Oak Ridge, United States

The Invisible Race

Towards the end of a lecture on a Tuesday afternoon in history class, we began to discuss ways of how to eliminate racism on campus. Rolling my eyes, I turned to a friend nearby and shared a knowing look. A look that basically said: Yeah. Mmhm. Good effing luck.

Examples of racist actions done by Oak Ridge students were then brought up, one of them being the McClatchy basketball game. Instantly, I felt my insides tighten with a familiar hate.

“…and what was done about it here on campus? Nothing.” I heard my teacher say.

Wow. Big surprise there, I thought with increasing bitterness. But I felt my anger dissolve into despair as those words cut deep with a surprising intensity. Lines from the KCRA 3 news article I read a while back about the McClatchy  incident suddenly flashed through my head:

“If these racial taunts were made against African Americans, there would be outrage. But because they were made against Asians, nobody on the Oak Ridge staff seemed to think there was a problem.”

My name is Joanna Zhang and I am a Chinese American. In the year 2018, it is clear that I am invisible. Like my people, I have no voice, no grounds to stand on, no foundation in politics, no cultural icon like Oprah or Beyonce, no presence in the media, no place in American history, except for the few obligatory paragraphs in high school history textbooks that briefly address Chinese railroad workers. The Asian American experience, despite spanning several generations of struggle and oppression, has been rendered insignificant and systematically left out of discussions. It seems that we are perpetual denizens of a grey zone in American race relations, the awkward middle of the white-black binary. As Canwen Xu put it: “We aren’t quite similar enough to be accepted, but we aren’t quite different enough to be loathed….society isn’t quite sure what to do with us.” So instead of being the targets of outright discrimination for the most part, we are ignored. Our existence is marginalized. Our history is invariably omitted. Elements of our culture are defiled into white washed abominations.

You might be wondering how it is that Asians can even have complaints about race related issues. We’re not the ones being disproportionately incarcerated; our youth are not being shot and killed just for rummaging around in their pockets. But most importantly, aren’t we the financially stable, well-educated “model minority” who were able to achieve the American dream, despite our minority status?

To every stereotype (“model minority”), there is a flipside. First off, the Asian race does not just refer to the Chinese, Japanese, Koreans, and Indians (aka the core members of the model minority stereotype).  The Asian racial group also consists of the Taiwanese, Filipinos, Vietnamese, Cambodians, Laotians, Hmongs, Thais, Malays, Indonesians, Mongolians, Bangladeshis, Bhutanese, Burmese, Nepalese, Sri Lankans, the list goes on. So the Asian race, consisting of a multitude of ethnicities and socioeconomic backgrounds has been generalized by this stereotype into one homogenous, high-achieving blob. And culturally, we tend to be viewed that same way: all uniform and identical. You may begin to see why this “model minority” myth obviously is not an accurate portrayal of the realities of Asian Americans and is grossly over generalizing when it makes it seem as if there are no problems in our community; that everyone in it is doing extremely well. Wealth among Asian Americans is highly concentrated, meaning that although many Asian Americans have wealth comparable to that of whites, a vast amount do not share in this wealth. Focusing only on average or median wealth of Asian Americans can thus be misleading because doing so ignores a large # of Asian Americans who continue to struggle economically. The high school dropout rate among Hmong, Cambodians, Vietnamese, and Pacific islanders for example is as high as those of blacks and Latinos, but the model minority myth blinds many (including educational policy makers) to these real-life statistics and conditions. According to Robert Teranishi’s empirical study, the stereotype prevents many Asian Americans from equally accessing higher education compared to other minorities and whites. Take the incessant discrimination against highly qualified Asian American students from top colleges as an example.

Fun Fact: Asian students that get good grades get good grades because of hard work and dedication, NOT  “because they’re Asian”.

Anyways, the “model minority” stereotype is toxic in a number of ways, but for one it dismisses racial inequality as a structural issue. Our “model minority status” in fact is often used to pit us against other people of color as justification that racism no longer exists, to deny claims of white privilege, that HAH! America truly IS a country of equal opportunity*. It’s been used as a racial wedge (especially between Asians and blacks) to denigrate other people of color, almost as if to say, “If they can do it, why can’t you?”

* Excerpt from a New York Magazine article by Andrew Sullivan:

“Asian-Americans, like Jews, are indeed a problem for the “social-justice” brigade. I mean, how on earth have both ethnic groups done so well in such a profoundly racist society? How have bigoted white people allowed these minorities to do so well — even to the point of earning more, on average, than whites? Today, Asian-Americans are among the most prosperous, well-educated, and successful ethnic groups in America. What gives? It couldn’t possibly be that they maintained solid two-parent family structures, had social networks that looked after one another, placed enormous emphasis on education and hard work, and thereby turned false, negative stereotypes into true, positive ones, could it? It couldn’t be that all whites are not racists or that the American dream still lives?”

Ok, so people think we are the group that proves racism does not exist anymore and we are also the group in which people think racism does not seem to apply to us. As seen time and time again, injustices against Asian Americans does not get national news coverage and gets completely ignored by the public. For example, you may be familiar with names like Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, Emmett Till, regarded as nationwide wake-up calls about racism against African Americans. But if I ask you about Tommy Le, a 20 year old Vietnamese American who was shot and killed by police the day before graduation for holding a pen, or Vincent Chin who was beaten to death by a baseball bat in Detroit the day before his wedding, you’re going to say:

Wait up. Who?

On June 19, 1982, Vincent was celebrating at his bachelor party when him and his friends encountered two white autoworkers, Ronald Ebens and Michael Nitz. In the ’80s, the U.S. auto industry faced growing troubles as the recession impacted jobs across the country, resulting in rising unemployment among autoworkers. At the same time, the presence of Japanese auto manufacturers was growing in the U.S.  According to witnesses, Ebens allegedly said to Vincent, “It’s because of you little motherf*ckers that we’re out of work”.

Vincent was Chinese.

Ebens’ comment then led to a fight that got them all thrown out of the club; it continued in the parking lot, after which Ebens and Nitz searched the neighborhood for Vincent and his friends. Outside of a McDonald’s, Nitz held Vincent while Ebens repeatedly struck him in the head with a baseball bat. Vincent died 4 days later. Ebens and Nitz were sentenced by Judge Charles Kaufman to three years probation and ordered to pay a $3,000 fine. Neither Ebens nor Nitz spent a day in jail. Stumbling across this article was a huge shock for me. My immediate thoughts afterwards were: “How have I never heard his name before? Why does nobody know about this?”

The answer is simple I realized. When it comes to us:

Growing up as an Asian American, I have become keenly aware of the way whites will walk on eggshells when it comes to the subject matter of blacks, but when it comes to us, they do don’t being careful. In fact, they’ll say it directly to our faces. Would they have the guts to do that to a black person? I highly doubt it. And this is seen as okay. It’s okay to be racist towards Asians, because again, who cares?

Flashback to one summer when I was in middle school hanging out at CSD with a friend. I overheard a snippet of conversation among 3 boys: 2 whites, 1 Asian.

“Dude that’s so racist.”

“It’s fine, he’s Asian.”

The two white boys broke out into laughter. Except one boy wasn’t laughing. I looked at him, expecting him to say something back. But he remained silent, and stared down at his shoes.

Another time when I was in a group for a project and we were discussing our ideas.

“Shut up little Chinese girl. Nobody cares what you have to say.”

Looking back, I think these are perfect illustrations of the Asian American experience today.

To all my classmates out there, each of us [Asians] are individuals. Each of us are unique. Our identities are not our “straight A” report cards. Our cultures and our histories are rich, diverse, and beautiful. I still remember feeling embarrassed for my race & ethnicity in middle school. Today, I could not be more proud of who I am. Because no, I’m not going to abandon my mother tongue to fit in; I’m not going to disown my culture or my heritage. Even if I did, no matter what I’ll always be the perpetual foreigner: “Where are you from? No, where are you really from?”.  

I know many immigrants or people of color feel as if disowning who you are is what it means to be an American or to become one. But it shouldn’t feel that way, and I hope for those of color who believe this to be true,  that in time you will find pride for who you are as well.

Article by Joanna Zhang


  1. To start off, reading this article allowed me to not only learn about Tommy Le and Vincent Chin (two people that I have unfortunately never heard of because I was never taught of them) but to also relate to the many statements you have listed. Growing up in an Asian family household, I have been taught to be dedicated and revolve my life around studying and everything that relates to school and grades. Like you mentioned, the dedication that most Asians put into to receive such high grades is the reason as to why we are “financially stable and the well-educated “model minority” who are able to achieve the American dream.” This brings me to another very common topic which is this common racist comment: “Well, of course, he/she is good at math. He/she is Asian.” Many people, often whites, who say this believe it’s a compliment but from my own perspective, it’s actually very disrespectful. In my opinion, what these people are implying is that it’s a natural, genetic inheritance when they have never experience the numerous amounts of scoldings from parents and the pressure to succeed beyond the limits. This relates to when you stated: “…in fact, they’ll say it directly in our faces.” From these bluntly spoken comments, it shows how inconsiderate human beings are and how low they’ll go to make themselves feel better. Not only that, but I have heard many news media and overhearing adult whites say: “Ugh, all these Asians are taking our jobs.” This statement amongst many others is the one that that is absolutely the worst. I, as a teenager, have social media accounts and have seen the majority of whites going out to parties, traveling, going on road trips every possible chance they get; I have seen them posting themselves going out late on a school night, going on road trips for a weekend, etc. And what have we as Asians been doing? Staying home and studying for our future exams, getting ahead in school, getting more and more familiar with concepts learned during class, etc. I think it’s only fair that we can enjoy the high-paying jobs and the luxurious travels we can go as an adult after all the hard work. After all, this is the common saying from white Americans: Hard work always pay off.

    In summary, I really love the message you bring out in your article starting off with: “You will find pride in who you are as well.” Being Taiwanese-American, I was extremely embarrassed when I was young when people asked my ethnicity. After all, not many knew about the small, tiny island known as Taiwan. Like you stated, it’s usually the common 4 ethnicities: Chinese, Indians, Koreans, Japanese. I absolutely agree with the statement to never disown your own culture and heritage to become a true American. After all, you can’t change your outside appearance from being Asian to American and if you can’t embrace your own culture and be yourself, then you’re not an individual but a person that has been manipulated and brainwashed by American society.

  2. Well researched, thoughtful, reflective piece, Janna. I am so happy to hear your voice!!!

  3. People are definitely less sensitive to racism towards Asians which is sad.

  4. This is such a powerful article!! It’s so well written, thought out, and explained.

  5. Wow! What an amazing article! I’m so glad that you decided to write about this topic because it’s not talked about in media at all. I’m glad that you were able to bring light to a topic that has been ignored for many years. Well done!!

  6. I relate so much to this article that it’s sad. Nobody pays attention to Asian-Americans because they don’t receive news coverage; while it’s true that we have fewer violent instances, it’s the stereotypes that are forced on us and the way that we’re mocked for our eyes, accents, and practically anything else that makes the difference. Nowadays there are so many people that don’t even know that affirmative action is a thing, because we’re supposedly the smart and well-off race, so we shouldn’t complain about the “little things”–like, I don’t know, getting into the college we deserve based on merit rather than ethnicity or some revolutionary idea like that. So triggering.

  7. I completely understand the position you’re coming from. I am also a Chinese American. As I grow up, I have heard and lived with the stereotypes like “straight A’s because she’s Asian” or like “of course their good at math and science, it’s because they’re Asian”. Every time I hear it, it makes me hurt on the inside. I’m not good at math or science. No one knows how long we study to earn the grade we earn. Sometimes we don’t even get to sleep just so we can keep our grades up. But others people just say as if it comes natuarally to us. It makes me angry and sad at the same time. I feel helpless and despair sometimes due to all the stereotypes and absence of voice. Thank you for sharing your article Joanna. You’re sharing the voice of many other Asians.

  8. Joanna, this article truly articulates the unheard voices of many Asian-Americans today. As with many other commenters here, as an Asian-American, the world we live in is not as perfect as it may seem. Throughout my life in El Dorado Hills, many incidents of racism have arisen before and probably will in the future. No matter how subtle these acts of racism are, may it be a joke from a friend or truly mean-spirited action, racism and stereotypes do take their toll, especially when no one else seems to care. There may never be a true solution for racism across all races, however, making everyone’s voices heard is one step in the right direction. Thank you for taking this step.