Out of the Shadows

Asian America—at once a rickety racial box and a semiutopian, panethnic political project—is barely 30 years old, but already it is experiencing a midlife crisis.

On the one hand, decades of activism—and explosive population increases—have finally brought Asians in America "out of the shadows and into the light," as Helen Zia puts it. On the other hand, that spotlight has increasingly thrust Asians into the midst of the American racial passion play—and largely in the role of model minority. To many, like Vijay Prashad, the role is not only a bad fit, but a thoroughly distasteful one: "I am to be the perpetual solution to what is seen as the crisis of black America. I am to be a weapon in the war against black America. . . . How does it feel to be a solution?" Should Asian Americans celebrate our new, key role in society? Or contemplate career suicide?

Of course, to many Asian Americans, it's simply gratifying to have a central role in debates over affirmative action, welfare, immigration, and so on—after all, who wants to keep singing the invisibility blues? Zia, whose Asian American Dreams intersperses autobiography with social history, recalls a New Jersey childhood in the '50s and '60s in which Asian American perspectives were so absent she herself could not imagine them. Prompted for pictures by a Scottish pen pal, the U.S.-born-and-bred Zia responded by cutting off the correspondence, since "with my 12-year-old's logic, I was certain that my pen pal would reject me, since, after all, she had wanted an American pen pal, not a Chinese one."

Demonstrators at the Broadway opening of Miss Saigon in 1991
photo: Corky Lee
Demonstrators at the Broadway opening of Miss Saigon in 1991

Like many second-and third-generation Asians who came of political age on '60s campuses, Zia writes her story as a kind of racial coming-out tale, featuring a passage from "the Invisible Society of Asian America" to "Yellow Power" (a narrative that acquires all the more resonance when Zia recounts how, years later as a Ms. magazine editor, she came out as a lesbian). In naming themselves Asian Americans, Zia's generation were not only responding to a common activist agenda but to an even deeper, nearly ontological urge—"to make ourselves real to other Americans."

These days it seems like Asian Americans—now 10 million strong—are everywhere in the news. Indeed, Zia's book focuses on recent conflicts in which Asians were the flashpoint of national conflagration, among them the 20-year battle of Filipino American workers in the Alaskan salmon canneries that helped spur the 1991 Civil Rights Act; the Miss Saigon casting controversy of 1990; the 1989-1991 boycott of Korean groceries in New York; and sa-i-gu, or April 2-9, the name Korean Americans give to the destruction of Koreatown during the L.A. riots. Each of these episodes ended tragically for Asian Americans. Still, one of Zia's virtues is her demonstration of how Asian Americans have built a national infrastructure in the wake of calamity. Nowhere is this truer than in Zia's account of the Vincent Chin murder.

In June 1982, when two white autoworkers in Detroit were given probation for beating 27-year-old Chin to death with a baseball bat (they'd taken the Chinese American for Japanese), Zia was living in the city—epicenter of American recession and Japan-bashing. She threw herself into the effort to win some measure of justice for Chin. It turned out to be a tall order simply to convince progressive Detroit that Chin had been victimized by race hate, so ambiguous was the racial position of Asians. A local constitutional law professor argued that Chin's supporters couldn't seek redress under federal law, since "Asians are considered white." Even the ACLU declined to help.

Meanwhile, white liberal incredulity was mirrored by Asian American fear. Zia recounts one Chinese American's question when the prospect of a federal suit was first broached: " 'If we try to pursue a civil rights case,' he asked, 'is it necessary for us to talk about race?' " Ultimately, Chin's supporters went ahead, a decision that, Zia argues, not only prompted national pan-Asian organizing but made "an Asian American-initiated issue" national front-page news for the first time.


For many Asian Americans, the Chin campaign has taken on a mythic power akin to Rosa Parks's protest; for Zia it represents an early step in the community's move from obscurity to visibility. But if Asian Americans have had to struggle with invisibility, it isn't exactly because Asians have been absent from the American scene. Asians—at least, phantom Orientals—have loomed large in the American con-sciousness from the early days of the republic, prompting exclusionist hysteria in the 19th century and concentration camps during WWII. Since the mid '60s, of course, another specter has haunted Asian America—the specter of the model minority.

Zia reviews some of the fallacies of the model minority myth (pointing out, for example, that Asians make less, not more, than other Americans if we are counted per capita, and not by our larger households). But for her, the myth is a subtext. Not so for Vijay Prashad, whose The Karma of Brown Folk is both a fascinating genealogy of the idea of India in America and a love/hate letter to his fellow desis, or South Asian immigrants. Indeed, Prashad calls on desis to commit "model minority suicide."

Prashad traces the Cold War origins of the 1965 immigration reform, which, while also intended to reunite European immigrant families, targeted professional workers. The result of this "state selection" was an "artificial community" of South Asian technicians and doctors whose success was then attributed by propagandists like Dinesh D'Souza to natural attributes of Asian immigrant culture.

Subsequent waves of working-class immigrants have altered the makeup of South Asian America, but what exercises Prashad is not simply the persistence of the stereotype but its political use. Like the idea of Asian America, the model minority myth was hatched in response to the Civil Rights movement (an urtext would be a 1966 U.S. News & World Report story that raved about how Chinese Americans believe "in the old idea that people should depend on their own efforts—not a welfare check."). But where the Asian American movement sought to emulate the Civil Rights movement, the model minority myth offers Asians, says Prashad, a "social contract" to be "seen as superior to blacks, a social location not unattractive to a migrant in search of some accommodation in a racist polity."

Indeed, laments Prashad, for all too many desis "the stereotype is a godsend." The Karma of Brown Folkis remarkable not only for its radical analysis of U.S. racism but of desi "bad faith." Prashad deconstructs the logic of Asian American chauvinists like D'Souza, as well as the "New Age Orientalism" of Deepak Chopra. He provides an extended meditation on the paradoxes of "reverse assimilation," in which all too often young desis counter persistent racism with a static, fetishised version of "homeland" culture.

Most instructively, in a sharp analysis of the rise of what he calls Yankee Hindutva, Prashad offers an object lesson in how Asian American community-building—in this case U.S. cultural outposts of India's Hindu Right—can also build American racism: "Rather than join what should be a collective battle to reconstruct society along the lines of compassion and fellowship, Yankee Hindutva asks desi children to withdraw into Hindu enclaves to learn the ways they are greater than others."

Zia includes no similar examination of D'Souza and Chopra—nor, for example, types like GOP stalwart Susan Au Allen or anti-immigrant immigrant Yeh Ling-Ling. It's hard to suppress the feeling that Zia's steadfast focus on Asian American emergence, and her memory of isolation, has led to an important elision—not to mention a book pitched to non-Asians. Prashad, who arrived here well after the ascendancy of the model minority myth, is more discomfited by community arrogance than marginalization—just as he takes for granted that we will want to read over his shoulder as he writes to his fellow desis.

In a concluding chapter, Prashad tells the story of New York's Taxi Workers Alliance, the group that united the city's cabbies—South Asian, Haitian, West African—for an extraordinary strike in 1998. Organizers included middle-class desis—an example of cross-class, multiracial solidarity. Since then, of course, years of hopeful organizing were overwhelmed by the furor over Danny Glover's complaints about cabbie racism, leaving the TWA's campaign against the city in the dust. Clearly, many complaints have merit, but just as clearly, longstanding African American resentment of model minority privileges, real and imagined, boiled over in the dispute—which somehow allowed even Mayor Giuliani to pose as an anti-racist. Here, as preeminently in the sa-i-gu, the model minority myth has become an impediment to Asian America's own empowerment—one more reason, as if we needed it, for its death.

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