Justin Kirkland @ Esquire

I’ve been meaning to write about this for a long time. Even before the recent emergent spike in hate crimes against Asian Americans/Pacific Islanders (AAPIs). I’ve long held a discomfort towards the way that AAPIs are upheld in America as — wait for it — the model minority. I always talk and write about the complexity of identity and how identities are made up of layers; how each individual isn’t just one thing. Sometimes the layers within a single person can bring about complex contradictions. In this case, as an immigrant (one layer in my identity), I understand the complexity of the position AAPIs have been placed in. On the other hand, as a scholar, and as someone particularly interested in sociopolitical matters, I also find myself concerned about the silence (insert Oprah’s viral question “silent or were you silenced?”) of Asian Americans, in the mainstream, towards this role they’ve been groomed to play.

Many AAPI scholars have written and have been speaking about this for years. I watch a lot of slam poetry as well, and many AAPI poets speak on this all the time. But, in the recent wake of media attention now being given to the topic of hate crimes against AAPIs, there have been some tough confrontations. Conversational clashes between Asian Americans and other minority groups are taking place.

Many people are bringing up the idea that the silence of the AAPI mainstream — both towards their own model minority branding and the other minority groups they’re being constantly pitted against by White propagandist and apologist media — is translatable to complicity. This challenge is coming particularly from thinkers and members of the Black American community, which is understandable, considering that they’ve always been the main targets of the spiteful model minority rhetoric “conservative” media like Fox News and other independent commentators push endlessly.

As a scholar and a thinker who has always been concerned about the perils of this perceived “silence”, I believe these qualms are valid. However, as an immigrant, I know things are more complex than that.

Here’s the thing:

America’s disposition and value for immigrants hasn’t changed much since the last century. The value rationed for immigrants has always depended on whatever political agendas are in focus at any given time. For instance, most people aren’t aware that the Irish — as pale and Nordic as they are, haven’t always been considered White. This changed when White American population plummeted due to wars, and they needed to maintain a White majority. There was even a time Mexicans were inclusively categorized as White. The truth is that AAPIs are just victims of what America has always done to immigrants: erase our experiences, muzzle our perspectives, reframe our stories, rebrand our narratives, and reduce us into tiny chess pieces that can be used toward any given agenda.

Realistically, if AAPIs are the models of anything, they’re the models of what White America is willing to do to preserve its privilege. They’re models of the recurring revelation that minority groups in America are expected to only ever be successful on terms set by White America.

From an American viewpoint, I see there’s some sort of implicit and unpronounced arrangement. AAPIs are supposed to be placed on a higher level in the absolutely nonsensical hierarchy of privilege and who gets to access it. In serving the purpose they’ve been groomed for, they’re supposed to have some dynamics within their community be overlooked or suppressed. I imagine Uncle Sam expects some sort of gratitude for this. These are the expectations leveraged on the White American flank.

On the Black American side, there’s expected acknowledgement. As many voices have lamented, AAPIs, like other immigrant and minority groups within America, have always benefited concurrently whenever Black Americans are delegated civil rights. From what I understand, the Black American flank expects — not necessarily gratitude, but — acknowledgement of this fact. Acknowledgement implicit thus that AAPI communities don’t so eagerly allow themselves to be weaponized and leveraged against them.

But, as an immigrant this is where my confliction starts. There are questions to answer before solid opinions can be formed, but the problem is that these questions aren’t easy to answer. Have Asian Americans been branded and propped up as model minorities? Yes, absolutely. Are they at fault for this branding? Well, it depends…

I saw a good argument about a similar topic on Twitter, and one of the best analogies I saw simply pointed out that a person who wakes up and wears a red shirt is just wearing a red shirt; the red has no particular significance to him/her at that point. But, if that person goes into a Target, he or she may be confused for a Target employee. The point here is that the significances applied to any action or behavior are always going to be dependi on the sociopolitical/sociocultural context of where that action/behavior is being observed.

As a Nigerian immigrant, I can attest to this. Many Nigerian American celebrities have spoken on American TV about the amount of importance parents impose on education and credentials. The fact is that this obsession and adamancy on education is present within Nigeria. Every parent wants their child to be a lawyer, a doctor, an engineer, accountant — or any other sort of prestigious job title and college degree. In Nigeria, that’s the norm; in America, that’s apparently an invitation for White America to adopt us as their next device for easing White guilt and suppressing the outcry of the absence of equal rights and equal opportunity for Black Americans.

When immigrants come into America, they’re not just coming in as two-dimensional shadows, desperate for life and ready to be shaped into whatever suites the nearest agenda. In reality, most immigrants are coming from very desperate situations that many Americans are unable to comprehend despite elaborate explanation. But, also in reality, these are real people coming from real places where they have real complex identities and cultures, values, beliefs, and dreams.

Because the identity of most immigrants are already shaped and formed before they even step foot in America, one can hardly claim that the dispositions and outlooks they have towards American politics are due to intentional compliance with American agendas. The truth is, most immigrants just align with the sociopolitical rhetoric that best fits their preexisting outlooks. Asian Americans mostly come from cultures in which public dramatizations and emotional expressions and demonstrations are frowned upon and aren’t socially acceptable. These calm mannerisms stick with them even in America. For them, this is normal, but from an American view, this comes across as being docile and complicit, which isn’t fair.

America has a problem of exceptionalism, and a problem of manufactured and facilitated ignorance in the sense that not only is it a country that is peculiarly closed off to the rest of the world, but it’s also a country that presumes itself to be the center of the world. Because of this, many Americans expect immigrants coming into the country to either already have assimilated American ideals, or to be ready to do so on command. The American ideal, however, is different depending on the side tugging the string. I mentioned initially that there has been a general silence on the mainstream — mainstream of course being TV, evening News, social media.

Up until recently, in the wake of the spike of hate crimes against AAPIs, the calls to acknowledgement of the real struggles of AAPIs have always been suppressed. But I want to also add that I feel many AAPIs may not see the same silence I see. I think AAPIs have just been fighting the battles their own way — mostly in the scholarly/academic space. There are plenty of articles (though I don’t think there are enough) of AAPI scholars discussing the model minority trope and all of the problems presented thereof and if one does a search in any scholarly database, they’ll pop up immediately.

As a Nigerian Immigrant, I’m curious about AAPIs and how they’re navigating this because — more and more, I’m seeing Nigerians and African immigrants being groomed in this direction. But I also see the strings being tugged on both sides. When Trump Administration announced the ban of Nigerians from emigrating to America, there were news segments posted by multiple sources both on TV and all over social media, lamenting the achievements and academic excellence of Nigerians in America. They expressed curiosity towards the contradictive act of banning immigrants who — based on the numbers — are embodiments of the actual ideals White America claims to want to see in immigrants. But even before this, there was already some intensity brewing up.

In 2019, a Black American life coach, who was also a graduate of a HBCU, tweeted after a presentation at one of her schools, that she realized the entire business school professors and dean were Nigerians. She ended the tweet, asking “where are all the Native Black Americans?” In response to her tweet, another woman expressed that Nigerians appear to have a habit of moving into the space of other Black ethnic groups and taking over; she asserted that Black Americans are being ethnically replaced. In looking at different factors, I can’t pretend to not understand where these sentiments are coming from. I believe they’re inaccurate, but I wouldn’t say they’re invalid.

For many White Americans, people like Candace Owens and the news sources that reported, more recently, on the “success” of Nigerian immigrants, this was their first introduction to what Nigerian immigrants have been up to. One can expect that people that are already predisposed and are already inclined to excuse or justify something are going to start salivating at the mouth when they get the perfect specimen for their agenda. African immigrants are an even more perfect model minority for White American bigotry. Unlike Asian Americans, not only are we “people of color”, we also have relatively or collectively similar physical features and appearances to Black Americans. So, it’s the perfect opportunity to change “they’re people of color like you, if America was racist, why aren’t they struggling”, into: “well, these people look exactly like you in every way, and they’re also from Africa, so if America was so racist, how come they’re amongst the most successful groups of people in the country?” It’s perfect.

I’ll end with a disclaimer. The idea that Nigerian immigrants are successful is absolute bullshit. There are plenty of Nigerians individuals and households in America who are struggling to make ends meet, working multiple jobs, and also having to send money home to Nigeria on top of that. It’s not all roses and rainbows like the Afrobeats music videos. But, like Asian Americans, America is of course not interested in this aspect of our narrative. It’s amazing how immigrants are always made to oscillate between extremes. Nigerians go from being upstanding citizens who are on the news every week for remarkable achievements to being the people who are making hundreds of thousands of dollars ripping off Americans through scam emails. As I said, the narrative depends on the agenda of who is pushing it.

Have we tried just asking immigrants how they feel or what they think?


I have a lot of opinions about a lot of things..