On the Peter Liang Protests and the "Model Minority" Myth

The nation-wide demonstrations for NYPD officer Peter Liang demonstrated an ugly combination of entitlement and naïveté.

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Complex Original

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Asian-Americans are the “model minority.” We’re the “good ones,” unlike “those people.” It’s what well-meaning white folks have been telling us for decades, and what many of us believe. This mentality resulted in last Saturday’s protest, when 10,000 people, mostly Asian-Americans, marched on behalf of NYPD officer Peter Liang, who accidentally shot and killed Akai Gurley, an unarmed Black man, while on duty and didn’t immediately call for help. In light of what happened, a manslaughter conviction seemed reasonable—a jury found it so, and Liang faces up to 15 years in prison; he will be sentenced this April. 

It’s unfortunate when the most inflammatory, strident voices become the de facto voices of any community. Speaking solely for myself, it was embarrassing to watch the protesters. It’s true that many unlawful police officers have gone free in the past. It is also perhaps overly convenient that Liang is going to jail while Daniel Pantaleo, the white officer who killed Eric Garner by putting him in a chokehold, breathes free. But the facts remain—Liang was negligent, an innocent man is dead, and the sentencing is just for this specific crime. This is not the hill to die on.

The Peter Liang march demonstrated an ugly combination of entitlement and naïveté.

Over the course of three generations, too many Asian-Americans have internalized a belief in our superiority. We are stereotyped as hardworking and intelligent, with a single-minded drive towards perfection. Straight As. Ivy League applications. But these positive stereotypes can be twisted into negative ones. We are hardworking, but dull. We are intelligent, but uncreative. We are driven, but only in a robotic manner—never in service of an idea that is groundbreaking or fantastical. “Positive stereotype” is a misleading term, because if one accepts the positive stereotypes, one implicitly accepts the negative ones as well.

Because we’re flattered by backhanded compliments, we’ve allowed these generalizations to endure. Asian kids often grow up thinking they are defective or broken in some manner if they fail to become little math prodigies or lack a “natural aptitude” for the sciences. We are underrepresented in the humanities departments of colleges and universities. In a 2009 study conducted by Lisa Dickson, of the University of Maryland, 7,887 Asian male college students were polled for their initial major choices, and only 4.8% of them—the lowest percentage of any demographic—expressed interests in a humanities or some “other” major. We are underrepresented as writers and artists; it feels that we’re a long way from the 1970s, when Asian-American works like Aiiieeeee! An Anthology of Asian-American Writers and The Woman Warrior were published and popularized.

Most importantly, we are underrepresented in politics. There is only one U.S. Senator of Asian descent, and just seven House Representatives. In 2014, we made up only 4% of eligible voters, and in 2010 our voter turnout was 31%—less than both black and white voter turnout.  The parties do not court our vote or advocate for our needs, and why should they? We don’t vote in large enough forces.

Asian-Americans are kept comfortably confined by the model minority myth. It’s what sociologists call “the bamboo ceiling”—that our hopes for advancement slow, and then stop. And though we did not create this predicament, we are too often complicit in its reinforcement. We believed in the American Dream, and took rigid paths to achieve it. But as it turns out, grades don’t matter much, and matter even less when you leave the academic cocoon. Working hard at your job, to the exclusion of everything else, will never make you a boss; you’ll be the boss’s secretary or assistant. What matters more, and what we too often fail to cultivate, are our abilities to network, interact, talk to the right people, and talk to them in the right way. What matters is aggressive individuality, combined with the willingness to speak truth to power.

We need to get angry—not only on behalf of ourselves, but on behalf of others. And by networking, creating in-roads, and forging camaraderie across groups, we will cultivate a voice that matters—a voice that our government will have no choice but to listen to. Until then, we are the model minority—the passive, complacent ideal that knows its place, and that all other minorities should aspire to.

The Peter Liang march demonstrated an ugly combination of entitlement and naïveté—of Asian-Americans who thought that our model minority status would make us white in the eyes of the judiciary, or that a badge would protect us from consequence. The truth is, aspiring to white privilege as an Asian-American is as toxic as when whites mindlessly embrace their own. In this case, and in countless others, Asian-Americans should be fighting for Black rights in addition to their own. Because in the end, it will elevate us all.

We’ve flown under the radar for years, not making waves, and benefiting when Black Americans boycotted, marched, and protested. We didn’t have to be angry, because we let others act on our behalf. When Trayvon Martin was killed, when Eric Garner was killed, when Tamir Rice was killed, when Sandra Bland died in prison, too many Asian-Americans didn’t raise a finger in dissent. We need to honestly ask ourselves why. I’m afraid that too many of us just got the wake up call this past week, and realized just how little power and privilege we have.

Many Asian-Americans do not support Peter Liang, and stand with Akai Gurley’s family. Those of us can no longer afford to be silent. We need to speak up, and make our presence visible. Yes, Asian-Americans and Black Americans have a checkered history with one another—you need only recall the standoffs during the 1992 L.A. Riots and Ice Cube’s “Black Korea” to see that. But at such a crucial time, when a tragedy threatens to drive yet another wedge between our communities, Asian America should stand on the right side of history, by Black America’s side, even at the cost of our comfort. We need to understand that racial issues affect all of us, whether directly or by proxy, and put that understanding into action. We need to find common allies with common concerns. We’ve earned the right to look down on no one, and are entitled to nothing—especially if we advocate for no one but ourselves.

Kevin is a freelance writer living in Queens, NY. You can follow Kevin on Twitter @kevinjameswong.

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