Breaking a Tragic Silence

By Christine Cupaiuolo — September 20, 2006

Committing suicide in response to racism or racial pressures has a long history in America, but it has rarely been discussed openly and in a straightforward manner. In fact, the conversation about it has mainly been confined to fiction.

For example, from earliest African-American novels like William Wells Brown’s “Clotel” (one of the earliest accounts claiming that Thomas Jefferson has mixed-race children from a relationship with one of his slaves) to the “tragic mulatto” stories that were a staple of American fiction and film well into the 20th century, suicide seemed the inevitable tragic fate of African American women who made the “mistake” of crossing (and sometimes “passing”) into the “white” mainstream world.

Eliza Noh, though, wants to break the silence and have a conversation in the real world.

A professor of Asian American studies at California State University at Fullerton, Noh points to statistics that show that Asian American women have an extraordinarily high rate of suicide: For women between 15 and 24, Asian American women had the highest number of suicides among all U.S. women in 2003, and they had the second highest rate in every other age group.

Noh, profiled by Malena Amusa in a recent article from Women’s eNews, believes this high rate of suicide is the result of racism and racial pressure:

Noh says the stereotype of Asian cultures being hard-wired for success creates a dangerous “model minority” image that can devastate Asian American women who don’t meet unrealistic expectations.

In a portion of her research study to be published in next spring in Women and Therapy, a journal published out of Binghamton, N.Y., Noh argues that depression and suicide are linked to a model-minority myth that makes it difficult for Asian American women to accept their “flaws.”

Asian American women attempt suicide more than Asian American men, Noh said. But because men use more fatal tactics, their suicide rate is higher.

Noh, furthermore, has seen the self-sacrifice of Asian American women mythologized much like the “tragic mulatto” stories:

Historically, Noh said, Asian American women face conflicting sexual stereotypes that force many to juggle their identities between a seductive and treacherous dragon lady and the soft, lotus blossom character made famous by the century-old “Madame Butterfly” story, in which a submissive Japanese woman falls for a white man and commits suicide when she loses her love.

“Many of my interviewees said they were affected by these dualistic images, either as hyper-sexualized and domineering, or passive and submissive,” Noh said. These images, she said, combined with familial expectations, narrow the spectrum for Asian women’s sense of identity and self-worth.

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