NGUYEN: The Myth of Asian Advantage
But I Digress

Last week, New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof and University of Maryland professor Janelle Wong published op-eds to NBC News explaining the Asian advantage — why Asians are far exceeding other minority groups, financially and academically. Kristof suggests that Asian success stems from Confucian principles that foster an environment with an emphasis on the importance of sacrifice for family and education. Wong argues against this thinking, ascribing Asian success to U.S. immigration and selective recruitment policies, such as granting the majority of high-skilled and international student visas to Asian workers and students.

Although valid, neither argument recognizes that the “Asian advantage” is no real advantage at all, since it pits minority races against each other. The advantage only exists in the myopic scope of Kristof and Wong, but as an Asian immigrant, I personally feel that the Asian advantage does not exist in the big picture. Ultimately, when compared to whites, Asians are still limited because we are a minority. Asians are labeled as the “model minority,” simply to give the white-centric American culture a paradigm to point out the shortcomings of other minority groups. The statistical success of Asians is used to solidify the hierarchy of race, allowing one group to feel superior because other groups are not up to par.

The “Asian advantage” reinforces the disadvantages of minorities, so Asians don’t have much of an advantage at all. In order to exonerate the white majority’s role in systemic racism, the current rhetoric pretty much says, “If America is so racist, why are Asians doing so well?” This narrative implies that racism doesn’t contribute to minorities’ shortcomings as much as the culture and practices of the minority groups themselves. The fact of the matter is that the success of Asians compared to other minority groups and the causes of that success really do not matter. What matters is that a successful minority group is used to overlook the effects of racism and to make other minority groups feel inferior not only to whites, but now to Asians as well.

To illustrate how the advantage does not exist, compare Asians to whites rather than other minority groups. Asian poverty rates are still higher than those of whites. Skilled Asians are still used to make white CEOs richer. Per capita income for Asians is lower than that of whites. International Asian students are admitted to American universities because they pay a higher tuition. While some of these examples benefit the Asian minority, it still solidifies the disparities between minority groups and whites. If the advantage actually existed, we should expect to see more Asian political officeholders and business leaders, as they are clearly qualified for such positions. However, the reality is that the American economic and political worlds are dominated by whites. I am not saying that we should replace every white congressman and CEO with an Asian, I am just pointing out that the “Asian advantage” only extends insofar as it does not threaten the top of the racial hierarchy.
The construction of the “Asian advantage” is nothing more than a distraction from the white advantage. Although I am happy that Asians, for the most part, are thriving, I am bothered that Asian success is used as an example to condemn other minority groups, while removing the majority from blame for the current racial environment. Labelling Asians as the “model minority” implies that there is finally a minority group that is doing something right. But what are Asians doing differently from Blacks and Latinos? All three groups are simply responding to their respective level of discrimination imposed by the biased majority. The “Asian advantage” is a reminder to all minority groups that they will continue to face inequalities simply because they are a minority. Racial groups should not need an “advantage” to be at equal standing with one another. Just because Asians are prospering does not mean that we can just forget about the seriousness of racism in this country and carry on with our ways.

As an Asian, I never felt like I had an advantage. My family had to fight and struggle, tearing down barrier after barrier, to be where we are. Minority success is not some phenomenon stemming from our respective cultures and practices, and it certainly does not come from America handing us work and student visas. We are where we are because of each individual’s tenacity to overcome inequalities imposed on us, and that goes for any minority. So celebrate success, but do not undermine it by labeling the process as an advantage.


Lam Nguyen in a sophomore in the College. But I Digress appears every other Friday.

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