• Studio ATAO

Unlearning Scarcity, Cultivating Solidarity

Part 1: Examining the Roots of Scarcity Mentality and How It Is Weaponized to Oppress Asian Americans and Other Marginalized Identities

Last Updated: 9.9.2020

Written By: Jenny Dorsey, Sarah Hong, Emily Chen, Sarah Koff

Edited By: Edric Huang, KarYee Au, Madie Lee, Phoebe Yu, Janii Yazon, Hanna Seabright

If you want a downloadable PDF of this document, please enter your email below and we'll send it directly to your inbox.

This free resource is made available by our regular donors. If you've learned something from our work, please consider supporting us financially so we can continue bringing free educational content to everyone. You can join our community via Patreon or send us a one-time donation via GiveLively.


This toolkit was compiled by the Studio ATAO team using learnings - in the form of anonymous quotes and personal examples - from our facilitated discussion series, Experimental Salons. We have two primary objectives for this toolkit:

  • Examine the root causes of scarcity mentality within the Asian American community, and how it differs from the mainstream understanding of scarcity mentality that is centered on white Americans;

  • Offer relevant frameworks and additional context for Asian Americans to more effectively address scarcity within their own lives and their communities by developing, and engaging in, sustainable solidarity practices.

In this toolkit, we specifically center the Asian American experience as one example of how understanding scarcity and defining solidarity should be contextualized for marginalized identities.

We propose that what is generally understood as scarcity mentality here in the United States is presented through a white-centric lens, and does not take into account the history of unequal power dynamics between dominant identities and subordinate ones. As such, standard “solutions” for “overcoming” scarcity not only remain ineffectual for already marginalized identities, but work to actively suppress a deeper understanding of race relations and uphold white supremacy.

We first unpack how scarcity manifests in Asian American communities using Professor Iris M. Young’s five “faces” of oppression framework: exploitation, marginalization, powerlessness, cultural imperialism, and violence. We build upon Young’s framework with Professor Claire J. Kim’s theory of racial triangulation to examine how dominant groups weaponize subordinate groups against one another to simultaneously delay change while maintaining their own sociopolitical and sociocultural power. This offers us the foundation to thoroughly analyze how the model minority myth has — and continues to — obscure white supremacy and incentivize inaction and complicity from Asian Americans.

We reject popular psychology suggestions of overcoming scarcity with an “abundance mindset”, and instead propose that investing in, and committing to, intra and inter solidarity practices are necessary for long-term dissolution of the scarcity mentality. To do so, we must first acknowledge that scarcity is not a personal problem and cannot be solved alone. By learning about and naming the ways in which oppressive norms have been constructed by dominant identities, we can build upon the tools and knowledge that academics, activists, and leaders before us have successfully implemented.

Finally, we offer questions and action steps for everyone to begin engaging in deeper conversations within their personal, professional, and communal networks. This includes the work of self-interrogation, openly challenging the status quo of what is “normal”, and personally defining what solidarity means in your own life. We recognize that solidarity requires upkeep, and provide suggestions on how to hold yourself and others accountable for a lifetime’s work of sustainable solidarity. A glossary of terms and a list of additional resources and readings are provided at the end to supplement the toolkit.

Table of Contents

Part 1

Click to jump to section

The Genesis of this Document

An overview of our methodology, an explanation of goals, and acknowledgement of limitations

What Is Scarcity Mentality?

The unpacking of the origins of scarcity as individuals and groups, specifically as it manifests within Asian American communities

The Social & Structural Weaponization of Scarcity

An examination of how the scarcity mentality has been utilized for sociopolitical agendas


Important terms referenced in this toolkit

Part 2

Link to Separate Document

Contextualizing Solidarity Among Asian American Communities

Understanding the necessary investment and work for solidarity, and reviewing historical instances of Asian American solidarity

Integrating Solidarity Practices Into Your Everyday

Ways for individuals to combat scarcity and leverage their personal, professional, and communal networks to cultivate solidarity practices


Important terms referenced in this toolkit

Additional Resources

Relevant resources to continue this work beyond this toolkit

The Genesis of This Document

This toolkit was compiled by the Studio ATAO team using learnings from our facilitated discussion series, Experimental Salons. Studio ATAO is a 501(c)3 nonprofit community think tank that creates interdisciplinary, impact-driven content and live experiences to instigate organic social change through interpersonal connection.

The central question we posed for the Salons that contributed to this document was:

How Can Asian Americans* Unlearn the Scarcity Mentality and Cultivate Solidarity Within Our Own & With Other Marginalized Communities?

*We use the term Asian American(s) in this document to refer to any Asian-identifying individuals who are living in the United States. We recognize and respect some may have mixed identities and/or may not identify completely with “Asian” or “American”, and are aware these two terms can be unnecessarily limiting for certain Asian-identifying communities in the U.S. If there are terms you think are more inclusive for everyone, we would love to hear your suggestions.

Additionally, we chose to not use the term “AAPI” as we accept and agree with the critiques of it conflating Asian American and Pacific Islander identities that each deserve nuance. While we do utilize Pacific Islander examples in this document where there are overlaps in the Asian American and Pacific Islander experience, we acknowledge our own limitations in fully capturing the unique history and struggle of Pacific Islanders.

Explanation of Goals & Limitations

There are many explanations for the scarcity mentality. We used Stephen Covey’s as our starting point: “Most people are deeply scripted in what I call the Scarcity Mentality. They see life as having only so much, as though there were only one pie out there. And if someone were to get a big piece of the pie, it would mean less for everyone else.”

Our wide range of Salon guests included installation artists, epidemiologists, and chefs to sex educators, marketing experts, and media entrepreneurs. Our goals for the Salons were to:

  1. Bring together a diverse group of Asian Americans to examine the origins of the scarcity mentality in their lives, and its effects on their identities & their relationships.

  2. Unpack the dominant group narratives systematically used to reinforce scarcity as well as intra & inter-group conflict.

  3. Explore an inclusive definition of solidarity and discuss what major obstacles stand in our way of achieving solidarity; and

  4. Empower our Salon participants and toolkit readers to develop their own. personal, professional, and communal solutions to better harness solidarity.

That being said, we also acknowledge our own privileges and limitations:

  • We conducted these Salons via Zoom, which requires high-speed internet and is not as accessible as it should be for those with visual and/or auditory disabilities.

  • Our participants and we, as writers & moderators, come from primarily middle and upper-middle class backgrounds. While many of us are active in the social justice space and regularly address issues of classism through our work, we understand that theoretical engagement is not the same as the lived experience.

  • As writers & moderators, we come from a primarily East Asian demographic; our participants varied in East, Southeast, and South Asian demographics. We recognize that there are many additional Asian American experiences, such as Pacific Islander, which we are striving to learn about more deeply and integrate in this document.

  • The anecdotes and examples in this toolkit are not exhaustive of all the intersectional identities within Asian American communities. We prioritize the amplification of marginalized Asian Americans’ voices, and will be continually updating this document with learnings from future Salons and public panels in order to be more inclusive and representative of our diverse communities.

This free resource has been a labor of love and the result of tremendous emotional labor from all parties involved in our Experimental Salons. We hope you will find it useful in your work and encourage you to disseminate this toolkit widely in your circles, especially to those you believe would benefit from these learnings. If you would like to reference this during future conversations or events, please provide a backlink to the original document to provide full context and credit Studio ATAO.

This is a living, evolving document as we continue to learn from each other and the community at large. We will be including more quotes and learnings as we host more Salons and public panels on this topic as well. If you have additional insight and suggestions of ways we can improve this document, we want to hear from you at hello@studioatao.org!

Future Experimental Salons on Unlearning Scarcity, Cultivating Solidarity

If you are a company or organization interested in hosting a private Experimental Salon for your team on this topic, please take a look at our Custom Experiences page and book a time with our team so we can talk through your vision.

If you’re interested in joining our next Experimental Salon (of this or any other series), please make sure to sign up for our Eat, Drink and Do Good newsletter, follow us on Instagram, and join our discussion-based digital FB Community Social Impact Professionals for announcements!

If you are interested in supporting us and our future endeavors, please consider backing us on Patreon or contributing a donation via GiveLively

What Is Scarcity Mentality?

Scarcity mentality is the idea that everyone exists within a spectrum of competition. This mindset assumes there are finite resources (tangible and intangible), and that every resource obtained by one person or group comes at the expense of another.

We all experience some level of scarcity mentality at both an individual level ("I want to have this for myself") as well as a group level ("I want us to be successful, not them"). The latter is a function of tribalism, a primitive aspect of human evolution that helped us build the necessary group cohesion to compete against others for resources. We create these in-groups using shared identities (e.g., gender, ethnicity) as well as common backgrounds, behaviors, and beliefs.

However, the unique ways in which marginalized individuals and groups experience scarcity are not due to self-prioritization or tribalism alone. With the onset of capitalism in the 1600s, the idea of scarcity was intentionally weaponized by dominant groups in power to justify the unequal distribution of resources. Most notably, through the construction of race (under the false pretense of biology) to systematically exploit groups seen as "others". As Ruth Wilson Gilmore eloquently states, “Capitalism requires inequality and racism enshrines it.”

The use of race and its associated character traits has been an important way for the dominant group to maintain control. In particular, Critical Race Theory (CRT) examines how institutionalized power structures (from economics to law and education) were built on a social construct of race that upholds white supremacy. (Read more about CRT in the Glossary.)

As a result of continual oppression, scarcity has evolved beyond a fight for survival and into an omnipresent socialization that we as marginalized identities are "not enough" and, as a group, can never acquire enough to access the full spectrum of opportunities available to the dominant group. This then leads to self-defeatist in-fighting within and between different groups, further perpetuating the cycle of injustice and maintaining existing power dynamics.

Manifestations of Scarcity Within the Asian American Identity

In this first chapter, we will address the historical and contemporary manifestations of scarcity among Asian American communities. In the next chapter, we will discuss how institutional, governmental, and societal structures weaponize the scarcity mindset by providing Asian Americans the opportunities to maintain current racial hierarchy, uphold the same repressive ideals, and contribute to the subjugation of other marginalized identities.

Asian Americans are a diverse population with no “one-size-fits-all” interpretation of scarcity and its effects. The throughline between all of these experiences, however, is the fact that oppression establishes and reinforces scarcity. To further examine this relationship, we utilized Iris Marion Young’s framework of the five “faces” of oppression:

  • Exploitation

  • Marginalization

  • Powerlessness

  • Cultural imperialism

  • Violence


Asian Americans have long been exploited as workers in the United States, from Chinese laborers who were hired to undertake the most dangerous work of building the transcontinental railroad, to American colonizers establishing English-language nursing programs in the Philippines in order to “civilize” them. This sort of oppression is inexorably tied to capitalism, which is built on the principle of wealth accumulation at the expense of the socially and economically disadvantaged.

Despite the fact that Asian Americans have significantly contributed their labor to American society for generations, from major contributions in the sciences to military service, they are still made to feel their claim to American identity is predicated on continued contributions. This inherent lack of belonging places pressure on Asian Americans to continue to “prove” themselves in every aspect of their lives, as seen with highly publicized tension that resulted from the backlash against Andrew Yang’s 2020 op-ed: We Asian Americans Are Not the Virus, But We Can Be Part of the Cure.

As one of our Salon participants shared, operating within a capitalistic society as an Asian American has made them feel:

“I need to have skills to be valuable, because just as a person I am not valuable.”

As a result, their interpretation of scarcity is that they are “always in competition with other people, especially those with a similar background [as them], on who has the best skill. Even if it is a totally inconsequential skill.”

Conversely, even though it is the “foreignness” of Asian Americans’ ethnic, racial, and cultural backgrounds that pose barriers to their acceptance, those same attributes are often appropriated by the white dominant culture for profit (e.g., yoga, hula dance, Mongolian headdress). As one participant shared, the shame in experiencing a “lunchbox moment” as a child, contrasted with white chef-helmed restaurants’ use of (now) trendy Chinese food, reinforces the idea that scarcity is not abated through assimilation, because assimilation does not necessarily result in acceptance.


In order to endure centuries of discrimination and prejudice, marginalized individuals will often internalize the racism and oppression they are facing. For Asian Americans, this regularly manifests as perfectionism, obsession with productivity/labor, and feeling pressured to minimize “undesirable” personality traits associated with their race. This inability to live an authentic life within existing social structures is a manifestation of covert marginalization -- that is, the prevention or limitation of full participation in society.

As one participant shared, when they posed the question, “When should your opinion be heard?” to a white friend of theirs, they were shocked to hear their white friend respond, “All the time, whether it is right or wrong.” The participant, on the other hand, was unaccustomed to thinking their opinion should be heard unless they felt strongly about it being correct, productive, or valuable.

One Korean American participant explained that they felt coerced into agreeing with their former white friends’ racist comments because

“if I was their friend, then what they said wasn’t [racist]...and in turn it allowed me to be accepted. So when they made fun of Koreans eating dogs, I would also dish out stereotypes against Southeast Asians. I was desperate for that white adjacency, that white access.”

Similar to exploitation, marginalization can also result in fierce in-group competition. As one participant recounted,

“my family and I knew that white power and wealth were just unattainable...so as a result it became a class struggle between Asians, between the people I went to church with - which families could afford good tutors, who got into the best schools.”

Marginalization can also be observed through overtly exclusionary measures such as citizenship status, voting rights, employment opportunities, the healthcare system, public benefit programs, and community activities. In fact, our original Constitution specifically correlated participation in society with an individual’s labor output; anyone considered unworthy of paid labor (i.e. anyone who was not a white male) could not be naturalized, vote, or own property.

In fact, it was not until 2000 that multi-race individuals were able to denote more than one race on the U.S. census. As one multi-race participant explained, scarcity mentality is one that creates false binaries: “it assumes I can only be one identity or the other, either Asian or white, but never both.”

Even as Asian Americans advance professionally, scarcity continues to be reinforced by unspoken policies like the bamboo ceiling and racial quotas. Our Salon participants pointed out how white-dominant platforms only allow a small number of minorities to be simultaneously present as tokens of racial equity. One Filipinx American chef shared their experience of being rejected by a publisher because “they already have another Filipinx chef.” This reinforces the idea that the only value of marginalized people are their identities, making them interchangeable commodities; it is a prime example of racial capitalism, the extraction of social and economic value from PoC through the use of their racial identities. (Read more about racial capitalism in Glossary, and see our Toolkit for Recognizing, Disrupting, and Preventing Tokenization for more on tokenization.)

However, tokenization may initially lead some individuals to believe that their identity and opinions matter to the dominant group and, in response, either self-tokenize or perpetuate structures that enforce this continual scarcity. One participant shared about a time when a well-known figure they considered a “pillar of the industry” told him, “‘We will always need one Chinese chef on TV. That used to be me—now I want it to be you.’” He explained that this, “really enforced a psychology in myself that I need to be the Chinese food guy, not just a Chinese food guy.”

Conversely, another participant explained that “going from the token Asian in my childhood to a university that was majority Asian (73% Chinese American) activated the scarcity mentality in a new way, because it magnified the competition for recognition.”


Powerlessness is the deprivation of a person’s ability to make decisions about their living or working conditions. Similar to marginalization, it often manifests itself in both overt and covert ways and prohibits one from maintaining full ownership in personal and professional realms.

As a Filipinx participant described, the stratifications of powerlessness can be felt through “lines of safety” - that is, comparing their relative freedom traveling through TSA screening lines, to the experience of their Indian American friends who are almost always stopped.

Powerlessness is often reinforced by discriminatory policies. Starting in 1790, the pathway to citizenship was available only for “free white persons”; this was further compounded by the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, the first law passed banning a specific ethnic group. It was not until 1952 with the Voting Rights Act (VRA) that Asian-descended immigrants were allowed to vote and become citizens, and not until the Immigration Act of 1965 that national origin quotas were removed. Even today, the fight for expansion of translated voting materials and wider access is still an issue, especially in lower-income Asian American neighborhoods.

This lack of influence over one’s future extends beyond the political sphere as well. For example, the San Francisco Plague of 1900-1904 saw quarantine measures that allowed European Americans to leave the affected area, while Chinese and Japanese Americans required a health certificate to leave the city, confining them in already poor living conditions as the plague occurred mainly in Chinatown. California's Governor Henry Gage even refused to recognize the existence of the plague for two years because he valued the city's reputation and profit over the lives of its residents.

Today, the rise of deportation in Asian American populations, particularly Southeast Asian, as well as the ongoing fight for rights of DREAMers (many of whom are Asian American) highlight the inherently dehumanizing process of attempting to secure basic rights as immigrants in the U.S.

Cultural Imperialism

Cultural imperialism refers to the value, or even idolization, of the oppressor’s culture, norms, and characteristics. For many Asian Americans with a cultural history that involves war, immigration, and colonialism, cultural imperialism is often expressed through deprioritization of one’s cultural background and subsequent attachment to white or Western culture.

One prominent example is colorism among both Asian American and Asian communities. One Filipinx participant explained that in the Philippines, the mestizas (with both Filipinx and European ancestry) are seen as more beautiful than chinitas (who look more stereotypically Asian) and morenas (those with darker olive or brown skin tones). Because of these beauty standards, chinitas and morenas grow up being told to stay away from the sun, and are seen as less “civilized” as the mestizas.

Cultural imperialism also sustains the dominant group’s belief that their perception of the marginalized group’s identity traits, desires, and needs are accurate. This often manifests in saviorism (see Glossary).

One participant, an East Asian adoptee with white parents, noted that the hidden diaspora of adoptees from Asian countries is an expression of cultural imperialism.
They explained that waves of adoption occur due to war, imperialism, and resulting western paternalism (see Glossary). This value of the oppressor’s culture can then seep into family dynamics and erase a culture and language which was once a birthright.

One participant also shared how “in South Asian countries, your daughter or son studying abroad becomes a sort of ‘status symbol’”. As a result, scarcity became tied to “the idea of education, because there’s a quota for greencards and student visas.” Despite this dynamic, for the participant who lives and works in the U.S., “the people back home [in India] will say that I’m betraying my own culture even though they look up to whiteness.”

Relatedly, David L. Eng and Shinhee Han write in Racial Melancholia, Racial Dissociation:

“The displacement of Asian youth into the diaspora implicitly reinscribes the East as the ‘problem’ while reconstituting the West as the ‘solution.’”

Poor and/or lacking media representation of Asian Americans also fuel this problem. From mainstream media’s utter failure to report on the Chinese Massacre of 1871 - one of the worst lynchings in the U.S. - to Hollywood’s ongoing yellowface, stereotyping, and erasure of South and Southeast Asians, the underlying implication in American society is that Asian Americans are indistinguishable, easily imitable, or simply forgotten. This deepens feelings of inadequacy among Asian Americans and increases the desire to latch onto aspects of the “superior” culture.

For immigrant families in the U.S., the myth of the American Dream glorifies capitalistic meritocracy, while rewarding material consumption as “proof” of success. As one participant described, their mother’s view of the U.S. was “the opposite of scarcity,” and in order to prove that view as true, she would hoard unnecessary commodities. This fallacy of abundance can lead to beliefs that engaging in materialism and overconsumption are effective ways to stop and prevent scarcity.