Wu Considers the ‘Model Minority’
Published: Wednesday, October 30, 2013
Updated: Thursday, October 31, 2013 12:10
The Boston College Asian American Studies Program, Asian Caucus, Phi Alpha Theta, and American Studies Program welcomed Indiana University history professor Ellen Wu to campus last Thursday. In her lecture, Wu offered a preview of her upcoming book, The Color of Success: Asian Americans and the Model Minority, which seeks to explore the origins of the Asian-American, and particularly the Chinese-American, stereotype as a “model minority.”
“The driving question behind this project was, how did America get from the Yellow peril—in which Asians were seen as aliens and ineligible for citizenship—to Tiger Mom, a very extreme and very surprising shift that seems almost unparalleled for any other racial group in American history, at least in the 20th century,” Wu said.
In her book, Wu traces the development of this identity, beginning with the “Yellow Peril,” a time of government-sanctioned and culturally entrenched prejudice against Asian-Americans. Although many Asian-American studies scholars trace the origins of the “model minority” primarily to two magazine articles published in 1966, Wu rejects this model: “As a historian, I was very skeptical of this explanation,” she said. “How could it be, that these two articles could have that much power? That’s when I started to do the digging into this project.”
She also rejects the theory of imposition, which claims that the concept was forced onto Asian-Americans by the white population. “I hope to emphasize the role of Asian Americans, not just in this process, but in the broader debates and struggles and conversations about race in the middle of the 20th century in the United States,” Wu said.
She began with the reconstruction of racial order after the era of Asian exclusion, during which Asians were barred from participating in mainstream American life. “In deciding to get rid of Asian exclusion, that really posed a problem for America’s racial order, and its boundaries of citizenship,” Wu said. “Under exclusion, the status of Asians in American society was very clear.
“In my book, I argue that host of stakeholders resolved this dilemma by the 1960s with a new stereotype of Asian-Americans as the so-called model minority,” she said.
The new perception emerged during World War II, amid the movement to repeal the Chinese Exclusion Act. “The Chinese and Chinatown were seen to represent all that was deviant in the public imagination,” Wu said. “Opium smoking, gambling, prostitution: these were common associations Americans had with Chinatown. So Chinese-Americans and their allies really tried to overturn these unflattering images that justified exclusion of the Chinese.
“They understood that there were strong connections in American political culture between white middle-class norms and values and access to the full entitlements of citizenship,” Wu said. “So white racial liberals basically changed the conversation about the Chinese by championing the concept of the model Chinese-American household.”
During the war, the image became useful to promote racial diversity and to draw support for the Chinese, America’s ally in the Pacific. In this way, the image of Chinese-Americans, and in turn Asian-Americans, began to evolve.
This image reached its peak with the perceived spike in juvenile delinquency. “A lot of Americans at this time are seeking a remedy to this problem, and they really grab onto this existing notion of Chinese-American non-delinquency,” she said. “All of a sudden, you see people celebrating Chinatown.”
In this way, the stereotype also celebrated American values over those of Communist nations during the Cold War. “The narratives enjoyed a broad appeal in the ’50s by resonating strongly with Americans’ celebration of nuclear home life as bastions of security against the dangers and uncertainties of this outside world,” Wu said. “Commentators celebrated America’s Chinatowns as some of the few remaining repositories of Confucianism: a venerable culture that had regrettably been destroyed in Communist China.”
According to Wu, this type of identification with American values enabled the Chinese to largely escape the fate of the WWII-era Japanese when Communist China entered the Korean War against the Americans. “I want to stress that Chinese-Americans were a very important part of this story,” Wu said. “They themselves helped to spread this non-delinquency concept, and the reason they did this because it was politically useful.”
Although she acknowledged the difficulty of eliminating the stereotype from modern culture, Wu remains optimistic. “What is so exciting for me, is in the last 10 years we’ve really seen a huge shift,” she said. “Partly it’s just about a lot more visibility in American culture.
“All of us, on the ground, need to be more informed about what we do and how we act,” she said. “Maybe we’ll change that slowly.”