Gratitude on its own, when not watered by passion and action, will decompose into guilt. When it comes to privilege discourse, just being grateful for what you’ve been given isn’t enough.
Author Cathy Park Hong writes in her book, “Minor Feelings: An Asian American Reckoning,” that “(i)f the indebted Asian immigrant thinks they owe their life to America, the child thinks they owe their livelihood to their parents for their suffering. The indebted Asian American is therefore the ideal neoliberal subject.” Hong explains that guilt can manifest into indebtedness, and gratitude and indebtedness are not the same thing, but they are often confused for each other.
For immigrants and nonwhite people, gratitude is a deontological principle — you must be “grateful” (to your parents, America, the opportunities given) with no questions asked. Without inspection or exploration, how am I supposed to know what exactly I’m grateful for? Without inspection or exploration, I feel indebted and guilty to my parents and my family, and my family feels indebted to this country. In this context, gratitude is an intentionally watered-down idea. What does it really mean to be grateful?
The American Dream is a well-loved, neoliberal and predatory narrative written to lure in vulnerable immigrants and convince the masses to labor as cheap and exploited workers until they’re dead. With the American Dream comes a belief in meritocracy: The idea that anyone, regardless of their identities and circumstances, can “make it” to a financial level, relieved from suffering, where they can live life like the elites. Meritocracy, though, lacks nuance; wealth is equated to and standardized as success, and it rejects the existence of social systems like capitalism, racism and sexism that intentionally prevent marginalized people from climbing up any social or economic ladder of “success.”
To want the American Dream is understandable, but assimilationist. This dream is designed so that you will never get there, and your future generations will have to keep chasing it without criticizing the systems that function to oppress them. Asian American immigrants are “perfect neoliberal subjects” for America because many come with the desire and belief in meritocracy and assimilation.
My grandparents left Korea under more “favorable” circumstances than other Asian immigrants. My grandpa, a doctor, was accepted through a work visa from the U.S. 1965 Immigration Act that specifically called for “skilled” laborers (like doctors and engineers). Prior to this act, Asian people were barred from entering the United States. It was not until they were needed to serve America’s agenda that they were desired. This set the scene for the Model Minority Myth to flourish.
The Model Minority Myth is a set of “positive” racialized stereotypes that assume all Asian people to be hardworking, academically intelligent overachievers. It makes them the “ideal neoliberal subjects” as Hong describes. The Model Minority Myth wasn’t just the product of an influx of Asian immigrants, but a specific theory coined by white sociologist William Petersen in the 1960s to undermine the Black Power movements happening in the U.S. He believed that through “law-abiding” assimilation and hard work at their jobs, Japanese Americans could “defeat racism” and obtain a status higher than Black Americans, despite once being treated in similar ways. Asian people were hardworking and complicit in the systems in power, so why couldn’t Black people be the same? If Asian people were the “model minority” for all other racial minorities to aspire to be, then Black people were the antithesis. In the eyes of the Myth, Asian Americans expressed a model of gratitude towards this country that all other racial minorities, especially Black Americans, lacked. In this model, accepting the “challenges” this country brought and assimilating as a form of gratitude were valued and praised since Black Americans in Black liberation movements proved to be dissident.
The Myth might seemingly benefit individual Asian bootlickers who don’t mind being confined to racist assumptions, but it’s more damaging than not. It is not only anti-Black and, therefore, perpetuates harm against Black Americans, but it also disparages racism that does happen against Asian Americans. The Myth validates meritocracy and rejects social systems like racism: “Asians made it because they are hardworking and didn’t get help from anyone else. Every other minority that fails to make it is suffering an individual moral failing.” The Myth constructs the idea that Asian Americans have the highest incomes out of all races, but this obscures how Asian Americans have the greatest income gap between ethnicities. This highlights how Asian people have been homogenized as “East Asian” when there are Asian people from South and Southeast Asia. Many Asian Americans work low-wage jobs because they didn’t enter America like my family did. The 1965 Immigration Act favored those who were highly educated or wealthy. Many entered, especially Southeast Asians, because of war in their home countries caused by the U.S.
Our gratitude is misdirected. People will exclaim that we ought to be grateful because America is made up of exploited immigrants who will sacrifice more than comfort and stability just to be mistreated and exploited. What if we ran ourselves into the ground for them in the same way we do for a country that doesn’t care about us? People are guilted into gratitude for the destruction this country has caused, not only to its own residents through racial division, but “Third World” destruction of immigrant homes.
My grandparents left Korea because of the destruction of the war, only to come to the very country that instigated that war in the first place. They left after America had invaded and severed their country in half. They fled only to be left as a diaspora and for me to have no memories of my own home. When I ask my grandparents and older Korean Americans if they would move back to Korea, they always reply with “No. It’s not the same Korea I used to know.” Their relationships with Korea severed when the country did. This is not true for just my family, but for many Asian families who fled and sought “refuge” in America, only for this country to be responsible for the destabilization of their homelands.
Part of the American Dream requires an internalized orientalist perception of “Eastern” homelands. Scholar Edward Said conceptualizes “orientalism” as the justification for western superiority and Eastern inferiority. This can show up in media portrayals of “Third World countries” or people of Color being depicted as savage in comparison to “civilized” white people from the West (like Europe and America). Growing up in America leads to these orientalist understandings of the East and global South as dilapidated and in need of help from western countries. Internalized orientalism disguises indebtedness as gratitude where Americans think: “I don’t want to be a poor citizen of the East. America is so much better, and for that, we are grateful.”
An understood rule is that if you’re an immigrant of Color, a person of Color, if you’re not “originally from here” (or even if you are, but colonialists committed genocide against your people), if you’re not racialized as white, you better keep your head down. Don’t bite the hand that feeds you.
To compensate for suffering, the reflexive response is to just “be grateful.” Gratitude here requires no action, no strong emotions, just complacency. This narrative of gratitude obscures the violences enacted against the oppressed to ensure the wellbeing of the privileged and keep everyone in the dark. But if you’re really grateful for what you have, you will use passion and fight back. You should bite the hand that feeds you because everyone should have their basic needs met without being exploited. Park recalls a quote from Asian American radical Yuri Kochiyama: “People have a right to violence, to rebel, to fight back. And given what the United States and Western powers have done to the third world … these countries should fight back.” Though Kochiyama addresses Eastern countries, the responsibilities of “fighting back” include all Eastern people (even if you have no concrete connection to your homeland, like me). Being a diasporic person is lonely. For me, connecting with other Koreans has been edifying. Building that kind of solidarity with people who share our roots can be liberating if you have a limited understanding of your ancestry. We become stronger by sharing our experiences and building a shared consciousness of similar struggles. Immigrants are often left with this indebtedness to the U.S., but America and the Western world should be the ones to pay us back.
MiC Columnist Phoebe Kim can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org