Asian Americans: A Model Minority

Host: Richard D. Heffner
Guest: Phoebe Eng
Title: “Asian-Americans: A Model Minority?”
VTR: 10/29/93

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on THE OPEN MIND. And I met today’s OPEN MIND guest in the pages of The New York Times. Not through an ad in The Times, to be sure, but rather through felicitously by-lined conversations with Phoebe Eng, who has a law degree from NYU, was an attorney at Kudale Brothers, the prestigious international law firm, and now is the publisher of A Magazine, the handsome, new Asian-American quarterly. But while this isn’t a program about Phoebe Eng’s A Magazine, it is a program about Asian Americans generally, and about White Americans’ growing perception that Asian-Americans are a model minority, to be distinguished, presumably, from Blacks, and perhaps from Hispanics, too. “It is a dangerous concept”, Ms, Eng told The Times. “To say one group is a model minority is to say that some are not model. Asians are, as the Jewish population was, being pitted against other minority groups”. And she’s distressed by the growing tensions fostered by the singling-out of Asian-Americans as the achieving minority, with a median income of over $36,000, the highest of any ethnic group, according to the 1990 census as reported by Crane’s.

But perhaps this model-minority image will vanish as Asian-Americans grow to ten million strong by the end of this decade, and to between 15 and 20 million early in the new century. Indeed, perhaps Americanization will do in this minority’s presumed superiority. Meanwhile, however, let’s deal with the distorted Asian-Americans stereotypes that disturb Ms. Eng so much. And let me ask her if she isn’t even just a bit proud of, and pleased by, the designation “model minority”. That’s a fair question, isn’t it?

ENG: I think so. I think that it’s certainly better to be designated as such than to be excluded from that group. As a matter of fact, I think that there are a lot of Asian-Americans, particularly the younger ones, who have bought into that idea. It has been one of the things that has fueled the fire of the Asian/African-American conflicts that’s arisen of late. But it still really masks what is really going on. You touched upon it to say that there are model minorities is really a method of exclusion, as opposed to one that’s given a star to a certain group. I think that if you chart through history, you can see that that ws the case, for instance, with the Jewish population in the United States. To what extent that’s played out, we could talk about that. But I see that the Asian-American group is that new model minority. I would just hope that the racial tensions that are evident in, for instance, the Jewish and Black communities, does not make its play and exacerbate itself within the Asian-American community as well.

HEFFNER: What concerns you most of all in terms of the lot, the future of Asian-Americans about this matter of being singled out? Because this isn’t something new; it’s been going on for a decade or more now.

ENG: I think that one of the things is that the “model minority” designation assumes that you’re doing something right.

HEFFNER: Aren’t you?

ENG: Well, in terms of, perhaps, what fits, what is not problematic, perhaps that’s true. There are certain ethics, for instance, that I think are very much undercurrents within the Asian morale. That is not, it’s not a confrontative way of Asians in general. I think that the culture is really one that condones harmony. Not to fall into a generalization or a stereotype, but it’s one that avoids conflict. It’s one that sees result through solving in tandem, rather than being a squeaky wheel. Well, perhaps that is why they’ve been called “the model minority”. They’ve been assimilationists. They’re almost, quote, “the honorary White society”. It’s been said more than once to me in this kind of discussion. That can be good in some ways, because it gets you up to a certain level of whatever you’re trying to do in your career, in a number of different endeavors, up to a certain level. And then all of a sudden you hit the glass ceiling in terms of what you can and cannot say. I think that the Asian-American group has come to that point now. They have gotten to a level within this country; they have enough of a history in this country that now they would like to see themselves portrayed a little more realistically in the media, portrayed a little more strongly in politics. And for that reason, perhaps, the empowerment is probably a lot of the reason that a pan-Asian identity is rearing its head now in the 1990s.

HEFFNER: Yes, but, you know, in a sense, you’ve – forgive me – in a sense, you’ve said, as you’ve written, and others have written, the same thing. You make the statement, and you explain it by making the statement again. In fact, I don’t know yet what it is that concerns you so much. You talk about the glass ceiling. Would you not confront that anyway?

ENG: In terms of what? “Anyway”. When you say “anyway”, are you saying in terms of any other minority hitting a glass ceiling?


ENG: Perhaps that’s true. And perhaps we have to realign our thinking to think not so much of minorities versus majority, because those definitions are fast disappearing in terms of their relevance in discussion. The numbers are shrinking.

HEFFNER: And won’t they disappear also, in terms of Asian-Americans, that you’re going to run into them, as Jews did, as Hispanics do now, as Blacks do?

ENG: I think that is a pivotal point, but that point is only overcome by a series of things, in my own thinking. That is, seizing your own power through the media. Seizing your won power through economics. What’s happened so far in that advancement, for instance, let’s take the global economies of Asia now all of a sudden becoming the headlines in the business news. We all think of the Japanese as very prosperous, although they’ve taken more of a plummet than even we have in terms of their economies. It has not reared well for them in terms of backlash against the Japanese. When you try to attempt to take that power, you do receive the backlash. Now, what we can do about that is only to go further, is only to try to advance what we believe in by taking control of the media, for instance. In a magazine, it’s very necessary for Asian-Americans to own their own media, to own their own stations, for instance, to put forth the views in their own voices. That’s probably when you get a good discussion about how to get past this majority, minority, model-minority discussion.

HEFFNER: Are you suggesting then, as I understand it, that a kind of complacency sets in when young Asian-Americans become involved with that model-minority image? That it’s, in many ways, a very pleasing one to be a model, and a good model?

ENG: Sure.

HEFFNER: It must be very pleasing. And you’re concerned that they will, that whatever militancy might be and needs to be in terms of getting beyond that glass ceiling will be compromised?

ENG: It’s, not…I don’t see it as a bifurcated character. Number one, yes, it is a wonderful thing to be heralded as a model. On the other hand, the reason for my own reaction on model minority is not so much taking the Asian, the concept and perception of the Asian-Americans as model, so much as it works within a larger sociological rubric, that being taken into consideration all ethnic groups, the fact that Asians are a model is really not the point, to me. It’s really irrelevant. We could have said the Hispanic-Americans are a model. It’s all just a larger picture that we’re looking at.

HEFFNER: The matter of the sense of community, the matter of the sense, not of individualism, but of group functioning, that is identified with Asian-Americans, and that has made for a good deal of the achievement in this nation, that seems to bother you.

ENG: Well, I have to say I take issue with the characterization of, perhaps, the statement in The New York Times that we’re drawing upon. It’s not so much that I begrudge the model-minority myth. I, you know, I take a look at it and see that there’s a whole lot more to the Asian identity. There’s a whole lot more. There’s such a rich, there’s a wealth of difference within groups, for instance, culturally, through language, that isn’t being recognized. “Moral minority” has a component of it that is somehow not human. That’s something that I think that Asians throughout history in the U.S., through media portrayals, have had to deal with, this kind of automaton-on-one-hand-inscrutable-on-another media image. It assumes that this is the predominant characteristic, where in our communities we have many, many problems that aren’t being addressed either through, say, welfare programs or social programs that are addressing these issues in particular. If the model minority is seen as such, there is no attention paid to it for the types of things that can be done to improve it.

HEFFNER: It sounds as though the American, rather than the Asian, is speaking out there of the Asian-American grouping. That you seem to be critical of, just at a time when in this country we’re talking about communitarianism.

ENG: Uh huh.

HEFFNER: Just at a time when we are searching out for and embracing a movement away from the individualism, from the social Darwinism that has characterized this nation, and particularly in recent decades, just at that point you seem to be saying, “Hey, that can be a hand-stringing characteristic”. Is that not an accurate perception of what you’re saying?

ENG: Well, actually, I think that it’s very necessary at this point to define pan-Asian identity. We’re at a crossroads, I do have to say. Through history, I think, the people who are a little older than me, perhaps, in their forties, a generation before my own, really had to face the situation of assimilate versus isolate. And that meant either you were the good Asian who played the track and really tried to subsume any types of characteristics that might put limelight on you for being Asian. That was seen as some kind of impediment. And you see that really among the suburban Asians and the ones who were in isolated enclaves. Certainly not in Chinatowns, for instance. It’s a very different sociological movement. Or else you have a choice of isolating. For instance, if you were proud of your Asian identity, if you wanted to bring that into your everyday life, for instance you had a number of networks to go through in order to identify with that. Unfortunately, they leaned towards nationalistic, they leaned towards separatist. A number of them were developed in the 1960s. There was a group called Aiwa Ku, for instance, that was definitely associated with the Communist Party, for instance, but then again, we’re talking about a different decade, and it was accepted in a different way. In any case, it was a factor of isolate. And that’s something that I think has plagued the older Asian community for a long time. There was nothing to really sink your teeth into as far as a melding of Asian and American identity into one thing that was cohesive and understandable.

Now, in the 1990s, it’s a very, very different story. Number one, there’s a critical mass of Asian-Americans. In the 1980s, it was the largest, most expansive, most growing group, as far as the immigrant population. It grew about 180 percent over the ten years between 1980 and 1990. We also have the Joy Luck Club and the successes of the literature and the film and the art that is coming out of Asian-America. It also helps to know that there are filmmakers from Hong Kong and China who are all of a sudden receiving the same acclaim as, say, Bergman and Renoir and are being put up in the same limelight. And that is all contributing to a kind of joining in rank and file, saying, “Yes, well, this is a part of my identity. I never really realized that this was something that I could draw upon as a strength. I no longer have to feel as though I have to act in a certain way that might be counter to what my upbringing is. I can be Asian and I can be American”.

HEFFNER: Well, if what you’re saying is happening now goes on, what’s going to happen to all of those wonderful or horrendous, as you see it, statistics that relate to. Well, in the university, in our school population, when Time magazine ran its August 31, 1987 – so we’re not talking about today – issue, “Those Asian-American wiz-kids, bright, American, Asian-American students are the marvel of U.S. classrooms”. Now, is that something you embrace? Is that something that disturbs you? But even more importantly, is that something that will continue to be a phenomenon, in your estimation?

ENG: Well, let’s say that in 1987, when I saw that, I had mixed feelings about it. I thought that, number one, it was probably the first time I had ever seen Asian-American young people on a cover of a major publication, and I was quite thrilled about it.

HEFFNER: That is a plus?

ENG: Plus. Minus side, the backlash that resulted from that was really a tragedy. It manifested itself primarily at the UC Berkeley campus where in, by coincidence, I had attended, way before that article had appeared. They had undergone a lot of discussion about the inclusion of Asian-Americans in their programs which accounted for diverse representation on their student groups. Some might call it Affirmative Action. I think most schools or most institutions try to stay away from that term. But whatever you’d like to consider, it’s added consideration for the fact that you’re racially diverse. There was a very, very large battle that took place over the next few years following that. Because Asian kids were wiz-kids, they didn’t need that extra, extra boost. They didn’t need that extra consideration. What has happened, even as I’ve seen through a survey of law schools when I had attended, is that you hit glass ceiling there too. You generally, in terms of law schools, I know that minority groups generally make up, collectively, about 20 percent. And you can look across the board, and when they get a little too high, there are mechanisms that keep that number in control. That is the danger of the wiz-kid mentality, because there are a lot of people that do need that extra kick. There are a lot of people who grow up in Chinatown and perhaps in more disadvantaged rural areas that do need to be able to have the experience, just as everybody else.

HEFFNER: All right. Now, let me ask you, what about the concept of “wiz-kid”? You speak about that. Not in terms of the negative impact, not in terms of whatever you consider to be a resulting failure to provide assistance of any types, to Asian students who are not wiz-kids. What about this perception?

ENG: What about the wiz-kid perception?


ENG: All I can.

HEFFNER: Not whether it’s good or bad. Accurate.

ENG: Right. Well, what…Maybe I should throw the question back. What is a wiz-kid, in your perception? What is an Asian wiz-kid, in your perception?

HEFFNER: Ms. Eng, the nice thing about this program is that I can always say, “But I’m asking you the question, because the audience wants to know what you think about this. What I think about this is meaningless”. What do you think about this? How valid is it?

ENG: I do think it’s important, though, to understand what other peoples’ perceptions are. That’s how we can try to get to the focal points.

HEFFNER: Oh, come on now. How accurate is that perception?

ENG: How accurate is the perception of a wiz-kid?


ENG: I would have to say as accurate as, say, African-American wiz-kids. Sure there are wiz-kids. I wouldn’t have, I have never taken a survey to see how many people would fit into a category, “wiz-kid”. I know that wiz-kid in terms of a pop culture kind of connotation probably takes into consideration the computer-minded, mathematical-minded person. The person that’s almost devoid of certain, say, liberal arts training.

HEFFNER: Wait a minute. Why do you make this a, why do you look at the fact that every glass is, unless it’s full to the brim, is going to be considered somewhat empty, maybe even half empty? Why not look at how full it is? So when…

ENG: All right, you can acknowledge the success as a well-known fact.

HEFFNER: How do you explain them?

ENG: The successes?

HEFFNER: Uh huh.

ENG: Because success is inherent in any community. And I think that you could say that there are successes within every minority community. To say that there aren’t, I can’t really point to a culture or a community that doesn’t have the successes.

HEFFNER: But what we’re talking about is at least the perception – and I’m asking you to parse that – that among the most-achieving students, let’s say, at the University of California, you will find a disproportionate number of Asian-Americans. True? Untrue?

ENG: Well, I would say that there are probably just as many successful Asian-Americans as there are, percentage wise, as there are successful Caucasian students. I think that the University of California has done what it can to up the representation of Black students and Philippino students, Hispanic students. But I don’t know what those numbers are.

HEFFNER: You don’t want to make any claims for the intellectual or academic prowess of Asian-Americans?

ENG: I have to say that I worry…No, I have to say that I’m very proud of the achievements, when I see the works of…

HEFFNER: What explains that? Those achievements. Yeah.

ENG: It’s hard work, it’s ambition. It’s perhaps a knowing what your plans are and motivating yourself. It’s all the things that are the components of success for any group, for any individual.

HEFFNER: All right. Now why do we find that to such an extent in the Asian-American community?

ENG: You might find it in terms of – I wouldn’t say it’s all-pervasive – but you might find it in terms of the Confucian ethic. There is, and that is probably one of the things that one might use to be the common thread of what a pan-Asian identity is. Because we do have Koreans and Japanese and Chinese all becoming part of this Asian Diaspora within the United States. There are enough differences.

HEFFNER: That’s an interesting term.

ENG: Well, we use it in the magazine, too. But in terms of the common flag, let’s just say that the spread of the Confucian ethic within the countries in the Far East is probably the way you can define the boundaries.

HEFFNER: How would you define the Confucian ethic?

ENG: I would say it’s definitely respect for elders. It’s a respect for authority. It is a do-unto-others mentality. And it’s very much a face-saving one. For instance, to be able to conduct yourself in a manner that allows one to save face, for instance, is very important, and still is, even in business transactions. In the United States, as an attorney, I’ve dealt with people who are both of Western persuasion as well as Asian, and I’ve noticed a very, very big difference in the way that business is transacted. And it all has to do with the importance of face, and an ability to be able to negotiate and get a job done without confrontation. It’s also one that has a lot of subliminal messages, which, if you’re not Asian, is hard to pick up.

HEFFNER: All right. In the two more minutes we have left, two minutes we have left, let me ask you whether you personally embrace that ethic and hope it is maintained.

ENG: I certainly do. I think that we’re certainly not trying to condone a sit-back-and-just-complain attitude, if that has come across. That’s certainly not what we’re about, A Magazine. And what I’m doing is going to acquire the best of a core group of people who have a certain vision of bringing together an audience for empowerment.

HEFFNER: Yeah, but what I really meant was whether the Confucian ethic, as the Judeo-Christian tradition, aren’t to be embraced. And when you do see the successes, to some extent, of the Asian-American community in terms of the Confucian ethic, the respect for authority, the respect for family, the capacity to cooperate, the emphasis upon community; this isn’t anything you want to see go by the boards, do you?

ENG: I certainly don’t. As a matter of fact, you know, we are trying to walk that tightrope when we do introduce subjects into our publication. It is something that we would like to preserve. If we didn’t want to preserve that we wouldn’t have even sacrificed a lot to make this publication happen. There are certain things that we think are unique to this group.

HEFFNER: Do you think that, in another generation, as given the statistics of about 10 to 20 million Asian-Americans, that in fact, the essence that distinguishes the Asian-Americans from America will be gone, will be whittled away?

ENG: I think, unless there is some kind of active attempt not to do that, that’s very certain. It’s sometimes cited that seven generations is what it takes to completely meld in. Unfortunately, I think that with immigrant groups such as Asians and Blacks and Latinos, we look different, and it’s a very, very different prospect than from, perhaps, the more European-derived cultures.

HEFFNER: Phoebe Eng, you and A Magazine are quite intriguing. And I’m sure this is a discussion that we can come back to again and again.

ENG: I hope so.

HEFFNER: And I appreciate your joining me on THE OPEN MIND.

ENG: Thank you.

HEFFNER: And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope you’ll join us again next time. And if you care to share your thoughts about today’s program, about our guest, please write to THE OPEN MIND, P.O. Box 7977, FDR Station, New York, NY 10150. For transcripts send $2.00 in check or money order.

Meanwhile, as an old friend used to say, “Good night and good luck”.

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