What’s the Model Minority Myth got to do with Asian-American xenophobia… and fruit salad?





Do you know how many types of apples exist? Apparently, it’s estimated anywhere from 7,000 to 30,000. No, I didn’t mistype and add a zero. Thousands! And how about oranges? Fewer in comparison, but still an awful lot at around 600 varieties. Diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging -- or whatever your company prefers to call creating a healthy and culturally relevant place to work -- will have a lot more success by looking at what’s different among employees. Here’s why:


  1. First, when you say you want to support “Black and Brown” employees and communities, you are succumbing to an “apples and oranges” fallacy, as though non-white people all have the same experience. People are all people, just like fruit are all fruit, but there’s a reason we don’t compare apples to oranges.


  1. Also, xenophobia is fear of the “other” and comes with the pressure to assimilate to the status quo. But who is in-group and who is out-group changes over time and according to location. We lump all “oranges” together when we’re making a comparison to apples, but Navel and Blood oranges are actually very different.


As Hari Kondabolu says about the United States, the only way you can claim that white people will be a minority by 2042, is if “non-white” is a single category. It would be like saying fruit is just fruit, as though there were zero differences. Forget apples and oranges! What about cantaloupe, mango, grapes, blueberries, guava....


OK, why is this relevant to anti-Asian xenophobia?


One of the questions goes something like this: “Wait, I thought Black people get murdered and ostracized because of implicit bias that “Black = dangerous.” Now you’re telling me Asian people get murdered and ostracized because of implicit bias that “Asian = docile?”


What could be wrong with being seen as a hard worker, you ask? Who wouldn’t want to be seen as useful to your boss or excited to work hard?


The problem is that saying that Asian people are quiet, nerdy, industrious, and hyper-agreeable is failing to see people. Creating inclusion and belonging is about humans, not character traits. The Model Minority Myth is that some groups assimilate into dominant culture because of “natural” or “inherent” attributes, such as following orders. But if you’re telling a human being, “we value you because you’re a cog in a machine that produces for us,” you’re not including the person, you’re using them.


In North America, for example, Italians, Jews, Greeks, Slavs, and many more groups commonly considered “white” now were considered “colored” at first. Like with most cultural changes, this didn’t happen out of the blue. The social imagination adapted in part because the conversation adapted: “newly white” groups were happy to benefit from whatever privilege they could grasp onto. In the case of Eastern and Southern Europeans, appearance was similar enough to Anglo heritage that, over time, they went from “passing” as white to “being seen as” white.


For some people, though, “passing” isn’t possible through appearance. So instead, “passing” happens through code-switching, also known as playing along with dominant culture.


Of course, the history is way more complex. But we’ll short-cut it for now to focus on 3 ways to address racial and ethnic stereotypes at work.


Tip #1 is that race and ethnicity are actually very different. Race is all about appearance and perception. It tends to be about skin tone, face shape, and hair. It also changes depending on who you're talking to and where in the world you are. Ethnicity, on the other hand, is about family heritage, nationality, cuisine, language, and religion.


The point isn’t to memorize terms, but to get really curious and not make assumptions. Divert your energy away from classifying people and toward listening to people.


Tip #2 is to not worry about who has it worse. There are no Oppression Olympics. Spending time creating solutions is a better use of energy than debating whether one person or group is more oppressed than another person or group.


But to create social equity, aren’t we supposed to find who is more oppressed so we can support marginalized people more than people who are privilege?


Great question, but it’s missing the point. Again, human beings are endlessly intersectional, so we can’t rely on generalizations-- context is the key to identifying what kinds of support actually work. Reframe strategy away from Asian oppression vs. Black oppression. Instead, spend energy listening to people’s experiences or educating yourself on nuanced perspectives around the world.


Tip #3 is to micro-pivot consistently. There is no finish line. We can’t solve xenophobia, but we can actively train our executives and teams to be superb listeners, to minimize assumptions, to maximize productive dialogue, and to adjust company policies to honor the humans that make the brand ‘go.’


There is no model minority because there is no model human. If we think there are lots of kinds of apples, that’s nothing compared to humans. There’s 8 billion of us on the planet. And none of us is a walking stereotype, no matter how complimentary it may sound.


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