Assistant professor discusses model minority myth, refugee crisis

Selah Maya Zighelboim

The model minority myth marginalizes some Asian-American communities, especially communities who came to the United States as refugees, according to Eric Tang, African and African diaspora assistant professor and Asian-American studies faculty member.

Tang spoke Wednesday Tabout new book, “Unsettled: Cambodian Refugees in the New York City Hyperghetto.” Tang said his book explores how the model minority myth — the perception that all Asian-American minorities are successful — hurts Cambodian refugees and other minority groups.

During the Cambodian refugee crisis in the 1980s, the United States placed many Cambodian refugees in poor, urban communities and encouraged them to enter low-wage jobs to become self-sufficient as quickly as possible, according to Tang.

“Despite having the highest poverty rates, the highest welfare dependency rates [and] the highest unemployment rates, southeast-Asian refugees were routinely enlisted by power brokers — by those with institutional power — as the deserving poor, who were being cast against the undeserving poor, mostly African-Americans and Puerto Ricans,” Tang said. 

Tang compared the Cambodian refugee crisis to the Syrian refugee crisis and the Central American unaccompanied minor crisis.

“The refugee is a social construction nations create to tell a story about themselves,” Tang said. “The Central American unaccompanied minor crisis really illustrated that, because people who did not want these young people to be resettled in the United States didn’t even call them refugees.”  

African and African diaspora studies doctoral student Chinwe Oriji said she was glad Tang talked about how the perceived success of Asian refugees hurts minority communities.

“I feel like he’s pushing for looking at the evidence, which shows that this narrative of immigrant success is actually false, and it doesn’t have a lot of evidence to it,” Oriji said. “I liked how he showed that. A lot of the narratives are not founded on substantial evidence and hurt black and Latino communities, rather than helping them.”

UT alumna Tu-yen Nguyen said Tang’s comment about the public’s lack of compassion when dealing with refugees was significant to her.

“There’s the surface of how we view refugees, or stereotypes of immigrants, unaccompanied minors,” Nguyen said. “Besides the surface, the language and what terms we use for people, there’s the person inside who is a refugee.”