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Excerpted From: Pat K. Chew, Asian Americans: The “Reticent” Minority and Their Paradoxes, 36 William and Mary Law Review 1 (October 1994) (392 Footnotes) (Full Document)


PatKChewI begin with a story about my own reticence. As reported in a February 7, 1985, National Law Journal article:

Derrick A. Bell, Jr., dean of the University of Oregon School of Law, resigned in protest over a faculty decision not to hire a Chinese-American woman as a professor. Dean Bell, the first black dean of a major law school whose student body is not predominantly made up of minorities, quit at the end of a tumultuous two-hour faculty meeting February 6. “I'm not charging my faculty with racism,” he said in an interview. “I just couldn't deal with the hypocrisy inherent in my remaining as dean and presiding over an ever-dwindling number of minorities on law faculties.”

The dispute, according to Dean Bell, centered on a female teaching candidate who had been recommended for a position by a 3-2 vote of the appointments committee. The woman, whose name the dean declined to disclose, is a corporate associate at a large San Francisco law firm.

The press nonetheless tracked me down, eager for an expose of the “racism.” I was reluctant, however, to be involved in the public controversy-- even hesitating to confirm that I was the denied applicant.

I did not witness the faculty's decision-making; I did not know their reasoning or motivations. I was concerned that the entire faculty might be unfairly characterized, when only a “substantial minority” may have been involved. I also did not want notoriety because of my “minority” status. I was not sure that as an Asian American I should be a beneficiary of affirmative action policies. Besides, I thought, I did not want or need that labeling.

. . . Even now, I am ambivalent about revealing that I was the candidate.

Asian Americans are a “reticent” minority group. Compared to the other major ethnic groups in this country, for instance, Asian Americans are less politically organized and vocal. Their reticence, combined with other cultural factors, has made it difficult for all Americans--whites, Asian Americans and other minority groups--to understand who Asian Americans are.

Instead, Americans have pieced together images of Asian Americans as a successfully assimilated minority group which has fulfilled the Asian immigrant's dream of the “Golden Mountains.” While retaining vestiges of their cultural identity and ancestry, they are considered economically and socially assimilated. Although there may have been isolated incidents of discrimination in the past, society believes that Asian Americans today generally do not experience discrimination. If there is a flaw in this perceived success story, it is Americans' difficult-to- articulate but uncomfortable feeling that perhaps Asian Americans are becoming too successful.

This simple image of Asian Americans is replete with “paradoxes” the reality is much more complicated and much less positive. As Part I of this Article reveals, the belief that Asian Americans have suffered discrimination only in past isolated instances and do not currently experience discrimination is contradicted by the facts. Society's image of the model minority that has achieved economic success and social equality is inconsistent with the plight of many Asian Americans and contrary to other images and stereotyping of Asian Americans. Broad assumptions that Asian Americans are well-integrated into all the professions is an overgeneralization.

As Part II explains, these paradoxes of public perception and contradictory reality have cumulative and pervasive legal and social consequences. Believing the composite image of the successfully assimilated Asian American, American society tends to ignore Asian Americans' problems and to dismiss their complexity and diversity as people. Believing the stereotypes about Asian Americans' limited capabilities, society has confined Asian Americans to certain roles and foreclosed other opportunities. Resenting the purported success of Asian Americans and protective of their own interests, some non-Asian Americans have responded defensively and violently.

The impact of these paradoxes on Asian Americans has been divergent. For some, the positive public images confirm individual efforts and achievements. For others, societal expectations exert numerous pressures and create a sense of marginality in a society that does not appear to accept or to welcome them. For other minority groups, the general American attitude regarding Asian Americans sometimes results in their own demoralization and fuels their animosity toward Asian Americans.

Finally, Part III assesses the ramifications of these paradoxes, especially in the context of affirmative action. Universities' affirmative action policies regarding faculty hiring and student admissions are examined as a case in point. This examination can lead to a better understanding of the trend toward excluding Asian Americans from preferential treatment. Many of the rationales for this exclusion are based on the image of Asian Americans as successfully assimilated Americans and on the consequences explored in Part II. These rationales, however, are based on questionable premises. In addition, these rationales tend to lead to divisive discourses. Rather than concluding with a plea for the inclusion of Asian Americans in all affirmative action programs, this Article instead argues that Asian Americans should not be excluded without some well-informed, rational basis that directly relates to the purposes of the particular affirmative action plan.

[. . .]

As with my reaction to Derrick Bell's resignation as Dean of the University of Oregon Law School and its aftermath, I have written this article with ambivalence and reticence. I do not want to be presumptuous about the problems and solutions, yet I believe a significant step toward a more multicultural and open society lies in questioning fundamental but possibly fallacious beliefs about each other. Hopefully, through more knowledge comes more understanding and acceptance.

My intention is not to assign fault because I know that the status of Asian Americans is attributable to a combination of complex societal, cultural, economic, historical, legal, psychological, and political factors. I do not want to speak too loudly or offensively, yet I want to tell a story that I believe is worth telling but is largely untold. Noting the irony that Asian Americans are reticent themselves and are the minority group about which other Americans are reticent, I was motivated to overcome my own reticence.

The process of writing and researching this Article reaffirmed that as an Asian American woman, I live many paradoxes. This Article also is my attempt to better understand and reconcile some of these paradoxes and to urge other Asian Americans to do the same. It explores the ways in which my immigrant grandparents' and parents' hopes for achieving the American dream were unfulfilled and the ways in which my children's hopes for the American dream might be jeopardized. It begins to sort out some of the truths from some of the illusions that in many ways I, like other Americans, have long believed.

(My mother's memories of a conversation between her, when she was a young child, and her father, on the eve of his sailing from a Guangdong Province village in southern China to San Francisco, California in 1916.)

“Tell me Papa, why do you have to go away, why do you have to leave me?”

“Because, child, America is the land of golden mountains, where opportunity and prosperity is for everyone. I must go--so that you will have a future.”

Professor of Law, University of Pittsburgh School of Law. J.D. 1982, M.Ed. 1974, University of Texas; A.B. 1972 Stanford University.

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