What Bill O'Reilly gets wrong about Asian Americans

As an Asian American, I've experienced discrimination all my life. The "positive" stereotypes aren't helping

Published September 5, 2014 3:00PM (EDT)

  (Frank Micelotta/invision/AP)
(Frank Micelotta/invision/AP)

Bill O’Reilly went to Harvard and grew up in Levittown, a Long Island town that is 94 percent white. He attended a private boy’s school on Long Island that is 90 percent white and currently costs more than $8,000 a year to attend. And yet he recently remarked that white privilege is a lie -- that being white gives a person no inherent advantages in America. Irony is dead.

It is obvious, to anyone paying the slightest attention, that white privilege does exist, that legal equality is different from equality in practice. But then, O’Reilly has a long history of making ill-advised statements about race. What really stood out to me, though, on a personal level, is how O’Reilly used Asian-Americans to support his argument against white privilege. Just to recap:

Here are the facts. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the unemployment rate for black Americans is 11.4 percent.  It is just over 5 percent for whites; 4.5 percent for Asians. So do we have Asian privilege in America? Because the truth is that Asian-American households make far more money than anyone else… Also, just 13 percent of Asian children live in single parent homes compared to a whopping 55 percent for blacks and 21 percent for whites. There you go.  That's why Asian-Americans, who often have to overcome a language barrier, are succeeding more than African-Americans and more than white Americans. Their families are intact and education is paramount.

From what experiences, exactly, does O’Reilly draw these conclusions? Allegedly, his own encounters with Asians are less than enlightened. In her sexual harassment suit against the pundit, Andrea Mackris made the following allegations: that O’Reilly recounted his foreign sexual experiences to her; that a “little brown woman” masseuse in Bali, Indonesia, had asked to see his penis, to which O’Reilly obliged; that a “girl” at a Thailand sex show took O’Reilly to a back room and “blew [his] mind.” When a man pursues colonialist fantasies and exploits women in Asian countries for his own pleasures, he loses the moral high ground to lecture anyone on race privilege.

The implications of O’Reilly’s argument are as follows: that Asians are what "good minorities" ought to be, and that blacks should be more like Asians to succeed in America. O’Reilly’s argument is simplistic and harmful, not only to blacks, but to Asians as well. Asians have not gained equality in this country; every minority group suffers unique challenges. O’Reilly’s argument pits people of color against one another by equating their problems -- a common red herring that detracts from bigger, more important issues.

So let’s establish first that Asians are not treated equally in American society. Not at all. I grew up in Bethpage, a small town in Long Island, a few miles from O’Reilly’s Levittown. My parents, my sister and I experienced discrimination in a number of ways that were overt. I have been called a "chink" to my face. My father was once told to "shut up" by a woman when he spoke in Cantonese. When I worked a part-time job at a local fast food restaurant, my nickname was "Jackie," as in Jackie Chan. I was instructed to serve our black customers first, to get them out of the store in a hurry.

These were the most overt examples of discrimination from my life, but there were other examples of prejudice that were more subtle -- jokes that I needed to "lighten up about," and "not take so seriously." There were butchering limericks about my last name. There were cracks on my masculinity. There were jokes about my slanted eyes, and how well I could see through them. "No tickee, no laundry." It was never funny, no matter how many times it was coached with ironic, "post-racial" excuses.

This is anecdotal evidence, and I can only speak for myself. But, it is an all too common experience, and one that many other Asian Americans can attest to. I did not grow up in a socially isolated, bizarre community; Bethpage is an average American town, 30 miles from Manhattan. I lived in a "good neighborhood"; my former school district, statistically, is one of the strongest in the nation. But, as my experience demonstrates, statistics do not tell the whole story.

As an Asian American, I do not have it the worst. The police do not harass me. I am treated better than many other people of color. I do not fear for my life, but this is little comfort. Despite my personal successes, I have regularly felt demeaned. When conservatives complain about the "race card" and its divisiveness, it’s because they have never been made to feel conscious of their skin color. The divisiveness was always there for the oppressed; these are not fresh lines, and we did not create them.

But let’s put all that aside for a minute. Let’s say that I’m being "too sensitive." Let’s say that my experience is an anomaly rather than a trend. Even so, the statistics that O’Reilly cites are misleading. The first mistake is equating all "Asians" under the same umbrella. "Asian" covers many different ethnic groups. Cambodians, Hmongs and Laotians are considered "Asian," but statistically, among all ethnic groups, they underperform academically. They have the highest rates of not completing high school. They have the lowest rates of completing college. They have the highest rates of receiving public assistance. And they are the least likely, of all ethnic groups, to be homeowners. The overarching Asian label trivializes the real problems that sub-groups face. An entire continent’s descendants should not be lumped into the same category, when so many are suffering from inequities.

Stereotypes of success persist, because they are "positive," and thus acceptable. Sometimes, the target of the stereotype will even embrace it as a backhanded compliment. Growing up, for example, I was convinced of Asian prowess in math and science. When I got older, I began to struggle in these subjects when compared to my peers. I remember feeling deficient -- that I was not "Asian" in the truest sense of the word.

The expectations of academic and economic success can be stressful to Asians. We may rank at the top of the pile in some categories, but O’Reilly neglected to mention some other, more sobering statistics. Asian American adolescent boys are twice as likely as whites to experience physical abuse, and they are three times as likely to report sexual abuse. Asian American adolescent girls have higher rates of depression than all other gender and racial groups.

And despite these statistics, Asian Americans are the least likely to seek out mental help. What is the cause of this inaction? It’s a combination of several factors: first, that Asian emotions are trivialized. Asians are stereotyped as robotic, human calculators; thus, we do not bruise easily, and we are incapable of finer feelings. Dulled responses and emotional frigidity are viewed as "normal" for Asians, when they might be symptoms for severe problems. Second, there is the fear of breaking our "model minority" perception -- that we will cease to be valued if we show any sign of weakness to non-Asians. And lastly, there is the Asian cultural value of "saving face," and not humiliating one’s family with the stigma of mental disease.

What is the cost of these unrealistic high standards, which O’Reilly is so quick to praise? Suicide is the second most common cause of death for Asian Americans aged 15-34. Among Asian Americans girls aged 15-24, suicide is more common than in any other ethnic group. It is a national tragedy, and it is one that has been propagated, not only by stereotyped perceptions, but also by outdated Asian values, and the post-racial pundits who encourage them.

Saving face. It’s considered betrayal, you know, for Asians to talk like this in front of non-Asians. The older generation sees it as an airing of dirty laundry, that we must present a strong, united front, blend in and demonstrate our willingness to work and play under America’s yoke. But enough is enough. We have allowed these "positive" stereotypes to go unchallenged for long enough, and it is to everyone’s detriment, including our own.

Despite our "hard work," despite the praise we have garnered from the establishment in this country, we are neither promoted into leadership positions, nor given power to effect real change. Less than 1 percent of college presidents are Asian. We hold under 3 percent of board seats in Fortune 500 companies, despite the claims that we have surpassed all other ethnic groups in America. We are underrepresented in places of power, and this needs to change. As an Asian American, I'm upset by O’Reilly’s condescension. I won't be used to justify the continued oppression of other ethnic minorities, and I will not be "one of the good ones." The same model minority status that allowed us passage into the workforce also prevents our upward mobility within it.

By Kevin Wong

Kevin is an AP English Language teacher and freelance writer from Queens, NY. His focus is on video games, American pop culture, and Asian American issues. Kevin has also been published in VIBE, Complex, Joystiq, Gawker Media, PopMatters, WhatCulture, and Racialicious. You can email him at kevinjameswong@gmail.com and follow him on Twitter @kevinjameswong.

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