Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Guest blog: Model minority and race relations: thoughts on the Asian students' assaults

By Alex Li

As a former international student, and now someone who does research on Chinese youth in Aotearoa/New Zealand, I’ve been thinking a lot about what it means to be Asian or Chinese in New Zealand from a race perspective, more so after the attacks. As I was talking to some students for my PhD project in the last couple of years, l realised some things have changed for international students for the better, compared to ten years ago when I was an undergrad student. But then, many things haven’t changed. This continuity is revealing, especially in terms of the racial relations Asian[1] international students face.
Let me first get this out of the way, and say that racism is real, and is well alive in NZ. Apparently not everyone agrees on this, or believes that racially based structural impediments like a ‘bamboo’ ceiling exist. I personally know people who have changed their original Chinese names to something English, including their first AND last names. The whole point is to make their names look whiter, western, just so they have a better chance of getting job interviews and not getting filtered out just because their names on the resumes look ethnic. There’ve also been experiments which affirm that a job application from an applicant described as a returning New Zealand European is more likely to receive a favourable response than applicants described as Chinese immigrants, despite applicants having the same educational qualifications and occupational experience (Ward & Masgoret, 2007).
The attacks, also, must be contextualised in the race dynamics in NZ society. Being subject to prevailing racism renders a person Other, dehumanised, and hence more vulnerable to unjust treatment including physical assault.
So I’m not denying the racial element (along with a gender one) in these attacks. Asian students, particularly female students are indeed easier targets if just in terms of their average body size. Their visa status also makes fighting back a precarious option . Their relative lack of social networks in NZ, especially with mainstream society further makes them easy prey because there are less likely to be consequences for the offenders. But I’d like to point out there’s more to it. I’m saying the social distance between Asians and Māori and Pacific Islander communities contributes to the problem at hand, and this ‘problem’ is not one between Asians and Māori and Pasifika people, but one implicating all members of New Zealand racial structure, including the Pākehā, perhaps especially the Pākehā. Talking about this racial structure has everything to do with exploring more long-term solutions that take us beyond current punitive measures; the potential of aggravating Asians – Māori/Pacific racial tension is probably more pronounced than its intended security effect.
In order to talk about Asian international students, let’s first consider the relation between Asians and the local NZ society. Among the four major racial groups in NZ, namely European, Māori, Pacific people and Asians, Asian people are typically perceived as highly competent but low in warmth relative to other ethnic groups (Sibley et al., 2011). This combination of high competence—low warmth fits with the racial stereotype of Asians as high achieving and unsociable people. So not surprisingly, Asians receive the lowest level of warmth from all the other three groups; they’re discriminated against more often than Māori and Pacific peoples (Human Rights Commission, 2009) and generally seen as offering the greatest potential threat in terms of competition for jobs and resources by the other three groups (Sibley & Ward, 2013).
Interestingly, despite the way Asians are perceived by Europeans, Asians tend to perceive Europeans very favourably, and only Europeans, not the other groups. Indeed, there is a general pro-European bias among some ethnic groups, across countries, because people have a tendency to support the status quo, and see dominant groups’ dominance, privilege and status over them as fair and just (System Justification Theory). However, this tendency of warmth towards Europeans relative to other outgroups seems especially strong among Asians, who perceive Europeans just as favourably as their own ingroup (Sibley & Ward, 2013). In fact, Asians overseas, across nations have a tendency to align with the whites as the dominant group in a society, more than with other racial minorities.
This takes us to the model minority myth of Asians, a concept that has to be brought up in this kind of this discussion. Model minority stereotype is a biased representation that portrays Asian people overseas as hardworking, high achieving and at the same time submissive, compliant to authorities, never causing troubles, in other words, the opposite of African Americans in the States, or Māori or Pacific peoples in NZ. It may sound like a positive image, but it’s not. Model minority stereotype is a tool of white supremacy, a tool of social control through racial profiling. It rewards and encourages Asian people’s social and political subjugation while reinforcing the image of Māori and Pacific groups as unruly trouble-makers, burdening the welfare system, and all the negative stereotypes you’re familiar with. And in the middle between them are the white people and the dominant structures they represent and operate, who act as a proxy between the yellow ones and the brown ones, praising the ones that behave and disciplining the ones that don’t, being a “good parent”.
You may want to ask though, why are they the parent? Even if Asians are the new kid in the ‘family’, shouldn’t there by two parents, according to the Treaty of Waitangi?
So the model minority image is not an honour. It’s more like a fake promise to white privilege which will never realise. Besides, this image is often used to hide existing inequalities, and disadvantages faced by the Asian community. For example, statistics show that as a whole, the heterogeneous Asian population is often better educated, but less likely to be employed than the general population; while Asians report lower median income level than the population, Chinese have lower income level than the average Asian population (Statistics New Zealand, 2013). But these adversities often go unnoticed and unreported, as compared to the image of Chinese people at house auctions, which does not help with the already prevalent negative perceptions of Asian population.
There’s also the argument that Asians’ racial relation to Māori has to do with the unresolved tension between biculturalism and multiculturalism in New Zealand (Bartley & Spoonley, 2004; Ward & Masgoret, 2008). Māori, the indigenous group, are already subject to continued political and cultural marginalisation, so the influx of immigrants, especially new Asian immigrants are perceived as competition for already limited resources and cultural recognition, or, as diluting the government’s commitment to ensuring Māori’ rights to resources (Ip, 2003). However, research indicates Māori actually express more support for multiculturalism, and more appreciation for diversity, than Asians and Europeans. In general, everyone in NZ seems to support the idea of NZ as a multicultural society, but once it comes to reshuffling resource distribution, support level drops to pretty low, except with Māori and Pacific peoples (Sibley & Ward, 2013).
This means it’s very problematic to set up Asians and Māori and Pacific communities in an opposing relation, as especially noticeable in popular discourse after the attacks. As we talk about Asian-Māori relations in particular, it’s important to educate ourselves about NZ’s neo-colonial past and present, to acknowledge the role of Pākehā in the continued distributive injustice and structural inequalities faced by Māori and Pacific people, to re-examine Asian communities’ alliance with white domination, and NOT to reduce our relation to Māori communities to a competing, even antagonistic one. A successful multicultural society is based on all ethnicities receiving equal recognition and developing relationships of collaboration and appreciation instead of competition, and Māori and Pacific peoples are not the ones who’re hindering this process.
Now we move onto Asian international students.  The exclusion they experience is on multiple levels. Firstly, the facilities and services offered by NZ education institutions often do not match up with their image being promoted overseas for student recruitment, and there’s a stark lack of attention paid to international students’ social and emotional needs. The impression that ‘we don’t care about you as much as about your money’ is felt among the students. In a 2004 survey, only a minority of international students viewed coming to New Zealand for education as good value and reported willing to recommend it to prospective students (Ward & Masgoret, 2004). From 2003 to 2012, the number of international students enrolled in almost all types of export education providers in NZ saw a continuous drop, particularly among students from China, South Korea and Japan (while the revenue brought in consistently rises) (Ministry of Education, 2013). A survey in 2011 reported high satisfaction among international students with their institutions, but a breakdown of result shows satisfaction level with learning experience greatly outscores ratings with living and support services, with students from Institutes of Technology and Polytechnic sector in particular reporting low satisfaction in these aspects, which appears under analysed (Generosa, Molano, Stokes, Schulze, & others, 2013).
This leads to the interpersonal level of exclusion. The 2011 survey results show a continuation from earlier reports (Ward & Masgoret, 2004) in that international students find it difficult to form friendships with local New Zealanders, and perceive that New Zealanders aren’t interested to know them better (Generosa et al., 2013).
Compared to Asian international students, students coming from Europe, North America, South America and Australia (ESANA) who are more similar to New Zealanders in terms of language and cultural background did report feeling more included in classrooms and receiving more social support, but they were also less likely to believe that New Zealanders are friendly. In comparison, Asian students are more likely to see building friendships with local New Zealanders as difficult, and believe that New Zealanders are not interested in having international friends and report lower life satisfaction (Ward & Masgoret, 2004). Language ability, nationality and cultural background are the three most common perceived reasons for negative treatment (Generosa et al., 2013). In particular, Chinese students who make up the largest percentage of international students tend to have fewer New Zealand friends than the other international students and perceive more discrimination (Butcher & McGrath, 2004; Ward & Masgoret, 2004). Consistently, they express lowest level of satisfaction with living and academic experience in NZ (Ward & Masgoret, 2004; Yang, Li, & Sligo, 2008).
Lastly, for Chinese internationals students, there may be an extra dimension of marginalisation from their co-ethnic community, the settlers’ community in NZ. I’ll mostly talk about Chinese students here because this is the group I’ve worked with for my research and  I don’t know how much I can generalise my findings to other Asian groups. For Chinese International students, they are often not seen as part of the local Chinese community because of their student status, which renders their stay in NZ as more temporary and short-term. Immigrants or settlers, are typically not hugely interested in their well-being, though with the increasing number of new immigrants, who are more likely to share unifying ethnic identity and cultural values as international students, this might be changing.

I’m aware some Chinese from local immigrant community are very engaged in offering better protection for the students since the attacks happened. The ‘older’ Chinese immigrant communities however, may be more distant. In particular, there’s a noteworthy dynamic between settler youth—Chinese youth who were born or raised in NZ - and Chinese international students, who are sometimes, not typically, but commonly enough, referred to by settler youth as FOB Chinese –Fresh Off the Boat. Accordingly, there’s very little interaction between the two groups, as settler Chinese youth often associate with other settler youth, or local New Zealand youth, or sometimes even make an effort to distance themselves from Chinese international students. This distancing is quite telling, because it shows settler Chinese youth are aware of the negative stereotypes against Chinese; often they’ve been subject to racism themselves. A high proportion of Asian settler youth in New Zealand have experienced racial discrimination in varied forms including name-calling, being told to go home and social exclusion (Bartley & Spoonley, 2008). As a defence mechanism, they’re compelled to try VERY hard to integrate, even assimilate, into NZ mainstream society, and that sadly, in NZ context, often involves getting rid of their ‘Chineseness’, and not associating with people who are perceived as ‘too Chinese’, ‘too FOB’, such as Chinese international students. Again, this comes back to racism. The settler youth’s response to international students is partially a matter of cultural difference, but the underlying struggle around acceptance and assimilation they have to go through should not be overlooked.
So overall, segregation is evident for Asian international students.  This is not the kind of imposed segregation like that in the States before the civil rights movement, but it’s nonetheless very real, and needs conscious intervention, and it needs to be from both sides, or multiple sides.
This is not about pointing fingers, but neither do I wish to frame Asian students as passive victims of racism. Developing a connection with the host society involves two-way interactions. NZ local society is responsible for Asian students’ marginalisation, but on the other hand, there are things Asian students can do to foster better inter-racial, and intra-racial understandings. For example, Chinese international students also report having more co-ethnic friends than other students groups, and less willingness to make efforts to initiate friendships with New Zealanders. Asian community in general report very limited personal contact with Māori (Bartley & Spoonley, 2008). On the other hand, we also know from research that warmth between ethnic groups tends to be reciprocated (Sibley & Ward, 2013) (perhaps with Asians’ warmth to Pākehā as an exception) and greater contact with New Zealanders is associated with decreased perception of discrimination, increased feelings of cultural inclusiveness and greater satisfaction with social support (Generosa et al., 2013; Ward & Masgoret, 2004).
Speaking from personal experience, which I’m sure many readers can relate to, I find Māori peers warm and welcoming, sometimes more so than Pākehā peers, maybe partly because Asian cultures actually bear more resemblance to Māori or Pacific cultures than with Pākehā  cultures. So what stops us from learning Te Reo Māori? From appreciating their cultural practices (and not just in the form of cultural tourism such as a institutionally funded 5-day marae retreat which yields no sustained understanding of modern urban Maori lives)? What stops us from making an effort to know our Māori or Pacific peers? That is a question we all need to ponder on.
I’d like my input here, which is more like a summary of previous work done in the field, to be a prompt for further discussion, rather than a solution or conclusion. The result, or rather, the starting point I wish for is that Asians and Māori/Pacific peoples are able to see each other as real humans. The panel discussion held last Friday made it clear that Asian international students aren’t seen this way, and that’s an unfortunate result of the race relations I’ve outlined above. Yet, assault of another human being is often a result of dehumanisation of the victim. Given the lack of mutual understanding between Asian students and Māori and Pacific youth, it’s reasonable to believe Asian students are more vulnerable to such violent ordeals because they’re in a position more likely to be dehumaniāed. Then Asian communities’ dehumanisation of Māori and Pacific community as criminals or offenders due to this gap in mutual understanding is only going to contribute to a vicious cycle.
Racism is hard to combat, because ultimately it’s a structural and systemic issue. Equity in resource distribution is a challenge for policy makers, and changing negative representation of Asians or for Māori and Pacific people implicates efforts from mainstream media. But on an individual basis, we do have capacity to negotiate our positioning in NZ society, to forge better intercultural contact, which is a strategy to enhance ethnic perceptions and relations, and perhaps most importantly, to stop relying on Pākehā as cultural, social even legislative brokers, and  rethink our strategy to demand protection from authorities (e.g., police, government) without making an attempt to see, and be seen by the kaitiaki of this land.
Asians in the United States have offered us an example for reference with the ex-NYPD officer Peter Liang’s case. Following Liang’s sentencing, there were split reactions and debates within Asian communities which would affect Asian-African relations. Some protested the conviction in support of Peter Liang on the basis that there were white cops who got away with murdering black people and saw Liang’s conviction as racial scapegoating. However, other members of Asian communities such as #Asians4BlackLives and CAAAV Organising Asian Communities responded back with demanding #JusticeForAkaiGurley and his family and have been challenging anti-blackness in Asian American communities. They argued that all police officers regardless of ethnicity should be held accountable and the priority should be to support the families of the victims of police violence. Asian youth have actively joined in solidarity movements with African American communities. In doing so, they’re not only raising awareness of the divided relation between the two ethnic communities, but also pointing out the real issue is not one between these two communities but one with existing racial structure where white domination is maintained at both communities’ expenses and that Asian American complicity in anti-blackness needs to end.

Perhaps similar to Liang’s case, there have also been split reactions from members of Asian communities in response to the attacks but the realness of violence in NZ against Asian students has knocked an otherwise unseen and unheard group of people into existence. Now that we’re seen, what we say and do matters more than ever.


[1] In the context of this paper I’m mostly using ‘Asian’ to refer to East Asians -- people from mainland China, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Japan, and Korea.

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