high school at the Bronx High School of Science. If I did my math, right, I graduated in 1987. And if I did my math, right, she graduated in that 91. And we probably overlapped one year, although I, you know, I don't know that we knew each other. But one of the things about the high school that was interesting was there was a group that, you know, at least when I was there, called the ACS, the Asian cultural society. And the Asian Cultural Society was an ethnic club that, that a lot of different people belong to, but in my memory, they were mostly Korean. They were hipsters, they were frisbee players. There was a sort of it was it was a term that we used to denote a kind of sort of fashion and a kind of person rather than the ethnicity. And I guess the question I want to ask you is,
as I remember,
I actually didn't even occur to me to ask you that, but I probably should. Why are you a member and is that why it's the Asian cultural society as opposed to say, the Asian student union or something like that. Did I describe it fairly?
I? I think so. It's so funny because I graduated in 90 actually. And so it's okay. You know, it's been a, it's been a long season. I haven't thought about it that much anymore. But I have to admit I wasn't a member, I was kind of a very serious person, especially that and just kind of worrying about my future. So I wasn't as involved in development in my social life as much. But I really am not sure why they call it Asian Cultural Center. That's a really good point. Jack. I didn't I didn't think about that. You're right. I when I the I think you were right, that there was they were a bunch of hipsters. They were not necessarily recent immigrants at all. I guess. I, as you know, because Bronx High School science is a specialized high school, most of the students tested into it. And so I don't know, that's why I recall Bronx Science not having a lot of recent immigrants and instead having a lot of, at least, like, second generation or 1.5 generation students. So yeah, I wonder if that's why they were more invested in trying and keeping the culture or a sense of culture alive. there as well. That is interesting. And I think you're right, that there would just be East Asian, there's right there. The Korean Chinese Japanese, I think, more than any other Asian population groups there. So that Yeah, that's interesting to think about.
I'm resisting the urge to play the Hey, did you know this person game, and we could do that off the air. But um, but But and if you were a serious student, then I guarantee we didn't know each other because I always described my experience as failing my way through the number one academic high school in the country. I was a very, very bad student. And I ended up getting into college on a special program for nerdy wells. But but that that's, that's, that's a different question. The idea of recent immigrants versus a established families is super interesting. And so I wonder if you would talk about what a model minority is. And then in the process, or after you do that, I'm going to ask you, how much of this is about class and is about generations? Yeah, I mean, what, what, what, what is a model minority?
Oh, model minority was a term coined by a New York Times author, back into the I think it was 1960s. The cover had a bunch of kids who had Ivy League sweatshirts on, they were all clearly headed towards the Ivy League. But he said that the reason why Asian Americans were the ones who are likely to do so, too, economically well, especially by getting into the Ivy League was because their cultural values were similar to white Americans. So that's how we dubbed model minority, specifically, I think, I think he was suggesting he was suggesting something by eliminating other people and suggesting other people do not have the same values specifically, African American, Latin American and, and, and, and others. So that's how he designated Asian Americans. I guess I could go into all the problems with that, or modern minorities, but I'm not sure if this is the right time for that.
Yeah, I want to I want to hold off on that just for a second, but I do want to dive into it. Is it? I'm trying to figure out how to ask this question, is it uh, the term values, we talked about values all of the time and values in American politics gets associated with family values, which is code for conservative Christian, but then there are cultural values? To what extent can you pair the term minority with the term value? Are those artificial are those genuine attempts to describe a sort of traditional family life? It seems like associating one complex term with an even more complex term only muddies the water rather than clarifying things.
Yes, I think so. I mean, I know that what they are trying to get at is, I mean, usually the kind of values that are prioritized and or that are valued, I guess, is is hard working men willing to sacrifice on the immediate run and not lead a hedonistic life in it. In the immediate run in order to prepare for the future in some sort of way, in a colleague of mine says it's very much like the, the grasshopper and the ant story, I think where one animal is someone who prepares for the winter and the other animal just sort of luxuriated enjoys the summer and these sort of values are usually associated with the Asian Americans. But But I don't I don't know, I think that our values like that emphasize more in one culture versus another culture. I don't I'm not sure. I think it's hard to say, what are the reigning values for one culture and instead, it makes me think about how the language in the somewhere around the 1960s to 1980s, the language of describing the poor has been that they have their own values that the poor live I live the life that they live, and the reason why they are poor is because they're their own culture that I think it was called the culture of poverty or so that at some point, there was a turning to justifying that the poor are poor, because they want to be poor, and because of their own dairy practices, and turning away from thinking about the poor, poor, because their circumstances are they they were born into circumstances that that are very difficult to get out of, and that the state can get involved in this. So. So the language of culture and values are usually used in a strategic way to sort of justify a certain certain turns and how we should view people. I guess, I found sounding like Anita and his questioning the use of the language of morality to control population groups. Yeah, so I'm ending up with any change sufficient at more values?
Well, and it's super interesting to hear the modern version of this because from the late 17th century on in England and other countries, there was this dichotomy between the deserving poor and the undeserving, the deserving poor people who, as you described were poor for no fault of their own, and they deserved help. Whereas undeserving were people who were lazy, shiftless, you know, taking advantage of the system. Right, you know, the Ronald Reagan's welfare queen, right? He drives the Cadillac because she gets so much money from the government. So So I guess the question then is, is the phrase model minority? Is it a compliment? Does someone want to be a model minority? If someone says, Hey, you're a member of a model minority? Are they praising you?
I think that people think they are. But I think that actually what's going on is doing a couple of things. I think one, it's suggesting that in the United States, there are no barriers for economically climbing the ladder, and hence those who are not climbing the ladder, it's their fault. So I think on the one hand, by isolating Asian Americans out as the model minority, what they are doing is saying, Oh, if African Americans or Latin Americans are not climbing as fast as Asian Americans, then it's really their fault. So on the one hand, I think what it's doing is drawing lines of who are succeeding and who aren't succeeding, and blaming those who are not succeeding as a result. On the other hand, too, I think, even for the Asian American community, it since there are the since are designated as model minorities. It seems like they're saying, Oh, you're inevitably going to succeed and hence it. There, there is no sense of giving credit to the Asian American people who are climbing the economic ladder. There's a sense of inevitability about it, because you are Asian American, and I and for me, that has been one of my concerns, because I know that there are Asian Americans living in poverty. And so I wonder about the Asian Americans who are not climbing the economic ladder so easily. And from my experience, I have noticed that even from frog science, those who went on to state schools, and those who went on to, or the privately liberal arts schools, there has been a difference in where they are economically. So yeah, I don't know if what I said made sense, right. It was clear or not.
No, it it makes perfect sense. And I think it's a I'm just to make your point even more starkly, I look at all my Facebook friends and the folks from high school and where they aren't now. And, you know, and this is emphasized by the fact that I was a crappy crappy student. And I and I can't overestimate, you know, I can't over say that if my best friend Gail, we're on the phone right now I could, I could provide the evidence. But I look at where I am economically, and where my black friends from Bronx Science are economically. And I'm, you know, shoulders above them for no deserving reason. Right. And, and, and, and I suspect if you look at other subgroups in high school, it's, it's the same. And so I guess the, I'm trying to so basically, and tell me if I get this right, the prot, one of the problems with the phrase model minority is, if you succeed, you get no credit for it, because it was inevitable. But if you fail, you are totally to blame for it, because the world was your oyster and you blew it off. Is if that's the case, and and if that's the case, does the phrase, eradicate the idea of individuality? Is there are there no individuals in model minority communities? Is it all just collective?
I think that this speaks back to the difference between political philosophy and philosophy of race. Right? I think that let's like any stereotypes are the the attempt to universalize and or generalize, complicates any attempt to any attempt at particularity or individuality? Right. So I think, I think stereotypes by definition and to at least dissuade and or consider less important the particularities of individuals. Right. So yeah, I think that's the case. Can I say one thing, though, two, out? Sure. About the motor minority. I do want to insist that I mean, I think the the stereotype does not serve Asian Americans. Well, and one of my main reasons at this point is that it, it causes intra minority conflict in terms of positions, African Americans, Latin Americans, Asian men, or at this this particular stereotype positions, Asian Americans against African Americans and Latin Americans. And, and I and to me, that's still the biggest danger, I think. I mean, I don't want to underestimate the impact on Asian Americans themselves ourselves. But I think that I still don't I still find it incredibly dangerous to define other my other minorities as not having the same values to economically succeed. Right. So I think I still think that's really interesting, too. So
is, is this a strategic critique? And what I mean by that is, does this intra minority conflict prevent people from unifying and politically organizing and or is it an identity critique? Because it messes with the self image and the self esteem that one associates with one particular minority identity?
I think if I'm understanding you correctly, because I'm not sure if I understand the second part of your question, but I think if I'm understanding you correctly, I'm going to agree with you on the first one, I think David Kim said that, that he thinks that that model minority myth is the probably the the most strategic and dangerous tool by by white supremacists in the 21st century. So he especially describes this and I agree with him that is a method of divide and conquer so that the different minority groups or ethnic groups or don't work together or don't align together and or don't see that their pilots have similar similarities. That part I will completely agree with that I think I'm not quite understanding your second the second part of your question if you if you want to articulate that one again.
Sure, let me try again, because I think the political stuff is super interesting as well. But um, so I guess what I meant was so much of of how do we control people and so much of people's own destiny is based on what kind of self image is imposed on them. And so presumably I model minority A member will look in the mirror and say, You are the kind of person who succeeds, right Kirkegaard one says that the man he says, Man, right, he says the man who is not Napoleon doesn't look in the mirror and says, I am not Napoleon, he looks in the mirror and laments that I am not the kind of man who is Napoleon. Right. So the Asian American looks and says, I'm the kind of person who succeeds. And the African American or or the the Latin American looks in the mirror and says, I'm not the kind of person who succeeds. And so I guess the question was, is, is the critique deep on that level as well? Does that does the term model minority mess with the self image as well as the political organizing? Yes,
yes. Yes. And if anything I should, I think what you're doing is actually being asking me a really nice question to sort of talk about the way I've been talking about the model minority minority myth is that I think the political critique has been made, it has been made by other Asian American scholars and Asian American Studies, ever since its inception in 1966. But my analysis of in my discussion of the model minority has been precisely on this level that you're talking about in terms of I, I am pondering, what does the existence of the stereotype to for, for individual people, for individual Asian Americans who grow up with this stereotype in place and the impact it has on on them? With the stereotype in place, I think, I think the stereotype does not affect, or perhaps is less impactful for perhaps middle class or upper class people. But I think the existence of this stereotype, I think, has an impact on especially the Asian Americans living in poverty or trying or struggling economically. And I knew that there are a specific populations that that are struggling economically, and I think the existence of this stereotype doesn't really help them, I have to tell you that one of my underlying reasons for considering this way of thinking about the impact of the model minority myth on the Asian American person is that, especially during the the recession that we went through, I guess, 15 or so years ago, the latest recession we had, I was struck by the number of Korean Americans and suicide attempts. So I think it's those images that that made me sort of wonder about the existence of this stereotype, so and the impact on the individual person, the individual, Asian American person,
I found that that part of your writing super interesting and written information that I did not know about the suicide rates in Asian American communities. And what if you talk a little bit more about that, but also, there was a period of time, within the last 10 years or so, where there was a lot of attention to what got called Korean anger. There was a huge article in The New York Times Magazine about that. And a that seems to run counter to the model minority myth. But be it seems to support this idea of despair and frustration. Talk a little bit about that, if you if you wouldn't mind about the suicide rates, why that's important. And also, I'm curious how you feel if you remember that discussion, how that fits into the whole discussion.
You know, I did not read this article in The New York Times Magazine about Korean anger, I would love to see it. I will say that I was thinking about there, there was a specific family and in LA, where the father, I think, shot every member of his family, and only the daughter survived. And she had to have some serious surgery done on her face afterwards. And her face was on the cover of, I think the LA Times magazine. And it was images like that, that were really quite startling for me. So when I was writing that article, when I heard about the high rates of suicides among Asian American woman specifically, I guess I just wanted to think about that along because as I was finding out about these high rates of suicides from Asian American women that I was headed, it was also the time when the pill A report came out that Asian Americans self described themselves as being the happiest with their lives and the direction of where their life was going. And I guess I just I found the contrast in the two statistics really startling, and something I wanted to, to talk through. And to think about, I guess, for me, I didn't want to take the, the cultural turn, I think, too many Asian Americans ourselves, as well as I think white America, like to attribute too much of these distinctions on culture. And, and I guess I, much like our earlier discussion has shown it's very hard to pinpoint exactly what is the culture and and so this is why I guess I wanted to talk about not about Asian culture, but about the situation of Asians living in America, Asian Americans, and what the particular situation in in America has done to facilitate some of these reactions or our ways of living in this society. But I haven't seen an article about Korean angered you might say a little bit more about that, Jeff.
I remember, it was it was a phenomenon that that the writers were saying was endemic in the community and largely male. And then what the theory was with that there was a particular kind of anger that was pent up that was hard to control. And that would be released in very inopportune moments and a self destructive existential anger. And and I guess one of the reasons why I remembered it, is that I certainly felt that amongst some of my Korean friends growing up, there was an incident you may actually have been at Bronx Science when it happened, where a friend of mine just had a breakdown as a martial arts expert and stood outside the cafeteria and started breaking all the glass trophy cases with his hands. Wow. And, and everyone was just watching and, and, and it just, it came out of nowhere. And then my really good friend John, would have these bursts of anger when he felt that we were teasing him, sort of, you know, ethnically by my friend, Pedro, Cuban immigrant, used to tease him and call him Chinese just to get his goat. And he would get really, really angry at that. And so there was something about the article that spoke to my experience with with with my Korean friends that I didn't see in, in other population that felt different that black anger, it felt different than Jewish anger. And, and so that's why it's stuck with me. But I guess the the question that comes out of that is, how much of that is? I mean, you're not an expert on this, and you haven't read the article. So I want to figure out why that's the question that you can fairly answer. But you're talking about culture. And surely there's got to be a difference between the culture of being Korean in Korea and the culture of being a Korean American in America. How much of this is about being subjected to a majority culture? And how much of this is about the tension between authenticity and assimilation? What does it mean to be a Korean American in reference to the Korean heritage? And how much pressure how does the mind are the model minority sort of model, a craft what it means to be a real X real Korean a real Japanese person, a real Chinese person, a real Filipino, etc, a real Asian when you're an Asian American at the same time?
I mean, I, I know that there are, are differences from Asian American living here, Asian Americans as opposed to Asian Asians. I mean, personally, I know quite a few Asian Americans go through this as a as a 1.5 generation and I think quite a lot of people like spend their first year out of college going back to what I went back to Korea, and quite a lot of people did this just to go check out right What would our grants or what our real commands and and I definitely did feel like I'm not one of them. I mean, even my body has grown differently and I'm, I'm bigger and taller. Like, I let I let myself have freckles and I don't you know, they're just done things about Were I, I think growing up in the States I were I'm definitely not just Korean and, and it's that experience that does make me really relate to the dreamers who were brought here as children. And they, they make clear that, you know, they're not from their original countries, because they've grown up here. This is all they know. And so I definitely feel that, but I think this question of, yeah, is the anger? Is the anger that described by this article? And is it a result of living here in the United States and growing up here? Or is it something distinct from Korea? I think, I want to instead of answering that question, because I feel like there's probably no absolute answer to that. There's probably some, some elements of both. Okay. And we'll never quite know exactly what that element is. And I think that's, that's why that's one of the reasons why I specialize in phenomenology, it's all these sort of ambiguous, not absolutely certain kinds of knowledge that that I want to at least explore without actually looking for a way to say, without certainty that it's only this or only that, but entertaining, the idea that it's both and then probably some other stuff as well. Right. And so on the one hand, I want I want to put put aside the question of, is it because they're Asians growing up in the United States? Or is it a part of Asian culture? I'm going to say, some of each and then some and the instead of that question, I guess I wanted to get back to this article on the depiction of Koreans as having this very kind of unique sort of anger, right, because I find that so interesting, because I see a parallel between that and the way that the narrative about domestic violence in, in minority population. So there there has, I've, I worked as a board member for the Korean American Family Service Center, which is a Domestic Violence Service Center, I was on the board for over seven or two, eight years. And, and from that work, I've become just sort of, I've looked into epidemic of domestic violence. And I do know that before the passage of the domestic violence Act, as Kimberly Crenshaw has written about out there, there have been depictions of African American men, and Latin American men as as having all this anger, and as taking it out on their family. So to me, I see sort of parallels of even isolating the anger as very specific to Korean men, to the to the same sort of strategy of isolating this, this tendency for domestic violence and only specific ethnic groups. So I kind of wonder about about whether this is about the truth of do they have this anger or not? Or Should this discussion really be about strategically what's going on in attempting to depict certain population groups as having an innate emotional character? That that is uncontrollable? I think it might be part of a strategy of acquiring them. Is that Is that fair to say? I think that's where I'd like to go. Because I think until we pass the domestic violence Act, there was no recognition that, you know, white men show anger to right. I mean, I as I understand that the, the, the number of internal within the borders of the United States, I think it was during the,
in the last couple of years, we noticed that the most amount of if we think about the gun, the shootings in the United States, it is the acts of young white men that have taken the most number of lives right, in the United States, domestically. So, so yeah, I guess I find dangerous, isolating anger or a very specific kind of anger to one minority group if that's, if that's okay to say
that that makes perfect sense. That makes perfect sense to me. Especially since when, you know, at the school shootings and church shootings, the the the young white men are often called troubled young men or spurned. Yeah. You know, he couldn't handle rejection. It wasn't. But so so I guess then
and positioned as an end position as an exception to the white population, right? Well, right. It's for the Koreans or they're positioned as endemic to the population group. So, so I find that quite dangerous. Yes, please, sorry for interrupting.
No, no, of course. And so does that mean that the phrase model minority is, and maybe minority in general, is a form of essentialism? And by essentialism, I mean, that it reduces the population to one specific, necessary characteristic that everyone has have that group has in common? And that has to be acknowledged in order to describe the character and the humaneness of that person? Is his model minority and essentialist term?
Yes. Excellent. Keep going. As I previously said, certainty, is one of the things I give up here, I give you a very
what why yes.
I think for all the reasons you just you just mentioned. And I guess what, I guess most of my work is trying to defray the necessity of describing Asian Americans that way. Both in terms of by insisting on the variety of the diversity of Asian Americans, right, as well as on just strategically thinking about the functioning of the identity group. I think empirically, it's just simply not true. So it's empirically it's not true, then. Then what, what is the function of it? Right? And, yeah,
in a minute, I want to I want to talk about a little bit about phenomenology, explain what that is, and then ask you about a little bit about autobiography. But But I have to ask, since we're talking about these sort of counter narratives right now, um, how does the COVID Anti A rise in anti Asian sentiment, particularly anti Chinese sentiment, affect the model minority myth? Is it is it you know, in times of crisis in times of social unrest, people lash out, we know that, but is is this particular wave of bigotry? Is it going to chip away at the at the model minority myth? Or is it is it you know, all part of the same package in some way?
As I understand it, in the history of Asians in the States? That I think there have been ways depicting Asian Asian Americans as as foreign, just foreigners, right, foreigners were unwanted, unneeded, unnecessary to the United States. And I think the modern monetary theory is, is, is I think it's particularly articulation is more recent, but there There have always alongside the model, minority myth has, has always been narratives of that, that Asian Americans are foreigners period. And so and, and as a result, there have been several times in the history of the United States where as foreigners, they have been situated as easy as easy targets whenever there. There have been difficulties within in the society.
The most graphic example of that is putting Japanese Americans in internment camps during World War Two, which was not only you know, an official policy but sanctioned by the Supreme Court in the car Matsu decision, right. So so we can see really graphically the ability to take even one group of Asians and just call them foreigners within the menace within so to speak.
Yeah, yes, that's absolutely a graphic description of that and and I and I think of the the killing of Vincent Chin, and where the two gentlemen who who beat him and killed him and he was a Chinese American just taken to be a Japanese American. There's a there's clearly a mixing in the confusion among The different Asian American populations. So even as I want to respect the different Asian American, Asian countries and Asian, Asian American population groups, I think I also want to acknowledge that that for Asian American Asians living in the United States, there's a sense in which our our fate is linked in many ways. This recent instantiation of it, I think, I'm not sure that the animosity is only directed toward the Chinese. I think there's definitely a confusion among of the Chinese onto other Asian Asian populations. So and, and I don't know if even if it does sort of bump the model minority myth, somewhat and perhaps defray it to some extent, I think. I'm sure others will come up. Yeah, I think, come up.
So as we sort of wind down, you talked about phenomenology, which is the study the the philosophy of experience, the study of experience, and the structures of experience, and it gets really, really complicated really quickly. But one of the ways that you bring experience in is by talking about people's story people's autobiography, and I wonder if you talk just a little bit about if and how this has affected you personally, your your academic life, your identity now, to our listeners, right? This is not a confessional that this is a therapy, you don't have to reveal any deep secrets, but but I'm just wonder if, in some sense, right, that the journey from I mean, your your parents were immigrants, right. And and I mean, is this something you felt in your day to day life and is this something that is manageable or in escapable?
Well, let me just back up a little bit in that and say that, so phenomenology as a area philosophy, and as a method was just I think, trying to avoid the the words move upon T cause intellectualizing ideas and philosophy where we kind of got ahead of ourselves, and he wanted, he followed an historic position of actually describing the things in the world first, so that we could we could make sure to get get our ideas about the world, right, by taking a clean assessment right and accurate as possible assessment of the of the things in the world of our experience, and hence, that's why the focus back into are we actually describing our experiences correctly? Or are we projecting our ideas, our desires, our wants onto the things in the world and then just describing it much like when we anthropomorphize animals, right, or plants or or whatnot, so he, I think there we're just aiming to not do that and try to be more accurate about our, our experiences of the world.
Yeah, Husserl called this bracketing the truth. Right. And he and he wanted to say, you know, the question of why is secondary to the question of, you know, what a person's experiences and that and I guess that's why I, I wanted to ask you about your autobiography. Because certainly, if this stuff doesn't have real impact on real people, then we're just intellectualize it right? And if we spend all the time talking about why and not how or you know, the serious consequences, then philosophy becomes the most ivory tower useless sort of aspects. So, so again, without getting too personal is Is this something that you found necessarily intertwined to the Asian American experience?
No, I don't think that I entered phenomenology thinking that and I think I did not start writing about being an Asian American until I was invited to do so. I think the the first invitation to really consider being an Asian American woman and the political relevance of this came from Donna Marcano when she was organizing a special issue for Hypatia. She urged me several times to try and consider submitting something. And she said consider really consider reading and writing about what's the importance of being an Asian American woman? As to philosophy philosophizing, and, and so I think I think she might have seen before I did that, because I was I think I was always just quite, I'm not good at talking about myself. So I think even though I was interested in philosophy of race, my my way into philosophy race has been through African American writers actually, Audrey Lorde, Zora Neale Hurston and these people. And so I think that, as I said, because I'm not comfortable talking about myself, I didn't try to think about it in terms of the, for Asian American subjects. And I think it is, it's only through some urgings of colleagues and friends in philosophy that I saw that they were right there, there was clearly a, in a way to think about using the phenomenological method did suggests that trying to understand how my personal life can actually be used as some of the experiences to further think about philosophy of race, I was probably too close to the subject to actually see that oh, that's really clear. Yeah, when they came to it later,
and then of course, reveals a massive hole in the conversation that we just don't have time to talk about, and that is intersectionality. And this way, that, that being a woman and intersects with the model, minority, description, and Asian pneus, and, and able bodied Ness, and sexuality and all that kind of stuff that that has been the legacy of the last 1520 years, I Pasha is a is probably the most prominent feminist journal. And I can certainly write them and ask them, if they'll let our readers let me link to the article and let our interest reader for free because it's super, it's super interesting and helps illustrate the kind of thing that you're talking about. So I guess, since we're on the verge of another 90 minute conversation, I have to call a halt to it. So I do want to say, Emily, this has been super interesting. And a topic that we really haven't talked about, on this level, I think in the entire history of the show. So thank you so much for joining us on why.
Thank you. Thank you, again, for inviting me and for your incredibly generous questions. I have to say they're really well articulated. I thought you were more articulate than me in many places. And yeah, thank you again for this really, really nice interview. Thank you. Thank you. I'm interested in this topic, too. Yeah.
Oh, I appreciate it very much in the kind words and I just emphasize that I am only as good as my guest. So So I give you all of the credit. For those who are listening. This is why philosophical discussions about everyday life we've been talking with Emily Lee about model minority and the meaning in the Asian American experience. I will be back with a few more thoughts right after this.
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You're back with why philosophical discussions about everyday life. I'm your host, Jack Russell Weinstein, we were talking with Emily Lee, about the idea of model minority. You know, I think about the history of backhanded comments about different ethnic groups and races, you know how all black men can dance and have rhythm and how Jews are great with money and all this sort of stuff that that on the one hand sounds like a compliment, but on the other hand, is really about taking a three dimensional person and making them two dimensional, taking an individual and making them interchangeable with everyone else in the group. That's what the phrase model minority does. And nowhere in the United States is this more explicit than the way that we have treated, talked about thought about and depicted Asian Americans right from the the racism in cartoons and movies, to the reduction of the heritage that they bring to the fat to talking about Japanese, Korean, Chinese, Malaysian as if they're all the same, right as if you you know, can't tell the cultures apart and the people apart and, and all that sort of stuff you know I saw this interesting documentary a few years ago about general tso's chicken, the Chinese food General Tso's chicken and how it's not Chinese how it was invented in the United States and how every small town Chinese restaurant has its own form of General Tso's chicken, how it really is personal even though Americans think of it as an authentic Chinese food. And all of that is to say that once we get to a level deeper, to talk about discrimination, prejudice, stereotyping, once we get past the initial discussion of good, bad, justice, injustice, we get to some really, really subtle places. And model minority may be the most subtle of all sort of arenas, the most subtle of all notions that, that it does so much damage in such a pretty package. And that's what we talked about today. And that's what Emily really broke down for us in the clearest of ways, the idea that it's an insult the idea that it rests on the concept of minority in general, the idea that it's it's intertwined with the American history of the American experience. And so this is definitely a topic more than many that we've had on the show that I think it's worth going back to, I think it's worth going back to this idea of model minority and asking ourselves, How do we let this depict our vision of others? How do we let this tell us about ourselves? Because those who are subject to the term are subject to it externally and internally politically, and existentially. And that makes it powerful, dangerous, and certainly worth considering philosophically. You have been listening to Jack Russel Weinstein on why philosophical discussions about everyday life please consider donating to the show at why radio show.org But whether you donate or not, I thank you for listening as always, it's an honor to be with you.
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