Oluo recalls growing up poor. She spends her childhood with other poor black, brown, and white kids because they don’t think it’s weird not to have electricity, a phone, or stay-at-home parents. Nor do they think it’s strange to have clothes from Goodwill or to go to the food bank. Oluo still feels the shame of being poor, but she can forget a bit among children in similar situations. Many of her friends are Asian Americans with parents who fled war and economic crises in countries like Vietnam and India. As an adult, Oluo is ashamed to admit that she often forgets about Asian Americans in her fight for racial justice because she’s culturally influenced by the “model minority myth” of Asian Americans as middle-class high achievers.
Oluo uses the example of Asian Americans to show why intersectionality is so important. Many Asian Americans face historical trauma (like war, displacement, poverty, and colonialism), cultural appropriation, and barriers to opportunity in U.S. society—but most people assume that they don’t. This is because of a pervasive (and false) assumption that all Asian Americans are “model minorities” who have cracked the code of succeeding in U.S. society as non-white people. In confessing that she is also guilty of making this assumption, Oluo exemplifies the guilt and shame that people can face when confronted with their own prejudice.
Oluo thinks that the model minority myth actively harms Asian Americans. Sociologist William Peterson invented the concept in 1966. Many Asian Americans do, in fact, achieve high graduation rates, high salaries, and low incarceration rates, so it might not seem like a “myth”—but to Oluo, there are still problems. Oluo thinks that the term “Asian Americans” washes out a lot of cultural differences, as it broadly includes war refugees, high-earning expats, third-generation Americans, and people from vastly different parts of the globe, including Pacific Islanders who have specific needs when it comes to racial justice in the U.S.
Oluo illustrates how ignoring intersectionality can have a damaging impact on people’s lives. The term “Asian American” is so broad that it treats people in very different situations as if they’re all in the same boat. The model minority myth assumes that those who are the best-off a category (e.g., wealthy expat bankers) represent the situations of everyone in the category, which is both false and harmful. People might assume that Asian Americans aren’t oppressed because the best of them do alright, but Oluo is going to dismantle this assumption step by step.
The term “model minority” also ignores massive economic disparities. Overall, Asian Americans have a similar poverty level to white people, yet 6.7 percent of Filipino Americans are poor, compared to 18 percent of Indian Americans and 28 of Bangladeshi and Hmong Americans (a higher poverty rate than black and Hispanic people). Similarly, while Asian Americans overall have a 53 percent college graduation rate, the rate drops as low as 6 percent for second-generation Chinese Americans. Many marginalized people fall out of the picture when they’re lumped into a broader general category. Oluo believes that Asian Americans also face professional limits: while Asian Americans comprise up to 60 percent of the tech industry workforce, they’re half as likely to reach management positions than their white colleagues.
First, Oluo debunks the myth that Asian Americans are generally wealthy and successful. She uses statistics to show there are vast wealth disparities within the category. She also uses statistics to show that many Asian Americans face barriers to opportunity in education and the workforce, thus limiting their potential in U.S. society. Oluo is illustrating a fundamental problem with social categorizations that aren’t intersectional. It’s similar to assuming that the needs of rich white women are the same as the needs of black, trans, poor, and queer women because they’re all women.
Many people also overlook Asian Americans when addressing hate crimes. For instance, Islamophobic people often target Sikhs without knowing that they practice a completely different religion. Oluo also thinks that people use stereotypes of Asian American women as subservient to mask domestic abuse (Asian American women are twice as likely as white people to experience domestic abuse). Asian Americans also lack political representation (there’s only one Asian American in the U.S. Senate), and they face persistent microaggressions. Many people also use the model minority myth to accuse other minorities of laziness. Oluo concludes that the fight for racial justice demands giving Asian Americans a seat at the table.
Oluo uses the examples of hate crimes, domestic abuse, microaggressions, and lack of political representation to further debunk the false idea that Asian Americans are “model minorities” who don’t face systemic oppression in U.S. society. Here, Oluo illustrates how ignoring intersectional differences has a tangible human cost: it can literally kill people. Overall, Oluo thinks that the U.S. is a society set up to privilege rich white men at the expense of others—meaning that anybody who falls outside that category is at risk.