BY Jonathan Hui, The Kresge Foundation, TFN PLACES Alum

I am a first-generation immigrant from Hong Kong. Home for me is a complicated web of California, and Michigan, and Hong Kong. I am grateful for my adopted country, and every day I miss the sounds and smells of my birthplace.

And yet I was often taught that being as “American” as possible was the best — if not only — way to succeed in this country.

Speak fluent English. Learn the seventh-inning stretch. Remember that football involves touchdowns and not goals.

As I learned to assimilate, I also leaned into the stereotype of the “model minority”: the hard-working Asian overcoming all odds to achieve the American Dream. I held on to this mythic vision of myself as a way of propping myself up, something that offered validation and access white-led spaces in schools and the workplace.

What I didn’t realize, however, was that the model minority myth is just that. A myth.

It is a myth because it didn’t, and shouldn’t, define me or my community.

It is a myth because it was a stereotype created not to prop up Asian Americans, but to pit people of color against each other. The “model minority” term, coined by a white sociologist, was subsequently used by politicians to discredit the need to address racial injustices toward other peoples of color. It compares the success of Asian Americans to that of our other BIPOC brothers and sisters. It does not celebrate our achievements, but serves to imply the inferiority of others.

As we recognize Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) Heritage Month this May, I invite you to celebrate and elevate the unique stories of your AAPI neighbors around the country. No two AAPI stories in the United States are the same. Each brings a complex web of family histories and life experiences that have shaped our journey in this country. Our stories embody remarkable achievement and incredible pain of real people, far beyond the one-dimensional myth of the “model minority.”

I recall the countless times I’ve been asked: “How did your English get so good?” The unspoken but clear implication being that there was something wrong with the English spoken by my fellow immigrants. And in our nation’s political discourse, we still hear stories of AAPI entrepreneurs and leaders highlighted as examples only to be asked: “If you made it, why can’t they make it?”

But this myth hasn’t translated into reality for AAPI people, including our representation in governance and business. AAPIs make up 6% of the nation’s population, but less than 1% of its elected officials at any level. In business, AAPIs make up 12% of the nation’s workforce, but only 1.5% of Fortune 500 corporate officers. Those rates are similarly appalling for our Black and brown peers in business, despite their hard-earned gains in the political sphere.

What I didn’t realize, therefore, was that my claiming the role of model minority came at the expense of my fellow AAPIs, and my Black and brown brothers and sisters. It taught me lies I internalized over time: How I prided myself at the expense of my fellow immigrants for my language fluency, or how I found myself questioning others’ success — or seeming lack of  success — while being blinded by my own privilege and access to certain opportunities.

What does privilege look like for me, a member of the AAPI diaspora? My own access to education, my family’s access to wealth-building opportunities, my being welcomed into white-dominant spaces as the “model minority” have all contributed to privilege I have experienced in this country.

Indeed, I am responsible for buying into that myth, and yet am determined that I can no longer allow a myth that has perpetuated white-centeredness to reign supreme over how I view my brothers and sisters of color.

Even within the AAPI community, the model minority myth generalizes the AAPI experience. It shows our community as a monolith rather than an interconnected web of cultures, languages and peoples from hundreds of different Asian and Pacific cultures. It ignores what makes each of us human.

The response in many corners of our country to the recent murders of seven Asian women and their colleagues in Atlanta demonstrated this dehumanization. Rather than focusing on the heinous acts, commentary focused on the women’s jobs, comparing their careers to the story of the model minority. Rather than telling the stories of the women that lost their lives, we created space to somehow justify the murderer’s fetishization of Asian women. People, somehow, started asking questions of the women: “If these other Asians made it, why couldn’t they make it?”

So as we celebrate AAPI Heritage Month during the month of May, I invite you to hear the stories of your AAPI neighbors and to honor what makes each of them their own. Each story brings a different experience of immigration, of navigating the tension of cultural identity, of learning new and old languages, of food and family, of each of our intersecting identities.

And if you asked me to share my story, I would tell you about how I have to explain “where I’m from” to strangers. I would tell you about how I was determined to stay fluent in Cantonese so I can speak to my grandparents. About teaching English and civics to American high school students. About how I have come to understand my place as an Asian man living in a majority Black city like Detroit.

About how, after all these years, I am still juggling my American patriotism and Chinese cultural identity.

Mine is the story of just one person — a first-generation, Chinese, heterosexual, Christian man working in philanthropy. There are countless other AAPI experiences that deserve to be lifted up and amplified.

Who else will you invite to share their story?

Through these stories, I hope that we will find ways to celebrate what makes each of us unique. That our stories will tell of our community’s power, and hope, and complexity. That each of these stories will catalyze a shift in our culture and our policies. I hope that we will start by dismantling the dominance of white-centeredness that continues to pervade our nation — one that dehumanizes peoples of color and pits BlPOC communities against each other. I hope that I will continue to learn how I can join in a journey of shared liberation with my Black, brown and Indigenous brothers and sisters, and with the advocacy alongside our white allies, recognizing that none of us will truly experience freedom and liberation in this country unless we all do.

What Can Funders Do?

There is much we can do as funders to change the narrative of AAPI communities in our country.

1. Learn More

Read the “State of Philanthropy Among Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders,” which provides a thorough analysis of AAPIs in the nonprofit and philanthropic sector, and proposes a set of recommendations for policymakers and funders. (You can also read about another recent AAPIP study, “Seeking to Soar: Foundation Funding for Asian American & Pacific Islander Communities”, on the TFN Blog.) I would also encourage you to read this call for solidarity and collective action from Asian American/Pacific Islanders in Philanthropy, released in the wake of the Atlanta attacks.

2. Reject the Model Minority Myth

Rejecting the model minority myth opens the door for more equitable and effective policymaking and funding. Rather than seeing the AAPI experience as a prepackaged set of identities and stories, policymakers should ask the right questions to fully understand the experience of each person, and each sub-culture and subgroup.

We can start by using disaggregating data, which allows us to target interventions that support different communities within the AAPI umbrella. The percentage of Indian and Malaysian Americans with a bachelor’s degree in California (70% and 63%, respectively) is dramatically higher than those for Laotian (10%) and Samoan (12%) Americans. Poverty rates are similarly disproportionate: 42% of Hmong youth and 33% of Cambodian youth live in poverty in California, compared to between 6 and 7% of Taiwanese or Japanese youth.

We increase our understanding of the challenges faced by each sub-group as we continue to disaggregate. Think, for example, about our LGBTQIA AAPI neighbors, the elderly, or those with physical disabilities. It is only by recognizing the unique challenges faced by each subgroup that we can truly address the needs that span across the communities that make up the AAPI umbrella in the United States.

 3. Recognize the Context of Place

We know that the challenges faced by AAPI communities in the San Francisco Bay Area and New York are different than those in Southeast Michigan or New Orleans. Each faces a different context of poverty and economic opportunity, housing regulations, school segregation, state and local laws that enhance or restrict access to voting, and much more. And in this era of increased violence and hate crimes toward AAPI communities, we must also recognize how the context of place shapes the safety and security experienced by our AAPI neighbors.

I hope you’ll find time to hear the stories of your AAPI neighbors, not just during AAPI Heritage Month, but year-round.

I hope you’ll honor those stories and hear within them how our shared tears of joy and sorrow have built our collective power.

I hope you’ll work alongside your AAPI colleagues to better examine how design of policies and funding programs can best address the priorities of the many communities within the AAPI family.

And I hope you’ll join us in a fight for the shared liberation of all peoples of color — of all people — as we march toward justice and opportunity in this country.

About the Author

Jonathan Hui is a program officer at The Kresge Foundation, supporting the Detroit Program’s work in early childhood and neighborhood development. He joined the foundation in 2017. (Read his full bio here.) Jonathan was also a member of TFN’s 2019 PLACES Fellowship cohort, embarking on a year-long leadership development program for professionals in philanthropy to better understand issues of race, equity and inclusiveness, and recently joined the PLACES Advisory Board.



Origami – order out of chaos” by docoverachiever is licensed under CC BY