Wherever we see it—from our favorite movies, TV shows, or news stories—Western media flaunts and glamorizes the “American Dream.” The story of rags to riches. The story of accumulating wealth through honest hard work. The story of owning your own house, driving a nice car, living in the suburbs, raising a couple of kids, and reaching a day when your descendants may also carry on this same lifestyle and legacy. This is also the story that tells communities of color to be grateful for the superficial representation that simplifies our stories into expendable, disposable moments for profit and exploitation. The elusive "American Dream" is the ultimate goal of many immigrants, coming to this country in hopes of a better life. Yet this ideology employs the Model Minority Myth to weaponize Asian Americans and other communities of color into uplifting systems of oppression and white supremacy.
The recent Oscar wins highlight this.
The popular, eccentric film, Everything Everywhere All at Once (EEAAO) swept the stage, winning seven Oscars in total. One of these wins was for Vietnamese–born actor Ke Huy Quan, who became the second Asian man to ever win the Best Supporting Actor Award. Quan, who began his acting career as a child, stepped back from the screen for nearly two decades after finding it hard to work in Hollywood as an Asian and made a highly publicized comeback with EEAAO. While accepting the award, he emotionally shared his story: “My journey started on a boat. I spent a year in a refugee camp, and somehow, I ended up here on Hollywood’s biggest stage … They say stories like this only happen in the movies. I cannot believe it’s happening to me. This is the American dream!”
Yet in 2023, the American Dream continues to lie to us. The term was coined by writer James Truslow Adams in 1931 when h wrote about a country in which life was better and happier than anywhere else in the world, and where people could become the best versions of themselves, regardless of social class. His dream of a future where all citizens were happier and richer didn’t account for his own privilege of wealth and whiteness. Since Adams’ time, the “American Dream” has been used to promote the notion that America is a land of opportunity, of second chances, and of liberty and prosperity. This “I am grateful for America” platitude is constantly regurgitated by immigrants and diasporas—a product of these communities feeling that they must assimilate in order to adhere to the American Dream’s promise of prosperity. This unsubstantiated claim says that one can “make a name out of oneself” in America. Yet, the reality is much closer to a nightmare.
The United States has enormous income gaps between the rich and poor: the top 1% of households make up over 30% of the wealth in the country, while bottom 50% hold only a mere 2% of total wealth. These staggering imbalances are not surprising; the United States lacks in providing a social safety net or even a livable wage for its people. The “American Dream” boasts the possibility of upward mobility despite the ever–increasing income gap between the rich and poor. But what about those who have “achieved” the “American Dream"? What does that signify? What truly is the cost of selling oneself into these lies? Essentially, getting “richer,” does not necessarily mean one actually achieved the “American Dream” (that is a deceitful ideology). Rather, believers in the "American Dream" have only become part of capitalism's tools for further endearment, perpetuating the myth that class is not a stagnant reality of social stratification and hierarchies of abuse/power, but simply a ladder to climb up to social mobility (as if such a ladder is accessible). Any testimonies of “success” with the “American Dream” are innately products of capitalism.
The reality is America's settler–colonialist past and present. This country uses American exceptionalism as a warrant and weapon to justify white supremacy and settler colonialism, the system where oppression and genocide are used to justify the destructive displacement of indigenous people with new settlers. The American Dream masks America’s dark history of being born out of the mass genocide and enslavement of Black and Indigenous peoples. It continues its efforts in uplifting the systems that perpetuate the erasure, destruction, displacement, and harm of Black, Indigenous, and immigrant communities. The “American Dream” creates this shining, appealing image (especially towards newly–come immigrants) to paint this image of “new” America, where it suppresses and hides the neglect and disparaging of Black and Afro–Indigenous peoples.
This may be America’s ugly truth, but the American Dream continues to find its way into infiltrating even the most famous, glamorous, and celebrated people’s lives.
In an interview with Variety and in his Oscar speech, Quan states how he began his Hollywood journey as a refugee from Vietnam before becoming an Oscar winner. But in the media, we glamorize his story as part of the classic “American Dream” trope without ever considering the deeper cultural context behind Quan’s history. Western media does not account for the long history of colonialism (including American imperialism) as causes of the massive refugee crisis seen in Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, and across the Asia Pacific. Rather, we are distracted by the glitz and glitter of the “American Dream” and are shaped to not think about the consequences of such realities.
“I ended up here on Hollywood’s biggest stage,” Quan says. The “biggest stage” that Quan refers to is the same one that cast him in roles playing stereotyped, racial caricatures—later disregarded him for decades. But Quan says that he is "grateful to all those people that came before me … that created all these opportunities for us to be here.
The “American Dream” conditions communities of color to be grateful for these “struggles” and “opportunities", arguing that the difference between success is simply hard work and failure. Thus, American exceptionalism is ubiquitously used as a tool to hide away American hegemony and capitalism. It overlooks Quan’s own labor as an Asian American actor in racist, white supremacist Hollywood. These successes are too often credited and simplified as “achieving the American Dream.”
Understanding the harmful implications of Quan’s “American Dream” doesn’t negate his massive win or the joy that many Asian Americans may have or have had through the mainstream representation of an Oscar win or of the film itself. However, this win cannot and should not erase the dark truth.
Communities of color do not need to feel indebted to the country that has stolen and displaced them. Asian diasporas do not need to feel grateful to a country that systemically makes achieving “success” not only a struggle, but an unguaranteed reality. They do not owe America anything—not when these communities have been lied to, exploited, and silenced. Ultimately, this fight is not a singular entity, but a collective call for all of us to hold ourselves and each other accountable. The lies, the myths, and the fantasies will live on until we are willing to fight for the truth.