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What’s Missing from the Amy Chua Conversation

If you’re like me, you’re sick of hearing about Amy Chua and the uproar over her latest book, The Triple Package: How Three Unlikely Traits Explain the Rise and Fall of Cultural Groups in America. Since catching wind of the premise of the book, which deploys outdated understandings of cultural determinism to argue that cultural characteristics are responsible for the success of certain groups in America, the blogosphere has (rightfully) erupted in outrage, publishing a multitude of pieces lambasting Chua’s thesis and its racial and ethnocentric implications.

I get it—Chua’s argument is flawed, poorly researched, and fails to grasp how structural inequality and institutional racism impact upward mobility (and lack thereof) in the United States. But something is missing from the conversation: a discussion of Chua’s role in supporting American structures of racism that depend on a distinction between model minorities and problem minorities. What’s more, criticisms have failed to link Chua’s rhetoric to the larger history of Asian Americans being used to perpetuate (and at times themselves participating in) anti-Black and anti-Latino racism.

The model minority is a tired trope, but Chua seems intent on keeping it alive. If Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother left you with any doubts, recent events have made it clear: Amy Chua is the 21st century prophet of the model minority myth. As it stands, The Triple Package may be her Ten Commandments. In addition to the traditional standbys of Jews and Asians (Chinese and Indians specifically)—The Triple Package rolls out five new model minorities who Chua identifies as possessing cultural characteristics that have led to their success in America: Iranians, Lebanese, Nigerians, Cubans, and Mormons. While Chua has revamped and diversified her modern lineup of model minorities, they come with the same implication: if they can succeed, why can’t [insert minority group here]?

Republicans must be pleased that Chua is doing the brunt of their work in furthering the construction of an imagined America in which the past and present manifestations of racist, classist, and gendered biases do not impact an individual’s chances for success. Quite handily, The Triple Package positions Chua as the new POC poster girl of “pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps” conservatism. And in demonstrating the disproportionate success of (certain) minorities of color, The Triple Package inherently implies post-racialism. Chua’s America is one that denies the existence of racist institutions—it is an America in which personal characteristics, not systemic inequalities or institutionalized biases, determine individual success and failure.

It’s clear that Chua is leveraging dangerous stereotypes of Asian Americans for her own personal and financial gain. And it’s working. Battle Hymn spent several weeks atop the New York Times Best Sellers list, and The Triple Package may very well do the same thanks to the controversy it has stirred up. But in the process, Chua is throwing poor communities of color under the bus. And by positioning herself as a spokesperson of Asian America (as she did in Battle Hymn), her work condones and perpetuates the model minority myth and the way America conceives of the “problem minorities.” Perhaps worst of all, her work continues the tradition of Asian American success being used to blame and demonize other low-income communities of color.

The Triple Package is not racist. Amy Chua is (probably) not a racist. But what Chua (and her work) does do is pardon and uphold racist institutions. By blaming individuals for their lack of success, Chua condones the existence and upkeep of biased American institutions that restrict millions of individuals from climbing the ladder of upward mobility. She buys into the myth of a post-racial America and feeds into conservative allegations that minorities are “crying wolf” when they challenge the structural barriers to success that are built into the American establishment. But what troubles me most about Amy Chua is that she has used her status as a prominent Asian American woman not to challenge racist institutions and ideologies, but rather to rehash tired racial and cultural hierarchies that applaud some while chastising others. Her work continues the unfortunate tradition of some Asian Americans internalizing the racial hierarchy that places them neither here nor there, but somewhere in the middle. With The Triple Package, Chua both justifies and participates in the perpetuation of American racism, and by association, links Asian Americans to her dangerous attempts to pit minority groups against one another.

Few Asian Americans have Chua’s visibility or influence, and therefore by default, her ideas may be misinterpreted as representative of our own. Because of that, we need to raise our voices to make clear that Asian America is not buying her act.

Now, let’s talk about something else.

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