COURTESY OF ARUN VENUGOPAL
( ILLUSTRATION BY TREVOR DAVIS; FAMILY PHOTOS COURTESY OF ARUN VENUGOPAL; OTHER IMAGES BY FEDERICO BENOCCI / EYEEM / GETTY; TIM ABRAMOWITZ / GETTY; MICHELLE MARSAN / SHUTTERSTOCK.
Tanzina Vega: This is The Takeaway, I'm Tanzina Vega. The American dream, the ability to come to a foreign country with nothing in your pocket and build a successful life with liberty and justice for all, well, maybe not for all since the founding of the United States stereotypes about minority groups and which ones were more likely to succeed, have led to the flawed notion of the model minority. Arun Venugopal is a senior reporter with WNYC's race and justice unit and he recently wrote about the fallacy of the model minority and the effect those stereotypes have had for The Atlantic. Arun, thanks for joining me.
Arun Venugopal: Thanks, Tanzina.
Tanzina: When we say model minority, what do we mean?
Arun: Model minority is a term that emerged in the 1960s, it was in New York Times magazine article by William Peterson, an academic who said he'd observed this phenomenon among certain people, specifically Japanese Americans, who despite having been interned and who, having faced lots of discrimination, seem to be doing quite well. There was another term that he used, I think it was in quotes in the article, but it referring to problem minorities.
Coming as it did at that time it really set-up this juxtaposition between so-called better minorities, the ones who seem to roll with the punches, who seem to succeed, who seem to speak up for the meritocracy, this idea of it versus the ones who just couldn't, think about the backdrop riots, social unrest happening in Black communities in America. It really created this dichotomy between certain groups and others.
Tanzina: How has the usage of this term, I'm sure many of us have heard this term, really affect the perception of how different groups of people of color are treated in this country? There are certain groups who fit this model minority stereotype, at least, in the popular culture sense, and those groups you would suggest are treated better than others?
Arun: Definitely. We're talking about access to certain networks, to certain spaces who are the people who are allowed to move into better neighborhoods with better access to schools who are treated relatively speaking on par with say, white liberals who move into these neighborhoods. We have created these myths about why certain groups can assimilate if you will, and why others can't without really taking a hard look at how the US, the government policies, how the culture itself allowed for this to happen.
My article in The Atlantic really explores how that started happening in the 1940s during World War II, and then really ramped up in the post-war era specifically because of the cold war. It was really a PR move used by the US to broadcast to the world that we were this benevolent harmonious country that we didn't really have racial divisions. Look at these Asian-Americans who are flourishing so nothing to see here.
Tanzina: Arun, also to obfuscate some of the social wrongs that had been perpetrated in other communities of color in this country, like slavery and the genocide of Indigenous people, was this to obfuscate that reality"
Arun: Definitely. Coming as it did in the post-war era, this emerging idea really was meant to divert attention away from all of the problems over segregation, over the bad treatment of Black Americans, over the genocide of native Americans. It was used as way to distract the world's attention away from serious structural inequities.
Tanzina: Arun, you grew up in a middle-class suburb in Texas with immigrant parents from India, and someone say that that was a "Model minority family." What was your story? How did your parents come to the United States?
Arun: Tanzina, they moved here about 50 years ago to this country and eventually, settled down in Houston and first my parents moved to this middle-class neighborhood and then I remember when I was about five or so, we moved to a much fancier neighborhood. It was a beautiful area, forested, these huge lots, big houses, and I was very lucky, my sisters were also very lucky and very much synonymous with the American dream and that whole idea. We didn't really think at the time, and I didn't really, to be honest, reflect until I was much older the fact that, as neighbors, we did not have say Black neighbors or Latin American neighbors.
There were no Latinos living on our street, very few Black residents in the whole area. They were excluded. Today, there are a lot of Asian-Americans in that neighborhood. It's a very exclusive neighborhood, didn't realize at the time that we were allowed in, if you will, that we were facilitated our entry, whereas for certain people, they were very much kept out.
Tanzina: Was that something that you came to realize, or had your parents imparted that to you, where they said they may have given you some reasons why people may say certain things or was it just, as you said, you were easily able to become part of the fabric of the community?
Arun: I think that we had our blinders on, if you will. It's not that we were repeatedly told that in explicit terms that we were better and that those people were not, and that's why they were over there. I think it happens at a much subtler level why certain neighborhoods are not the neighborhoods where we would live in and this is a phenomenon that I write about, which has been documented by scholars that, Indian and Pakistani middle-class families, they took part in a phenomenon known as Brown flight according to this one, academic, [unintelligible 00:05:58].
We left just like white flight, Brown flight it was a similar phenomenon where we left neighborhoods, which might be more diverse, might have more Black residents, sensibly so we could be near other people who were like us, but also for all those euphemisms, like good schools. It constituted a similar process of propagating racial segregation in Houston and I'm sure many other parts of the country.
It raises these questions of who are we in the larger racial landscape. We are minorities were immigrants, but in some ways, we have aligned with systems of inequality racial, segregation, other really insidious process. I think we need to have a more serious conversation about what needs to be done now to address these historic wrongs.
Tanzina: Are those conversations happening in the communities that you're referring to, Arun?
Arun: I think that, I've been surprised to see the way in which this piece has really taken off a lot. A lot of people are saying like, it's like making the rounds on WhatsApp and social media, amongst aunties and uncles. I have people who are older who seem to be taking this problem seriously in ways that has been a pleasant surprise. I think that the events of recent months between the protests between the obvious, issues, criminal justice, Black Lives Matter, the pandemic have really shown a light on the flaws of this country in a way that many immigrants that came here 20, 30, 40, 50 years ago, didn't necessarily appreciate. America looked like really shining house on the Hill.
I think in some ways they wanted it to be that way, because it affirmed their narrative of doing well here that if you just put in the work, you'll do fine. I think the Trump era and specifically pandemic and the protests that made them realize it's not quite so simple as that and we have to take a harder look and figure out what our role is as so-called model minorities or to jettison that term and understand how we've been aligning with the very insidious forces.
Tanzina: The model minority myth is expecting a lot of complacency from groups and individuals, isn't it? It's expecting to, like you said earlier, go along, get along approach and everything is fine and it expects a certain amount of, I think meekness in it and complacency. I wonder if those things are harmful in, and of themselves to the people who are labeled with that model minority.
Arun: Oh, absolutely. It's easiest thing in the world to say, like, I'm good, I'm fine, we don't need to do anything about this and what you're doing is, whatever term you want to use, virtue signaling or whatever, I think indifference is just as good being very explicitly racist. People like Ibram Kendi scholars who have said, you have to be anti-racist and how do you do that? These are very complicated conversations and I think getting into the very thorny issues of identity, people especially come from colonized societies, post-colonial societies and getting rid of all that baggage, even as they're trying to address their own privilege, if you will, over here.
Tanzina: It also creates a monolith out of a community that doesn't allow for individual expressions, does it?
Arun: That's true. I think that's something that being painted with a broad brush in the broader discourse, having these myths thrown on us, that there's something inherent about, all these people who come from over there, they have family values and they're just better parents. Basically, these are things that are propagated even now, Tanzina.
It is really counterproductive because it doesn't necessarily shed light on the people within the community who haven't necessarily had the same access to resources, to privilege, to networks, to good neighborhoods and good schools. I think that this is a time where when you do have rising political power, you have a vice president-elect who is herself of Indian, partial of Indian extracted allows you to see that maybe we do have certain access that we need to take seriously and take responsibly and see within the community how it hasn't played out, always in the same ways.
Tanzina: Arun Venugopal, is a senior reporter with WNYC's race and justice unit, and his article called The making of a model minority is featured in this month's issue of TheAtlantic. Thanks so much, Arun.
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