Dr. Sarah-Soonling Blackburn is an educator, speaker, and professional development specialist. Growing up in a mixed race, Asian and White family, and spending most of her childhood in various countries in Asia, ideas of belonging have always had salience for her. From the classroom to Learning for Justice, her work has focused on the things that help students feel seen and included. She joins us to discuss the myth of the Model Minority and helps contextualize the role of Asian American identities in our collective understanding and education about race and America.
With a bit of a history lesson, Dr. Blackburn gives us a greater understanding of how this myth is not only harmful to Asian Americans, but to all people of color, and how it is directly tied to anti-Black racism in our country. She also offers deep reflection about what solidarity building can really mean and what we all have to offer in the fight to dismantle White supremacy culture.
- Time cover – “Those Asian-American Whiz Kids”
- Learning for Justice
- Paula Yoo – From a Whisper to a Rallying Cry: The Killing of Vincent Chin and the Trial that Galvanized the Asian American Movement
- Cathy Park Hong – Minor Feelings: An Asian American Reckoning
- Erika Lee – The Making of Asian American
- Elizabeth McRea – Mothers of Massive Resistance
- Dr. McRea on our podcast – White Women and the Politics of White Supremacy
- Jeff Chan – We Gon’ Be Alright
- Other resources that have shaped our learning:
- The Asian American Justice and Innovation Lab
- See Us Unite
- The PBS Series – Asian Americans
- Code Switch Post – The Model Minority Myth
- Angry Asian Man
- Bianca Mabute-Louie
- Dr. Connie Wun
Use these links or start at our Bookshop.org storefront to support local bookstores, and send a portion of the proceeds back to us.
Join our Patreon to support this work, and connect with us and other listeners to discuss these issues even further.
We are a proud member of The Connectd Podcast Network.
The Integrated Schools Podcast was created by Courtney Mykytyn and Andrew Lefkowits.
This episode was produced by Andrew Lefkowits and Val Brown. It was edited, and mixed by Andrew Lefkowits.
Music by Kevin Casey.
S7E5 - Not Your Model Minority
Andrew: Welcome to the Integrated Schools Podcast. I'm Andrew, a White dad from Denver.
Val: And I'm Val, a Black mom from North Carolina.
Andrew: And this is “Not Your Model Minority.” And I'm very excited for this conversation today, both because the topic is way overdue and because it is the first time that, Val, you and I get to interview someone together.
Val: Indeed. And it's a good friend of mine. So, you know, I'm just trying to show I got something to bring to the show.
Andrew: Did you ever! Sarah-Soonling Blackburn is amazing. How did you meet her?
Val: We actually met as colleagues when we were both working for Learning for Justice. And from the very beginning, I knew Sarah was special and our relationship grew. And she's even convinced me and my entire family to invest our time in Survivor.
Andrew: She's a big Survivor fan, huh?
Val: Yeah. She's watched all 40 seasons before this one. And so, yeah, that's dope, right?
I've learned a lot from Sarah, and I think our relationship is really built on trying to be who we're asking other folks to be, and that's in community and in solidarity across difference.
Andrew: Yeah. And willing to learn. I feel like that's why, I mean, I'm so grateful for this conversation. I feel like it's an opportunity to really learn more about the histories and the stories of Asian Americans in this country.
Val: Absolutely. And I think, you know, you and I both have acknowledged that our own schooling in this area was lacking a great deal. And so understanding that we all have places to learn and grow. I think it's really important.
Andrew: Yeah. She brings all of that. A humility, a willingness to be in community and conversation, but also just deep expertise. Both, kind of, the history, so, you know, all the way back to the first Asian Americans on this continent. The Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882, which, you know, is like the first law that specifically (and really the only law that specifically) calls out one racial or ethnic group and says you can't come to this country.
Val: Uh, yeah, that sounds blatant to me.
Andrew: Pretty explicit.
Andrew: And then all the way up to today, and the model minority myth and this idea of, like, Asians are the quote unquote right type of minoritized people. She really like ties that line all the way through, from the history up through today. So I'm glad that she's your friend.
Val: Thank you. I'm glad she's my friend too. Love you, Sarah!
Andrew: Now you're gonna have to return the favor, cause I introduced you to Stefan on Twitter and now I want to be friends with Sarah.
Val: Done. Consider it done. I got you.
Andrew: Alright, should we take a listen?
Val: I think we should definitely listen.
Sarah-Soonling Blackburn: Hi, I'm Sarah-Soonling Blackburn. I'm an educator. I'm a speaker. I'm a professional development specialist person. I love working with teachers. My background is in the classroom and for the last 8, 10 years or so. I've primarily worked coaching educators across the U.S. around classroom culture, around belonging, inclusion, all the stuff that helps students feel seen and safe and able to thrive at school.
Andrew: Yeah. And through that experience as a teacher, you were actually awarded the teacher of the year award. Is that right?
Sarah-Soonling Blackburn: That is true. I was the teacher of the year one year.
Andrew: Val knows something about teachers of the year.
Val: We hang out.
Andrew: Can you step back and tell us a little bit about your background, kind of how you came to care about the work that you do and how you got involved?
Sarah-Soonling Blackburn: Yeah, so I grew up in a mixed race, White and Asian family, but mostly living in various countries in Asia because of my dad's work. We traveled around a lot. And so I've always had this experience of being sort of an outsider and also being the new kid at school so often. And I think that's what really got me focused on this idea of belonging.
I wasn't a great student at first. And I had one teacher in elementary school who just took the time to get to know me, and that transformed everything for me. And then similarly in high school, I just wasn't very well invested in what I was doing, I didn't really, like, understand how it was relevant to my life, my interests, and was kind of a bad kid, like not the kid you want to have in your classroom. I was like the kid in the back of the class, just throwing stuff at my friends and, you know, skipping school.
Val: I believe nothing about this.
Sarah-Soonling Blackburn: My mother will hopefully never listen to this. But I had a couple of teachers who took the time to know me, who helped me see relevancy, myself in the materials in the classroom. These were primarily English and literature teachers who featured diverse texts, who featured characters that represented experiences that I'd had growing up in other countries, growing up in an Asian family, and that was transformative. So that kind of got me on this path to college and studying education and what I've been doing ever since.
Andrew: Hmm. So it sounds like you were not living into the model minority myth as an Asian student sitting in the back of the class, not excelling. Can you tell us a little bit about the model minority myth and how you kind of related to it?
Sarah-Soonling Blackburn: Yeah, so I fit into the demographic that should fit the model minority myth, which is this idea of Asian people as sort of like desirable minoritized people in this country. Hardworking, inherently talented at, like, math and science, you know, loyal employees, like people who keep their head down and don't cause trouble. A lot of, like, pull yourself up by the bootstraps ideology or mythologies get attached to these groups of Asian people. And in a lot of ways, like, I fit that mold. I come from a Malaysian Chinese family. My mother is college educated. I went to a math and science magnet high school. So again, like fitting into that specific content stereotype.
Which is probably partly why I butted up so hard against it, because people looking at me expected me to be at that school, expected me to be excelling at that school, excelling in those specific classes. What they don't know is that I didn't do so great on the math portion of the entrance exam, but I like aced the English portion and that's why I was in. And I loved reading. I loved history. I was a theater nerd. All of those parts that don't fit the stereotypes. And personally I had educators who couldn't understand that, like it didn't jive with their mental models of what somebody who looked like me should be doing. And that further disinvested me, because I was allowed to be the kid sitting in the back of chemistry class, just like goofing off. Because my teacher just wrote me off. But I knew that there were other kids who were struggling academically, who were getting more help or were having those one-on-one conversations because, you know, their potential was still there versus it being seen as like an attitudinal issue, which I think is what was ascribed to me.
Andrew: Right. That you, like, you had this box and either you were in it, and so you were excelling or you weren't, and so you were sort of hopeless.
Sarah-Soonling Blackburn: Right. Exactly. And, you know, there are so many documented mental health issues with Asian kids who don't feel like they fit into that box. And that box is nonsense, right? Like, of course there are some Asian kids who are great at math and science, but of course there are tons who, like, could not care less about that, or have tons of other interests. Just like with any other group, diversity of interests, experiences, talents, and whatever is vast.
Andrew: Maybe we should just step back and just sort of acknowledge the problem of Asian Americans as a catchall term in the first place, because it incorporates such a huge swath of both people, but also experiences in the country. Can you speak a little bit to that?
Sarah-Soonling Blackburn: Yeah, that is such an important point. Asia, very big, very diverse place, right? I think like 60% of the world's population would be what we would consider Asian. And that includes a huge range of ethnic backgrounds, of religions, languages, cultural practices. You know, the model minority stereotype really focuses just on people from East Asia and some people from South Asia, but it gets ascribed to people from all of Asia.
You know, we are erasing people from Southeast Asia or people with refugee stories, right? There are a lot of Asian people in this country who are here because of American imperialist war efforts. And those experiences are not the same as growing up with, like, the hyper educated quote unquote tiger mom that we think like every Asian kid is growing up with. But because of this broad catchall, everyone gets lumped into the same category.
And, you know, Asian American is a really helpful term in some ways. I am proud to call myself Asian American. But it's because it's a political identity, right? We use that term to harness collective power. To say that, even though we have different ethnic backgrounds, even though our experiences in our home countries are really different, even if our home country had like centuries long beef with one, there is something really similar about how we are perceived and treated here in the United States. And so if we form this like collective identity, you know, we can hold power. And that's a great thing. And we have to hold space for all the diversity and difference that exists within that umbrella political identity term. And kind of learning how to navigate the nuance there is tricky, but really important.
Val: I definitely see parallels in the use of the term Black, right? So Black Americans. And then we do lump everyone in there, Jamaican, Haitian, you know. And still recognizing both the fact that, in this country specifically, we are gonna all be seen a certain way, but acknowledging the various cultural and ethnic differences that we have.
Andrew: All of these racial categories feel so problematic and yet we can't pretend they don't exist.
Val: Sarah, can you give us some historical context about the model minority myth?
Sarah-Soonling Blackburn: The model minority really comes out of the post-World War II era. So for most of U.S. history, we had these explicitly anti-Asian racist laws on the books, stuff like the Chinese Exclusion Act, things like Japanese internment during the second World War.
China was our ally during World War II. So it would have been, like, a really bad look for us to have the Chinese Exclusion Act still on the books at that time. So that's why that act was not repealed until the 1940s. That timing coincides.
And then we start to shift our immigration policies in 1965. The Immigration and Naturalization Act of that time started bringing in people from Asia in much larger numbers. So most Asian immigrants in the country today have come since the sixties. And we've been preferencing people with specific skills in certain areas like medicine, technology, engineering. So we're basically cherry picking people who match this model minority stereotype.
And so then that's what makes it start to perpetuate in this cyclical, generational way. And so, yeah, you might have brought somebody over because they were an engineer, you know, but that doesn't mean that their kids who are now in school want to be an engineer. But we still have this idea that like, oh, they must only be good at this one thing.
Val: Based on what you just said, I'm thinking about, there are ways that White supremacy culture obviously places limits around everyone, but especially people of color. As you stated earlier, Asian Americans have varied experiences. Can you talk a little bit more about what you've learned about how some Asian Americans may come to recognize themselves as people of color in American context?
Sarah-Soonling Blackburn: Yes. So there's two ways that that happens. The first is with more recent immigrants. You know, you come from being the ethnic majority, to suddenly being a minoritized group. And that's a very bewildering and new experience for some people, especially because they've been fed the story of, you know, America as the dream. The American dream is deeply held still and shared. I know my family talks about that. Like, oh, you're the cousin who's in America. Right? Like you're the ones who've made it. And then you show up and you're like, oh wait, it's not exactly what it was all sold to be.
It reminds me of the stories back in the early waves of Chinese immigration to the United States in the late 1800s. The first large groups of Asian immigrants to the U.S. came during the Gold Rush. And it was the stories of gold mountain--you know, Gum San is the United States--that brought people over here. And that story, that mythology runs deep still today.
The other way of Asian people, kind of, finding themselves as people of color comes from this weird proximity to Whiteness that exists alongside Asian identity, and particularly lighter skinned or East Asian identity, where because of the model minority myth and being seen as these, like, model citizens, you know, this is how we want all people of color to be, there are Asian people who are like, “well, I don't see myself as a person of color. I see myself as practically White, because I have been mostly accepted into White society.”
The thing about, like, the model minority myth is it has the word minority in that name. So even if you are the model, you are still, always and forever, not quite belonging, not quite acceptable quote unquote. You don't quite hold the same power as the majority group.
And things will happen where people's experience of, like, being seen as acceptable is disrupted. A big example has been during COVID-19. Hearing from so many Asian people who are experiencing explicit forms of racism for the first time for some of them. And then as soon as you experienced that, you start thinking back to other experiences that you've had that you’re like, “wait, this actually isn't new, but I've been brushing off all these little things all along the way, because I've been fed the story that I am accepted, that I am belonging.”
And then you start to look at history, and you start to see all the ways that Asian people have been not just, you know, discriminated against, not just called names, but beaten, but murdered, but hung in this country. And you realize like, oh wait a second, we are only the acceptable group as long as it serves whatever needs exist at that time. But it is so easy to scapegoat still.
So with COVID, you know, the “China virus,” the “China flu.” There are old long-standing stereotypes in this country about yellow peril, about fears of diseases that Asian people bring. And that stereotype was reactivated in a second when we needed something or somebody to blame, outside of ourselves, for this pandemic.
Val: That… just listening to you. It's super painful to imagine that realization, specifically if I'm thinking about kids in schools as this was happening. Being accepted in one moment and being rejected in the next. I just want to acknowledge, like, that had to be extremely difficult, just for families and students and educators everywhere, you know?
Sarah-Soonling Blackburn: Yeah. I heard stories from kids, from parents. You know, kids being told by their classmates, “I can't sit by you at lunch anymore. I can't play with you anymore. You're going to get us sick. Your food is going to get us sick.” And that's, that's awful, you know, little kids. Like that's really awful.
Andrew: Yeah. I feel like there's another piece of the model minority myth that contributes to this is that like Asian people are also sort of quiet, and go along to get along, and don't cause trouble. That probably also contributes to that.
Sarah-Soonling Blackburn: Definitely. There's kind of a difference between Asian families who've been here before 1965 and afterwards, where the communities that have been here longer are a little bit more connected to our historic roles in civil rights and social justice movements. Whereas newer immigrants, because those stories are not taught in schools, are not widely disseminated, newer immigrants often don't know those stories.
They both don't know the historic discrimination, the historic racism, and they don't know the historic pushback against that discrimination and racism. And don't have, like, a model for what it looks like to stand up or advocate for what's right. To advocate for the rights of not just Asian people, but for other communities of color.
One of the major issues with the model minority myth (and if I could like underline anything in this entire thing) is the harm that it does to other communities of color, and particularly to Black people in this country. Because by saying Asian people are the model, this is what minoritized groups should or could be, you're basically perpetuating a hierarchy of race that keeps White people at the top, but puts the Asian people right below that, you know, everyone else falls down the line somewhere, with Black people at the bottom. So anti-Black racism is baked into the model minority myth.
When we say this one group… Like, ok, here's one: Asian parents care about education more than any other group. When you say that, you are definitionally saying someone else does not care about education.
Andrew: And it's not White parents.
Sarah-Soonling Blackburn: Right. And it’s not White parents. In this country it tends to be Black parents, maybe Latino parents, you know, there's other groups that fit into it. And it's used all the time, right? It's used to wipe away the notion that racism even exists. Like I'm sure that on Twitter right now, somebody is writing, “America's not racist. Look at how well the Asians are doing,” or they're saying like, “You know, why can't these other groups just, like, pull themselves up by their bootstraps? The Asians did it. Why can't they?”
Andrew: You know, you talked about the kind of history that we don't know about, pre whatever sixties versus post sixties, sort of older immigrants versus newer immigrants. Can you give us some of that history? Because it is, I mean, I know next to nothing about it. I would love to, you know, just sort of understand a little more of that piece.
Sarah-Soonling Blackburn: So there are stories of Asian people in the United States as early as 1400s AD. There's a story of a Chinese monk coming and sailing down the west coast of what is now the U.S. and spending time along Indigenous people before going back to China to writing about it. We don't know if that's true for sure. There's a lot of other places that this guy might have actually gone to or he maybe made the whole thing up entirely. We don't know. But we do know that Asian people have been in the North American continent from as early as the 1600s.
The bigger waves of Asian immigration really did focus though on Chinese immigrants to the west coast in the 1800s. So first coming with the Gold Rush. This coincided with a large famine that was happening in southern China at the time. This was also the end of the opium war. So there was a lot of just unrest, starvation. And so you hear stories of a place across the ocean where somebody found gold, just digging in the dirt.
Sarah-Soonling Blackburn: It's an awful, scary thing to do, but you know, it's not any worse than what you're already experiencing.
Andrew: Better than starving.
Sarah-Soonling Blackburn: Yeah. So a lot of people came during the Gold Rush and then, for a number of reasons involving racist Texas, were pushed off of the gold fields, started the country's first Chinatowns, eventually went back to gold mining, but also into other physically demanding labor that White Americans didn't want to do. There wasn't a large population of enslaved Black labor in that part of the country, which is normally what we would rely on. So you have these cheap quote unquote disposable Chinese men, who could build a railroad, who could work in the fields.
So where I live in Mississippi, there is a long-standing population of Chinese people in the Mississippi Delta who were first brought in as replacement for enslaved Black labor on cotton and other plantations following the end of the civil war. So they were working as sharecroppers.
Andrew: I mean, talk about White supremacy, kind of setting up the internal tensions between Chinese communities and Black communities way, way back then.
Sarah-Soonling Blackburn: Right. And those are stories again, like, we typically don't know. We might've heard like, oh, the Chinese came to build the railroads, and that's probably it.
Andrew: Yeah, I knew, like, railroads was in my mind, but none of that was in anything that I have ever been taught.
Val: Certainly not in a way that is like when you just said it right there. It reminded me like, oh, they came to build the railroads. Like it was like a joyous kind of, “oh right, yay, let's go do the thing,” which is not, that's not what we're saying happened at all.
Sarah-Soonling Blackburn: No. You know our country's immigration system today is in a lot of ways based on rejection of that Chinese immigration at the time. So the Chinese Exclusion Act was the first time we explicitly barred an ethnic group from entering the United States. It's also the only time we've had a law that called a group out by name. Chinese people are excluded.
Sarah-Soonling Blackburn: Before that, something called the Page Act was the first immigration law that sort of restricted immigration in general. And that was mostly targeted against Chinese women. The idea being that if the women come, the men will put down roots. A description that I saw about the Page Act just said that it was enacted to end the threat of cheap Chinese labor and immoral Chinese women. So you see the men as these, you know, not humans, but tools of labor. And you see the women as these like promiscuous, sexualized, exoticized temptresses, which we know is a stereotype that lingers today and still has a lot of harm. And that's, you know, a hundreds of years old idea that was on the books.
Now, if we keep going with the immigration, the Chinese Exclusion Act was extended by something called the Geary Act, which is what set the legal precedents for immigrant detention and deportations. Similarly, U.S. border patrol didn't have a lot of power until it started enforcing illegal Chinese immigration often across our northern border from Canada.
So when we talk about all the ways that the immigration system is racist or affects other groups, we can go all the way back to, you know, this earlier phase of our nation's history. And something that's lost is how it was created against Asian people.
Val: My White supremacy headache is flaring up.
Sarah-Soonling Blackburn: Sorry Val.
Val: So exhausting.
Andrew: I mean I was going to say, why don't we know that history? But like, clearly...
Val: We know why we...
Andrew: We know why we don't know that history. It's why we don't know any of the other history. But some of the progress that was made by some Asian communities after that was through activism, was through kind of speaking up. And you were saying there's sort of a difference between that older generation and the newer generation of immigrants in terms of, you know, a willingness to speak up. Where did that, how did that kind of divide kind of happen?
Val: Is it willingness or is it just, like we just talked about, not knowing the history and thus, you know, feeding into the myths that...
Andrew: Good call.
Val: So I'm sure no one wants to be oppressed, right? But yeah, I don't know that it's a willingness. I think people, because they don't know.
Sarah-Soonling Blackburn: They're told they're not oppressed, you know? Right. They're told like, you are the accepted group. We want you now today. And they're fed those stories of like Asian success. You know, you don't know the difference.
Another example that I think about is, in school, you might've learned about Japanese internment, but you probably didn't learn about the people who resisted internment and fought and won reparations. So people like Fred Korematsu who did that. And I don't think that that was taught to me in school. I know that my middle school aged kids, like, they didn't learn that in school, even though they got one brief paragraph that was like, “oh, we briefly put Japanese people in these camps. You know, but then they came home. Yay.” That’s like the version that they got. Can I give you one more...
Val: Of course.
Andrew: Yeah. Please.
Sarah-Soonling Blackburn: ...historical example that I think is illustrative? Because you are the Integrated Schools Podcast, and this is a case of integration.
So the Supreme Court case that upheld school segregation by race specifically was actually a case about a Chinese student trying to integrate into a White school district. We think of Plessy versus Ferguson as the case that enacted the “separate but equal” notion that enacted segregation, but that case was about trains, not about schools in particular. So in the 1920s and 30s, we start to see that Mississippi Delta Chinese population, that I already mentioned, growing larger communities.
And they've moved from field work into owning grocery stores primarily. And these grocery stores mostly serve the Black community that has again returned to field labor as sharecroppers. So they're making their income. We're talking again about, like, setting people up in opposition to each other, making their income off of the Black sharecropping community. They're mostly living kind of in the Black communities, but trying to integrate White spaces through church membership and through other social structures that organize life in the rural South.
The case I'm talking about is called Lum versus Rice, which I never heard about in school, but it focuses on the town of Rosedale, Mississippi. They lost their case. So that's where we get the law that says like, you know, race is a reason to maintain school segregation.
What's really tricky about this case is it illustrates the anti-Black racism that goes hand in hand with anti-Asian racism. Which is, their argument for integration was not that segregation is wrong, their argument for integration was that they didn't want to go to the quote unquote colored school. They didn't want to go to school with the Black kids, again, who are the community from which their family is making all of their income right through their stores. They're playing into that hierarchy. We are above that group. And so we want entry into these White spaces.
Andrew: Not, we should dismantle this hierarchy, but like, put us high enough on the hierarchy that we can go to the White schools and then you can still have the Black schools over there.
Sarah-Soonling Blackburn: Yeah. And so I think that's probably why it's not like a well-known or well taught case because it's so nuanced.
Sarah-Soonling Blackburn: But it's true, right? You could make an argument that this is a story of Asian people participating in our system of justice and trying to change things for the better, sort of, but we have that part is erased. We have the anti-Blackness inherent in it erased. We have the fact of like Asian people existing in American schools that long erased, including in the rural deep south where we, like, almost never imagined these people existing. So erasure, I guess is like the key word for all of this.
Andrew: It seems like the, like who is most served by that erasure are White people. Like who benefits from erasing that whole history is the system of White supremacy that set up that power structure and conflict in the first place.
Sarah-Soonling Blackburn: Absolutely.
Val: So to bring us to present day, Sarah. How is what you just described showing up in schools today as we are trying to integrate these spaces?
Sarah-Soonling Blackburn: So when we start to see the model minority myth take hold in the 50s, 60s, and on, it starts to pop up so much in our popular media. It starts to pop up in newspaper stories of like, that really successful Asian laundry worker whose kids all became rich doctors or whatever. There's a Time magazine cover from the 90s that's pretty famous. It says like “those Asian American whiz kids” and they're these smiling East Asian students.
Val: I remember that! Yes. I do remember that.
Sarah-Soonling Blackburn: It's like a iconic image and they've got like a computer and textbooks and like a globe and they all look super happy. And I don't know.
That doesn't just spread within this country. It also spreads back home in Asia, because of the way that American culture, American media is global media, is global culture in so many ways. We're eating that same diet and we're like, oh, if we go there, we will be not only accepted, but we will thrive. And so, we basically repeat the same messages.
Andrew: Adopt it.
Sarah-Soonling Blackburn: Yeah. Adopt it. Because you're told, if you go and you do it this way, you will be successful. And you know, why do people immigrate except for a better future for themselves and for their family. And so if you're told, do it this way, you're going to kind of gloss over the ugly parts that might come along with that, because there are probably ugly things that you're leaving behind as well.
Val: Yeah. Yeah.
Sarah-Soonling Blackburn: ‘Cause there's really no downside to it on the surface, right? Like, go work hard, be the best, you know? And I know Asian friends who are told like, be better than the White kids, do better. And there are so many jokes, right? An Asian B is an F or whatever.
Val: Oh, really? I don’t know.
Sarah-Soonling Blackburn: Yeah. And people ascribe this sometimes to something in like Asian culture. They're like, oh, isn't it just Asian culture to work hard. And sure, there's like, we can look at Confucianism. We can look at other educational models.
Again, you're generalizing to all of Asia. Also just because somebody, like, has a cultural norm in their past somehow doesn't mean that it's, like, genetically encoded in how you orient towards school. It's not just like, oh, Asian culture.
Andrew: I mean, just the idea of Asian culture feels like really, really broken as just a concept in the first place that doesn't make any sense.
Sarah-Soonling Blackburn: Totally. And then we even keep asking ourselves, like, who counts as Asian, right? Like, do we think about western Asia? Do we think about central Asia? Now we often use AAPI or Asian American and Pacific Islander. People from the Pacific islands have completely different experiences, including being native and indigenous to the American controlled land on which they live today. And they get lumped into this whole thing too.
Sarah-Soonling Blackburn: So, um, yeah. It's complicated.
Val: I have a couple questions about the pain that each of our communities, and I can talk Black and Asian American communities, have caused one another based on the stereotypes that we have been fed about the other. And just how much healing we have to do within our own communities, and education within our own communities, to make sure that we're not perpetuating those stereotypes and causing additional harm. Because of what you just spoke about in terms of the hierarchy, right? Like feeling as a Black person that you're at the bottom and you're just trying to reach up to fight anybody. Anybody, right?
How do we…? Not looking for solutions, ‘cause Andrew and I have tried to offer solutions to racism on a previous episode, so we're failing.
Andrew: I thought we did it all. We offered them all. We don't have any left to offer.
Val: We don’t have any more solutions. But just, I think just talking through that and naming that, because one thing that we also want to do in these conversations is model for folks how we grapple with these very real topics that are important to talk about, even if we don't have the answers right away.
Sarah-Soonling Blackburn: The question that you ask has sort of two parts. It's both the healing and then the moving forward piece. And when I think about solidarity as a concept, those are the two pieces of solidarity in general. It's both learning each other, learning each other's stories, learning each other's histories and experiences. And doing something with that. Just sitting around and sharing stories is good, but it's not going to actually create, you know, major systemic change. So it's what do we learn from each other's stories and how do we then use that knowledge to create a better society for the people who come after us.
An example that immediately comes to mind is the LA uprising in the 90s, following the acquittal of the men who beat Rodney King and the shooting of a Black young woman by a Korean store owner in Los Angeles, created you know, massive tension, violence, upset in south LA. And those two communities still have a lot of issues that they're working through. But if you zoom out just a little bit, you realize that the power structures that forced poor low-income working class Black people and Korean people into increasingly shrinking neighborhoods that put them against each other, that made sure they did not know each other's histories. Those people were sitting comfortably on the other side of town, watching south LA up in flames from the comfort of their living rooms, right? White supremacy is behind all of that, and yet we spend so much time fighting against each other because we don't have access to that zoomed out picture sometimes. So it's, yeah, sharing the stories is what allows us to see the zoomed out picture. Now we know that to be true. What do we do moving forward?
Val: An image that's sticking out in my head are, um, recently protests of parents--White, Asian American--of parents like saying, “no, we want our gifted courses. Don't take away our gifted courses. Don't take away our selective kind of admissions process.” Any thoughts on that?
Sarah-Soonling Blackburn: Yeah. It's capitalism, right?
Sarah-Soonling Blackburn: It’s the idea that there's no way for everyone to benefit, that somebody has to be the loser and somebody has to be the winner.
Andrew: Zero sum.
Sarah-Soonling Blackburn: Yeah. It's all zero sum. And we have to control these little things for ourselves.
There is definitely a narrative that Asian families are losing out when we open things up to other minoritized groups, other groups of color in this country. And that just hasn’t shaken out really. And we also know all of the benefits of going to school in diverse, heterogeneous groupings, which those parts of the story don't get shared either.
I do understand, and I have sympathy for a parent, you know, as a parent, myself, who is saying, I want the best education for my child. Like I deeply understand that. And it is a hard thing to say that I'm going to take this risk with my child's one shot at fourth grade or whatever, going to this school that I've heard so many negative things about. Or if they're, you know, if they're not in gifted and talented, they're not going to get into that college, and then they're not going to thrive. And the, you know, all of that. I 100% hear that. And, at what cost? Are we only thriving because we're standing on top of the heads of other people and keeping them down? If we think about a hierarchy of race that is, like, literally what it looks like. We are raising ourselves up by stepping on top of other people and keeping them down. And when we do that, everybody eventually loses. You know, and I think that's the moment of awakening that a lot of Asian people are having with COVID is, “we played that game for a long time, we played the assimilation game. We did the standing on other people and when they needed a scapegoat for this pandemic, they still came for us.”
Sarah-Soonling Blackburn: So is it really worth it?
Val: I think I keep asking you that same question, Andrew. Like, I can’t understand what’s worth it.
Andrew: Is it worth it? Yeah. I mean, it's the story of Chinese people in the Mississippi Delta too, right? It's like, “yeah, you can come here. You can be here. That's great. There's not too many of you, so we're comfortable. You're going to do some work that we don't want to do. You're gonna, you know, mostly live in and own stores in Black communities. That's fine. Oh, wait. Now there's too many of you. Now you want to come to our schools? Okay. Hang on a second. Nope, you know, that's a step too far.”
There's never actually a kind of full welcome into Whiteness. And so if the way to get closer to Whiteness is to replicate this hierarchy of human value, is to replicate this racial hierarchy, then you're never going to get to the top. So what do you, you know, what are you actually fighting for there?
Sarah-Soonling Blackburn: That's so good.
Val: We try to end hopeful.
Sarah-Soonling Blackburn: Okay.
Andrew: We’re not there yet.
Val: But my White supremacy headache is going.
Andrew: I'm wondering if you can talk a little bit about, kind of, you know, what the other alternative is. Talk about sort of coalition building. Because proximity to Whiteness is always going to be desirable in a society that is premised on White supremacy, but what's the other approach to take? Where have you seen, you know, Asian communities coming together and kind of tapping into the activism of the earlier generations of Asian communities to actually work for good for everyone? Because certainly the only story is not that Asian Americans have always kind of replicated White supremacy.
Val: Absolutely not.
Sarah-Soonling Blackburn: Definitely not. I am an eternal optimist, much to my mother and my husband's chagrin. So I really think a lot about this. You know, Asian activism, fighting for social justice has happened the whole time. And those are stories we need to continue to share.
Another moment of really big political awakening for Asian people, a sort of coalescing of the Asian American movement came after the lynching of Vincent Chin in the 90s. This is a Chinese American man. He was killed out on his bachelor party, basically because of the rise of the Japanese auto industry at the time. This happened in Detroit. And the people who killed him--beat him in the head with a baseball bat, in the street--they were given probation and a fine. And, you know, I'm not saying that the criminal justice system is the solution, but I think that the disparity that that showed, the devaluation of Vincent's life, that was shown there, was a moment of awakening for a lot of people. So there were protests, there were groups that formed, that still exist today that really fight for Asian American rights.
And I think that this moment we're in right now with COVID, with the shootings in Atlanta earlier in 2021, is another moment of awakening where Asian people are becoming politicized. Not, you know, not in a partisan way, but just sort of realizing the systems and structures that underpin our society. And I think that that is important for organizing. And part of this is going to be continuing to learn and share the stories to combat that erasure, to combat that, as some people will describe it, that intentional replicated amnesia that we have about both our struggles and our solidarity efforts. And there's so much power in solidarity. There's so much power in learning what other groups are experiencing and what they're doing and adding our voices to each other.
The whole Asian American umbrella is an exercise in solidarity to begin with. This idea of, okay, our experiences, our backgrounds might be totally different, but there's something the same in what's going on, and so let's band together and do this. We can expand that out and think about all, not just racially minoritized, marginalized groups, but other marginalized groups in general who are fighting for rights, fighting for access, fighting for representation. And to say that our interests actually align here.
We need to stop fighting against each other or fighting over scraps, but looking at the powers of White supremacy, of capitalism, of imperialism, of colonialism. These are forces that have affected so many of our communities. How do we dismantle those together? And how do we hold space for diversity and difference within all of that?
So, the efforts to, what's called, disaggregate Asian American or AAPI data are really important too. So, for example, in student achievement results, this happens a lot, and you will sometimes see results that show like AAPI kids are doing better than White kids on whatever state assessment. But if you disaggregate that data by ethnicity, you find that it's certain Asian groups that are pulling up the average of everyone, and other Asian groups are actually at the bottom.
So if we disaggregate and we look at how each group is doing and what they need, we're more likely to center the needs of the people who are most affected. And by doing that, we create the change that helps everyone the most.
Andrew: I mean, we all win, if we all win, right? Like the world is not zero sum. It is not actually zero sum. You do not have to go down for me to go up. We can actually all rise together.
Andrew: But not if we are constantly, you know, reinforcing this hierarchy of human value.
Val: I think you're right. Once we know our stories and our past, and we identify that we do, all of us, everyone on this interview right now, we have the common enemy that is White supremacy. It's easy to form coalitions around that, right? I think.
Andrew: All three of us are harmed by White supremacy and not in the same ways, right? Like, the impacts are different and we are all harmed by it.
Sarah-Soonling Blackburn: Well, the thing that gives me hope with it, is once you see it, you can't really unsee it. And I think this about like my kids and their generation is, like, now that they know about these concepts, they see it everywhere. They identify it themselves.
Andrew: The other question I want to ask you is, what role can White and/or privileged parents play in pushing back on some of this?
Sarah-Soonling Blackburn: The first is unlearning the stereotypes that we have or hold, beliefs that we hold. The second is advocating and also raising or elevating the voices of Asian people themselves who are pushing back, who are sharing stories. So maybe that's advocating to bring in a speaker or to have some listening conversations, whether that is going to the school and asking, you know, how do we collect data about student groups? Have you heard of disaggregation? Can we look at that? Do we have refugee communities? Um, one in six Asian Americans in this country is undocumented. Do we, are we taking note of that?
Sarah-Soonling Blackburn: Because that's a fact that most people don't recognize.
Andrew: Yeah. I never would've guessed that.
Sarah-Soonling Blackburn: Yeah.
Andrew: Can you give us a recommendation of some books? If people wanted to learn more about this history, where's a good place to start?
Sarah-Soonling Blackburn: The first one is a young adult historical text, but I think it's great for adults to read too. It's called From a Whisper to a Rallying Cry: The Killing of Vincent Chin and the Trial that Galvanized the Asian American Movement.
Sarah-Soonling Blackburn: What I appreciate about this book is that it looks at a specific moment in history, a specific story, a specific tragedy, but from there gives a lot of the context that leads up to it, the context surrounding it, the connections to the present day. And it's a story that we should all know. And yet, so few of us know this story. Strongly recommend that one.
Another one that I recommend is called Minor Feelings: An Asian American Reckoning by Cathy Park Hong. It's sort of like essays, memoir, really hard to describe what genre it is, but just powerful and kind of earth shaking in a lot of ways.
And then the final I haven't actually read, but it has been recommended to me so many times, and so I feel like a very bad person recommending this. And I deeply admire this writer. It's called The Making of Asian American by Erika Lee. And, that one, I pass on the recommendation as well.
Andrew: Amazing. Thank you, Sarah. This has been so enlightening. And yeah, both somewhat depressing, but also hopefully giving us some hope and some steps to take in the future. So I'm really grateful for you and for all the work that you're doing and for coming on the podcast.
Sarah-Soonling Blackburn: Thank you all for having me.
Val: And you know, I’m a Black person for Asian lives, so whatever you need, all the time.
Sarah-Soonling Blackburn: Hey, Asians for Black lives.
Val: That’s it. We’re here.
Andrew: So Val, what did you think?
Val: Sarah gave us a lot. You know, I'm reflecting back on what I have described as my White supremacy headache. And just really trying to make sense of all the things that I have to learn, all the things that I have to unlearn, and what it means for us in integrated spaces to do this work publicly and together.
I think that having Sarah on the show today, you know, it's just a reminder that we need as many voices as possible in this conversation, if we're going to create the future that we want.
Andrew: Right. I appreciate your like putting yourself in the learning box as well, because so often these conversations get boiled down to Black and White. We are talking about issues that are largely Black and White, and you bring a certain degrees of expertise on that, and so you get sort of put in this position of like, “You be the expert and I'll be the learner.” But I appreciate your willingness to join me in learning about this thing that is so important.
And there's so much of it that I didn't know. I mean, the history that she walked us through there...
Val: Right. And she mentioned several times about the word erasure being part of what happened to Asian Americans and their histories and stories here in the United States in a mainstream conversation, right? And so, what does it mean for us to not practice that erasure anymore? Like what changes do we have to make, in order to show up as better comrades? So I am here for learning mode, definitely. And I know you think I’m brilliant.
Andrew: You are. I mean, clearly.
Andrew: Clearly. You were teacher of the year.
Val: And yet I think it's really important for us to all come to these conversations with humility about what we don't know and continue to be in a learning stance because probably much of what we think we know is built on miseducation.
Val: What was something that was like a really salient learning point for you?
Andrew: Well, I mean, so much of it. I think the things that kind of stick out are the history of activism in Asian American communities pre 1960s that kind of got erased. And I think, because I think probably I can't have more than two conversations that don't come back to Elizabeth McRae and Mothers of Massive Resistance. But this way that White supremacy gets erased, but keeps going. So we're not looking at it, but it's still going on. It's still perpetuating. And so the ways that kind of this model minority myth of Asians are quiet and they go along to get along and they don't cause any trouble, White supremacy culture reinforces that, and then it's this erasure again.
Val: White supremacy culture has really pulled the rug out from under so many of us, right? And when she talked about the Supreme Court case, Lum versus Rice. The idea that I have to step on someone else to achieve the status that I want, which is the closest proximity to Whiteness. It's just, it's so sad to me. Because it's the way in which White supremacy tricks so many people into believing that's the way to get whatever you want.
And then, you know, I said in the interview like, is it worth it? Like, what are we doing this for, right? And so that's something that I want us to continue to question for ourselves and with our families and the choices that we're making when we're picking the schools, like, what are we doing this for?
Andrew: Yeah. The wages of Whiteness, right? It's like, are you getting something real or are you just getting Whiteness?
Val: Right. One thing that I appreciate about this conversation in particular is our pauses, our reflective pauses. And I think that's important also for folks to understand, like we really were left speechless.
Val: Or just with our thoughts about the impact of much of what Sarah was sharing, specifically about the history and what we've been taught.
Andrew: Or not taught.
Val: Or not taught. And I want people to feel okay with not always having the right words.
Andrew: I mean, speaking of the right words, I just love the way that Sarah uses “minoritized.” You know this idea of the kind of like act of creating minority.
Val: She did us a favor because we told her, like, we needed some racism solutions.
Andrew: ‘Cause we've been promising them every episode.
Val: We've been promising them. But really understanding Asian American as a political collective identity for power in this country, while also disaggregating the data and being able to recognize various ethnicities within the Asian American community and how vital that is for us, again, not to erase others.
Andrew: Right. I feel that that tension, that nuance is really hard to live into. That, like, it is both powerful to group like people together to build political power. There is something common in the way that Asian Americans are treated in this country that has led to the creation of the category Asian American, and they are not monolithic. And there is like wide, wide diversity in the experiences of Asian Americans.
Val: I definitely connected to that in terms of Blackness, right? We obviously have people from all over the diaspora who moved here and are Black, you know. They become Black in the American context, just like various people from Asian countries come here and become, you know, Asian American.
Andrew: It reminds me of, we read Jeff Chang's We Gon’ Be Alright for book club a couple of book clubs ago. And he talks about, in that, like, to become Asian American, you have to come to America. People back in their home countries, there is not like a collective identity that encompasses 60% of the world's population. It is not until you get to America that you become Asian American.
Val: Right. Even in the use of term people of color or BIPOC, right? Like, how accurate is that language? Should we say other things? Like, how do we make it inclusive, yet also honor people's, you know, racial and ethnic identities?
I just, I want to acknowledge, a little bit of the tension I'm feeling around this White supremacist culture. I would love to talk about people of color, Asian Americans, Black people, Latinx folks, Indigenous folks, all without always thinking about the ways in which White supremacy has impacted us. And I'm struggling. The tension I feel is like, I know we need to name it. We need to always name it, right? We can't not talk about a group being minoritized, without talking about, like, why or who or what.
Andrew: How they became minoritized.
Val: Right. And it's also heavy all the time, if I'm honest, you know? And so listening to Sarah stories and the history, and, you know, saying like, gosh, like I have a headache now. One, because I'm thinking about how blatant and terrible and horrific the discrimination and oppression that Asian Americans have faced, you know, throughout the history of this country. And so that's important to know. And how do we also remain hopeful, remain like being willing to commit to the solidarity that's going to be required for us to one day break free from that?
And so how do we make room in our hearts really to both learn all these terrible things and still have the strength and the capacity and the desire to move forward to fix them?
Andrew: Yeah. And the joy, I mean, you know, there's gotta be some joy. And I think there's potential in creating integrated spaces where everyone can bring their full humanity, when everyone can show up. It's a lot of work, but the payoff is huge, if you can get there, in terms of the joy that's possible, in terms of the solidarity that's possible, in terms of the friendships and the bonds that are possible. But if all we ever talk about is your White supremacy headache.
Val: It's never going to go away. But you asked earlier about my friendship with Sarah and that's so much of it, right? We spent as much time, if not more time, laughing and joking and being human with one another, as we did like understanding each other's narratives and histories. And I think those type of authentic relationships are super important if we're going to survive together.
Andrew: Yeah. And knowing and learning the history, and understanding the history and, you know, knowing what we haven't been taught, and then why we haven't been taught it, and piecing all that together. But then being willing to, I mean, and this is the part that I thought was so powerful from Sarah, when she's talking about like how she deeply understands this, you know, fear of “I've only got one shot at fourth grade.” And there's this drive to get the best for your kids, to do the best by your kids. And then she says, but like, what if the way you're doing that is by standing on the shoulders, on the heads of other people?
Val: Which is literally what's happening, right? I think what she has given to the Integrated Schools community is really speaking to the White and/or privileged that you always name. And just some deeper knowledge about a community that many of us have not learned about through our formal schooling.
Andrew: Yeah, I mean, this episode has been, is long overdue for sure. This is definitely a piece of it that I didn't know enough about. And I'm glad we got the chance.
Val: And I'm going to continue my learning journey.
Andrew: Yeah, me too. Listeners, if you want to continue your learning journey, you can join us over on the Patreon page. We have happy hours. We have facilitation questions. All sorts of stuff. Patreon.com/integratedschools. You can also support this work there. You can hit us up on social media @integratedschools. Send us an email hello[email protected] Let us know what you thought. And, Val, as always, I'm grateful to be in this with you as I try to know better and do better.
Val: See you next time.
Val: I told you she was the best.
Andrew: Yeah. Yeah.
Val: I don’t mess around with like averages.
Andrew: No, you're not gonna just invite anybody on the podcast.