Throughout his presidential candidacy, Andrew Yang has leaned into a “model minority” rhetoric that capitalizes on Asian American stereotypes in order to garner support for his campaign.
This tactic has received backlash from Asian Americans — myself included. He has jokingly created a playful bond between himself and certain white voters with sound bites like “I’m Asian so I know a lot of doctors.”
By saying things like this and perpetuating these stereotypes, some have argued Yang is reinforcing racist sentiments and thus cementing the marginalization of Asian Americans in important national conversations.
But maybe we shouldn’t be condemning Yang. After all, all he’s intending to do is provide comic relief. While criticisms of Yang’s behavior are valid, they come off as incredibly one-sided and invalidate Yang’s own lived experiences. Asking him to lean into traditional identity politics could have an effect similar to what we see in “model minority” myths.
Asian Americans, as a group, are not particularly progressive. The controversy around Yang raises a real question about who we might be silencing by asking Yang to talk about the model minority myth in a specific way. There shouldn’t just be one way to talk about these stereotypes.
In our assessment of Yang’s rhetoric, we ought to bear in mind the scale of Yang’s burden, which is so varied and intense because American society over the years has flattened all Asian American experiences into one stereotype of the model minority.
This bias shapes not only outsiders’ perceptions, but also has an enormous distortionary effect on how we, as Asian Americans, think about ourselves. Perhaps Yang’s “open arms” approach to stereotypes could put us on a trajectory to blunt their power.
Yang’s supposed mockery of Asian Americanness can alternatively be read as a mocking of “conscious Asian Americanness.” He shapes his rhetoric around preconceptions society has about high-achieving Asian people and there’s something comfortably familiar about that. Yang reminds us on the country’s biggest stage of the unfortunate accomodations Asian Americans must make when telling our stories.
For those of us who have experienced racism, the onus has been unjustifiably transferred onto us to make people comfortable with who we are by way of not talking about our race and identity. In exchange for fitting in, we traded off our right to reject white supremacy and instead internalized it. Yet given Yang’s background, I find it doubtful that he is deliberately trying to make white people comfortable at the expense of Asian Americans.
The pragmatic way Yang talks about identity resembles a defense mechanism — he’s defusing spots of trouble with humor in order to reassure others that he is the Asian Everyman. He is the model minority Asian who is “like everyone else” and isn’t “woke” in any exhausting way.
Realistically, the country is not ready for an Asian American president who engages in identity politics the way we would like. Yang is tactfully strategizing against a backdrop of a country tired of these political trends. His racialized campaign in tandem with his lack of political clout necessitates a style that will allow him to appear more palatable.
Yang is not our only shot at rectifying the model minority myth. It feels that way because he has such a huge platform right now, but we can also dismantle it in our daily interactions and ask ourselves whether or not we’re being hypocritical. We cannot ask Yang to spark sophisticated conversation about the model minority myth if we’re not ready to really consider the nuances of Asian America in the body politic.