‘Last Week Tonight’: John Oliver Labels Model Minority Myth As “Tool Of White Supremacy”

Last Week Tonight host John Oliver reminded viewers at home that though America is returning to a state of normalcy, much of life abroad is at peril due to limited access to vaccines and abysmal government response.

Oliver recounted the possibility of a third wave in the United Kingdom, the lack of preparation by Boris Johnson and the lunacy of the sitting president of Brazil, Jair Bolsonaro, who said the COVID-19 vaccine might turn you into a crocodile. The British host surmised it’s the United States’ responsibility to help other countries in order to quell the global pandemic.

“If we don’t actively help get this virus under control globally, then – to quote a top UK official – ‘we are absolutely f**ked,’” Oliver said.

After a quick, humorous montage of news anchors confronting the rising use of the slang phrase “hot vax summer,” Oliver transitioned to his main segment of the night: Asian Americans.

The HBO Max host began by contextualizing the term “Asian American” by describing its etymology.

Though “Asian American” encapsulates over 20 ethnicities from Asia that immigrated to the United States in the last 150 or so years, the term has a more political background. Asian American wasn’t used until the late Sixties when student activists attempted to unite a community, along with Black and Latin Americans, to demand from universities an ethnic studies curriculum.

But since that time, Oliver said the term “Asian American” has become a common shorthand that is far too reductive and superficial. He argued the ethnic identity cannot recognize the actual diversity of Asian Americans, who face a barrage of issues that affect subgroups differently.

“Using the term Asian Americans to represent a political coalition made sense, and still does to some extent, but a coalition is not a monolith,” Oliver said.

For example, Oliver pointed to a statistic that approximately 10% of Asians live in poverty. At first glance, this figure seems lower than the overall poverty rate in America, but when broken down by specific ethnicity, a clearer picture emerges. For example, Mongolian and Burmese Americans have a poverty rate of about 25%, a rate double the national average, and 75% of Indian Americans have bachelor degrees compared to 15% of Bhutanese Americans.

Oliver delivered a brief history of immigration laws and how they effected different subgroups’ arrival to the United States. These stories, as individual as they are, ultimately led to a trend regarding Asian-Americans as the “model minority.” This is the perception of Asian-Americans being the hardest-working race of people in America.

The problem with this myth – other than how it blatantly whitewashes all Asians as servile, quiet citizens – is how it’s used to pit minorities against one another.

A keen Oliver explained, “A prevailing narrative most people hear regarding Asian Americans is one of conflicts between them and other communities of color like during the 1992 LA Uprising. It’s not that those tensions aren’t very real but it’s not the whole picture either. It’s also a narrative that fits a much larger pattern in which White America has actively pitted Asian Americans against other communities.”

Oliver said that during the civil rights movement white America held up Japanese and Chinese Americans’ success in an effort to disprove systemic racism.

“Basically America prioritized wealthy, more educated Asian immigrants then turned to Black people who’d been subjugated for centuries and said ‘See? They’re educated and successful. Why aren’t you?,’” Oliver quipped.

He continued to report this myth also has demonstrable harm. Suicide, Oliver claimed, is the leading cause of death among young Asian American adults with only 8.6% of them seeking help compared to 18% of the rest of the population.

“This is what happens when you’re consistently told to quietly and happily accept discrimination because your version is the nice racism,” Oliver said. “But, there is no nice racism, there is no silver lining to it, and there is no working your way out of it. You are perpetually treated like a foreigner, still asked where you’re really from, and Asian Americans are one geopolitical crisis away from becoming the targets of violence again.” 

Oliver concluded, “The model minority myth is a tool of white supremacy and a trap.”

Oliver ultimately urged his listeners to partake in more nuanced conversations around Asian Americans and advocated for the disaggregation of data for Asian Americans to reveal the disparities between ethnicities to effectively end the model minority myth once and for all.

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