British American comedian John Oliver recently educated audiences about Asian Americans, explaining why the racial group is not a monolith and why the model minority label is inherently problematic.
The discussion, which also tackled significant points in Asian American history, made for Sunday’s episode of “Last Week Tonight,” Oliver’s half-hour series on HBO.
A complicated identity: Oliver kicked off the segment dissecting “Asian American” as a terminology — when it works and when it doesn’t for the community.
- Oliver pointed out that “Asian American” encompasses a “ridiculously large and diverse” group of people from at least 20 countries. A single categorization may overlook the unique experiences and needs of individual ethnic groups.
- “Asian American” came to consciousness in the late 1960s as Asian American student activists — alongside African American, Hispanic American and Native American peers — demanded an ethnic studies curriculum. Sadly, the term as a shorthand has since been used in ways that are “far too reductive and superficial,” Oliver said, citing an old government PSA in which three Asian American children argued their “American-ness.”
- Oliver also cited statistics that paint Asian Americans as a successful entity, but obscure the realities faced by its subgroups. For instance, 10% of Asian Americans are reported to be living in poverty — lower than the national average of 13% — but disaggregating the data shows Mongolian Americans recording poverty rates of 25%.
- The segment went on to highlight significant points in Asian American history: periods of immigration that resulted in common experiences for various ethnic groups. Prior to the first half of the 20th century, Asian immigration was “essentially a cycle of economic exploitation, followed by a violent and restrictive backlash,” Oliver said.
- It was after 1965 when attitudes shifted as highly-skilled Asian professionals entered the U.S. through the Immigration Act. This, however, became a double-edged sword as it also perpetrated, in part, the “model minority” stereotype, which Oliver later described as “a tool of white supremacy.”
The “model minority”: Aside from immigrant credentials that seem to conform to the stereotype, some Asian Americans “strategically typecasted themselves in a bid to enhance their demands for racial equality,” Oliver said, by promoting their communities as “upstanding and hardworking.”
- The model minority stereotype, which many Asian Americans now refer to as a myth, became particularly useful for white supremacists during the Civil Rights Era. At the time, the success of Asian Americans was used to discredit the systemic racism long faced by African Americans, essentially pitting the minority groups against each other.
- Oliver said the trend continues to date, showing interview statements of Rep. Tom McClintock (R-CA), podcaster Joe Rogan and political consultant Dick Morris who all regarded Asian Americans as “successful” and “hardworking.” Morris even described the group as “probably the most admirable ethnic group we have.”
- The myth implies that groups who have not succeeded simply have not tried enough, Oliver said. “The truth is, whether or not you’re successful, living a life defined by a racist fantasy just isn’t good for you,” he added.
- Oliver argued that the myth is “especially calling” for those who came to the U.S. as refugees, whose lived experience “doesn’t remotely match the stereotype.” Living up to insane expectations and being constantly told to quietly accept discrimination can also jeopardize mental health.
- “There is no nice racism. There is no silver lining to it and there is no working your way out of it. You are still perpetually treated as a foreigner, still asked ‘where you’re really from’ and Asian Americans always seem to be just one geopolitical crisis away from becoming the target of violence yet again,” Oliver said. He slammed the model minority myth as both “a tool of white supremacy” and “a trap.”
Oliver concluded the segment calling for smarter, more nuanced conversations around Asian Americans. This, he said, will only be possible with access to high-quality, disaggregated data, which will eventually shape policies that serve the actual needs of the community.
Watch the full segment below: