‘Well, You’re Really Not a Minority’

How silencing Asian hate perpetuates racism

Hannah Matthys
Published in
7 min readMay 25, 2021


Eugene Chung was drafted by the New England Patriots in 1992. Photo: Getty Images

“Well, you’re really not a minority,” Eugene Chung was told in an NFL coaching job interview.

When Eugene Chung, who is a Korean American former NFL offensive lineman and assistant coach, pushed the interviewer on this statement, the interviewer explained that he was “not the right minority” they were looking for.

This short article in ESPN didn’t take up more than a quarter page, nor did it include any graphics. If it weren’t for an online Korean Adoption group I’m part of, I wouldn’t have seen it. The small amount of press that this received points to how our society often plays down and erases the experiences of Asian Americans.

Racial justice conversations tend to be fairly binary: two distinct conversations with two distinct audiences. One focuses on white identity development, centered around recognizing one’s privilege and beginning the path toward allyship. The other focuses on systems that lead to the marginalization of Black, Latinx, and Indigenous people; the histories that influenced practices and policies and the way these inequities play out in current practices.

As a Korean American who was adopted and raised in a white community, I often felt trapped in a “racial justice purgatory.” The lack of nuance in these racial equity conversations rang loudly in my mind, leaving me unsure of where I fit in the conversation. I wasn’t white, but I understood the privileges I was afforded through the model minority myth. Like Chung, I have also experienced this binary and flat understanding of racial inequity. I recall a moment early in my career in education when I attended a racial justice training in my school district. As a group of high-level administrators discussed the impacts of race on students of color and discussed which groups of students needed more resources, one high-ranking white woman patronizingly patted me on the shoulder and said, “But not your people, right dear?”

As my understanding of racial justice grew, I began to identify the impact race had on my life. I was able to understand why I would get so defensive or embarrassed when someone gave me a compliment on how well I spoke English, asked me where I was really from, or told me they found “Asian girls really attractive.” While I couldn’t consciously pinpoint or explain what was so offensive, my body understood and was quick to respond with embarrassment, disgust, frustration, anger, or resentment. These microaggressions, camouflaged as well-intentioned compliments, highlighted to me that I was being viewed as different, as foreign and exotic.

Patterns of marginalization for Asian Americans

In addition to the microaggressions I experienced, I learned about the systemic impact of racism on Asian Americans, especially Asian American women. One of the ways that Asian American women are systematically disenfranchised in the professional world is through a bias of age and youthfulness.

Despite having a PhD and experience in the field, I had one supervisor repeatedly make the joke that I was “only 23, right?”

In my life, people often ask how old I am, comment on how young I look, and try to guess my age. Despite having a PhD and experience in the field, I had one supervisor repeatedly make the joke that I was “only 23, right?” Although these comments are often meant as compliments, as so many women strive to look young in an ageist society, they also keep me, and other Asian American women, from accessing leadership positions. Being viewed as young paints me as inexperienced, naïve, or innocent — assumptions that help explain the drastic lack of Asian Americans in leadership positions in the United States. This pattern, known as the “bamboo ceiling,” shows up in almost every industry, from tech companies to government organizations. In 2018, Harvard Business Review found that, although Asian Americans make up 9.8% of the federal workforce, they represent only 4.4% of the workforce at the highest federal level.

Patterns of marginalization for Black Americans

Age is also a tool of injustice for Black people. Black children suffer from being perceived as older than their peers; studies have shown that they are often viewed an average of 4.5 years older than they actually are. This misperception leads those responsible for Black children's learning, protection, and growth to view them as less innocent, and therefore, more culpable than non-Black children. In turn, this leads to more frequent and intense punishment. The results are life-altering, such as the arrest of a six-year-old girl in school, and deadly, like 12-year-old Tamir Rice, who was shot for holding a toy gun.

Kaedin Janvier, 10, poses for a portrait with a sign honoring Tamir Rice. Photo: Getty Images

It is obvious and necessary to recognize that these two types of injustice are different in extremity. Being denied leadership opportunities is a much different level of racial injustice than being shot for holding a toy gun. However, what often happens is the silencing of those who experience lower levels of oppression through what is often called “Oppression Olympics.”

Oppression Olympics

Oppression Olympics refers to how one racial trauma is legitimized through the dismissal of another racial trauma. Unfortunately, this tends to occur often in social justice spaces. For instance, Asian Americans are often told that we don’t really experience racial trauma because we haven’t experienced police brutality or a history of slavery.

This works to delegitimize and gaslight Asian American experiences of racism, suggesting that these experiences of racism aren’t worth sharing since they aren’t as extreme as the experiences of other groups. While it is necessary to recognize the suffering of others and the privileges that we are afforded, if we only allow the most marginalized voices a platform to speak, we lose our ability to see the larger picture and recognize how injustice works.

This makes me think of an interview I saw recently of an art thief discussing a museum heist. The thief discussed with pride how, despite having a machine gun, he showed restraint by using it as a club instead of shooting someone. He used the same tool to cause harm but in a different way and with a different level of intensity.

This is how I picture injustice working. Consider age as the machine gun in perpetuating injustice. Like the machine gun being used as a club, Asian Americans are denied opportunities because they are perceived as too young, and therefore, less competent than their co-workers, leading to underrepresentation in leadership. And, similar to the machine gun being used to shoot and murder someone, Black children who are perceived as older can lose their lives—Black children like Tamir Rice.

Honoring groups experiencing more pervasive and extreme forms of injustice

It is clear that being denied leadership opportunities is a much different level of injustice than being shot for holding a toy gun, just as being hit in the head with a machine gun is different than being shot. But it is also necessary to recognize that this tool—be it injustice or the machine gun—harms both groups regardless of how it is used. Just as we shouldn’t ignore the person who goes to the hospital with head trauma for being beaten on the head with the butt of a gun, we shouldn’t ignore a group for being denied leadership opportunities.

This is where the term BIPOC is useful in adding nuance. BIPOC stands for Black, Indigenous, and People of Color. This term includes all people of color, while also acknowledging that Black and Indigenous people experience more extreme forms of injustice by specifically naming them in the term.

This is important in unifying people of color while still recognizing the differences in the level of injustice that they experience. It doesn’t negate the violence that I experience as an Asian American woman, but rather shines a light on the fact that the injustices stem from the same place. If we understand their shared cause, we can add nuance, hold both as equally valid forms of oppression, and honor the fact that oppression functions in different ways and at varying levels.

While many know the popular Martin Luther King, Jr. quote, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere,” what is often lost is the second part of the quote, in which he stated: “We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.” In order to understand the full “garment of destiny,” we must understand everything — from the cloth it is made of to the intricate beadwork that is woven in.

In order to dismantle racism, we must create space for nuance and recognize the experiences of Asian Americans in the conversation. The term BIPOC can help us do this by continuing to center the more violent and pervasive forms of injustice while also shining a light on how all injustice grows from the same roots and functions in a similar pattern.



Hannah Matthys

Hannah Matthys uses her multicultural background as foundation to make Equity Diversity and Inclusion concepts accessible. Learn more here: bebravediversity.com