In an age of Internet activism and open online dialogue about race, white privilege is becoming more and more popular and understood in the American lexicon. The term encapsulates centuries of American race relations in a single concept: Being perceived as white in the United States begets social privileges based on skin color that are not immediately afforded to ethnic minorities, such as access to economic opportunities and invitation-only social circles.
Despite common misunderstanding, white privilege reflects nothing upon a white individual’s success or lack thereof: White privilege exists independently as a societal benefit due to America’s centuries-old social ladder, based off of Anglo qualities (hence the practice of “assimilating” to mainstream American values).
While there is irrefutable evidence that white privilege exists in American society, do non-white ethnic minorities experience social benefits based on their racial makeup as well?
This is the claim author and television host Bill O’Reilly made last August in a segment where he posed the question:Does Asian privilege exist in the United States?
O’Reilly said “yes,” and made the following argument to defend his reasoning:
“Because the truth is, that Asian American households earn far more money than anyone else. The median income for Asians, [is] close to $69,000 a year; it’s $57,000 for whites, [and] $33,000 for blacks—so the question becomes, why? And the answer is found in stable homes and in emphasis on education; 88 percent of Asian Americans graduate from high school compared to 86 [percent] for whites and just 69 percent of blacks.”
The idea is that because of Asian cultural values, work ethic, and family-oriented culture, Asian Americans enjoy economic and social privileges because of their Asian identity.
O’Reilly is not the first to make this claim—upholding Asian Americans as the “model minority” has long been a practice of conservative pundits attempting to invalidate the evidence of white privilege.
Yet, Asian privilege does not exist, since Asian Americans don’t enjoy socioeconomic success because of their Asian American identity. And, American society does nothing to make life easier for Asian Americans.
But First, a Definition
How are Asian Americans statistically more educated and wealthier than other ethnic groups, if “Asian privilege” does not exist?
First, let’s define privilege via Merriam-Webster.
Privilege is, “a right or benefit that is given to some people and not to others; a special opportunity to do something that makes you proud; the advantage that wealthy and powerful people have over other people in a society.”
The first and third definition are the most relevant, although, the only “special opportunities” Asian Americans enjoy are created by other Asian Americans.
Do Asian Americans have rights or benefits that are not given to others?
Considering that Asians suffered from the only immigration laws barring entry based on race, it would be difficult to argue that Asians have rights or benefits other Americans don’t have. Asian American hate crimes, such as the 2012 Sikh temple attack in Wisconsin or the 1982 murder of Vincent Chin, largely go underreported.
Rather than Asian identity enjoying privileges, if anything, Asian Americans are targets for racist remarks and attacks.
Do Asian Americans have a wealthy and powerful advantage over other people in society?
Though there are Asian American individuals who are wealthy and powerful, the power structure in the United States is still concentrated in the hands of and caters to white individuals. Being Asian American alone does not afford an individual preferred treatment—Asian Americans are still viewed primarily through stereotypes.
What’s Wrong With The Idea of Asian Privilege
Now that the status of Asian Americans is considered in the general definition of privilege, let’s delve into why O’Reilly’s point ignores the realities of being Asian American.
We can’t say these things about Asian Americans without considering how Asians immigrated here.
Asian Americans aren’t wealthier because they are Asian—the Asians who could afford to immigrate to the United States often could only do so because they are well-educated professionals, pursuing an education or career in the United States or having networks of family members already in the U.S.
Unlike various other immigrant groups in the U.S. who experienced racism in economic pursuits, the post-1965 immigrants didn’t experience this because racist laws barred their entry into the U.S.
Asian immigration is also largely restricted due to proximity–it is much harder and more expensive to make the journey to the U.S. from Asia. Despite similar notions that Asians are legal and thereby idealized immigrants, there areapproximately 1.5 million undocumented Asian immigrants living in the U.S. In addition to this, there are alsothousands of Asian Americans suffering from poverty.
The relevance immigration patterns hold, is that unlike other immigrant groups in the past and present, Asian Americans largely do not enter the American workforce from minimum wage jobs but as business owners or professionals due to their education, prior wealth or access to capital through families or loans.
Asian Americans are not socially privileged.
Simply put, country clubs are not designed for or particularly welcoming to Asian Americans. Asian immigrant parents are often not well-connected to the powerful, usually white members of their communities. And usually, neither are their children–but in the case that they are, it’s through Ivy-League connections, although Asian Americans don’t come from old money America.
Asian Americans who are powerful in conservative white communities, such as Louisiana’s Governor Bobby Jindal, feel pressured to distance themselves from their Asian American identities.
Asian Americans don’t get “cool points” in high school for being Asian—in fact, most young Asian Americans are either forgotten, ignored or whitewashed into American mainstream culture. If being Asian helped one fit in, Asian Americans wouldn’t consider themselves “white.” As numerous testaments admit, Asian Americans who are socially successful must adapt “white” qualities in order to be socially successful in American circles.
According to a KoreAm article, Eugene Yi stated that the “Asians becoming white” headline is old news: “Coming from the other side of the political spectrum, ethnic studies scholar Scott Kurashige wrote in 1992 that Asian Americans were like Casper the Friendly Ghost: seen as either white or invisible.”
Being considered “the new white” is relevant in regards to Asian privilege because it reinforces the idea of the “model minority,” effectively erasing decades of racism and silencing Asian Americans who still experience racial discrimination today.
Lastly, let’s not forget America’s history of racism against Asians.
American history is full of examples of Asian Americans facing discrimination based on their race, yet there are no examples of Asian Americans experiencing social privileges for having Chinese or Indian backgrounds. The list goes on and on, especially in areas with traditionally large Asian American populations, such as California and New York.
Being wealthy and well-educated doesn’t erase the history of anti-Asian discrimination in the U.S., and their current status does not make Asians privileged on the basis of race.