Modest Proposals

Tackling Asian Privilege

March 01, 2013

Multiple Pages
Tackling Asian Privilege

Amidst the hubris of the pope calling it quits and Miss Delaware relinquishing her sash due to porn allegations, it’s important we take a step back and discuss the elephant in the room—namely, racism. While the world collapses around us and we all complain about how hard it is to get by, people of color are forced to look up to our position and say, “I’d give the world for your problems.” This is because no matter how bad things appear to be, they are always worse when you are born without privileges.

Nobody clutches their purse to their side when an Asian walks into the elevator. If an Asian applies for a job at a bank or on the police force, he or she is welcomed with open arms. When an Asian commits a crime, people are shocked. When an Asian is appointed to the head of the Department of Energy, everyone knowingly nods their head. Asian privilege pervades every part of our day-to-day life and it’s time they joined the conversation about race.

Though they comprise less than 4.8% of the American population, they make up 8.3% of all doctors. Only 2.3% of doctors are African American, yet they’re 13% of the population. Thirty percent of African American men will go to jail, but only 1.6% of prisoners are Asian. Nobody sees the problem with that?

“An Asian can listen to rap music very loudly on a boom box while riding the New York subway without anyone wondering if they’re going to get stabbed.”

McGill University is one of the most elite schools in North America, and to walk through their campus is to be transported into a pastoral Chinatown. This is true of all Ivy League schools. Asian Americans have the highest education level of any racial demographic and they’re also the wealthiest. While African American households earned an average of $30,939 in 2005, Asian Americans walked away with twice that.

The reason for this is simple: PRIVILEGE.

Though many Asians come here with little or no money and live in rough neighborhoods, they are lifted out of this disadvantage within a generation and are soon living an upper-middle-class lifestyle. This is because in America, Asians live a disproportionately advantaged life where things are simply handed to them. Asians turn on the TV and they see George Takei driving a spaceship. When they’re told he’s a fictional character, they jump to real-life astronaut Dr. Eugene Trinh. Asians are overrepresented in science, medicine, law, finance, education, and virtually everything that generates wealth. They are drastically overrepresented in Nobel Prizes. These arrogant Orientals flaunt the racist moniker “model minority.” As a people, these Asians need to recognize they got to where they are not by the virtue of hard work but by stepping on the backs of others. I’m not saying Asians should be paying the rest of us reparations, but a simple “dùi bù qĭ” would be nice. (Thanks, Yahoo! co-founder Jerry Yang for the link!) They need to recognize that their position is innately unfair. They need to acknowledge they are lucky. And most importantly, they need to stop it right now.

Asian privilege is, if you will, an “invisible knapsack” of unearned perks and benefits that an Asian is able to unpack wherever he or she goes—even if they aren’t in Asia. Asian privilege is very, very real and yet nobody’s talking about it. Asians can purchase real estate in virtually every neighborhood they want. Nobody worries about property values when an Asian moves in the neighborhood. When asking for a loan or writing a check, an Asian never has to be concerned with how he or she will be perceived. Asians can say swear words or wear secondhand clothes without anyone assuming it’s due to poverty or illiteracy. When driving a nice vehicle in a bad part of town, an Asian rarely has to worry about being pulled over. Even when he or she does get pulled over, he or she never wonders if it’s because of his or her race. If an Asian gets into a good school, other students don’t assume it’s because of affirmative action. An Asian can listen to rap music very loudly on a boom box while riding the New York subway without anyone wondering if they’re going to get stabbed.

When one opens the discourse to this taboo we learn many terms that had previously been ignored. “Earned strength” is very different from “unearned power.” Asians are “overprivileged” and enjoy this “unacknowledged power” in a totally “incognizant” way. Privilege can look like power when it is in fact permission to escape or dominate. You don’t need epicanthic folds to see that simply by the virtue of their success Asians are seriously and systematically oppressing people of color. To be overrepresented in a field is to dominate those who are not proportionately represented. Whether they know it or not, simply existing can be tantamount to a hate crime.

So what do we do? How do we change the latent inequality that Asians exploit? Do we penalize them? Ideally we would, but no, we don’t. The first thing we have to do is join the conversation. Using your voice is the first step to raising awareness, not just parochially but in a transnational sense. We need to redesign social systems where Asians are not 75% to 80% of university mathematics departments. By staying cloaked in the myth of meritocracy we are denying the latent power of the underprivileged.

Look at Hiroshima and Nagasaki today and look at Detroit. While Asians are constantly flooded with opportunities to rebuild, cities of color are left to rot. Asians shamelessly discuss “Asian Power” and encourage their children to stay within their race. When Asians such as New York Times reporter Michael Luo watch Jeremy Lin score 25 points, they are filled with joy and pride. This, mind you, is from a country that killed 50 million people. 

One of the few Americans to actually get off her ass and push for change is California Democratic Rep. Barbara Lee, who pronounces her last name exactly like Bruce Lee. You might remember her from the NOH8 campaign where she wrote on her face. She is leading an initiative to “create a federal Department of Peacebuilding that would cultivate peace and take on the causes of violence and conflict.” This is about literally changing the plasticity of the brain and permanently erasing the hatred that fosters inequality.

The first step for this department will probably be addressing the dangers of Asian privilege and working to unravel the tangled web it has weaved. We pay our government to lead us to prosperity and protect us from evil. If one group is receiving privileges over another, that is a form of assault and it’s up to elected officials such as Barbara Lee to protect us. She assures us she will.

Let’s work together to break the silence. A drop in the bucket seems small until you see all the ripples it makes. To tackle Asian privilege and bring them down to where the rest of us are, we need systemic change on a global level. The government needs to get involved. Tax dollars have to be used and you can be sure jobs will be created. Asian American success has been awarded to them arbitrarily and it’s up to us to take back the power and eradicate this unearned system of advantage. We need to transform society to the point where privilege is not slanted in anyone’s favor.


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