by Smaran Dayal
What does it mean to be spoken of as a model minority? Or, for that matter, a ‘wondrous’ solution to the imagined woes about ‘integration’ of the White[i] majority of a European country – in our case, Germany? What effect does accepting such a role have on other minoritised communities in this country, and what are its unarticulated implications? These questions aren’t easily answered, but anyone invested in social justice and the idea of an inclusive, non-hierarchical society should bear them in mind. Such a society would be built not on the eradication of differences through a top-down universalism as the proponents of a Leitkultur would have it, but on a conception of belonging premised precisely on and strengthened through existing and future differences. It’s in just such a vein that I hope to approach the nascent model minority discourse in Germany and attempt to show what I see as its profoundly ideological nature in the ways it reinforces both the logic of capitalism and “White ‘normality’”[ii] (Ha, al-Samarai & Mysorekar 2007, 9).
Been there, done that?
The mainstream in Germany seems to have made a habit of falling decades behind the anglophone West when it comes to engaging in a thoroughgoing, critical and self-reflexive public discourse on race, minority rights, and – the elephant in the room – structural racism. By this I don’t mean to suggest, as some occasionally do, that one ought to place some other society – usually, in this regard, the United States – at the top of a developmentalist pyramid, through whose sociological paradigms all other societies should then parse their realities and, to a lesser or greater degree, emulate. Instead, I wish to take up the literary scholar Mita Banerjee’s call for a minority politics – an Asian-German critique – built on a “transnational dialogue” (2006: 183) between various movements of racialised minorities in the West, and, in doing so, problematise the nascent ‘model minority’ discourse that has begun instrumentalising certain communities of colour in Germany minoritised as ‘Asian’. Alas, it is just such a sense of belatedness that the German weekly Die Zeit's 2009 article, Das vietnamesische Wunder can't help but evoke. For those even slightly familiar with post-war Asian American history, the Zeit article strongly echoes the sociologist William Petersen’s 1966 New York Times feature, “Success Story, Japanese-American Style”, on Japanese-Americans’ alleged ‘success’, which is generally credited, if not for coining the term ‘model minority’, then for serving as an early and paradigmatic example of the concept’s deployment.
Model minority circa 1966
Petersen’s article follows a relatively simple line of argumentation: It starts by discussing the history of “discrimination” (read: racism) against Japanese-Americans, the high point of which is the mass internment perpetrated upon them by the Roosevelt administration during the Second World War. Against these odds, Japanese-Americans are portrayed as having not just succeeded in American society, but to have thrived, and are now a minority in whose image both the White majority and other minorities of colour are implicitly told to model themselves.
The reasons provided for this ‘success’ are numerous: hard work and conformity (Petersen 1966: 38); being free of “all types of social pathology”; living “exceptionally law-abiding” lives, unlike counterculture “bohemian slob[s]”; practicing monogamous, heterosexual love and marriage; having acculturated themselves to (White) America; possessing little or no fluency in the Japanese language; and, importantly, being descendants of migrants from “the one country of Asia to have achieved modernization” (ibd.: 40). Finally, to top it all off, Japanese-Americans are seen to possess the Japanese equivalent of ‘the Protestant ethic’, whereby, Petersen’s story goes, in Japan, “diligence in work, combined with simple frugality, had an almost religious imperative” (ibd.).
All of this is, of course, to most trained in the critical humanities and/or social sciences, at best, dangerous drivel, and at worst, guilty of the intellectual crime of essentialism. But Petersen doesn’t stop there. What marks the model minority discourse is its core function, discernible in the final move in Petersen’s argument: namely, an inevitable comparison between one idealised non-White minority – here, Japanese-Americans – and other communities of colour (“problem minorities”), who are now measured against the supposed ‘success’ of the model minority; other communities who cannot but fall short of this imagined ideal, and who are then duly castigated for failing to live up to it. That this ideal itself is ideologically rooted in the logic of capitalism and White ‘normality’ is, of course, absent from the discourse itself.
Fast-forward the clock 43 years, and, if you read Die Zeit’s aforementioned feature on Vietnamese-German school kids’ academic success, it seems we haven’t moved on from 1966. Not only is the overall argument in the Zeit piece uncannily similar to Petersen’s mid-century one, but so is the way its author, Martin Spiewak goes about making it. He begins, like Petersen, by first acknowledging the racism experienced by the model minority in the past. Spiewak notes the “Fremdenhass”[iii] (‘hatred of foreigners’) directed towards Vietnamese-Germans at the moment of German reunification. This acknowledgement is hard to read as more than a begrudging one, for it lasts all of one sentence, and in the very next one, it’s claimed that the children of the very people targeted by racist violence in the post-reunification ‘90s are now in the process of “conquering German society with tremendous effort and educational drive” (Spiewak 2009). He asserts: “No other immigrant group in Germany is as successful as the Vietnamese.” (ibd.) In fact, we’re told that the “integration” of a younger generation of Vietnamese-Germans is happening at such a fast rate – “in turbo-tempo” – that it’s leading to their “estrangement” from their parents. The traumatic event of racism and racist violence against Vietnamese-Germans, as with Japanese-Americans in Petersen’s account, is relegated to the past, and the ahistoricised present is converted into an idealised – even utopian – moment of assimilative ‘success’, whereby the children of Vietnamese migrants are hailed as “model pupils”. Spiewak employs a strikingly similar explanation for Vietnamese-Germans’ ‘success’ to Petersen’s one for Japanese-Americans: much as Petersen chalks it down to a Japanese ‘Protestant Ethic’, Spiewak speaks of “the strength of a culture, whose striving leads to advancement even under adverse conditions”. The “studiousness of East Asians”, writes Spiewak, “is the most valuable souvenir” migrants from the region bring with them to Germany. Other explanations provided by Spiewak also reverberate with Petersen’s account half a century earlier: the fact that Vietnamese-German kids are supposedly sent by their parents to German-language daycare centres and speak “accent-free” German, but only enough Vietnamese for “everyday communication”; that self-sacrificing hard work pays off and enables class mobility (ibd. 2); and so on. The conclusion drawn by Spiewak from the assumed success of Vietnamese in Germany, whom he calls “Asia’s Prussians”, is that a lack of educational achievement has no “social causes” whatsoever – it’s all down to hard work, acculturation and education. Finally, just as Petersen draws comparisons with African-Americans, Spiewak refers to “the Turks” and “Italians” as examples of communities thought of as less willing or able to ‘integrate’.
Increasingly, it isn’t simply Vietnamese-Germans that are being interpellated as White Germany’s disciplinary tool against its internal ‘others’. As You Jae Lee points out, whereas ‘Turks’ continue to be spoken of by the White mainstream as a ‘problem’, more recently, and in contrast to that, “the good Vietnamese, Koreans, and Indians” – all groups minoritised and referred to as ‘Asian’ – are positioned as the model of integration and used to put down other, discursively non-Asian[iv] communities of colour (Goel, et al 2012: 90).
It’s the political economy, stupid.
To take either Petersen or Spiewak’s articles at face value would be to miss the point. Underpinning both are two driving ideologies: that of White ‘normality’ and capitalism. The model minority discourses that the two articles contribute to in their respective national contexts serve to reinforce these ideological structures. Hard work, as any basic materialist analysis of society shows, is not simply hard work. Work, today, takes place within the socio-economic framework of the capitalist mode of production, where it functions to create surplus value for extraction by the owners of the means of production, i.e. capital. Within such a system, to praise ‘hard work’ is to reinforce the ideological notion that wealth creation and class mobility are simply a matter of individual choice and have nothing to do with systemic factors outside individuals’ and groups’ control, which undoubtedly play a decisive role in the distribution of wealth in society. The historical moment at which the image of the ‘model minority’ has begun to establish itself in the German public imaginary is not unrelated to its disciplining function. Published in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis, Das vietnamesische Wunder can be seen to contribute to a rising discourse that pits one minority, which is constructed as thriving within contemporary, crisis-ridden capitalism, against both other communities of colour in the country as well as the White working classes.
Secondly, in tackling the processes of minoritisation and racialisation in Germany, there have been attempts to call attention to the development of an (unmarked) category, Whiteness, that is deeply entwined with the history of European colonialism and the present-day construction of a European identity. Ha, al-Samarai & Mysorekar refer to “White ‘normality’” as the process by which “Germanness and Whiteness are assumed to be identical and, thus, ‘normal’” (2007: 9). If we acknowledge this, as well as the structural and institutional nature of racism, and the pervasiveness of colourblindness in Germany – what Fatima El-Tayeb terms “the ideology of racelessness” in Europe (2011, xlvi) – then, calls for migrants and Europeans of colour to ‘integrate’ or assimilate (they are practically indistinguishable in usage) ought to be read through a critical race framework. Such a framework would question the power relations involved in such political dictates and whose material interests they serve to further. It’s not a stretch to argue that portraying one minoritised community as assimilative – and successful because of its assimilation – as a ‘model’ for other minorities to emulate entrenches the power of the dominant group in a society. Namely, White Germans, who are taken to represent the norm, and are allegedly ‘native’ and completely ‘integrated’, without any expectations thrust upon them to accommodate themselves to the people they live alongside, undergo language shifts, change their lifestyles or dress codes, or send their kids to, say, Turkish, Arabic or Vietnamese-language kindergartens, even in neighbourhoods where various communities of colour make up local majorities, as in most urban centres of Western Europe.
Finally, the model minority discourse functions to re-naturalise the international division of labour, in that minorities ‘from’ nation/states successful within global capitalism are rewarded for the ‘success’ of their ‘home countries’ by their constitution within the dominant discourse as model minorities, but also through concrete legal measures, such as laxer immigration policies, the recognition of professional and academic degrees, et cetera.[v]
What is to be done?
“Slave-owning white men said we were all equal
Model minority said ‘Don't be evil’
Heathrow said we were illegal”
The lines quoted above are from the hip-hop group Das Racist’s track Swate. They say so much in so few words. The first line references the hypocritical project of the European Enlightenment, which declared all men equal at a moment when the contemporaneous enslavement of Black people and the conquest and colonisation of the Global South were underway – at times justified by that very project. The second pins down the disciplining function of the model minority discourse through the application of Google’s infamous motto (“Don’t be evil”) to it, bringing forth the unspoken dictum that ensures potentially ‘unruly’ minorities’ obeisance to the dominant order; it is perhaps an allusion to the visible presence of Asian Americans in Silicon Valley as well. In the final line quoted, the reality of the paradoxical (for those groups considered ‘model minorities’) illegalisation of non-White bodies within Fortress Europe and the West more broadly comes forth.
The reason I quote these lines, beyond the fact of their political incisiveness, is because I wish to read the imperative of the Google motto against the grain, much in the way the queer, undocumented Indo-Fijian American activist Prerna Lal proposes of the term ‘model minority’ in her TED talk (Lal 2012). She turns the label on its head and argues that we should embrace the term, but do so through a “counter-narrative” that rethinks the kind of ‘model’ we, the groups construed as model minorities, want to be. A model minority, she argues, ought to be subversive, loud, unafraid, honest, and politicised: which means questioning authority, naming and teaching “our own” (i.e. racialised and minoritised communities) to tackle structures of dominance, such as White supremacy, hetero-patriarchy, and, the citizenist bases of nation/states. Our “presence”, as a counter-hegemonic ‘model minority’, “must destabilize and make people uncomfortable”. Concretely, as a model minority, we ought to “[p]rotest, take to the streets, shut down streets, occupy buildings, take over the switchboards” (ibd.). Therefore, if politics as such is, as the Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Žižek asserts, the struggle over the particular content of universalising concepts, and “it is on [the] level of which particular content will count as ‘typical’ that ideological battles are won or lost” (1999, 175), then Lal’s re-articulation of what is to be understood by the notion of a ‘model minority’ is an unmistakably political act.
The American desi[vi] historian and vocal advocate of minoritarian coalition politics, Vijay Prashad takes a similar view to Lal’s. He calls such a freely chosen ‘treason’ against our privileged position within White ‘normality’, as put forth by Lal in her talk, “model minority suicide”. Although I prefer Lal’s less dramatic turn of phrase, Prashad’s proposal is equally powerful:
Desis can, of course, risk their values and fight against ‘reality’ as well as their own construction as the model minority. One easy task in that regard is to commit model minority suicide, to demonstrate against ‘reality’ and re-create a form of Asian misbehaviour that is as desi as Gandhi. (2000, 179)
What might “Asian misbehaviour” look like in the German context? I for one cannot help but read Prashad’s call to “demonstrate against ‘reality’” as an appeal for a people of colour coalition politics that eschews the carrot offered with the one hand to those of us – largely ‘Asian’ – minoritised as a ‘model’ by White Germany, while, with the other hand, the stick is meted out to asylum seekers, illegalised migrants, and Black, Roma, and Muslim Germans, among others. So, to return to Google’s motto in the Das Racist track, if being ‘evil’ can be taken to mean serving our short-term interests and thereby re-enforcing White ‘normality’ and capitalism by accepting our construction as ‘model minorities’, then, by all means, don’t be evil.
Banerjee, Mita. 2006. “Travelling Theory, Reshaping Disciplines? Envisioning Asian Germany through Asian Australian Studies.” Journal of Intercultural Studies 27.1-2: 167-185.
Eggers, Maureen Maisha, Grada Kilomba, Peggy Piesche, and Susan Arndt, eds. 2005. Mythen, Masken und Subjekte: Kritische Weißseinsforschung in Deutschland. Münster: Unrast.
El-Tayeb, Fatima. 2011. European Others: Queering Ethnicity in Postnational Europe. Minneapolis and London: University of Minnesota Press.
Goel, Urmila, Jee-Un Kim, Nivedita Prasad, and Kien Nghi Ha. 2012. “Selbstorganisation und (pan-)asiatische Identitäten: Community, People of Color und Diaspora.” Asiatische-Deutsche: Vietnamesische Diaspora and Beyond. Ed. Kien Nghi Ha. Berlin and Hamburg: Assoziation A. 72-92.
Ha, Kien Nghi, Nicola Lauré al-Samarai, and Sheila Mysorekar. 2007. “Einleitung.” re/visionen: Postkoloniale Perspektiven von People of Color auf Rassismus, Kulturpolitik und Widerstand in Deutschland. Münster: Unrast. 9-21.
Lal, Prerna. 2012. “TEDTalk – Redefining ‘Model Minority’.” 1 Sep. 2012. <http://prernalal.com/2012/12/tedtalk-redefining-model-minority/>
Lipsitz, George. 2005. The Possessive Investment in Whiteness: How White People Profit From Identity Politics. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.
Petersen, William. 1966. “Success Story, Japanese-American Style.” New York Times Sunday Magazine 9 Jan.: 20-43.
Prashad, Vijay. 2000. The Karma of Brown Folk. Minneapolis and London: University of Minnesota Press.
Spiewak, Martin. 2009. “Das vietnamesische Wunder.” Zeit Online 22 Jan. <http://www.zeit.de/2009/05/B-Vietnamesen>
Žižek, Slavoj. 1999. The Ticklish Subject: The Absent Centre of Political Ontology. London and New York: Verso.
Smaran Dayal is a graduate student of anglophone literature and critical theory in Berlin.
* The abbreviation 'Schland' refers both to a form of Germany's name associated with football nationalism, and, paradoxically, a usage favoured in some progressive circles for the way it dissociates the 'German nation' from the incredibly heterogeneous country as such by taking the 'Deutsch' out of 'Deutschland'.
[i] Whiteness refers neither simply to skin colour nor to a biological essence, but is, like ‘race’ as such, a social construct and identity, which, as George Lipsitz argues of the US-American context, is one that Whites “are encouraged to invest in”, because it “provides them with resources, power, and opportunity”; it is “a delusion, a scientific and cultural fiction that like all racial identities has no valid foundation in biology”, but is nevertheless “a social fact, an identity created and continued with all-too-real consequences for the distribution of wealth, prestige and opportunity” (2005, vii). For a pioneering and context-aware application of Critical Whiteness Studies to German society, see Eggers, et al (2006).
[ii] “Weiße ›Normalität‹” (Ha, et al 2007, 9). Unless otherwise specified, all translations are my own.
[iii] The vocabulary employed by Spiewak’s article is symptomatic of broader German public discourses for two reasons: First, in the way Spiewak avoids talking of ‘racism’, but instead employs the term ‘Fremdenhass’. In other centrist-liberal and rightist-conservative writing, if thematised at all, it is ‘Ausländerfeindlichkeit’ (lit. animosity towards foreigners) that is used as an euphemism for racism – an euphemism, because the targets of ‘Ausländerfeindlichkeit’ are largely Germans of colour and not ‘foreigners’, whatever the latter term might actually denote. Secondly, he refers to Vietnamese-Germans as merely ‘Vietnamese’ – the existence of hyphenated identities, at least amongst lesser recognised minorities of colour in Germany, are often unacknowledged by the White mainstream and their potential referents are thus discursively exiled to a ‘country of origin’ they might have little or no connection to whatsoever.
[iv] This additional qualification of the discursivity of ‘Asia/n’ is important, because the fact that the majority of Turkey and the Arab world are on the continent of Asia doesn’t affect the delimitation of ‘Asia’ in the German public imaginary to (South,) East and Southeast Asia.
[v] Although, this isn’t a straightforward process: both in the 80s and 90s, as Japan came to be seen as an economic threat, and in the years that followed, as China has come to occupy that place in the Western imaginary, the image and corresponding treatment of Japanese and Chinese-Americans in the U.S. has at times turned negative. For an example of precisely this fear of the successful minority, one needn’t look further than the murder of the Chinese-American Vincent Chin, who, in a racist gaze, was mistaken for Japanese and murdered for belonging to a nation, Japan, seen as a threat to U.S. industry and, particularly, automobile workers.
[vi] ‘South Asian’. Prashad himself speaks of ‘desiness’ as a self-identification that transcends the postcolonial national constructs of the South Asian subcontinent (India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, etc.).