Author’s Note: I am writing this piece for (wealthy) Asian diasporic and non-Native readers. The following story contains mention of anti-Native racism and complicity to white supremacy and classism. And, while it focuses mostly on Asians in the U.S. for reasons related to legislation, the construction of national ideologies, targeted socialization, and personal familiarity, the issue of (Asian) respectability politics is by no means isolated to one nation.
It was Thanksgiving Day.
At dinner, one of my parents’ friends made the joke, “Oh the Indians [pointing to us, the Asian Indians] and the pilgrims [pointing to the few white people in attendance] are coming together again.”
I don’t generally share racist instances like this one, which violently erases and minimizes the historical and continual genocide of Native people, to make a point. Doing so can often cause more harm than good.
But I fear that when Asians (especially upper and upper-middle class) reveal our antagonism toward non-Asian people of color (POC) and when we then hold each other to a standard of complicity by being silent, it seldom travels beyond our private spaces.
These norms reveal a deeply rooted truth about the socialization of many wealthy Asians in the United States who enjoy the privileges of class ascension and social assimilation.
Everyone at the function laughed at the joke, and some of the younger adults, like myself, squirmed. I responded under my breath,“Oh, what the hell?” and proclaimed to the group, “I’m thankful for the education I’ve received that has granted me the ability to learn about the real history of Thanksgiving.”
It was a non-confrontational confrontation that adhered to a politics of respectability. I left the house shortly afterward and immediately broke down. I knew that I didn’t say enough, and was astounded at how I felt so powerless to my own oppressive conditioning in that moment.
I, like many other Asian Americans I know, have been taught to think a certain way: that, to be successful and happy, we need to be virtually inconspicuous.
We need to work hard, but never stand out too much. In my community, it was acceptable to get angry, but it was always preferred that I change my mentality rather than confronting whatever or whoever was causing my anger in the first place.
For the majority of my childhood, I lived in the southern United States in a city that is definitely the country’s capital for passive aggression and other forms of non-confrontation (wrapped in a bow and called “southern hospitality”).
It was there that I internalized respectability politics — behaviors that align with mainstream (white, normative) values in order to gain social acceptance — deeply.
In high school, I often gained approval from the white people in my class by maintaining Eurocentric beauty standards and fitting easy stereotypes. This was also my respectability at work.
I wasn’t ready to disrupt any of that, because, at that point in my life, social acceptance was way more important to me than anything else.
And so respectability became a part of me. It’s only this year that I’ve begun to understand that my family’s comfort with this mindset — of trying to keep the ‘peace’ rather than disrupting it for good reason — is part of the Asian model minority concept.
That being said, when I’m writing on this topic, I’m not preaching about something that I’ve fully unlearned. I’m actually just sharing what others have put labor into teaching me either by example or after instances when I’ve reproduced this harmful behavior.
Here’s why we need to understand that Asian (American) socialization — namely, our respectability politics — has been damaging and oppressive in the past and continues to be now:
1. In the United States, the idea of Asian respectability is wrapped up in the white supremacist model minority concept that Asians are better than other POC.
According to author Ellen D. Wu, (white) journalists, scholars, and politicians in the United States constructed the model minority concept with a certain racial logic that, after World War II, transformed Asian Americans into “Assimilating Others” and then “definitively not-Black model minorities.”
The purpose of this was to convey an idea of American exceptionalism to the rest of the nation and the world during the rise of U.S. imperialism.
It basically came to be that Asians were valuable to the U.S. for their labor as long as they assimilated nicely into white middle-class culture.
One of these desirable attributes of white culture, especially amongst Japanese in the U.S. at the time, was respectability — what we might now call respectability politics. It incorporated standards of obedience, loyalty, and seemliness to the nation, to white middle-class standards, and, subsequently, to white supremacy.
With this racial logic, many Asian Americans came to believe that we’re actually better than other POC because we fit these standards that many early Asian immigrants performed in order to attain, as Wu puts it, “full societal membership.”
What we have to understand, however, is that our proximity to whiteness doesn’t make us better, it just makes us more complicit in a system that continues to exploit Black and Indigenous (BI) POC.
2. Respectability involves assimilation, and it’s wrong for us to expect everyone to perform both as readily as many Asian Americans do.
When we fail to understand that our standards for respectability are rooted in and perpetuate white supremacy, we can impose them onto other people through what’s often referred to as tone- or behavioral-policing.
There are many articles written about how Black femmes, femmes of color, and people of color experience behavioral policing from white society. They talk about how Black people are expected to ascribe to mainstream social behaviors and performances in order to be accepted and respected.
Given the principles of Asian respectability and the model minority concept’s construction in opposition to Blackness, it’s pretty safe to say that lots of Asians play a role in this policing of BIPOC’s behaviors as well.
We cannot impose our oppressive standards of respectability onto other people, period.
3. When we follow strict standards of respectability, we erase the diversity that exists within the broad category of Asian.
In my upper/upper-middle class Asian community, behavioral policing is frequent, and it’s informed not only by Asian Americanness but by class standards, too.
People in this community falsely buy into the narrative that we have earned our social and financial status rather than acknowledging the system which facilitated our capitalist ascension.
By doing this, we disregard the fact that our class ascension or social palatability in the U.S. isn’t even shared by all Asians.
Respectability can also look like policing non-conformity. And, as I mentioned in a previous article, the Asian diaspora in the U.S. is tremendously diverse; we have different geographic origins, religions, class statuses, and citizenship statuses.
Asians who descend from regions outside of Asia (and are thus often not legitimized as ‘purely’ Asian) and LGBTQIA+ Asians also are easily erased by respectability’s insistence on conformity.
In other words, much is lost when we uphold this respectability — including our ability to affirm the full humanity of people with whom we share the broad label, ‘Asian.’
4. Respectability standards prioritize rational over emotional expression.
In addition to policing non-conformity, respectability standards also involve tone-policing, which I define as attempts to control somebody’s emotional expression in order to control them.
This can look like a situation in which somebody is expressing anger in response to mistreatment, and the recipient of the message tells them to “calm down” rather than acknowledging the content of their statement.
Clearly, this type of entitlement to dictating the nature of an interaction erases the legitimacy of emotional expression.
This cartoon follows up on this idea, stating that discussions don’t always have to be rational and immediately solution-oriented. They can also be “for exploring the extent and limits of a topic or situation, for letting off steam, for finding community, and for feeling less alone.”
And who is most affected by these power moves and emotional erasure? Marginalized people, of course! Femmes, people of color, and trans people are some groups whose humanities and emotionalities are routinely dismissed.
5. These standards prevent us from expressing ourselves fully and honestly.
Unless we recognize their harm and work to unlearn them, our alignment with oppressive behaviors — regardless of how politically knowledgeable we claim to be — won’t ever allow us to move beyond an oppressive existence.
Understanding the harm of respectability politics — and letting its alignment with white supremacy sink in — can allow us to actually start unlearning it. In doing so, we can begin to challenge a system rather than simply being a good “ally” to others.
It takes commitment and continual reflection to unlearn certain behaviors. But the process will likely show us the ways that our behaviors have been destructive — not only others but also to ourselves.
Confronting a system that has mandated assimilation and suppression can liberate the truth, creativity, and emotionality of marginalized people in and out of the United States — a possibility worthy of genuine investment.
Ayesha Sharma is a non-binary South Asian scholar and artist continually negotiating a relationship with themselves and their communities through practices of decolonization. They are most interested in literal and symbolic reclamation as an art practice and investing themselves in community care. Ayesha has written for the Urban Democracy Lab and is published in ANTYAJAA: Indian Journal of Women and Social Change.