What happened to Neera Tanden is racist, and we can’t ignore how that influenced the White House’s decision Tuesday to pull her nomination to lead the Office of Management and Budget. Tanden’s confirmation failure makes her the first of President Joe Biden’s picks to be disqualified. It’s no coincidence that she also happens to be an Asian American woman.
Selected by Biden to head the office that plans and oversees the implementation of the federal budget, Tanden came under relentless fire for her posts on Twitter. With the Senate split 50-50, West Virginia Democrat Joe Manchin’s opposition meant she would need to find support from at least one Republican. And arguably the most moderate Republican, Susan Collins of Maine, ruled it out.
Media coverage of Tanden’s saga has tended to focus on her tweets, which Manchin and others labeled “overtly partisan” and “mean.” (In the case of Collins and many other Republicans, the attacks were also very personal.) During her time as leader of the liberal think tank Center for American Progress, Tanden tangled on Twitter with political figures on the right (typical was the line that “vampires have more heart than Senator Cruz“) and the left, notably Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont and his supporters during his run for president.
I’m going to refrain from making comparisons to “the former guy” or any of his appointees’ actions and behaviors either in person or online because that’s too easy and folks are calling out that hypocrisy on their own. I don’t have a lot to say about whether she was qualified to serve as director of the Office of Management and Budget other than that she was. I don’t even have more to say as a progressive about how her centrist positions and actions disappointed me, like they did others.
The point that does need to be made, however, is that whatever the background noise around this confirmation fight, there is no question that racism factored into it. Anti-Asian bias has a specific set of stereotypes that go along with it, and we need to recognize and condemn how they played into Tanden’s confirmation hearings.
There are variations in the stereotype for different Asian ethnicities — Tanden identifies as Indian American— but generally the contours of the stereotypes and expectations of Asian American women are the same:
We are allowed to do “body work” for people —file your nails, wash your laundry, clean your house, take your temperature, change your kids’ diapers — but either do so anonymously or have names easy enough for English speakers to pronounce.
When we’re allowed to be the boss, we are often stereotyped as unscrupulous and inscrutable; we become the mean and stingy Asian boss lady behind the cash register.
Tanden’s journey through these anti-Asian stereotypes was fraught with two equally bad choices. She could try to fit someone’s Asian stereotype and make others more comfortable by meeting their expectations and not eliciting alarm — at the cost of being an inauthentic version of herself.
Tanden doesn’t fit any of the stereotypes that would have allowed her to skate past the gantlet of scrutiny. She’s loud and in charge. She tweets like the best (or worst) of the boys. She doesn’t play up her role as a mother, nor does she project a fun-loving “Momala” air, like Vice President Kamala Harris. And she wanted to be in charge of an agency with the word “budget” in its name. In other words, she ran up against all the no-nos for Asian American women.
Tanden also faced stereotypes that Asian Americans of all genders face. Asian Americans are viewed as the perpetual foreigners in our own homelands. From the frequent microaggression of being asked “No, where are you really from?” to Executive Order 9066, which interned American citizens of Japanese ethnicity in 1942, Asian Americans constantly fight to belong, to be accepted and to be trusted as Americans.
This bias bleeds into the concern that Asian Americans have dual allegiances or are part of a cabal set on taking over the West — the yellow peril. A full year of having Donald Trump call it “the Chinese virus” has not helped with getting people overcome this bias — instead, it has contributed to an astronomical rise in anti-Asian violence, most viciously against senior citizens.
Paradoxically, Asian Americans are also supposed to be the “model minority.” In 1966, a New York Times reporter published an article about how “well Japanese Americans” were doing and germinated the stereotype that Asian Americans are the “model minority,” a race that is high-achieving and doesn’t need government support.
The model minority myth has the triple effect of wedging Asian Americans against other communities of color (if we’re the “good” race, who’s the “bad” one?), erasing a long history of anti-Asian violence and discrimination in the U.S. and, most perniciously, making the needs and experiences of Asian Americans invisible, because why should we be noticed or have the right to complain when we have it so good? This denial of our experience is evident in how silent most of America has been about Tanden’s identity in discussing her treatment.
Anti-Asian biases featured in the confirmation hearings for Tanden whether or not senators were aware of it. It’s time for us to name the implicit biases and assumptions that Asian Americans face so we can be judged from a place of consciousness. Is Tanden more “mean” than other appointees, or are we offended by Asian American women who are assertive and want to lead? Is Tanden more “partisan” than other appointees, or are we just not sure we can trust her for some vague reason? As many Asian Americans have learned over time, you’re only the model minority until someone else decides you aren’t.