Let’s Destroy the Myth of Asian Americans as the Model Minority

Stop Asian Hate protest in Chicago’s Chinatown / Ernie Wong

By Ernie Wong, FASLA

Asian hate crimes have grown an alarming 150 percent over the past year. While other forms of crime are declining, this phenomenon is leading to real fear and anger in Asian communities throughout the country.

Landscape architecture is a part of the broader society, so the field is also directly impacted. From overseas students in landscape architecture education programs to the Asian communities that design firms serve, landscape architects are entrenched in dealing with society’s woes, especially when they occur in the public realm.

The demographics of our own profession have also shifted over the years, with a steady increase of Asians in the workforce and a conscious effort by many firms to embrace diversity, equity, and inclusion as part of their company values. In our own diverse firm, Asians constitutes about one-third of our total employees, with the majority of our leadership fitting into this category.

The murders in Atlanta shook us to the core and was deeply personal to many of us. Even while many of our staff know that I advocate on behalf of all communities of color, gender, religion and beliefs, I felt to the need to reach out with some reassurance of safety and care. It also was a time to again reflect on our own personal experiences and thoughts about race and this country, while allowing our staff to reveal any bias they had encountered. Interestingly but expected, nobody came forward.

There has always been a level of resentment against Asians throughout our history in America. Whether overt or subversive, the sentiment has always put a label on Asians as weak and submissive, or the “model minority,” a term that infuriates us. The term “Asian American” loops all of these extremely diverse communities into a single pool, absent of our nationalities, languages, religions, traditions, and experiences. The complexities and nuances are ignored, and our histories are made insignificant.

Ping Tom Park in Chicago, Illinois by site design group (site) / Scott Shigley
Ping Tom Park in Chicago, Illinois by site design group (site) / Scott Shigley
Ping Tom Park in Chicago, Illinois by site design group (site) / Scott Shigley
Ping Tom Park in Chicago, Illinois by site design group (site) / Scott Shigley
Ping Tom Park in Chicago, Illinois by site design group (site) / Scott Shigley

The history of Asians in America is largely unknown to most Americans, let alone the hundreds of Asian students flocking to the U.S. for a prestigious education. According to ASLA’s data, in 2017, at accredited landscape architecture programs in the U.S., the enrollment of international students over a five-year period grew 52 percent, and a majority of these students were from Asia. Those are significant numbers and a boon for the universities that can profit from these students.

What’s missing is the orientation and cultural diversity training that can help overseas students integrate into American culture. Suddenly, these students are thrust into a world defined by race and ethnicity, religion and gender identity. Unless they have a high fluency in the English language, engagement — and the initiation of such — remains the onus of the student. Thus, we find the clustering and isolation of overseas students struggling to understand “diversity.” Unfortunately, the characterization of race and culture in most media outlets only adds to the stereotyping, leaving their imaginations jaded.

When you add the experiences of expatriates throughout Asia who receive preferential treatment, those images further re-inforce the social hierarchy of white colonialism and Asian subordination and inferiority. Given the hypersexualization and fetishization of Asian women and the desexualization of Asian men — who are characterized as being passive, effeminate, and weak — the incident in Atlanta could’ve occurred anywhere.

We are all struggling with diversity, equity, and inclusion in this country. The discussion is starting, but the results are distant. As fellow landscape architects, I am calling on you to be more sensitive to Asian experiences.

I’m calling on you to help destroy Asian stereotypes and the MYTH of the “model minority,” which is simply a lie to pit other people of color against Asians. I’m calling on you to disperse the fear that we have of each other — fear that some group will take another group’s jobs, or one type of people will harm another type of person. I’m calling on you to stand in solidarity with the #StopAsianHate movement.

Stop Asian Hate protest in Chicago’s Chinatown / Ernie Wong

Most of all, I’m calling on you to see the world as bigger than ourselves and continue to engage with people who are different than you.

Ernie Wong, FASLA, is a founding principal of site design group, ltd. (site) based in Chicago, Illinois. He is an Asian American male born and raised on the Southside of Chicago and continues to resolve his own identity issues.

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4 thoughts on “Let’s Destroy the Myth of Asian Americans as the Model Minority

  1. Mark Lanier Johnson 04/26/2021 / 6:40 pm

    I think ASLA leadership has lost direction. If I want to join a church, a political party, or Antifa, I can do that without paying dues to this organization. I’m done with the social justice mantra of DIRT. Goodbye.

  2. Vincent Rie Takeuchi 04/27/2021 / 10:27 am

    Regarding the myth of Asian Americans as the model minority, I can relate as a third generation Korean-American born in San Francisco. The places I have lived that didn’t have Asian exclusion are New York City, Honolulu-Hawaii, and Copenhagen-Denmark. Otherwise you could characterize much of the USA as racist, and much of the white-dominated rest of the world, outside of Scandinavia. The other place I didn’t experience racism was in the Submarine Service during the Vietnam War. Fundamental change comes slowly, ask any Black person, but it is my hope that it will happen. I have a degree in Landscape Architecture from Cal-Poly Pomona.

  3. Andrew Sparks 04/27/2021 / 4:24 pm

    Our problem is continually being asked to resist hating this or that race, ethnicity, etc. Stop the hate. Non directional, just stop. It can be done. I am beginning to hate the haters who hate haters. And educate the speech so that love is the answer, not not hating. We’ll get back to design in all its wonderful myriad of applications, and be inclusive from love not lack of hate.

  4. Cheri Ruane + Kaki Martin + Gretchen Rabinkin 05/24/2021 / 1:14 pm

    We write as a trio of individuals, and on behalf of the Executive Committee of the Boston Chapter — hate has no place in our chapter, in our national organization, our landscape architecture programs, nor in our profession. Love is the answer. Our profession has the joy and the great responsibility of designing public spaces — parks, plazas, schoolyards, and streetscapes — as well as the landscapes of our most intimate places: home. Landscapes that are being used by the wonderfully racially, culturally, and ethnically diverse population that is our beloved United States. A diversity that is currently not reflected within our profession. Learning more about these experiences is vital to our ability to practice well.

    We write to applaud Ernie Wong, FASLA — as well as Yujia Wang, ASLA, and Masako Ikegami, ASLA, for speaking up and sharing their voices — and we applaud The Dirt for publishing. Our profession needs more varied voices. We also write to speak out on behalf of the Asians, Asian Americans, and Pacific Islanders in our chapter, both members and non-members. As firm owners, as educators, and as chapter leaders we know that there are many, many, many students, emerging professionals, practitioners and academics of all ages working, learning, and living here who identify as AAPI. You are our future AND you are our present, and we couldn’t be more grateful about that. You are us. We have a lot of work to do, together.

    — Cheri Ruane, FASLA, Trustee; Kaki Martin, FASLA, President; and Gretchen Rabinkin, AIA, Affiliate ASLA, Executive Director, Boston Chapter

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