I Tried to Fight Racism by Being a “Model Minority” — and Then It Backfired

In this op-ed, author, activist, and mechanical engineer Yassmin Abdel-Magied unpacks the myth of the “model minority” through her own experiences.

I grew up believing if I became the “model minority” — a hard-working, high-achieving, law-abiding brown Muslim woman — that I could make lasting positive change for myself and others. I thought if I were good enough, my example would make people see that their assumptions about Muslims and people of color were wrong. Once they got to know me, they would change their behavior and fix their biases, I thought.

Unfortunately, the events of the past few months have taught me otherwise. I may have been achieving things for myself and changing a couple of minds along the way, but I wasn’t changing the system. So what happened? I’ll start from the very beginning.

I’m a Muslim chick who was born in Sudan. My family moved to Brisbane, Australia, just before I turned 2. We were one of the first Sudanese families in the city, so we definitely stood out. My parents instilled in me a strong sense of social justice, but it wasn’t until after 9/11 that I really noticed people treating us differently because we were Muslims. I was determined to fight for what was right, and my father’s advice was to try to influence the system from within. So I tried to win that game.

I did well academically, I served my community, I played the part. I started a youth organization, Youth Without Borders, at 16, which empowered young people to work together for positive change in their communities. I studied mechanical engineering at university, partly because I loved cars, but partly because engineering was a profession that would give me credibility in the corporate world. If I was going to make positive change from within, I needed every shred of credibility I could get, I told myself.

I kept hustling to show those in power how great Muslim women were. I graduated valedictorian of my class. I advised the federal government, hosted a TV show, and did a documentary on racism. I won awards, such as Young Australian of the Year for my state and Distinguished Young Alumni of my university, and was named one of InStyle’s “Women of Style.” I published a memoir before my 25th birthday, talking about my life growing up in Australia, running a race-car team, and working as a mechanical engineer on oil rigs.

I thought that I’d ticked all the boxes to become credible in the eyes of those in power. I thought my achievements could change people’s expectations of Muslims, and of Muslim women in particular. Maybe it would show them that their assumptions were wrong. Maybe that would lead them to realize that people who were different were still worthy, equal, and to be taken seriously.

I thought that achieving a lot meant people in power, especially those who had racist or sexist views, would listen to me. Take me seriously. Believe in what I had to say. Now, I could make change from within, because I was part of the club, right?

Not quite.

I thought my achievements could change people’s expectations of Muslims, and of Muslim women in particular.

But before I explain what went down, you should understand something about Australia. Although Australia is commonly associated with kangaroos and great beaches, it actually has a deeply racist history. Until 50 years ago, the First Nations people of Australia were not included in the census — so in the eyes of the government, they weren’t counted as people. It took a referendum in 1967 for that to change. Then there were the Stolen Generations, where the Australian government systematically removed First Nations children from their parents. The government was so obsessed with whiteness that up until the 1970s, there was the so-called White Australia Policy, which was a collection of policies banning non-Europeans from migrating to the country. In other words, you had to be white to move to Australia.

There is no doubt that Australia has come a really long way since then. I am truly grateful for all the opportunities I was provided as an Australian immigrant, and for the love and support of many Australians. But this isn’t about individual Australians. History matters, because it informs the attitudes of the present society. As people of color have systematically been treated as second-class citizens, they are considered “conditionally Australian.” The moment they step out of line, the country explodes with outrage. A recent example of this is that of Adam Goodes, a First Nations Australian Football League (AFL) superstar. Goodes sparked controversy after he pointed to a girl in the stands who had yelled a racial slur at him, calling him “Ape!” Although it was obviously racist, many Australian commentators and football fans saw pointing it out as an overreaction. This double standard has been called “brown poppy syndrome.”

In my case, it was sparked by two incidents. The first was a disagreement with a politician about her views on Muslims on Q&A, a current affairs panel show. Senator Jacqui Lambie stated that Australia should ban the burqa, and that anyone who follows Sharia Law should be deported. By banning “Sharia,” she would effectively be banning Muslims. I called her out, asking her if she even knew what Sharia was. She didn’t. I also then continued to say that “Islam, to me, is the most feminist religion” — a statement that ended up causing a furor, which went on for weeks.

But it all really escalated after a seven-word Facebook post I wrote on Anzac Day, a national day of remembrance that was originally introduced to honor the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps (ANZAC) who fought at Gallipoli in World War I. The phrase Australians use for remembrance is “Lest We Forget.” I wanted to make my sentiment more inclusive than just those who fought in that war. Who else should we not forget, I thought? So I posted the following:

Manus and Nauru are offshore immigration detention centers holding asylum seekers who try to get to Australia on boats. Amnesty International has called it a “regime of cruelty” and an “open-air prison.” I also included Palestine and Syria, to remember current conflicts with no end in sight. I was asking for empathy and compassion for others, on a somber day of remembrance.

A friend soon saw that post and suggested that it might be offensive, and so out of respect I took it down almost immediately. I apologized publicly and of my own accord, because while my intention had been one of inclusive empathy, others took it as an insult. They saw it as denigrating soldiers, disrespecting Australia, and being “ungrateful.”

I made the front page of the national papers day in and day out. The prime minister got involved. Parliamentarians said I should self-deport and “move to an Arab dictatorship,” and that I was a disgrace. I was sent death threats. Racist posters went up. I had to move houses, change my phone number, shut off my social media. When I later announced that I was moving to London, a national TV station ran a poll on whether I should leave or “stay to face her critics.” Thousands of words were written about me in hundreds of articles. Petitions were set up going after my job. And it didn’t go on for one day, or one week, or even just one month. It went on for more than three months, on an almost daily basis.

I had to move houses, change my phone number, shut off my social media.

I was being made an example of. And the reality is, none of the positive work that I did over the past 10 years mattered. All that mattered was that I was a young Muslim woman of color who had stepped out of line. It took these experiences for me to realize that in trying to change the system from within, I had had the wrong focus: Yes, it’s important to work hard and achieve, but I realized that you shouldn’t do so to try to “prove” your humanity to those who aren’t interested in seeing it.

Those who want you to outperform your identity aren’t interested in seeing you as equal at all. No one should ever have to be the “model minority” in order to be accepted as equal. Equality should be given, not earned for good behavior. If “good behavior” is required, that isn’t really equality.

So now, I’m no longer interested in centering those who refuse to see my humanity and want me to work for my equality. That diminishes me, my culture, and my agency. Instead, I will focus my energy on myself, my faith, my communities, and those who continue to be marginalized. I will also work with allies who are interested in making things better for all of us.

I thought if I spoke too honestly, I would be alone. But it turns out, when you stand up for yourself, lean into your own power, and speak your truth, people see that, and some — the ones that care — will choose to stand with you.

Now, I don’t work to prove my humanity to others; I work because the humanity of others gives me strength. YAS!

Related: High School Students Write Racial Literacy Textbook

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