After the tragic murder of eight people in Atlanta, Ga. six of whom were Asian American women, many Americans are finally becoming attentive to the discrimination that Asian Americans face. While bolstered by racist rhetoric from former President Donald Trump and amplified by white supremacists' hate crimes during COVID-19, prejudice against Asian Americans has been prevalent for generations. This prejudice has been upheld by both the model minority myth and Asian fetishization.
The model minority myth is a stereotype about Asian Americans, portraying them as a hard-working, successful, yet docile community, emblematic of the American Dream. It presents a culturally and socioeconomically diverse community as a monolith, where all of the community has attained success. This perception is partially due to selective immigration policies in the United States that have, for decades, favored highly-skilled migrants from Asian countries.
In upholding this inaccurate stereotype, the needs of underprivileged members of the Asian American community go unaddressed. In addition, systemic issues that affect Asian Americans prevail, being dismissed because of the perception that they are all successful. The model minority myth also serves as a way to discount the experiences of Black Americans who cannot attain the same levels of socioeconomic success as the perceived notion of Asian Americans, whose success is attributed to “hard work” and ignoring the systemic barriers that have prevented Black Americans from accumulating wealth. Ignoring the nuance of systemic oppression, the model minority myth attempts to give the false impression of other racial minorities to believe that 'if Asians can be successful, so can you.'
The model minority myth also creates a perception that racism does not exist for the Asian American community because of the supposed success they have attained in this country. Because Asian Americans as a whole have seen higher income growth than other communities, Asian communities of lower income go unaddressed. Many Asian Americans work in service industries, such as restaurants or retail stores, whose business saw sharp declines in recent months. During the COVID-19 pandemic, working class Asians in service industries saw higher unemployment rates than other groups; however, beyond economic inequality, racism against Asian Americans has also manifested itself in violence. Hate crimes against Asian Americans have been on the rise during the pandemic.
The fetishization of Asian women also plays an integral part in upholding prejudice and violence against Asian Americans. Asian American women represent an intersection of two historically oppressed identities in the U.S. Because they are at the intersection of these two identities, Asian women experience a unique form of oppression and are uniquely vulnerable to violence. Asian women are stereotyped as hypersexual and fetishized in media and pop culture. These stereotypes lead to sexual objectification and dehumanization.
Some of the common stereotypes of Asian women include the Lotus Flower, the Dragon Lady and the Temptress. The Lotus Flower stereotype portrays Asian women as obedient and domesticated to society, while the Temptress and Dragon Lady portray them as seductive and exotic. These stereotypes uphold an image of Asian women that is simultaneously “alluring, provocative and mysterious, as well as passive, yielding, and vulnerable.” Fetishizing Asian women disregards their personal experiences and turns them into a uniquely vulnerable, othered and dehumanized target.
Dr. Sandibel Borges, assistant professor of women’s and gender studies, explains how the objectification of Asian American women through sexualized stereotypes can lead to violence against them:
“When marginalized groups of people are dehumanized, they become easy targets of violence because the systems of power that are in place not only do not protect them but actually reproduce that very violence.”
Borges explained that western colonization and U.S. imperialism play a part in creating and upholding these harmful stereotypes and oppressive, violent structures against Asian-American women.
“The U.S. has a long history of imperialism in Southeast Asian countries, having created wars that killed millions of people,” explained Borges. “From U.S. military presence in many of these countries, Asian women were subjected to sexual violence by American soldiers, while many others were driven by structural forces to participate in the sex industry, selling services also to soldiers.”
Out of this imperialist sexual exploitation of women in Asia by the US military emerged an image of all Asian women as sexual objects meant to be conquered. This can be seen in recounts of wars in popular American movies and other popular culture.
Violence against Asian American women will continue to plague our country until there is a reckoning with the way that people portray and consume images of Asian women as hypersexualized objects instead of humans.
There are many ways in which prejudice against Asian Americans is created and reinforced systemically, even in our everyday lives. Recognizing harmful stereotypes and the larger systems of oppression behind them, as well as understanding the importance of an intersectional approach to solutions, is critical in ridding our country of violence and systemic racism against Asian Americans.
This is the opinion of Elisabeth Lewis, a sophomore communication studies and music double major from El Dorado Hills, CA and Anish Mohanty, a sophomore applied information management systems major from Union City, CA. Follow and tweet comments to @LALoyolan on Twitter, and like the Loyolan on Facebook.