Hyphen magazine - Asian American arts, culture, and politics


Is There Privilege in Being Asian American?

Photo by Werth Media, cc, Flickr.

 

Over the past week, news headlines, talk shows and internet traffic have been filled with commentary on the shooting death of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin. Martin was shot by Florida neighborhood watch volunteer George Zimmerman. Zimmerman has claimed self defense, but there is strong evidence from witnesses and a 911 recording that Martin was profiled and targeted because he looked "suspicious": i.e., he wore a hoodie and was Black. Now reports are investigating whether Zimmerman used a racial slur in that very 911 call.

Deservedly, the incident has sparked a great deal of outrage and media responses. One piece that moved me was Michael Skolnik's powerful and, dare I say, confessional response: "White People, You Will Never Look Suspicious Like Trayvon Martin!"

"I was born white. It was the card I was dealt. No choice in the matter. Just the card handed out by the dealer. I have lived my whole life privileged. Privileged to be born without a glass ceiling. Privileged to grow up in the richest country in the world. Privileged to never look suspicious. I have no guilt for the color of my skin or the privilege that I have. Remember, it was just the next card that came out of the deck. But, I have choices. I got choices on how I play the hand I was dealt. I got a lot of options. The ball is in my court."

But social privilege is not exclusive to white people in America.

As Asian Americans, if we are going to stand in solidarity with our African American brothers and sisters, we must not only acknowledge our forms of privilege, but leverage the influence that comes with that privilege in order to serve as allies to Black communities as well as other marginalized groups. There is privilege for many Asian Americans in not generally being perceived as threatening, which allows us to move about public spaces without eliciting suspicion.

On the other hand, Laotian American teen Fong Lee who was shot eight times and killed by Minneapolis police because they claimed to see a gun on him while he was out riding his bicycle. Korean American artist Michael Cho was shot and killed by police, allegedly for approaching officers with a tire iron in his hand which he refused to lower. In post-9/11 America, Sikh and Muslim Americans are unjustly clouded with suspicion, by fellow citizens as well as the government.

While privilege exists in various forms specific to Asian Americans, strong parallels can be drawn between the African and Asian American communities and their histories. African Americans like Martin, who are followed and feared, have more in common with Fong, Cho and other racially profiled Asian Americans than one might think upon first glance.

And while there is privilege in the "model minority" myth that that gives Asian Americans access to academic settings because of assumed hard work, high standards and good intentions, there is a well-publicized debate about discriminatory admissions practices with regard to Asian American applicants in higher ed. In K-12, meanwhile, researchers in lower-income school systems such as New Orleans have found that of 450 students surveyed (almost half of them Asian American), "over 70% don’t have textbooks to take home from school or use in class." In New Orleans, where African Americans are 60% of the city's population, Black and Asian American students enduring the same educational inequalities have a chance to unify.

There is privilege in how Asian Americans came to the United States, which does not include a history of slavery. Yet, although the public imaginary envisions Asian Americans as entering the country on H1-B visas or as scholars, many of us come from a legacy of being exploited "coolie" labor on Hawaii plantations, subject to unjust taxes based on race, targeted by immigration bans and quotas, or considered less than human in the eyes of the judicial and immigration systems. Many undocumented Asian immigrants currently live in the shadows and toil under exploitative labor conditions; speaking out against abuse exposes them to deportation and separation from their families.

Coming to recognize our forms of relative social privilege in the context of such histories and complicating realities is how Asian Americans may experience Martin's death as relevant, and part of our causes, too.

Not sure where your privileges do and don't lie? Take the White Privilege Pop Quiz, for some food for thought. What your answers may say: that privilege isn't just white, and the lack of privilege is not just Black.

Please do not hear any of this as my trying to discount the very real racism and violence that are directed toward either community; this moment is not about oppression Olympics. This is about the Asian American community standing with the Trayvon Martins and Fong Lees of the past, present and future and doing our part in a united struggle for justice.

Editors' note: This post has been significantly altered from the writer's original, with his permission in absentia.

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SCO wrote 2 years 5 weeks ago

Why are AAs so afraid to Acknowledge their Privilege?

" But what kind of benefit do we get from creating a hierarchy of suffering? What benefit is there of equating a groups collective experience of suffering “better” or “worse” than another’s. Choosing to not create a hierarchy of suffering doesn’t meant we ignore the atrocities that many communities of color have experienced in this country, and what comes to mind for me are first nations people and African Americans. And atrocities might even be an understatement for the tragedy and historical trauma that has impacted those communities…"

To put it bluntly, this comment reeks of privilege to me. It isn't about better or worse. Why not acknowledge that yes, blacks face an immense amount of challenges compared to almost every racial group in this country. It's a bit arrogant to declare that all atrocities must be acknowledged under a general and very binary people of color vs. white people paradigm.

Why not add some nuance and actually see where the conjunctions and disjunctions lie? Unless you're trying to preserve some kind of privileged cred for Asians with black and latino groups. Honestly, Black and Latino folks know what's up, not matter how hard you may try to ignore your own privilege under some pseudo leninist united front.

An an Asian-Amerian, it infuriates me when fellow AA folks choose to shoot down the model minority myth (rightfully so), yet completely ignore the real and tangible advantages and privileges that exist and are inscribed in very substantial ways.

Girlx wrote 2 years 24 weeks ago

Clarification

Clarification: This article is referring to the concept that being Asian-American, we have more social privilege over African-American but we need to see that we all suffer the same discrimination?

By the way, Fong Lee was not Laotian-American. He was Hmong-American. His family may have came from Laos but his ethnic is Hmong.

Anonymous wrote 2 years 29 weeks ago

minor error

Hey, this is a really compelling story, but Trayvon Martin was 17 years old, not 14.

erin K Ninh wrote 2 years 29 weeks ago

aiya!

thanks for catching that! don't know how we missed it!!  :(   corrected above. 

olive wrote 2 years 29 weeks ago

potentially problematic

This article brings up a lot of interesting issues that have come up in conversations about race. While I agree that we, (I am API) should be standing in solidarity regarding what happened to Trayvon Martin, I have some concerns with the way "privilege" is being used in the article.
it's a bit confusing by what exactly is meant by privilege in this article. As one commentator points out, we all individually experience privilege. We also experience privilege based on specific aspects of our identifies that attach us (with or without our consent) to specific societal groups. When I think about privilege within the context of Race, I do not think the API community is privileged, this doesn’t mean that individually we may experience privilege, but as a collective we are targeted by racism. Racism provides privilege for one group, white people. (as we think about conversation around mixed race folks it can get a little more complicated)
But as another commentator mentions, it’s difficult to have conversations about racism without acknowledging our different histories. And we do have very different histories, and that should be honored and acknowledged. But what kind of benefit do we get from creating a hierarchy of suffering? What benefit is there of equating a groups collective experience of suffering “better” or “worse” than another’s. Choosing to not create a hierarchy of suffering doesn’t meant we ignore the atrocities that many communities of color have experienced in this country, and what comes to mind for me are first nations people and African Americans. And atrocities might even be an understatement for the tragedy and historical trauma that has impacted those communities…
My concern with this article is that it’s sharing reasons why the API community does have a somewhat shared history with the African American community, but then jumps back to calling our community privileged, perpetuating the model minority stereotype. The model minority stereotype has been very hurtful within our community and has contributed to this society’s lack of inclusiveness of the API community in conversations around race. As another commentator mentioned, many times when we talk about race, hear race being talked about on national television, in the media, etc, it stays often within a black & white dichotomy, and more recently issues closer to the latino communities have been given voice to…..

Narinda wrote 2 years 30 weeks ago

Privilege-- or pass?

The fact that the post brings up Fong Lee and Mike Cho actually highlights the fact that the Asian American community is no stranger to institutional violence or to the devaluation of our lives. Vincent Chin's killer received only 3 years probation. The man who killed Thien Minh Ly did it for, basically, fun.

I'm glad to see someone bring up the question of "privilege." I've had some trouble feeling able to engage with issues of social justice in black & brown spaces, as if somehow I don't have the right to speak on certain topics because even as a queer, Khmer woman, it hasn't been as bad. What was recently presented to me was the idea that what I considered privilege is actually a "pass," at least in terms of race. That Asian Americans get a pass from white folks because of the model minority myth, and we get a pass from other people of color because we're not white, but that what ultimately happens is that the Asian American struggle is made invisible. And that invisibility contributes the stereotype of apathy among our population.

Ultimately, I agree that there has to be solidarity among all people for whom our system does not work, and it doesn't work for most of us. (I'd argue that it doesn't really work for anyone.) And there definitely has to be solidarity among all of us who see that no one should be allowed to kill a young man on the street without so much as being arrested.

Williams wrote 2 years 30 weeks ago

Privelege? The right word?

By privelege I mean the undeclared war on the Black community that stretches almost without interruption from slavery, to the segregated South, to the ghettos and prisons of the late 20th century to the present. The isolated incidents are only the tip of the ice berg to the genocide that has been taking place in this country. Do Asian Americans feel they have had a genocidal experience in this country? I am not saying that there are not racial oppressions taking place. But we are dealing with the United States, the land of double genocide. Privelege conveys an individual experience not a collective experience so I'm not sure that it's the best word. But to me, this is the land that is attempting to exterminate my people. You are priveleged if the same is not true of your nation/ethnicity/ community

LTE wrote 2 years 30 weeks ago

Membership has it's privileges

"Many undocumented Asian immigrants currently live in the shadows and toil under exploitative labor conditions; speaking out against abuse exposes them to deportation and separation from their families."
.
Here is an argument for privilege, that a select group deserves special breaks for ignoring the law.
.
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As for privilege, this is about the 134,567.869th social theory on what is wrong with America that I have heard in my lifetime.
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As long as the good looking girl gets asked to the dance and the fat girl gets to sit home on a Saturday night, there will always be privilege.
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If Asians were a little less privileged, would that make poor blacks richer? Happier? Better educated? Would Martin be alive because Whites were less privileged? Would Philadelphia's murder rate drop because a few more blacks got a corporate promotion over someone from another race?
.
Simple truth is Martin to some degree may have been a victim of an image promoted by a newly privileged group, black thug rappers.

house of | Tang wrote 2 years 30 weeks ago

Is there Privilege in being Asian American? Srsly?

So by social privilege, we're talking about racial privilege in the context of a Black vs. White binary, where Asian Americans are caught up in the complex web between a Model Minority & FOBism, along with other racial minorities.
(Because:
If you're an upper class Asian American, you have privilege;
If you're a church-going Asian American, you have privilege;
If you're a heterosexual Asian American, you have privilege;
If you're a cis-gendered Asian American, you have privilege.)

I'm confused by this article; I don't understand how people aren't feeling sympathetic to the Martins. Is this a call to rally? Is this is a call to be better allies? Privilege 101?

What's the context?

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About The Author

Bruce Reyes-Chow

A native Northern Californian and 3rd generation Chinese/Filipino, Bruce has lived in San Francisco since 1998.

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