My work involves organizing dinners among strangers with different political perspectives in an effort to build understanding. Over a hot lasagna and homemade biscuits, people start to let down their guards. At one such dinner, the issue of white privilege came up as guests passed the wine. Most of us are familiar with the concept of white privilege – the idea that to be white in America is to have certain social and systemic advantages. One guest took offense at the term; “Well, if there’s such thing as white privilege, is there Asian privilege too? Asians are the wealthiest ethnicity in America.” While other non-Asian guests shook their heads, offended on behalf of Asians, I paused. No one wants to see themselves as part of a group that has unfair advantages, but if I dismissed the idea without truly examining it, wouldn’t I be having the same defensive reaction as the guest who posed the question? Asian Americans are often left out of the race conversation in America. It is up to each of us to figure out where we stand. So I found myself thinking: what is Asian privilege?
To examine the idea of Asian privilege in the United States, let’s first understand the word “privilege” in a societal context. Vanderbilt University created a handout of Power & Privilege Definitions that states: “Privilege operates on personal, interpersonal, cultural, and institutional levels and gives advantages, favors, and benefits to members of dominant groups at the expense of members of target groups.” Everyday Feminism adds, “Privilege is the other side of oppression.” To understand the position of Asians in America, it’s important to look at both the challenges and the advantages.
What started this conversation was the claim that Asians must be privileged if they’re the wealthiest group in America. This appears to be a misconstruction in a few ways. Asian Americans as a group have the highest median household incomes, but income is not the same as wealth. Wealth is measured by what assets one has and can be positively affected by family money, or negatively affected by debt. Despite a higher median income, the wealth gap among Asian Americans is wider than it is among white Americans. While some Asian Americans have accrued wealth, those struggling on the other end of the spectrum are often less established and more impoverished than their white counterparts.
Another issue arises from conflating many ethnic cultures under the umbrella term “Asian.” If you look at the breakdown of income by all ancestries, you’ll see that Indian Americans and Taiwanese Americans hold the first and third spots, while Bangladeshi Americans and Burmese Americans are in the bottom ten. To lump all Asian cultures together and call them wealthy is to overlook the difficulties specific communities experience.
Asians in America come from a history of oppression. From the Chinese Exclusion Act to Japanese American internment, from lynchings to segregated neighborhoods, Asians have always been treated as unwanted foreigners. But what about today? A poll taken in December 2017 reports that at least one-quarter of all Asian Americans report discrimination in housing and work situations, and other studies show that job applicants with Asian surnames are 28% less likely to be called in for interviews. While we hope for things to improve over time, hate crimes against Asian Americans are actually on the rise.
Education lies at the root of the model minority myth and white acceptance of Asian Americans. Historian Ellen Wu’s book “The Color of Success” describes how Asians in mid-century America sought a path to respect. The tide started to turn in their favor in the 1950s, when the U.S. was concerned about juvenile delinquency and Chinese Americans saw an opportunity to present education as a key value of their culture. The U.S. government was also looking to gain allies in the Cold War by showing itself as a racially diverse democracy (while ironically resisting the Civil Rights movement). Lauding Asian American academic habits in the media accomplished these aims; it showed acceptance of other races and sent the message to other minorities that there were no unfair disadvantages. If Asians can do it, why can’t you?
It’s easy to assume that attainment of higher education is simply part of all Asian American cultures. Indeed, 54% of Asian Americans have a bachelor’s degree or more, the highest percentage of any ethnicity. Like with income, a closer look at individual communities tells another story. While 72% of Indian Americans have obtained a bachelor’s degree or higher, Cambodian and Hmong communities both come in much lower at 18%.
So what about Asian privilege?
Because Asians are a minority that still experiences oppression, the term “Asian privilege” does not ring appropriate or true, at least not yet. We are walking a fine line though; the definition of privilege is that the privileged group benefits in a way that hurts a target group. Asian Americans are already used as a wedge in ways that hurt other minorities. While Asians are not likely to ever be the most populous group in America, it’s entirely possible we’ll eventually be wrapped into the definition of whiteness. It was not so long ago that Italian Americans, Greek Americans, and other groups now considered white were excluded even more strongly than Asian Americans are today. With whiteness as a social construct, who knows what it will grow to include as political agendas evolve.
Through all of this, I urge my fellow Asian Americans to remember that were it not for the civil rights movement led by African Americans, we would not even be in a position to ponder whether or not there is Asian privilege. The civil rights movement led to anti-discrimination laws that have given all minorities the chance of being treated more fairly. As life improves for Asian Americans, instead of taking actions that push others down, let’s act as a rising tide that lifts all boats, as others have done for us.