Unlike most other days during my sophomore year of high school, I remember this one like it was yesterday: sitting on the bus, putting on my headphones, pressing play on my portable CD Player, and listening to Kanye West’s College Dropout. Since that day ten years ago, College Dropout has remained one of my all time favorite albums.
And I remain a huge Kanye fan. Seriously. I think that 808s and Heartbreak was underrated. I tell my friends that they are misinterpreting Kanye when he freaks out or says seemingly ridiculous things. The reason I love College Dropout so much is that the album beautifully and simply captures the experience of Americans who lack significant social, political, or economic capital. More recently, Kanye demonstrated his understanding of our racist, classist society in an interview with Jimmy Kimmel.
A few months ago, I listened to Kanye’s newest album Yeezus. I enjoyed it. But one line really bothered me: “Eating Asian pussy, all I need is sweet and sour sauce.” This lyric is problematic for a number of reasons, but I am going to focus on one. The cavalier objectification of Asian women in this line really stood out to me. The nonchalant dehumanization of Asians occurs all the time in American society through the hypersexualization of women and the emasculation of Asian men. A quick google search of this year’s offensive halloween costumes, or, more broadly, the ways in which asians are often depicted in music, film, and media illustrate this point. Given that context, this Kanye lyric isn’t out of the ordinary–one could argue it is the unfortunate norm. I think this verse in particular bothered me because I am such a big Kanye fan.
The verse did, however, get me thinking about why people think it’s okay to say this kind of stuff. Here is what I came up with:
I believe that our societal acceptance of casual racism against Asians and Asian Americans stems from the model minority myth. White America has created a narrative that APIA (Asian and Pacific Islander American) and API (Asian and Pacific Islander) communities have achieved great success in the US and should be a model for other ethnic and racial groups living in America. Asians are labeled as a model minority. And it’s this narrative that explains why Americans think it’s okay and funny to be so overtly racist against Asians. If APIA and APIs have privilege and power, then saying things like “Asian pussy…sweet and sour sauce” or dressing up as Asiana Airline flight attendants can’t be so damaging, right? Actually, that is wrong.
This narrative and the concept of the model minority are myths and very damaging myths at that. It’s true that ethnic Asians hold more wealth than other ethnic and racial groups in our country, but that is not the full story. During the most recent recession, Asian household net worth fell 54%. A figure consistent with the drop in net worth of black and hispanic households and more than three times the drop in net worth of white households. Asian American communities including the Hmong and Bangladeshi are some of the poorest in the country. Beyond wealth, Asian communities, like other people of color in America, face extreme prejudice with examples ranging from the internment of Japanese Americans in WWII to last year’s mass shooting at a Gurdwara in Oak Creek. Furthermore, I would venture to guess that our country’s backward immigration policies have negatively affected the lives of almost every if not every APIA family living in the US. Casual racism only serves to further marginalize Asians and Asian Americans.
As a South Asian American, I hate the model minority myth. It obscures my community’s struggles and the injustices we face. Not only does the myth divide us from other folks of color, with whom we have so many shared experiences, it strips us of our agency. By viewing our communities as having achieved full success, society has taken away our space to articulate the poverty, racism, and other ills affecting our communities. Casual racism is the everyday manifestation of the model minority myth. Our perceived success makes people think that it’s okay to perpetuate Asian stereotypes, and it delegitimizes our own objections to these stereotypes.
So basically I wrote this to explain that talking in fake Chinese or Indian accents, pulling your skin back to make your eyes smaller, making jokes about Asians having small penises, talking about how you have yellow fever, and whatever else are not cool, they are damaging. As for Kanye, I am still a fan. Look at this great inner dialogue his music started.