But this post is not about Amy Chua or her new book. This post is about the reaction of Asian Americans that Chua's new book triggered. Once the scathing New York Post preview of Chua's new book came out, (some) Asian Americans immediately burst into outrage. Much of the outrage was dedicated to busting the Asian American stereotype Chua appeared to enforce. And a smaller, but vocal, fraction of the outrage was directed at Chua herself, and the concept of Tiger Parenting.
This post is about that smaller fraction. I believe the Asian American outrage against Chua and Tiger Parenting is misguided. But first, let me be clear: I am not here to defend Tiger Parenting. The way I feel about Tiger Parenting is hardly a secret. I believe I made a solid case in favor of Tiger Parenting already; if I did not convince you then, I don't expect to convince you now. Again, this post is not about Chua herself, or her new book, or even about Tiger Parenting. It is about how we Asian Americans who wish to fight the stereotypes ought to know the correct target for our outrage.
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Suppose two African American diners visit a restaurant. Once they sit down, a Caucasian waiter comes to the table and informs that the dinner special for that day will be fried chicken. The first diner considers the menu, considers the special, and orders fried chicken because it sounds delicious. The second diner also considers the menu, and considers the special. Then the second diner looks at the white waiter, looks around to find a great number of white diners around their table, and reminds himself about the pernicious stereotype regarding black folks and fried chicken. He then orders something else from the menu.
In this example, which diner truly enforced the stereotype about African Americans and fried chicken--the first diner who simply ordered what she wanted to eat, or the second diner who decided his dinner to oppose the prevailing stereotype? What if the second diner berated the first diner for daring to order what she felt like having for dinner? Would he be justified in doing so?
This hypothetical is akin to how some Asian Americans react to Amy Chua. And the answers to the questions above, to me, are clear: it is the second diner that does more to enforce the stereotype, and his criticism of the first diner is misguided.
(More after the jump.)
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My answer may sound counter-intuitive. The stereotype is that African Americans are unduly fond of fried chicken, and the first diner ordered fried chicken. How did she not enforce the stereotype? But this line of thinking is short-sighted, for it confuses the fundamental error of stereotypes. The fundamental problem of stereotypes is not that there exist some individuals who fit the stereotypes. The fundamental problem of stereotypes is that they are made to fit everyone in a given group.
To understand this distinction, it is critically important to understand who operates the stereotypes. Going back to the example of two African American diners, it must be understood that an African American who simply orders what she feels like having is not the one who imposes the stereotype on all black people. Rather, it is the mainstream society that imposes the stereotype that all African Americans are genetically predisposed to prefer fried chicken. Likewise, it is not Amy Chua that imposes the Model Minority stereotype on Asian Americans. Rather, it is the mainstream society that imposes the Model Minority stereotype on all Asian Americans.
Note that none of this depends on the relative merits of the thing or the action that underlies the stereotype. One can rationally discuss whether eating fried chicken is a good idea, considering its health effects. Similarly, one can debate vigorously on whether Tiger Parenting is a sound educational philosophy. But the outcome of those debates does not affect the pernicious effects of stereotyping, because the evil core of stereotypes is never, and has never been, about the particular vehicle of stereotype. The evil core of stereotypes is, and has always been, the act of stereotyping, the mainstream society's willingness to indiscriminately assign stereotypes to individuals belonging to particular racial, ethnic, religious or cultural groups.
I can see the frustration of the proverbial second diner: "If only African Americans stopped eating fried chicken around white people, that stereotype will go away!" Similarly, I can see the frustration of some Asian Americans: "If only Amy Chua stopped talking about Tiger Parenting that makes us look like automatons, Asian American stereotypes will disappear!" But while understandable, this frustration is misguided in several ways.
First, without addressing the core evil of stereotypes, i.e. the act of stereotyping, stereotypes will never go away. Instead, one just replaces the other. Recall that the stereotypical image of a submissive Asian woman travels with the equally stereotypical image of a domineering Dragon Lady. Even if tomorrow, by some miracle, all African Americans were to find fried chicken unpalatable, all Hispanic Americans were to have perfectly legitimate American citizenship and all Asian Americans doctors were to became the most creative, free-wheeling artists in the world, the mainstream society that seeks to stereotype these ethnic groups will simply find some other vehicles of stereotype with which reduce blacks, Hispanics and Asians down to a caricature.
Second, a mind beholden to bias does not operate rationally; it distorts the reality around it to fit its preferred stereotypes. We constantly see that, for example, someone who is convinced that illegal immigrants are more crime-prone, highlights every crime committed by an illegal alien and filters out of his mind the statistical truth that illegal immigrants are in fact less likely than the native-born to commit crimes. A bigoted mind requires but one example to validate its bias. It is foolish to attack the example, when the root of the problem is the bigotry.
Third, as I alluded before, such frustration empowers the stereotype further. In the case of the two diners, consider which one has the greater primacy of his or her own life. The first diner will have what she wants for dinner. The second diner surrenders that choice, opting instead to let the stereotype dictate what he will have for dinner. Which one of the two is more freed from stereotypes? If we are fighting stereotypes so that we may be treated as an individual rather than a caricature, we cannot do so by delegating our individuality to the force of those stereotypes.
Nor can we do so by attacking our peers. The most distressing part of watching Asian Americans' Amy Chua-bashing was that it smacks of an attempt to establish themselves as "the cool ones with individuality" by throwing another prominent Asian American under the bus. It has been a constant refrain in Asian American intellectual history to seek the mainstream society's acceptance by becoming an outspoken critic of what is perceived as peculiarly Asian. Renounce the language, the food, the culture, and soon we can be full-fledged Americans like the ones we see on television--so the thinking goes. But it does not work that way. A house slave may feel closer to the white society than a field slave; to the slave owner, they are slaves all the same. Likewise, a bigoted mind does not spare an Asian American from stereotypes no matter how much that Asian American renounces Tiger Parenting and Amy Chua.
We cannot fight the prejudice against us by letting the prejudice set the course of our actions. We can only do so by claiming our full individuality, by living our lives in a way we see fit, with pride and no apologies. If you are critical of Tiger Parenting, go on and be critical. But know that Amy Chua is simply living her life with no apologies. If you want to combat stereotypes, you should too. For Amy Chua is not your enemy; the enemy is the mainstream society that expects you to be the same person as she.
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