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San Francisco Chronicle
Sunday, Aug. 5, 2001
Model minority image is a hurdle
Asian Americans feel left out of mainstream
By Benjamin Pimentel, Chronicle Staff Writer
Citing the model minority stereotype and such recent controversies as the U.S. spy plane standoff in China, Asian American leaders yesterday lamented their community's continued portrayal in the media as a monolithic group to be patronized or feared.
They emphasized that Asian Americans -- the fastest-growing racial group in the country -- encompass a range of cultures and historical experiences that many in mainstream media either ignore or distort.
"People can't tell us apart," said community advocate Phil Ting at a town hall meeting that drew 300 people and capped a national convention in San Francisco of the Asian American Journalists Association.
"Historically, we've always been lumped together. Most Americans looks at (us) in a monolithic manner."
Asians Americans say they struggle with conflicting stereotypes: model minorities who are bright, hard-working and efficient citizens -- or cunning enemies of the state.
Henry Tang, chairman of the Committee of 100, a national organization of Chinese American leaders, cited the Wen Ho Lee case in which a Chinese American scientist was accused of spying apparently because of his ethnic background.
The downing of a U.S. surveillance plane in China a few months ago initiated a fresh round of racist attacks in the media, particularly on talk radio, against Chinese Americans, Tang said.
For other Asian groups, the problem is invisibility.
Journalism Professor Sreenath Sreenivasan of Columbia University cited the experiences of Indo Americans who are sometimes not even considered Asians.
"It's important to recognize this diversity," he told the crowd, mostly Asian journalists and community advocates. "Sometimes our problem is we're not counted at all."
Lynette Clemetson, a correspondent for Newsweek magazine, called for the rejection of the model-minority tag that many Asian Americans complain is used to pit them against African Americans and Latinos.
"To suggest that one minority is model is to suggest that minorities in general are troublesome," Clemetson said.
Ting, president of the San Francisco Bay chapter of the Organization of Chinese Americans, cited the need for alliances with other groups, particularly African Americans and Latinos who led the civil rights movement in the 1960s.
And it's important to acknowledge that many of the civil rights that Asians Americans now enjoy were products of that struggle, he said to applause.
"It was not an act of benevolence," he said. "We have to look at the bigger picture."
During the open forum, SFGate columnist Emil Guillermo, who also writes for Asian American publications, said the ethnic Asian media have done a better job than the mainstream media of accurately portraying the Asian American community.
"The true voice of Asian America is in the ethnic press," he said.
E-mail Benjamin Pimentel at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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