She’s your star student: the quiet teenager hunched over an SAT prep book in the back of a loud classroom, her schedule loaded with AP classes (all of which she is undoubtedly acing) and extracurricular activities. She’s your neighborhood tiger mom: the middle-aged lady rushing her children to swimming, gymnastics, ballet, or music lessons, nagging at them in her native language from the front seat of her Lexus. She’s your model minority: the woman who seems least likely to cause a commotion if confronted, avoiding conflicts and staying out of fights as much as possible. She’s your classic Asian, regardless of whether her skin is “brown” or “yellow,” with a dad in IT and a housewife mom, going to either your dream college or your state school with a full ride. Her life seems full of straight-A’s or quiz bowl trophies, which may be part of the reason why Asians are frequently grouped with Caucasians in academic or financial reports, yet are as excluded from most privileges as other racial groups.
Despite this exclusion, Asian-Americans have frequently been excluded from the racial subdivision, “people of color” in the past decade, both by Caucasians and other people of color. For example, a Washington school district recently grouped Asian-American students with Caucasians in an academic progress report, excluding them from the racial subdivision “people of color.”
According to a Pew Research Center study, Asian-Americans are the highest-income, best-educated, and fastest-growing racial group in the United States. Due to the high success levels of Asian-Americans, they are often painted as an all-successful, privileged group of people, easily “riding the system” to gain prestige in society and rarely facing obstacles on their journey to excellence.
This enviable image of Asians may appear beneficial but is actually ironically counterproductive. With each stereotypical expectation added, the gag over the mouths of Asian-Americans has tightened— this illusion of privilege preventing instances of violent, blatant racism from being reported, recognized, or published.
The most glaring way Asian-Americans are silenced is within the field of mental health. Over 2.2 million people who identify as Asian-American or Pacific Islander have reported a diagnosable mental illness in the past year, according to Mental Health America, the nation’s leading nonprofit on raising awareness for mental illnesses.
Despite the “model minority” label placed on Asians, the clean, all-successful stereotype faced by these students is simply a product of underreporting cases of mental illnesses or other struggles. By painting mental illness as an obstacle not frequently faced by Asians, these issues are often exacerbated by the societal pressures to maintain the “status quo” of being the “model minority.”
Though it is easy to see white or Black actors portraying those struggling with substance abuse or mental illnesses in movies and shows, Asians are significantly less frequently depicted as struggling with these issues. It is extremely common to see their “Asian upbringing” or “stress caused by tiger parents” blamed as the root cause, instead of the lack of mental health resources geared toward Asians.
This social stigma, which discourages Asians from speaking out about such struggles, is frequently ignored as the true source of magnified symptoms of mental illnesses.
Just like mental health is painted as a primarily “Caucasian issue,” American politics has been historically geared toward Caucasians as well.
When Vice-President-Elect Kamala Harris stood behind the podium to address the nation in Wilmington, Delaware, on Nov. 7 regarding her historic victory, she not only became a beacon of hope for young women and African-Americans but also for Asians-Americans. Identifying as both Black and South Asian, Harris’s racial description soon accompanied every article covering the Biden-Harris win, describing her as the “first female Vice President of color” or the “highest-climbing African-American/Asian.”
The media magnification upon her racial background may appear harmless, or even benevolent, but simply proves how American politics has been essentially dominated by Caucasian leaders throughout American history, despite the large volume of people of color in the United States.
With Asian-Americans currently making up only 3% of federal leadership, as reported by the Asian Pacific American Institute for Congressional Studies (APAICS), Kamala Harris’s South Asian background is considered a groundbreaking event due to both the historic and modern exclusion of Asian-Americans (especially Asian-American women) in political discussions and decision-making.
Though it is amazing to see the prospect for growth in Asian-American governmental representation, it is also extremely shameful to see so much focus be given toward a politician’s racial background, instead of their political beliefs— a sign for more Asians to be included as an active part of the political spectrum. Kamala Harris not only symbolizes the breakthrough of Asian-Americans into modern big-game politics for the first time, but the prospect of Asians to break into other stereotypically Caucasian roles in society.
As a prominent socio-political figure, Harris’s South Asian background is sure to not only encourage younger generations of Asians to pursue such closed-off fields but also to fight for more equal representation in other areas, such as accessibility to mental health and other resources geared toward people of color.