The term “model minority” is not only inaccurate, it’s harmful.

In light of several recent high-profile attacks against Asian Americans, Siena’s Asian Student Association, in collaboration with Spirit of '68, the Muslim Student Association, and Student Senate hosted a panel discussion on March 31 about anti-Asian sentiment and crime during the time of COVID-19.

The statistics are grim: since the start of the pandemic one year ago, there has been a 150 percent increase in hate crimes and assaults against Americans of Asian descent, according to an analysis of police department statistics conducted by the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at Cal State San Bernardino. The Center examined hate crimes in 16 of America’s largest cities, and while such crimes in 2020 decreased overall by seven percent, those targeting Asian people rose by nearly 150 percent. Rates in New York City, in particular, skyrocketed.

This past month has been especially shocking. On March 16, a man killed eight women – six of them Asian - at various spas in the Atlanta area. On Monday, a 65-year-old Filipino woman was brutally attacked in New York by a passer-by. The beating was captured on security cameras while the building security workers did nothing. The following day, President Joseph Biden outlined plans to address rising racism against Asian-Americans. 

Shriya Matta ’22, president of the ASA, spoke about the myth of the model minority where those of Japanese, Chinese, Indian or other Asian descent are all assumed to be STEM whiz kids or musical geniuses, and that they are “beneficiaries of the bounty of the American dream.” This, she said, downplays the impact of racism on the lives of many Asians in this country and is based on stereotypical assumptions that Asians are by nature subservient, hard-working and submissive. 

Melissa Cooper ’21, agreed that the stereotypes of Asian American and Pacific Islanders (AAPI) “put unrealistic expectations on the Asian community.”

“Ours is not a monolithic experience,” she said. “These stereotypes invalidate and silence members of our community, some of whom are refugees and struggling. Our real experiences are so diverse.” 

Trixie Castro, ’24, noted that the model minority myth takes credit and respect away from AAPIs who indeed work hard for their achievements, while Fr. Linh Hoang, O.F.M., professor of religious studies, spoke of the issues faced by refugees from Laos, Vietnam, Cambodia and other southeast Asian nations. 

“They are still struggling, still trying to find a foothold in this country, and are not being given some of the supports that were offered to recent generations.”

Taewoo Kang, Ph.D., assistant professor of political science, said some AAPIs, especially non-citizen immigrants, feel they “can’t afford the fight” when faced with racism, which is experienced differently by various minority groups in America. He spoke of the double prejudice faced by Asian women, who are often cat-called, with Castro noting the fetishization and hyper-sexualization of Asian women who are seen as exotic and submissive.

Ashna Gupta ’21 shared that the myth of the model minority was created “to negate black struggle,” while both groups face an uphill climb for acceptance.

Chahna Choksi ’22 added that model minority can mean “forever foreigner.” 

“No matter how much education l have, no matter how well my family and I speak English, I feel I will never be accepted as a true American” she said. 

Fr. Linh said he is still asked if he is a citizen, and if he is really a Christian. 

“People ask where I’m ‘really’ from, or what is my ‘real’ religion is even though they see I am attired as a friar. Unfortunately, this is something we’ll be asked all our lives.”

Gupta noted the irony of these questions, asked by the descendants of white European colonialists. 

“We’re all living on stolen land.” 

While the recent uptick in anti-Asian speech and crime cannot be entirely attributed to former President Donald Trump’s rhetoric about the coronavirus, many believe his repeated references to the “China virus” did indeed play a part in fostering hate.

Castro noted that the COVID pandemic showed AAPI are not immune to racism and that hate crimes are driven by xenophobia, with Cooper noting that “in the U.S., we are quick to dismiss the impact of words.”

“Trump’s words had a direct impact on anti-Asian violence, which has existed for a long time.” 

The panel concluded with a discussion of what Siena can do to support the Asian community. Suggestions included offering courses on cultural awareness to fulfill the College’s Franciscan heritage requirement; creating an ethnic studies program to explore Latin, African, Native American and Asian cultures; and “pushing each other to have the difficult conversations.”