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The Politics of Victimization and the Model Minority
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The Politics of Victimization and the Model Minority

The designation "victim" is a controversial one that can be used disparagingly to describe positions on race that are far often too simplistic especially in discussions about systemic racism. Ironically, the language of victimization has become a popular form of identity politics that has been increasingly adopted by racial majorities in a more or less global fashion. However, the emergence of such rhetoric among groups who form the majority and continue to hold institutional power against minority groups renders this particular modality of articulating social justice a fraught one because it is, at heart, a powerfully ethical claim that adjudicates the legal claims of rights and the truth claims generated by affective responses to the language of victimization.1 But how is the model minority positioned within such debates on race? The notion of injury or victimization is often problematically identified with debates on African American racial formation within U.S. ethnic literature and film. This essay, however, will argue that victim narratives and the myth of the model minority are different but related discourses.2 [End Page 119]

Chang-rae Lee's novel, A Gesture Life, published in 1999, portrays ethical choices in a way that exemplifies how the demands or claims of "ethics" can mask political violence in some instances and how they can be the cause of violence in others.3 The protagonist not only identifies as a model minority but insists without qualms that the condition of life as a minority is to choose to do right. The condition of participation within civic life is to be right. Unlike Amy Chua's recent, controversial memoir, however, this claim is made without the slightest irony. My reading of the novel argues that the model minority discourse, the act of labeling some minorities but not others as "good," perpetuates the kind of systemic violence that affects all minorities, and demonstrates how the declarations of moral right—or wrong—enable the formation or renegotiation of national or racial identities.

To briefly summarize Lee's second novel, the plot vacillates between the present time and the past, both in the United States and in South East Asia during World War II, but it consistently revolves around the central character and narrator, Franklin Hata, a Korean man who passes for Japanese in Japan and, later, also in the United States; the problem of race, both in the opposition of white and black as well as the triangulation that Asian Americans introduced to that opposition, informs the narrative trajectory of the plot. When the novel introduces Hata, he is a recently retired medical store owner who has been successful enough that he lives in one of the most coveted properties in an upstate New York suburb called Bedley Run. The first set of flashbacks in the novel details the events of Hata's life when he was a medical officer in the Japanese army in Burma during WWII, especially when he falls in love with a Korean comfort woman named Kkutaeh who later reappears as a spectral form in his memories as "K." The second set of flashbacks revolves around Hata and his adopted daughter from Korea, Sunny, during her teenage years, approximately fifteen years before the present time of the narration. By the end of the novel, Sunny has had an abortion, and then a little boy called Thomas, possibly with the same African American man whom Hata dislikes.

In this reading of the myth of the model minority, the state plays a central role in the governance of race relations in two major, connected ways: first, it enables social violence to take place at the level of representation, that is, [End Page 120] in symbolic politics; and second, in the act of political representation, which I will address later. Representation within state and popular discourses is violent not only when one is represented negatively but also when represented positively. Model minority narratives are different from other kinds of racial stereotyping, but they are hardly separate or distinct from them. Extant work produced within Asian American Studies has widely documented how Asian Americans are accepted as part of the...