The Model Minority Myth
For decades, Asian Americans have been referred to as the “model minority” because we’ve seemingly achieved the American dream by working hard and keeping our heads down. While some may view the term as harmless—positive, even—it actually has many negative consequences that hurt our selves, our children, and other communities of color.
The Truth Behind the “Model Minority”
The term “model minority” first appeared in 1966 in a New York Times Magazine article by sociologist William Pettersen. In "Success Story, Japanese-American Style," Pettersen praised Japanese Americans for overcoming war-time oppression and poverty to attain an integrated, middle-class status in only two decades. This, he claimed, was achievable because Japanese Americans were a hard-working, law-abiding, respectful, morally sound group; they were like white people and perfect models for American success.
However, Pettersen’s praise, given in the height of the Civil Rights Movement, was pointedly duplicitous. It implied that African Americans had only themselves to blame for continued poverty, discrimination, low achievement, and lack of opportunity: the “if they can do it, why can’t you” brand of ignorance. So in this way, the white establishment separated Asians from Blacks, hailing the former as perfect examples of self-made success, and dismissing the latter as both inept and indolent.
Since then, many ethnic and national groups have been looped into the “model minority” circle with Japanese Americans, and white institutions still use all of them as a tool of oppression. They continue to blame African Americans themselves, not systemic racism, for persistent gaps in opportunity and achievement. In just 2017, Andrew Sullivan wrote for New York Magazine:
“Asian-Americans, like Jews, are indeed a problem for the ‘social-justice’ brigade. I mean, how on earth have both ethnic groups done so well in such a profoundly racist society? It couldn’t possibly be that they maintained solid two-parent family structures, had social networks that looked after one another, placed enormous emphasis on education and hard work, and thereby turned false, negative stereotypes into true, positive ones, could it?”
I don’t know—maybe I shouldn’t feel so shocked. Pitting minorities against one another in order to downplay (or ignore) systemic racism is a well-worn strategy. What isn’t commonly discussed, however, is just how much damage the “model minority” label does to Asian Americans themselves.
The Asian Diaspora in America
When people hear the term “Asian Americans,” they tend to think of East Asians; therefore, “model minority” is typically applied to people of Chinese, Japanese, and Korean origins. Over the last few decades, Indians have also “earned” model minority status. A Pew Research analysis of US Census data from 1970 to 2016 shows that Indians—as well as Filipinos, Sri Lankans, and Japanese—tend to attain degrees and earn income well above national averages.
So, if we have data that supports the model minority ideal, what’s the problem? Well, the Asian American community is extremely diverse. Asian Americans originate from 20-plus different countries throughout the East Asian, South Asian, Southeast Asian, and Central Asian regions. The “model minority” label magnifies the experiences of just a few groups while rendering the others invisible—others who struggle to obtain things like education and employment, as well as respect and understanding in their American communities.
Glaring Disparities: Not All Asians are Crazy Rich
The same Pew analysis I mentioned above went on to show glaring disparities among Asian Americans. There are many groups—particularly the Hmong, Bhutanese, Burmese, Nepalese, Bangladeshi, and Mongolians—with higher-than-average numbers of households living below the poverty line. These groups are less likely to complete higher education or training and subsequently hold skilled employment. They originate from poorer countries and are more likely to face language barriers. Many come to the US through refugee or other resettlement programs, not as students, H1-B workers or other people with sought-after skills.
The way in which different Asians start their lives as Americans is not equitable. The “model minority” label magnifies the success of a few and generalizes those experiences across the Asian diaspora. Meanwhile, the stories of our most vulnerable stand largely unknown or ignored.
The label hurts in other ways too. It promotes the idea that the US is a meritocratic society. It perpetuates the myth that those who “fail to achieve” have done so because they simply made poor choices, didn’t work hard enough, or refused to adopt the norms of the dominant (i.e., white) culture. It unfairly poses the “they’ve done it, why can’t you” question to even more people who exist outside of a system that wasn’t created for them.
A Backhanded Compliment
The “model minority” label certainly hurts disadvantaged Asians, but it also hurts those to whom the label is applied. To be a “model minority,” we are asked to assume a white identity, yet no matter how acculturated we become, we’re still the “forever foreigner.”
“Model minority” hurts our children. It perpetuates the stereotype that Asian students are both bright and studious with two parents who actively foster educational achievement. This ideal masks the social realities of Asian students who do not fit that construct. As such, many Asian children and teens are overlooked when educators are identifying students who could benefit from additional support, whether it’s subject-specific, English language, or psychological and emotional support.
The worst consequence of being a “model minority” is that we are expected to be silent. “Model minorities” don’t create waves. We don’t call out injustice, we don’t demand more—and we don’t speak up for the brothers and sisters who don’t share our privilege. In this way, “model minority” is the perfect tool of oppression. Not only does it aim to keep us separate from other people of color, but it also keeps us divided among ourselves.
The model minority stereotype may seem harmless or even complimentary, but it’s problematic in so many ways. It promotes false realities, ignores institutional racism and other systemic barriers to success, and minimizes the experiences of many other Asian Americans. “Model minority” takes the experiences of a select few (who had certain privileges to begin with) and generalizes them across 20-plus nationalities and ethnicities, as if race is the only thing that determines success. “Model minority” isn’t an honor; it’s an oppressive tool with damaging consequences.
For more information, please see the articles that are linked throughout this piece, as well as the following academic article: Impacts of the Model Minority Myth on Asian American Individuals and Families: Social Justice and Critical Race Feminist Perspectives by Kristy Y. Shih, Tzu Fen Chang, and Szu Yu Chen.