Fresh off the Boat and Often Forgotten: The Problem with the Race Debate

It has become exceedingly apparent that race still very much matters – and in more shades than one. (Photo Courtesy of Google Images)

Written by Aparajitha Suresh

Following the horrific events that transpired in Ferguson and in our very own Staten Island, talks of racism have once again taken America by storm. From cries of #blacklivesmatter to accusations of ‘race-baiting,’ every news channel and social media platform has been begging the question: does race still matter and, if so, why?

Although the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner may be muddled in grey, it has become exceedingly apparent that race still very much matters – and in more shades than one.

While racial discrimination has gained high publicity in most social, political and business arenas, it has been highly monochromatic in nature: reduced solely to an analysis of black vs. white. And while, yes, there is no denying that African Americans face immense prejudice in current society, sadly, they are not at all alone. Recent studies of race dynamics and social hierarchy have revealed that all ethnic minorities occupy a lower social position than White Americans simply based on the color of their skin.

But surely this must be an exaggeration. Undoubtedly, the struggles of Blacks and Hispanics are glaringly obvious, but Asian seem to enjoy a comfortable level of success here in America. After all, Asian-Americans constitute a clear majority not only here at Stern, but also at many high-profile institutions and industries around the nation.

Wrong.

As Management and Organizations Professor Lisa Leslie explained, “this whole concept of Asians as a ‘model minority’ is a myth. In fact, the belief that Asians do not face as much discrimination or are generally better off is symptomatic of a far more serious problem.”

Stereotyped as quiet and shy, there is an alarmingly low representation of Asians in roles of leadership and influence. In fact, despite comprising over 5.7% of the US population, there are currently only 11 Asian-Americans in all of Congress (~2%) and none serving on the US Cabinet.

Even in the entertainment industry, ABC’s new show Fresh Off the Boat is only the second Asian-American sitcom in television history – compared to 158 sitcoms featuring black leads. And while this statistic may seem superficial, it is indicative of a much larger problem: Asians, across the board, are perceived as outsiders, according to a 2005 study by Devos and Banaji. Consequently, they have been marginalized and afforded less power and influence, because they are seen as ‘outsiders,’ or ‘less American.’

But in contrast to the explicit socioeconomic discrimination faced by other minorities, most Americans have been conditioned to assume that Asians don’t face as much discrimination, and therefore wholly discredit this more subtle prejudice.

Now, this isn’t to say that Asians have it worse, or even equally as bad as Blacks, Hispanics or Native Americans. From manifest destiny and slavery to an entrenched system of socioeconomic oppression, Blacks, Hispanics and Native Americans have been wronged in myriad ways and deserve any attention (probably even more) that these horrific situations garner.

But this does not mean that Asians deserve any less attention. Yet, current social narrative has most Americans (yes, even Asian-Americans) falsely believing so. As one Stern student (who chooses to remain anonymous) explained, “Yes, I have experienced my fair share of racism. But what we [Asian-Americans] face just really isn’t that bad when compared to other minorities. I mean, look at Black people. They’ve clearly been treated more unfairly — and for a much longer period of time — than we have. It just doesn’t seem fair to complain.”

Perceived as outsiders who are generally more successful, the Asian plight is often cast aside because ‘it’s not as bad’ or ‘it doesn’t seem fair to complain’. But here’s the thing; the right to protest or complain is not something we must earn, it is a fundamental right that can and should be exercised at any given opportunity. Moreover, in light of equally egregious crimes against the Asian community, (the murder of Michael Cho, the Chapel Hill shooting and the police assault of Sureshbai Patel – all of which received significantly less media attention than violence against other minorities) it does seem that, by any measure, Asians do have something worth complaining about.

Ultimately, suffering is suffering. And currently, all minorities in America are suffering from a system of oppression that wholly disadvantages them simply based on the color of their skin. The only question is: which breed of this ugly beast they face and how this can be fixed… or even if it’s possible.

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