| Scot Nakagawa wrote:|
The Problem With Asian American Racial Privilege
February 5, 2014 1:30 am
If you do a google search of “Asian privilege” you’ll see that the subject is generating a lot of chatter, both on the right and the left. But, much of the online discussion concerning Asian privilege ignores a couple of really important things.
First, “race” is a political category, invented to serve the interests of white supremacy. Second, the Oriental “race” (what we were called before we became Asian)
was conceived of in this context. When you consider these facts, it
becomes clear that Asian privilege may be more complicated than we
On the first point, race is neither biological nor cultural. In the words of Northwestern University Law Professor, Dorothy Roberts,
“Race is not a biological category that is politically charged. It is a
political category that has been disguised as a biological one.”
And politics has consequences. It is through our political system
that the rules of society are made, and by those rules that the wealth
of society is distributed.
So when we talk about Asian Americans, we’re talking about a
subjugated political category as much as we’re talking about the people
that category tries to contain. We aren’t all alike and don’t all fit
together. In fact, Asian America includes ethnic groups that are among
the most successful in terms of income, and groups that are among the
most unsuccessful by that same measure. Even most so-called Asians don’t
identify as such, preferring instead to identify by ethnicity.
Add the notion of privilege
to all of this and things get even more complicated. Why? Because
privilege doesn’t necessarily equate to real political power, and not
all privileges are racial. On the other hand, privileges that don’t
start out racial often get concentrated in ways that benefit certain
racial groups because of the very real political power of race.
Confused yet? Here’s what I mean.
Many Asian immigrants come to the U.S. on special visas that are
granted to those who have skills the U.S. is short on. For instance,
South Asian Americans include a disproportionate number of doctors,
specifically because the U.S. didn’t have enough doctors to serve the
new market for health care created by medicare and recruited them from
South Asia. Today, many Taiwanese are being recruited to address
shortages of workers qualified for high wage jobs in the tech sector.
This kind of targeted recruitment skews statistics concerning Asian
educational attainment and income upward, creating the impression that
Asian Americans as a whole have a racial advantage that results in a
disproportionate number of us becoming doctors and other high wage
But the first wave of South Asian doctors, like the current wave of
Taiwanese tech workers, weren’t educated in the U.S., and not all Asians
come here on special visas. Some of us arrive as impoverished undocumented
immigrants, and others as war refugees. The apparent race privilege
indicated by the median incomes and educational levels of Asians overall
is about as relevant to these groups as the high median family income
of whites is to white people living in the abandoned coal camps of
Moreover, while special visas are certainly a form of privilege,
Asians aren’t getting them because they’re Asian. They’re getting them
because they have skills U.S. industries aren’t finding enough of at
home. There’s a difference.
But the privilege of getting a special visa is undeniable. And in a
society organized by race, concentrating that privilege among some
Asians makes a difference to all of us because it contributes to the
stereotype of Asians as model workers and citizens. And, as dehumanizing
as it may be, this kind of model minority stereotyping is a form of privilege in the context of racism, which is nothing more than the logic of race.
I know some Asian Americans are uncomfortable with that idea, but the
privilege of model minority stereotyping is made evident when you
consider the obvious disadvantage of being labeled a “problem” minority.
This disadvantage is represented in the racially skewed composition of our prisons and the widespread practice of targeting of black men for petty crimes like marijuana use
that are committed just as frequently by whites, who also present the
problem of constituting a much larger percentage of the illegal
That privilege may not benefit us all equally, but even white
privilege doesn’t benefit all white people equally (I again offer those
white Appalachians for your consideration). People with the power to
confer privilege tend to do so in order to concentrate benefits for
themselves, so most of what is gained through racial stereotyping isn’t
really being spread around, and even to the extent that it is, the
distribution is hardly even. Moreover, in the case of Asian Americans,
that privilege is conferred upon us by whites, making Asian privilege a
form of conditional white privilege.
So, as we argue over Asian privilege, we should keep in mind that Asian
is less effective as a descriptor of people as it is of a political
category created to serve the interests of white supremacy. And because
the Asian political category is a subjugated one by definition, just
like special visas granted to address labor shortages, Asian privilege
can be revoked if we don’t play by the rules.