Identity is, for the most part, fluid. We construct who we are, and decide who we want to be. However, while it is often believed that we choose who we want to be, it is largely the society that we inhabit that shapes who we are. Identities are inherently based on outsider perceptions; people don’t exist inside of a vacuum. Moreover, identities can also be, and have historically been, highly politicised.
People are typically stereotyped across two dimensions: warmth versus coldness (how friendly, sociable and caring someone is), and competence versus incompetence (how competent, intelligent and capable someone is). When we think about East Asian individuals, stereotypically, it is of someone who is hardworking and intelligent, but foreign and distant. African-American, Māori and, Pacific individuals, on the other hand, have been portrayed as unintelligent and lazy, but amicable and comedic. These two identities are dichotomous; the two groups are constantly in contrast.
Recently, with the growing involvement and mainstream media attention on the Black Lives Matter movement, a lot of people started speaking up. It was all over social media and the news, people were talking and posting about it nonstop, but there was a deafening silence from the East Asian communities. To my dismay, I’ve even seen rallies led by Asian individuals in support for policemen in the U.S., and people saying “Asian lives matter” because they feel that it’s unfair that Black people have a movement but Asian people do not. But why are we so hesitant to speak up against our oppressors? Why are we so eager to side with them? Also, why can East Asian people be considered ‘higher up’ in the racial hierarchy? Let’s begin with something called the ‘model minority myth.’
Although the term only came about in 1966, the concept of a ‘model minority’ existed long before then. The myth essentially downplays the role racism plays in the struggles of all minority groups. It began with Chinese immigration to Western countries in the 1800s. When Chinese people first started arriving in New Zealand in the late 1800s, they were considered to be undesirable and unwanted in society. In 1920, it was decided that unless you were British, you needed a special permit to enter the country. New Zealand was made to be a ‘White haven.’ This decision was made in hopes of the remaining Chinese population leaving New Zealand, and to prevent more Chinese people, along with other minority immigrants, from entering New Zealand. Furthermore, social welfare benefits, unemployment support, and pensions were all withheld from the Chinese community regardless of whether they were New Zealand-born or citizens. When Chinese people regained the ability to apply for citizenship in 1951, they faced more barriers: they had to renounce their nationality and demonstrate that they could live a ‘British way of life’ – no other citizenship applicants had to satisfy these criterions and they were free to maintain their other nationality. In the U.S., the Immigration and Naturalisation Act in 1965 addressed decades of systemic exclusion as a direct result of the Civil Rights Movement, and drew in an extremely selective group of East Asian professionals and skilled workers as immigrants were selected based on ‘merit.’ Similarly, in New Zealand, in 1987 the government stopped discriminating against immigrants based on their country of origin, but they essentially dictated who could enter the country based on socioeconomic status, and eventually required immigrants to sit English-language tests in 1995. The Chinese people who arrived were well-educated, business people or skilled professionals, and typically of a middle-class background. Due to the extensive years of being systematically discriminated against, East Asian immigrants grew to be low-profile, eager to please, and keen to make compromises. These communities existed with unspoken contracts to act in the ways that were expected of them; they avoided trouble, aimed for success, put on their best behaviour, and kept quiet, all the while maintaining a certain distance from other ethnic groups. This set the stage for the model minority myth to flourish.
Ironically, in seeking acceptance into Western societies, East Asian communities shed the very thing that they wished to be accepted: their ethnic identities. We cosy up to our oppressors in hopes of becoming one of them, and when we are praised for doing so, this behaviour is reinforced. To an extent, we love being the ‘model minority.’ We consider ourselves ‘superior’ to other races because we have the praise of the White man, but we mustn’t step out of line because we’ll lose that praise and that will make us no different to the other minority groups. It’s a problematic mindset to be in, but it certainly works to keep East Asian communities in check and continuously buying into White ideals and ways of life. Our ‘White’ privilege is conditional. We are used as puppets in politics because we have accrued our own wealth, started our own businesses, and climbed up the social hierarchy, but we are still a minority. White people point at us as an example for Black people, Māori people, and other minority groups to live up to. We’re used as a way to explain away racial inequality because if East Asian people, a minority group, can work hard and get to high places, then so can all other minority groups. Tokenism is a great way to keep stereotypes alive, and fuels meritocratic beliefs. I see a lot of people pointing to Oprah as an example of a successful Black person and argue that if she, as a Black woman, can do it, then everyone else can, too. All you have to do is work hard. That’s just like this myth. East Asians set an example for other racial groups to model because we’re portrayed as a group who gained success by ‘working hard,’ but this image erases the hardships of systemic racism we’ve endured to get there. If it weren’t for the effort of Black people in the Civil Rights Movement, we probably would not have had that opportunity to succeed in the Western world. We’re no longer considered a minority group because we appear to be on the same level as White people – arguably even higher because we’re ‘naturally smart,’ according to some. Sometimes I think the ‘divide and conquer’ tactic is all that people in power know of, but it really does work like a treat. Since all of the minority groups are pitted against each other, there’s no possibility of us uniting and breaking from the barriers set by the dominant White population.
In New Zealand, this divide was made salient with the increasing immigration as this growth was seen by some as a way to undermine the Māori status of being indigenous and a treaty partner to Pakeha. Biculturalism was held onto staunchly because of the fear that multiculturalism would only dilute racial relationships and give reasons to Pakeha to avoid fulfilling their obligations under Te Tiriti o Waitangi (not like they did, anyway). It’s interesting because on the one hand, East Asian communities are welcomed and necessary for the prosperity of Western nations – they are used as pawns in politics and economics, because now that the East Asian nations have more power and say on the international playing field, everyone wants in on it. For example, in 1993 in Tokyo, the Prime Minister of New Zealand at the time, Jim Bolger, claimed that he was an ‘Asian leader’ as an attempt to get closer to and connect with the powerful Asian countries, at the Asia Society conference. On the other hand, despite this, New Zealand became increasingly xenophobic as more immigrants arrived. Winston Peters and the New Zealand First party have been capitalising on the return of the ‘yellow peril’ since 1996, reinforcing the concept of ‘us’ versus ‘them.’ When we are not used as the ‘model minority,’ we’re discarded and tossed to the side, deemed incompatible with the Western world. After the bombing of Pearl Harbour, the U.S. declared war on Japan and over 120,000 people of Japanese ancestry were imprisoned there in the following months. When Covid hit, the East Asian communities, especially Chinese individuals, are back to being seen as dirty and unclean foreigners whose ways are ‘backwards.’ We are always seen as the ‘Other’ regardless of what we identify as and what nation we identify with.
Similarly, while Māori and Indigenous peoples are natives to their land, they are also ‘Othered’ by the dominant White population upon colonisation. Melanie Wall argues that this stereotype of Māori as the ‘Black Other’ continues to be salient, and is further pushed by the media. Stereotypes gain their power from being ambivalent, resulting in contradictory representations that maintain inequality (like the ‘model minority’ myth). Pakeha are able to assert ideological sovereignty over Māori as the ‘Other’ through stereotypes, and making clear distinctions between the two groups based on ‘race.’ The creation of ‘races’ in 1776 by the German scientist Johann Blumenbach during the rise of colonisation and exploration was solely for justifying European acts of subjugation; it made slavery seem acceptable, and the oppression of other humans’ rights less uncomfortable. As with other colonial contexts, the indigenous population of New Zealand was subjugated to the universal standards of ‘Blackness.’ As Black individuals are pushed further and further down the racial hierarchy due to the emergence of more and more ‘races,’ East Asian individuals are uplifted because of the colour of our skin and our supposedly ‘hardworking’ demeanour. These two racial identities will only grow to be more and more polarised if we continue to buy into the stereotypes of them.
Early Māori identity images depict them as ‘primitive,’ ‘savage,’ and a ‘vanishing race.’ Since their initial contact, Pakeha have sought to categorise Māori within the Western racial hierarchy. It was believed that Māori were made up of three ‘races,’ with Polynesians being the dominant ‘race.’ Initially, they were considered to be intelligent and industrious ‘noble savages,’ better than other ‘savages’ (i.e. the Aboriginal peoples and the Native Americans) because they wore clothes, had a seemingly ‘normal’ way of life, and fought back when provoked. As Pakeha settlement increased, Māori were depicted as military threats, and an image of Māori that was uncivilised and uncultured was formed. However, after the New Zealand wars in the 1960s, the idea of ‘noble savages’ was repopularised. The ambivalence of these stereotypes ensure their persistence, and lay the groundworks for the contemporary imaginings of the Māori ‘race.’ During the Māori renaissance in the mid-1970s, the ‘Black Other’ stereotype resurfaced. The contradictory stereotypes are as follows: Māori are violent and savage, they constantly rely on the state, and remain unemployed because of their own incompetence. But, they are amicable, and their savagery is socially accepted when expressed through sports. This highlights the idea of Māori as the ‘comic Other’ because they’re generalised as being ‘lazy’ and ‘clumsy,’ fun-loving characters, which portrays their ‘good-natured’ side, but it maintains the harmful stereotypes of Māori people. It’s aligned with the stereotype of Māori being the primitive natural athlete as it emphasises that Māori are suited for physical activities but not intellectual ones, further contrasting between East Asian individuals and Māori and Black individuals as East Asians are portrayed as ‘brainy’ but meek and oriental. Contemporary stereotypes of Māori further reinforces them as the ‘Black Other,’ and fosters a sense of the ‘self-as-Other’ within Māori communities, especially in younger individuals. By creating these stereotypes, Pakeha forced Māori into identities that were not created by themselves.
The basis of most stereotypes of Indigenous and Black peoples is that their problems are caused by themselves; they are the reason for their own demise. The issues in their population are within the people, with no relation to the rest of society. They are told to work harder in order to succeed in life, to look to the ‘model minority’ groups because they’ve managed to get ahead in life by keeping their heads down and working hard. East Asians are exemplary because they don’t speak up against oppression and injustices. This myth keeps their mouths shut, in hopes of gaining unconditional acceptance into the Western world. They’re afraid to speak up because of the consequences; they’ve experienced enough to know that the punishment for stepping out of line will not be light. So, East Asians are exemplary because they’re convenient to use as a divider between the White and Black racial groups. It’s time to get over this myth because it’s just a ploy to drive a wedge between minority groups. As in the past, contemporary stereotypical imaginings of minority racial groups are more about what the White population needs, than the reality of our experiences. Our histories are shrouded in myth, mostly all created by our colonisers. Our identities have been contorted again and again over time for political and economic agendas, and to lessen the discomfort experienced by the White population. In reality, we are not as different from each other as we are stereotypically imagined as. The existence of these stereotypes of East Asian individuals being cold but competent and Black and Indigenous individuals being warm but incompetent only further establishes the racial hierarchy.
More recently, nation leaders have been trying to put up a guise of unity and multiculturalism. They are including more cultural activities in our nation’s agenda, like how we have Matariki celebrations, New Year’s celebrations from different Asian cultures, Māori language week, and so on. However, what systemic changes have we really made for the different peoples in our nation? When approached with a closer look, these acts are really just a thin veneer for deep-rooted racism to hide under. Pakeha should take the step to instil multinationalism in New Zealand, because we’re not a melting pot of a nation. We’re a state with many different nations coexisting together. This current Black Lives Matter movement, while focused on gaining basic human rights and equality for Black people, is meant to challenge traditional White hegemony. I don’t understand people who don’t actively take a stand with the movement because this is beneficial for everyone, the outcome won’t be beneficial solely for Black lives. No one is losing out here. Maybe I’m being too hopeful in saying this, but I do believe that there will be no more racial polarisation when this is achieved; the model minority myth will be a thing of the past.