Professor Paul Nam gave the keynote speech for the API (Asian Pacific Islander) Graduation Ceremony. Below is his speech.
May 16, 2014
Good evening. First, I would like to thank the API organization for the honor of addressing this year’s class. I feel a special bond with this class because I started Oxy with them, and in a sense I am leaving with them, too. Second, I would like to acknowledge all the family and friends in attendance coming to support their loved ones. They couldn’t have come as far without you. Finally, I would like to congratulate all the seniors here today to whom I am addressing this speech, not only for having finished four grueling years of the hell we know as Oxy, but choosing to take part in this ceremony. As such, you have chosen to identify yourself as Asian or Pacific Islander. While this may seem natural to you, we both know that some of our, let us say, banana brethren choose not to identify as we do.
This evening, I would like to talk about three themes: identity, the model minority, and entitlement.
A little about myself. I came to America when I was three. While I’m technically first generation, I’m not like my parents who were adults when they came. Nor am I second-generation like my brother who was born in the Staten Island Memorial Hospital. Being neither first nor second, I’m considered 1.5 generation. These sociological categories will become relevant later.
Growing up on Staten Island, I remember feeling the same as the children around me. Analyzing these memories now reveals a darker side I didn’t recognize as a child. For example, in the third grade I remember walking around the schoolyard with Christine DiPietro. We were talking about the TV show S.W.A.T. We argued if SWAT stood for Special Weapons and Techniques or Special Weapons and Trucks, because you know they always jumped out of police trucks. Anyway, I found out that Christine told her father she wanted to marry me, the little Oriental boy. Her father told her he’d break her legs if she did.
Or I remember the first time I realized I wasn’t like all the other children. It was in 7th grade Social Studies when Mr. McMillen was teaching us about the Silk Road, or trade between Europe and China. He pointed to a student and said you’re the European merchant who buys goods from the Middle Eastern trader who got his merchandise from the Chinese seller, and saying this he stared at me. I looked around me, because I didn’t recognize that hail was meant for me, because I thought I was the same as everyone else, and also I was Korean, not Chinese.
Identity is a tricky thing, because our identity is constructed not only by how we desire to see ourselves, but how we are seen by those around us. For example, in the boondocks of America, I stand out like jaundice. In Los Angeles, no-one does a double-take. And in Asia, I’m just part of the scenery.
The old definitions of Asianness are starting to crumble. In other words, these definitions cannot contain the new realities that have emerged. When I was growing up on the East Coast, Asian meant you were from East Asia. Now Asian encompasses all of Asia, be it East Asia, Southeast Asia, subcontinent India, or the Pacific Islands, all are placed into the same category.
Moreover, we have more children of mixed marriages now, sometimes known as hapa deriving from the word “half.” Half-Asian, plus half-white, half-black, half-whatever. Or if you use the new term, Biracial.
Or how about children from Asia adopted by Caucasian parents? Their upbringing, their lifestyle, and their parents are white, so are they? Or how about the converse of Asian parents adopting children who are not of Asian ancestry? How are they to be labeled, or defined?
So you see, the old definition of Asianness does not and cannot contain these new realities. Regardless of what kind of Asian we are, whole or half or bi, adopted or not, we’ve all been pigeonholed as the model minority.
The term “model minority” was first coined in the mid-60s by William Petersen, a UC Berkeley sociologist describing Japanese Americans. In a New York Times article, he spoke of the Japanese American experience of overcoming legal obstacles or the grossest injustice of internment. Though the long multicolumn article focuses exclusively on Japanese Americans, he concludes with a comparison with blacks in America. For Petersen, of all minorities, African Americans were the most embedded in American society; in contrast, Japanese Americans were able to overcome racism “because of their meaningful links with an alien culture. Pride in their heritage and shame for any reduction in its … legendary glory” So we see that Japanese Americans were successful, according to Petersen, because of their ties with Japan.
From this seminal article, we can draw two conclusions. One, Japanese Americans are the model minority. The minority that overcame the racist barriers in America. Note … that lauding, by extension, our success, other peoples of color are being criticized for not doing the same. So, it’s a divide and conquer technique. We’re being partitioned off from the rest of the peoples of color in America.
Second, from the article, we see that Japanese Americans are not really American, for it was their links to an alien culture that enabled them to prosper in America. We, as Asian Americans, no matter what generation we are, are perpetual foreigners. This is why we are classified by first generation, second generation, 1.5 generation. Really, how many [air quotes] “regular” Americans know what generation they are? This is why when I’m asked where I’m from, and I say Staten Island, NY, the questioner rephrases, “Where are you really from?” And no matter how many times I say Staten Island, and come on how many people would confess to being from Staten Island if they weren’t really. So no matter how many times I say Staten Island, Staten Island, Staten Island, the truth is denied because I don’t look like I’m from Staten Island.
Even in America’s most hallowed halls of learning and truth, we will always be perpetual foreigners. A good friend of mine from grad school was teaching at Dartmouth. In her first year, she was invited to a professor’s house for Christmas dinner. During the dinner, which was basically Dartmouth faculty, she was told that Christmas was a celebration of Christ’s birth. My friend replied, “Yes, I know.” Then, she was asked, “When is Buddha’s birthday?” So my friend, who English is better than mine, and dresses like what you would expect an Ivy League professor to dress like is asked when Buddha’s birthday is by some of the most educated and arguably most intelligent people in America.
Finally, indulge me in one final microaggression, take note of the word. Numerous times, [airquotes] “regular” Americans have commented on how good my English is. I usually just smile and say thank you, thank you so very much. I don’t do this, I just say, “thank you.” But in my head, I’m dying to say that I’m better educated. I smarter than you. You’re complimenting ME on my English, REALLY?? But I don’t, because I’m passive-aggressive and that’s another discreet quality all Asians share.
My point to all these incidents is that even though we may be the “model minority,” within the present structure, we are not accepted as Americans, at best we’re Japanese American, Vietnamese American, Pilipino American, what have you, just never solely American.
Now some of you are probably thinking, hey why not take advantage of being considered hard-working, diligent, studious, number-crunching, non-political and non-aggressive. I’ll just work hard and get my slice of the American dream. American society is a meritocracy and since I’m meritorious, I’ll take it. It doesn’t work that way, because the rules of the game will change on you. Case in point, Stuyvesant high school in New York City is the best and most prestigious public high school, apologies to all you Bronx Science people, but it’s the truth. Admittance to Stuy is based completely on an entrance exam, the New York City Specialized High Schools admission test. In last year’s entering class of 2013, Stuy offered admission to 9 black students; 24 Latino/Latina students; 177 white students; and … get this … 620 students who identify as Asian. And since you’re all Asian you can do the calculations and say that Asian composed [pause] 74.69% of the class, white students [pause] 21.32%, Latino/a 2.89% and black students 1.08%. So 75% of the best public high school in New York City is Asian. And they deserve to be there because they did the best on the standardized exam, right? Not really. But if we’re gonna play the game that way, does this mean Harvard will be 75% Asian? No, no way in hell is Harvard going to open their gates to the yellow peril. By the way, Harvard class of 2016 is 20.7 percent Asian-American. Oxy’s percent of Asian Pacific Island students has held steady at around 15-20% for the past decade. And this is similar to elite colleges and universities throughout America. You can see that the rules of the game have changed from high school to college.
Perhaps the most insidious propagation of the myth of the model minority is to deny racism against Asians and Pacific Islanders in America. The argument goes that since Asians have made it in American society, they could not have faced racism, otherwise they would not have achieved success. I hope that my relaying of the three expressions of microaggressions is the proof that racism in America is alive and strong, it has just sunk below the surface of respectability. So we’re no longer called chink to our faces, rather people comment on how things made in China are suspicious and hazardous. Or how a certain cable news channel showed images of mourning Tibetans as Koreans reacting to their recent ferry tragedy. We all look alike, so what does it matter.
Finally, the topic of entitlement and privilege. By virtue of graduating from a college like Occidental, all of you have entered into the American middle class, or at least what’s left of it. And if you’re good Asians, you’ll become successful doctors, lawyers, or engineers. You’ll work hard and eventually buy a house in the Palisades or Brentwood. I implore you, however, to remember that your gateway to the middle class, was opened to you by the sacrifices and struggles of those who came before you. Specifically, I’m talking about the Civil Rights Movement. How many of us would really be here in this still very occidental institution of higher learning if not for those who fought to force America to recognize something other than whiteness. In A Letter from a Birmingham Jail, Martin Luther King, Jr. speaks of the greatest obstacle in the stride toward freedom as not being rabid racists like the White Citizen’s Councils or the Ku Klux Klan, but the white moderate who
“is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action”; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another…’s freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises … to wait for a “more convenient season.” Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will.”
It’s too easy for us the “model minority” to become the white moderate. Here, when I use the word “white,” I am not referring to the unfortunate lack of skin pigmentation, but rather the construction of whiteness as privilege, entitlement, and superiority. After all, how many times have we been told to not make waves, to go with the flow, to study and work hard to get ahead. How many of us have internalized feelings of inadequacy or the ominous clouds of inferiority, as we struggle to partake of American society?
It’s too easy for us to not acknowledge the sacrifices made that allow us to be here, now. All of us who reap the benefits of those who came before us, have an obligation to repay these debts by shattering this all-encompassing, pigeon-holing stereotype of the model minority. Borrowing from Dr. King: I am here to remind you of the fierce urgency of Now. There is no time to engage in the luxury of silence or taking the tranquilizing drug of moderation. Now is the time to make real the promises of America. Now is the time to rise from the dark and desolate valley of inadequacy and inferiority to the sunlit paths of agency and freedom. Now is the time to make justice a reality for all.