The Forgotten Faces of America – Nidhi Shastri

Back to Stories

The Forgotten Faces of America – Nidhi Shastri

On a stuffy Chicago afternoon during May of last year, I found myself crouched over a small desk, a fresh cup of chai in hand, glancing at my calendar. “Interview Karan Mahajan of The New Yorker,” I had scribbled out. Karan Mahajan is an Indian American novelist and writer. I had discovered his work on the Asian diaspora through a critique piece he published in The New Yorker titled, The Two Asian Americas.His article delved into the history of Asians in the United States, complete with anecdotal stories from immigrants and archives of anti-Asian policies that characterized U.S. history for decades. After resonating with his writing, I had cold-emailed him, hoping to set up an interview for my podcast. Now, I opened my laptop, set up my flimsy Zoom recorder, and took a deep breath. It was time to start our call.

Karan’s words from the interview still stick with me today. “What’s interesting is that the history of Asian America is clearly something a lot of Asians themselves don’t know, yet they feel it in their bones.” The narrative of Asian existence in the United States is usually depicted as success, wealth, and assimilation. Yet, this is not the history Karan was referring to. He was referring to the experience of systemic racism.

In American society, Asians make up around 5% of the population. Within the race of “Asian,” are over 48 different countries, each with different religions, diverse ethnic groups, multiple languages, and countless cultures lumped together. The Asian racial category was created by the U.S. government for reasons based in racism; for example, to bar immigrants from entering the country. Despite this, racism against Asians remains largely unnoticed today. Policies such as The Muslim Ban, the War on Terror, and the detainment and deportation of Asians get little to no acknowledgement in American politics. Memories of hate attacks on Masjids, Gurdwaras, and Mandirs, along with discrimination towards Asian groups fade quickly from the collective American conscience. Yet, ironically, the one thing that pervades U.S. society’s mind unchangeably is a mythological concept: the model minority.

The idea that all Asian immigrants (and later extended to African and Middle Eastern immigrants) are innately intelligent, hardworking, and silent began around the 1960’s and 1970’s. It was a concept created by two white journalists who claimed that, while Chinese immigrants in the U.S. had a problem with language and assimilation, they worked and studied hard without complaining. They hailed these traits as a sign of the “ideal immigrants,” and claimed Asians would prove as natural assets to American society. It was at this point in U.S. history, that Asians would become painted as the perfect, silent, politically inactive drivers of American capitalism. As the honest workers who never complained of struggles or racism, they would prove to be the hallmarks of what minorities should be like.

Yet, the existence of Asian America started long before the creation of this myth. Some of the first Asian Americans that came to the United States were Filipino sailors. Following this, others came through indentured servitude or as laborers. Many of those early migrants were South Asians who were traded during the British slave trade. They suffered great injustices and racism against their language, culture and identity. Additionally, in the 1800’s, Chinese immigrants traveled miles from home only to break their backs while building the great American railroads for a small coin and no recognition. With the introduction of the model minority myth, all of that history was conveniently overwritten.

In its place, a wedge was created. It pitted Asian immigrant communities against other people of color, particularly, Black Americans. And it kept white Americans in power.

To some extent, this strategy worked. The United States was able to drive the narrative of Black Americans as “lazy and impoverished,” while ignoring the systematic barriers created to prevent Black communities from gaining economic mobility. American society was able to falsify claims such as, “Black Americans don’t value education like Asians do.” Despite this claim being proven time and time again to be untrue, it remains etched in American society.

As time went on, tensions between the Black and Asian communities in the United States continued to grow. And just like that, the United States was able to convince these two groups of minorities that they had more differences with one another than things in common. The existence of solidarity between Black Americans and Asians dates back to even before the Bengali Renaissance and Civil Rights Movement. Yet, it was forgotten in the matter of a few years thanks to some white journalists with an agenda.

Simultaneously, the model minority myth continued to shove Asian Americans into their “place.” After the Chinese Exclusion Act was rescinded, the only Asians who were let into the U.S. were the “brightest of the brightest;” doctors, lawyers, and engineers. South Asians were not immediately included in this, as they were deemed the “most undesirable race of immigrants.” For the few selected to immigrate, strict visa requirements prevented them from pursuing politics or other fields. The rules were clear: do the job you were brought here to do or forfeit your ability to be here.

Needless to say, many Asians still didn’t fit the mold. Some who immigrated on student visas failed out of university and became undocumented. Others, unable to find stable employment in the U.S. and knowing their families were in poverty back home, crumbled under the pressure and turned to suicide. Countless immigrants with qualifications and graduate degrees from their home countries were forced to work in low-income jobs; there began the stereotype of South Asians as 7/11 employees, taxi drivers and retail workers. After their degrees were deemed “invalid” or racist hiring polices barred them from white collar work, many people had turned to these positions to survive. They remain in these roles today: the forgotten faces and stories of Asian America.

My family’s story could easily be that of the 7/11 store clerk who you saw on your lunch break, or that of your taxi driver at the airport. I refuse to believe there is a price to pay in order to exist as an immigrant in this country – whether that be of poverty, racism, or the sacrificing of our dreams. Working class Asian stories are a part of America’s history, too. Maybe it’s time the wealthy and privileged Asians in the U.S. acknowledged the parts of their communities that are being forgotten.

My podcast, Model Minority: Uniquely American, debunks the model minority myth and features stories from the immigrants who didn’t quite “make it.” I work to foster solidarity between Asian Americans and other minority groups. As Asians, we must acknowledge and reveal our own history, even if America refuses to acknowledge its existence. In his piece, Karan Mahajan writes, “If Asian American exists, it’s because of systemic racism.” It’s time we come together to remember that history. With each person who speaks up, we push the model minority myth further out of existence. This narrative has outlived its welcome, and it’s time to bury it. Will you join me?

By Nidhi Shastri

Share this post

Back to Stories