Injured Privilege—Beyond “Model Minority”

Jeremy Lin
May 5, 2021

Weeks before the Atlanta mass shooting of Asian women, veteran professional basketball player Jeremy Lin shared that he was called “coronavirus” on the court. Immediately, he was pressured to identify the racial identity of the instigator.

He posted on Twitter, explaining that he refused to reveal the individual’s racial identity because doing so could lead to stereotyping an entire racial group. His statement drew much attention in Asian American communities. Some continued to ask about the perpetrator’s racial identity, while others argued that the person’s racial identity was irrelevant. As a Taiwanese-American immigrant, I admire Lin’s thoughtfulness and solution-oriented approach. His statement demonstrated an acute awareness of the intensified relationship between Asian and Black communities.

Violence against Asian Americans is nothing new. What is new is the attention it now receives. While doing research in Oakland’s Chinatown in the 2010s, I heard anecdotes about Asian American women being targeted for armed robbery. Many of the Chinese immigrant women even expressed concern about my safety when our interviews went into the evening. I never felt in danger, so I took these stories with a grain of salt. Sure, some events were reported in a couple of Mandarin news outlets, but I thought to myself that those were rare incidents. I inserted the women’s concerns as a footnote in my article, “‘A wobbly bed still stands on three legs’: On Chinese immigrant women’s experiences with ethnic community.” The women’s worry faded in my memory until 2019, when I saw Trevor Noah interview Psychology Professor Jennifer Eberhardt about “implicit bias.” One example used to explain implicit bias was that when some young African Americans were asked why they targeted to rob middle-aged Chinese women, the answer was “they can’t tell the brothers apart.” Laughter ensued. At that moment, I flashed back to the wary faces of the women I had interviewed.

During my years of teaching and researching Intercultural Communication, I have noticed that many Asian Americans hesitate to share their experiences as marginalized Americans. There is an unspeakable silence around this topic, because Asian Americans are labeled the “model minority.” In my research, I have found that, as citizens, Asian Americans have a painfully thin relationality, which generates expansive relational distance from their fellow citizens. Asian Americans are often perceived to be privileged, and therefore, to encounter less harmful discrimination. We now know that this perception is false. The model minority myth has been critiqued in both academe and the mainstream media. Yet, we still do not have the language needed to capture this group’s various experiences as Americans. Because of this, I developed the concept of “injured privilege” as an attempt to remove the muzzle that the “model minority” myth produces.

Injured Privilege and Misplaced Resentment 

The rhetoric of injury functions within the dichotomy between the perspective of the victim and the perspective of the perpetrator. In my article “Injured privilege and misplaced ressentiment: Unpacking reactions toward Asian Americans after Students for Fair Admissions (SFFA) v. Harvard,” to be published in the Western Journal of Communication, I use “Injured privilege” to examine the “both¬–and” location of Asian Americans. The term describes an advantage that is partially unearned, yet inexplicable because it is beyond the current discussion about privilege in the “victim vs. perpetrator” binary. One either is a victim of others’ privilege or uses one’s privilege to maintain the status quo. If this continues to be how racial injustice is discussed, what I call “misplaced resentment” is likely to follow, wherein the antagonism caused by unjust systems is projected onto a strawman.

The concept of “injured privilege” extends Bonilla-Silva’s “honorary white” as a status for this heterogenous group and centers Asian Americans’ ambivalent role in the victim/perpetrator dichotomy. The concept does not convey that all Asian Americans experience injured privilege the same way, because this group encounters vastly diverse experiences impacted by various intersecting identities. The term takes into consideration that, as a collective group, Asian Americans do share a similar racial reality when compared with other groups. For example, Americans of Southeast and East Asian backgrounds reported COVID-19 related discriminatory encounters, while facing less police brutality when compared with Black, Latinx, and Native Americans. Injured privilege encompasses articulations of these differential and collective experiences, which are impacted by intersecting identities.

When Jeremy Lin refused to reveal the racial identity of the person who had uttered a racist comment, he resisted the trap of “misplaced resentment” that deepens chasms between Asian Americans and other U.S. racial groups. On March 11, Lin appeared at an NBC townhall meeting with Olivia Munn and other influential Asian American figures to share their American experiences. Having these silenced stories told to the national and global public signals a new beginning.

Such media representations are undoubtedly important. At the same time, we need a language that can speak to the emotional aspects of being Asian American. “Injured privilege” advances Matsuda’s “racial bourgeoisie” and allows Asian Americans agency to (dis)articulate the conflation of their precarious (economic) security and White privilege, a potential outcome from analytically equating the racial structure with the class structure. It acknowledges that racial capitalism is built into the foundation of U.S. society, and that Asian Americans have been, and continue to be, positioned to manage Black-White relations. For example, Peter Liang, an Asian American and ex-NYPD officer, was the first officer convicted of killing an unarmed Black American since the murders of Michael Brown and Eric Garner in 2014. The silencing power of “model minority” ideology serves to evade structural and historical realities. The result, unfortunately, is “misplaced resentment” that stems from old and new racial injuries. “Injured privilege” acknowledges Asian Americans’ “both-and” location to address their emotional need to vocalize their experiences as Americans and thereby gain political agency. The language of “injured privilege” invites blame-free dialogues about this group's unique and diverse experiences. Mostly importantly, it avoids the misplaced anger that feeds into a system that increases inequalities for all minorities.

Call for Action

The visibility of anti-Asian racism since the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic has brought these previously hidden experiences to the public’s attention. Setting aside the questionable culture of “seeing is believing,” the recent media focus on hate crimes against Asian Americans is welcome. However, we need more than stories being shared.

Being labeled the “model minority,” Asian Americans had been silenced against sharing the discrimination they have faced. Having a language that moves us beyond this rhetoric is a must. “Injured privilege” provides for the cultivation of the “self-affirmation” called for by bell hooks and originally meant for African Americans, amid racial injuries. It advocates for outlets where Asian Americans can express their lived experiences as racialized U.S. citizens and avoids deepening the feeling of “invisibility” and “muteness” that many have experienced as a result of their thin relationality to the United States.

The old trope of “model minority” remains a conundrum of the “victim versus perpetrator” rhetoric that circumvents any meaningful communication about Asian American citizens’ wide-ranged lived realities. I invite you to use the term “injured privilege” to describe the complexity of uneven Asian American experiences to steer us away from the narrative that perpetuates white supremacy.


Hsin-I Cheng

HSIN-I CHENG is an Associate Professor in the Department of Communication at Santa Clara University. Her research interests cross the disciplinary boundaries of communication, intersectionality studies, citizenship and immigration studies from (post)colonial and transnational perspectives. Cheng has been published in the Journal of International and Intercultural Communication, International Journal of Communication, and Women & Language. Her book, Culturing Interface: Identity, Communication, and Chinese Transnationalism, received the 2009 Outstanding Book Award from NCA’s International and Intercultural Communication Division. Her recent book, Cultivating Membership in Taiwan and Beyond: Relational Citizenship, was published in 2021.