Review- Wu, “The Color of Success”

Ellen Wu, “The Color of Success: Asian Americans and the Origins of the Model Minority” (2014) (narrated by Emily Zeller) – Growing up in very white surroundings in suburban Massachusetts, I got the model minority stereotype of Asian-Americans from both sides: from the right, either resentful of Asian-American success or wondering why black and Hispanic people couldn’t be more like Asians, and from liberals, who cited Asians as exemplars of successful diversity. Of course, minus some of the right’s (seemingly fading?) resentment, the two ideas rest on a lot of the same assumptions. Historian Ellen Wu attempts to get to the historical origin of the stereotype in this work of cultural history.

Wu chose to narrow her focus to Japanese and Chinese Americans, which makes a certain degree of sense on a number of levels. One is contrast- from having been treated quite similarly under the late-nineteenth/early-twentieth century restriction regime, the two groups experienced the sea change of the Second World War drastically differently. Japanese Americans were, of course, rounded up and interned into what we only hesitate to call “concentration camps” because we (imprecisely) call Nazi extermination camps the same thing. Chinese Americans, on the other hand, were all of a sudden white America’s little buddies, allies in the war, and Congress revoked Chinese exclusion in 1943. Both suffered reversals, as Japanese Americans came to be associated with the heroic war record of Nissei combat units and the Chinese American community split over the results of the Chinese Revolution. In both cases and for well after World War II, American foreign relations played a major role in shaping the construction of an Asian American racial identity.

As the Cold War set in, American race relations became a foreign policy issue. The US’s massive race problems, especially their formal legal instantiations, posed a problem for American policymakers attempting to extend leadership in the decolonizing and developing world. This both opened opportunities and imposed limits on the black civil rights struggle, as historians have noted, and Wu points out it did much the same for Asian American efforts at full citizenship. On the one hand, especially when paired with martial patriotism, domestic anticommunism (pro-nationalist elements fairly firmly quashed pro-communist elements in most Chinese American communities), and thoroughgoing respectability politics, Cold War geopolitics opened doors for Asian Americans. The Hawaii statehood debate shows this- objected to for decades on the basis of Hawaii’s Asian population, it was in the late 1950s as concerns over American relations with the Pacific that consensus came around Hawaii’s admittance. On the other hand, this straitjacketed Asian American communities into a particular mold: ultrapatriotic, uncomplaining, devoted to the “American Way” as then understood, and as Wu puts it, “definitively not black.” This is when the comparisons between black and Asian communities by whites began, and not coincidentally, when the Model Minority stereotype really came into its own.

Wu emphasizes both Asian participation and opposition to this race-making process. Early chapters take the reader back to the forties, when far from being America’s richest ethnic group and a model of assimilationist success, Japanese American communities were mostly poor, farm or slum dwelling, and Japanese teens joined Mexican and black kids in “zoot suiting,” wearing outlandish clothes and refusing adult respectability. Numerous Japanese Americans, understandably enough, wanted nothing to do with the American war effort after having been interned, and the Japanese American community groups took an authoritarian stance towards their charges in encouraging them to enlist and otherwise conform. Even as the path to Asian assimilation became clearer, many Asians resisted the bargain, insisting on solidarity with the black freedom struggle and on pointing to the social contradictions within their own communities that community leaders covered up with feel-good model minority stories. This is a conflict that goes on to this day, as Wu and some of my Asian comrades would remind us and as both the model minority (especially as a parenting style) and the “Yellow Peril” from a resurgent China gain in cachet.

This is my first time listening to a history book that didn’t have at least one eye on a mass market, like Tim Snyder did with “Black Earth,” though clearly this one had enough crossover appeal to attract Audible’s attention. While I did miss being able to check endnotes, it was still a pretty good experience, testament to solid writing chops on Wu’s part. It’s a little “dissertation-y;” I would have liked to have seen more about what the model minority experience meant once embraced by the national consciousness, especially as, in the epilogue, Wu points to its adaptivity- starting as a product of Cold War liberalism, but adapting to the conservatism of the Reagan years and the War on Terror. But you can see why Wu would want to reign it in and stick to the origins of the stereotype, as promised. ****

Review- Wu, “The Color of Success”

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