Asian Americans, who make up about 7 percent of the U.S. population, are "actually the fastest-growing racial group," and yet when a recent survey asked respondents to simply name a well-known Asian American, the big winner was "don't know," John Oliver said on Sunday's Last Week Tonight. The Late Show's Michael Cruz Kayne, a Filipino-American, performed a song about that survey.
"It is pretty clear many in this country don't seem to know much about the histories or experiences of Asian Americans," and the recent spate of COVID-fueled racism "has highlighted the need for us to have a long-overdue, better-informed conversation about the way this country regards Asian Americans," Oliver said. He noted that when white people discuss this subject, they typically focus on the "persistent" and "problematic" idea of Asian Americas as a "model minority."
"The term 'Asian American' applies to a ridiculously large and diverse group of people," and "looking at averages for Asian Americans as a whole is like looking at the average income of the Hemsworth brothers," Oliver said. The Asian immigrants of the 1800s and early 1900s — Chinese, Japanese, Korean, and Filipinos — each "faced the common experience of racial hostility, violence, and laws denying them the possibility of becoming citizens or owning land." The Asian immigrants who arrived after the 1965 Immigration Act were typically "educated and highly skilled workers like doctors and engineers," he said, and a third group, refugees from U.S. wars in Southeast Asia, faced their own challenges.
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The main thing these groups share is a "common experience of bigotry," and "the 'model minority myth is both a tool of white supremacy and a trap," Oliver said. In the 1960s, "basically, America prioritized wealthy, more educated Asian immigrants, then turned to Black people who'd been subjugated for centuries and said, 'See, they're educated and successful, why aren't you?' And using Asian American success to downplay American racism is a trend that very much continues to this day."
After about 26 minutes, Oliver apologized for spending so little time on the subject. Watch his occasionally NSFW survey of Asian American history and diversity below.
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