An interview with Ellen D. Wu, author of The Color of Success: Asian Americans and the Origins of the Model Minority
What inspired you to get into your field?
As the daughter of Chinese immigrants, I was originally drawn to Asian American history as a way to understand my own place in the world. (I always felt a little bit freakish, growing up in Indiana.) But I soon learned that it is much than that. The founders of Asian American Studies in the late 1960s and early 1970s emphasized the importance of research and education relevant to Asian American communities. They also believed that it was possible not only to fight oppression, but to end it completely.
The original, radical vision of Asian American Studies continues to invigorate me. I strive to tell new stories in such a way that is meaningful to Asian Americans from all walks of life. I aim to highlight the diversity of Asian America. And I am interested in the actions that ordinary people have taken in the face of racism and other dehumanizing challenges.
What is the biggest misunderstanding people have about what you do?
People often think that history is just a string of dates and facts about "great" white men. (Is it a coincidence that many of those who believe this also tell me that they think history is boring?) I would also say that most non-historians have no idea how historians actually go about doing what they do (i.e. archival research)--probably because it's pretty bizarre from an outsiders perspective! A friend of mine explains it this way: we read other people's mail. While that makes us sound like NSA employees, that description works for me.
What would you have been if not a historian?
I have fantasies about being/becoming a documentary filmmaker, a food writer, and an independently wealthy lady of leisure.
What are you reading right now?
This summer I plan to dig in to some of my favorite literary writers: Jhumpa Lahiri, Monique Troung, and Junot Diaz. I can't wait to be inspired by their words, sentences, and storytelling. Meanwhile, I'm reading lots of things via my Twitter feed.
What was the most influential book you've read?
Ummmm... The Bible?
Why did you write The Color of Success?
It was a book that I wished had already existed.
What was the biggest challenge involved with bringing this book to life?
Conceptually it was quite difficult for me to figure out how to move from dissertation to book. It's the kind of thing (at least in my experience) that one doesn't really know how to do until one has done it, if that makes sense. But now I can say the process has been demystified and hopefully all the pieces will fall into place much faster with the next book.
What do you think is the book's most important contribution?
Today the reigning misconception of Asians in the United States is that we are "model minorities"--people of color who are naturally smart and hardworking, socio-economically mobile, etc. Observers often attribute the putative "success" of Asian Americans to "culture." By excavating the origins of the "model minority" image (it's a relatively recent creation, dating back only to the 1940s-60s), The Color of Success shows that it is an invented fiction rather than timeless truth. Certain Asian American spokespersons, government officials, social scientists, journalists, and others conjured up the "model minority" for various political purposes. For those invested in delegitimizing the African American freedom movement, the "model minority" stereotype served as handy "evidence" that the United States was indeed a land of opportunity for all, including racial minorities. People are often surprised to hear that the "model minority" stereotype, while ostensibly positive, is actually highly problematic and pernicious.
The value of tracing the relatively recent emergence of a stereotype that is prevalent today is that it drives home the point that race is a social process rather than a fact of nature. That gives me hope that racial stereotypes and categories can be "unmade" as well as "made."
Who do you see as the audience for this book?
My goal with The Color of Success was to generate something empirically-rich and stimulating for professional scholars, but also significant and accessible in a broader way. I wanted to write for "lay" Asian Americans and others interested in historical and present-day conditions and consequences of race in the United States. Additionally, I tried to produce something that my friends and relatives might actually read. (A shout out to my cousin Denise in Logan, Utah for being my first family member to finish it!) I'm crossing my fingers that the book will speak to this these disparate audiences.
How did you come up with the title or jacket?
Titles are so hard! They're akin to naming one's child: it's a heavy decision because it seems that it will seal the fate of the book forever. I definitely wanted something that conveyed the main themes of the book, but I didn't want it to sound too boring or "academic-y" (hopefully I succeeded?). I went through about a million titles before my husband came up with The Color of Success at the eleventh hour.
On the other hand, the cover image (a photograph of the 1956 San Francisco Chinese basketball team, clad in "USA" jackets and holding "USA"-stamped balls), was something that I had kept in mind for years. I first spotted it in a 1956 issue of San Francisco's bilingual Chinese World newspaper when I started my research. It was one of those ah-ha! moments. Like other notable American artists and athletes at the time, the team had been tapped by the US State Department to tour Asia as "goodwill" ambassadors--essentially Cold War cultural diplomats. It's a great double-take image that plays with the tenacious notion that Asians remain "forever foreigners" in the United States, that Asian Americans have never truly been seen by others as "real" Americans. And like Linsanity, it also messes with assumptions that Asian Americans make good scientists or violinists or whatever, but not good basketball players.
Several years after I initially ran across the photo, I wrote to a senior Asian American historian to ask if she knew how I might get a hold of it for the book. She forwarded my message to her contacts in San Francisco Chinatown, and, voila!, I tracked down Percy Chu, the 80-something coach of the basketball team. Mr. Chu not only kindly sent me the photo, but now he's also my penpal. Every Chinese holiday, he sends me little gifts in the mail--zongzi (Chinese tamales) for the Dragon Boat festival, mooncakes for the Mid-Autumn Festival, red envelopes for Lunar New Year. (Maybe he feels sorry for me for living in Bloomington, so far removed from the epicenters of Chinese America?) So that's been unexpected and fun!