Professors Lee and Tchen discuss past and present of Asian America

Sean Lee

Guest speakers Professor Erika Lee and Professor John Kuo Wei Tchen discussed the recurring patterns of anti-Asian attacks and the negative connotations of the “model minority” myth in the final installment of the Upper Division (UD) speaker series: “How did we get here?: The Past and Present of Asian America.”

Moderators Samantha Tsai (12), Rachel Zhu (12), and history teachers Dr. Elisa Milkes and Peter Reed facilitated the May 10th event. The dialogue surrounding the “model minority” stereotype — the portrayal of Asian Americans as “success stories” in spite of their ethnicity — particularly stuck with Zhu, as the professors honed in on its paradoxical ability to elevate Asian Americans to a higher standard while also allowing others to use them as a scapegoat, she said.

“It seems at first like a very innocent myth, but it actually has a lot of tangible negative impacts,” Zhu said.

The focus on the term’s reductive quality also gained traction in Milkes’s history classes the following day. “Promoting that kind of stereotype, even if, on the surface, it is considered ‘positive,’ is very confining because it can set one racial or ethnic group against another one,” Milkes said. “It can also hinder substantial, systemic reform. And I just don’t think that’s really reflective of American democratic ideals.”

The History Department decided to invite Lee and Tchen because they knew they could both speak effectively from a historical perspective on the current impact of the pandemic, media portrayal, and the “model minority” myth on Asian Americans, Milkes said. Professor Lee is a Regents Professor at the University of Minnesota where she teaches history courses on Asian American Studies, and Professor Tchen is the Professor of Public History & Humanities at Rutgers University, according to the speakers series website.

Recently, Lee testified before Congress regarding the uptick in Asian American hate crimes — a topic that influenced the direction of the conversation and the questions that panelists posed. One part of the webinar that struck Tsai was the way in which Lee emphasized how society, in general, treats the surge in anti-Asian attacks as a COVID-perpetuated issue instead of one that is acknowledged through past trends, she said.

“Racism and anti-Asian hate will continue onwards afterwards, as it has all throughout history,” Tsai said. “We just haven’t paid attention to it, until now.” 

Although these incidents heightened the urgency of the event, the school planned to highlight the intricacies of Asian American history through an analysis of race and ethnicity long before the violence recently intensified, Milkes said.

“It’s really important that students realize that Asian Americans have been in this country for a very long time and that there’s a very long history here,” she said. “Professor Tchen really made that clear, as his work, in particular, focuses on Asian American history before the arrival of Chinese laborers on the transcontinental railroad.”

Zhu hopes the viewers appreciate that the event was dedicated to Asian American representation because the school curriculum and courses fail to dive in-depth into such themes, she said. “I don’t think it’s fair that this kind of history is really only taught in East Asian history and, even then, it’s a tangential subject.” 

Tsai was grateful to learn more context from the specialists because it gave her a better understanding of the historical implications behind her identity, she said. “[The event] made me reflect a lot on my role as an Asian American member of the Horace Mann community and also just as a member of the Asian American community in the US as a whole.”