Suffocating as 'model minorities'

Pigeon-holing is damaging to individuals

Editor's Note: The recent spate of racially-motivated attacks against Indians in the US has raised several troubling questions. The principal among these produced by heightened xenophobia; go back to your country. Firstpost set out to interrogate the messy, complex and dislocated experience of being Indian in America; is this my country? The series that resulted, Homeland, is a compendium of interviews, analyses and opinion pieces.

In this, the eighth part, read about the pressures immigrants face in living up to the 'model minority' standards. 

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Generally, if South Asian-Americans are considered at all, they are heralded as the “perfect” or “good” immigrants. It’s commonly stated, when convenient, that Indian-Americans are productive members of American society. Though it is true that Indian-Americans collectively are more educated and more affluent than the general population, these sorts of sweeping generalisations about all sorts of people must be examined and critiqued. The model minority myth falsely elevates one community over another, doubles down on bootstraps mentality, and narrows the scope for growth and development as a person.

The model minority myth seems innocuous. The arguments against it seem facile and unmoored from reality. However, there are individual and societal implications inherent in this form of stereotyping. Real people are affected by these strictures. Model stereotyping can be just as damaging to an individual as negative stereotyping.

In fact, a recent study shows that South Asian-American women have higher rates of suicide than the general population. Experts chalk this phenomenon up to alienation and “fractured identities”, or the schism that exists between generations and between cultures. When people, talented yet fallible, brave yet fragile, feel pressure to conform to certain expectations and then feel that they continuously fail to live up to them, they break. Aruna Rao, an Indian-American health expert, told India West, “We are the model minority, so there is no one to talk to.”

If an Indian-American is not good at math, he feels that he is a failure, not only in the eyes of his parents, but also of his peers. How does this pressure affect peoples’ psyches? It restricts a person’s opportunities to be viewed as a complex person with varied interests.

In addition to pressures that affect people individually, there are societal implications to this form of stereotyping. The myth of the “lifted up by your bootstraps” mentality rests on elevating one group over another. The elevation of one group does not happen in a vacuum, but to hold up a success and further detract from the failures. Our successes as “model minorities” serve to prove that other marginalised groups could succeed if they tried hard enough, ignoring the centuries of institutional, psychological, and legislative repression waged on these groups. In fact, our group is not so far removed from this sort of active discrimination.

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- Illustrations: Satwik Gade

This is a (newly) socially constructed identity. In the late 19th century, Chinese and Indian economic migrants were viewed as crude and “unassimilable”, according to the media coverage of the era. Quotas restricted the flow of Indian-American migrants until the 1960s. Even now, only a certain type of migrant is allowed to get in the line. Professionals, many of whom hold advanced degrees, are allowed to travel here for economic purposes. To construct a limited identity based on tightly regulated patterns of migration is false and unfair to the many people who experience this pigeon-holing.

Not only is pigeon-holing damaging to individuals, it leaves us vulnerable as a group. A hate group known as the “Dotheads” reacted to this perception of undeserved success by terrorising Indian-American groups in the late 1980s. Scapegoating tends to be a diversionary tactic for the people who actually stand to benefit from such stereotyping.

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We are only allowed to succeed as long as we’re making so-called contributions that exceed what we are supposedly “taking”. First off, it is impossible to quantify this give and take. We are job creators. We buy in stores. We open businesses that require other businesses, the transportation industry, the financial sector, to thrive. When people claim that we are “taking”, it is a transparent political attempt to shore up support from people who are experiencing legitimate but misdirected economic grievances.

It is the ultra wealthy who have always benefitted the most. If the arguments for allowing immigrants into this country are economic, people and their tropes are used as leverage. Indian-Americans are allowed to stay here as long as they stay quiet and accept what is given to them without question.

It is not the doctor who benefits the most. It is the health insurance conglomerate. It’s not the middle management tech worker. It is the CEO. What happens when our time runs out? Being “model minorities” will not serve us very well when we attain levels of success in times of general economic malaise. This suffering issues forth as anger. It is directed at Muslim-Americans, at people who have darker skin, at “welfare queens” who supposedly live off the largess of the government, when in reality, most people who accept this help work as well.

Being pigeon-holed, buttoned up into roles that have little bearing on our identities, hurt us individually and as a society.

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Images Courtesy: Reuters, Subdrift Facebook Pages and Wikicommons

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