I Discovered I am Not a Model Minority

by ursavoice

Sam Lam

This past summer I clerked at the Asian Pacific American Legal Center (APALC). To work at APALC was a form of reconciliation for me. I have advocated for the rights of the underprivileged since many years before I came to law school, namely on behalf of LGBT rights. Yet up until recently, my being an Asian American rarely informed that social justice work. As I perceived it then, being an Asian Pacific Islander American (APIA) just did not bear the marks of “disadvantage.” After all, APIAs seemed to be economically well-off and professionally successful. In short, I believed in the myth that APIAs are a “model minority,” and I took comfort in the idea that APIAs were doing just fine.

The reality is quite the contrary. At APALC, I developed a profound insight into APIAs’ unique and complex struggles. On the one hand, APIAs do bear some marks of advantage and privilege. According to census data found in the recently published Uncommon Common Ground: Race and America’s Future, co-authored by APALC’s executive director Stewart Kwoh, Asian Americans’ 2008 median household income exceeded that of whites.1 On the other hand, “high levels of poverty mark many Asian communities, including the Vietnamese, Laotians, Hmong, and Tongans.”2 Moreover, “Asian Americans are often perceived as being more ‘foreign’ than anyone else.”3 During World War II, the United States Supreme Court upheld the internment of over 100,000 Japanese American citizens in Korematsu v. United States. APIAs also constitute the only racial group to be expressly excluded from United States citizenship by law, namely through the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. Social justice has often focused on the dynamics between the extremely poor and the extremely rich, or else between blacks and whites as a paradigm for racial inequity. But I have come to realize that the vast majority of the country faces far more nuanced and complex struggles that do not fit neatly into either of those models. Inequity abounds across every race, ethnicity, class, gender identity, sexual orientation, religion, and political ideology. A white heterosexual man who is making minimum wage does not feel particularly in power; likewise, the Asian woman who is an associate at one of the nation’s largest law firms may not feel so successful if she spends most of her energy convincing her co-workers that she “fits in.” Working at APALC allowed me to understand more about and contribute to working on behalf of APIAs who are in desperate need of support, whether financial, legal, or personal. There is no model minority, and there is no way to simply pigeon-hole the struggles of any racial or ethnic group. APIAs comprise a unique community with complex needs, fears, and aspirations. At the end of the day, they are people, and I came to law school to serve people, not just my idea of them.

1. Angela Glover Blackwell et al., Uncommon Common Ground: Race and America’s Future 65 (2010).
2. Id. at 93-94.
3. Id. at 95.