The Invisible Minority

Last month, Tony Bruno of Fox Sports Radio aired recordings of an interview with Shaquille O’Neal, center for the L.A. Lakers, to its nationwide audience. Asked his opinion on Yao Ming, the rookie center for the Houston Rockets, O’Neal derisively taunted in mock-Chinese, “Tell Yao Ming, ‘ching-chong-yang-wah-ah-soh.’” Far from condemning this inappropriate remark, Bruno found O’Neal’s comment amusing, inviting listeners to call in with jokes on this topic.

While many have been quick to write off O’Neal’s comment as joking, we find this statement unacceptable. What O’Neal said is both ignorant of and damaging to Asians in the United States. His statement is abhorrent and deplorable.

Let’s not kid ourselves—if this incident had occurred between a white and a black man, it would have caused an explosion of outrage. Had Yao Ming been black or Hispanic, no one would have dared to broadcast such racial taunts over national radio for fear of widespread backlash. Why then does American society find it acceptable, and even humorous, to mock an individual of Chinese descent? Evidently, Americans hold a double standard with regard to political correctness. A standard that denies basic respect to Asians in America.

Because of the belief that Asians have attained economic and academic success in the United States, many assume that Asians do not have to deal with the racism that negatively impacts “real” minorities. Besides being a dangerous over-generalization, this misperception obscures the actuality of Asian American experiences. While the accomplishments of some Asian Americans are very visible in this society, the challenges and the discrimination that confront the minority remain unnoticed. They are an invisible minority.

Many argue that one shouldn’t compare Asian stereotypes with those of Hispanics, blacks or any other minority. But many of the allegedly “positive stereotypes” of Asian Americans, such as being “clever,” “good at math and science” and “hardworking,” are just as insidious as the pigeonholing of other groups based on appearance or cultural heritage. Not only do these typecasts discount individual diversity, they often become twisted into negative traits such as “dishonesty,” “lack of leadership skills and creativity” and “passivity.” Such stereotypical caricatures of conniving ninjas, exotic geisha women, and hyper-intelligent anti-social nerds reduce the humanity of Asian Americans and their experiences. The perception of Asians in America as successful and thereby less vulnerable to bigotry does not warrant the perpetuation of discriminatory stereotypes.

Furthermore, the widespread belief in the educational and socioeconomic achievements of Asian Americans belies the disparities within this diverse group. While a significant proportion of Asians living in America have attained success through higher education, it is entirely misleading to aggregate them all into one homogenous group. According to a 1993 U.S. Bureau of the Census report, the proportion of those with bachelor’s degrees ranged from 65.7 percent among American males of Indian descent to 3.0 percent among American women of Hmong descent, compared with 23.3 percent for the total male population and 17.6 percent for the total female population in the United States.

Likewise, the claim that Asian Americans are more economically successful than whites is erroneous. While the census bureau reported in 1997 that Asian Americas have higher median household incomes than non-Hispanic whites, this overlooks the fact that Asians have more income earners and individuals within each household. Moreover, Asian Americans concentrate both in metropolitan areas and in the states of California, New York and Hawaii, where costs of living are much higher, thereby decreasing their actual purchasing power. Consequently, if we use per capita income as a socioeconomic indicator, non-Hispanic whites, on average, earn over $2,000 more than Asian Americans

The poverty rate for Asian Americans also refutes the claim of universal socioeconomic success. The same 1997 census report indicates a poverty rate of 14 percent for Asians in America, as compared with 11 percent for non-Hispanic whites, 26.5 percent for blacks, and 27.1 percent for Hispanics. Furthermore, disaggregating the category “Asian American” demonstrates poverty rates of 25 percent for Vietnamese Americans and 45 percent for other Southeast Asian Americans. From these figures, it is clear that contrary to perception, a significant number of Asian Americans confront socioeconomic challenges.

Yao Ming might have chosen to tolerate and downplay O’Neal’s taunts to avoid stirring controversy as he adapts to a new environment in America. However, as students at Harvard, we cannot allow O’Neal’s affront to remain unanswered. Regardless of whether a considerable proportion of Asians in America demonstrate educational and economic prosperity, there is no justification for racial stereotyping or ethnic ridicule. We must draw the line before playful banter tumbles down the slippery slope into outright racism. At present, Asian Americans may constitute the invisible minority; nevertheless, this will change as we continue to demand recognition as individuals and respect for our heritages.

Sophia Lai ’04, a social studies concentrator in Currier House, is co-president of the Harvard-Radcliffe Asian American Association. Silas Xu ’05, an applied math concentrator in Cabot House, is president of the Harvard-Radcliffe Chinese Students Association.

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