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Dismantling The “Model Minority” Myth

Asians are: quiet, polite, smart, obedient, straight-A students, law-abiding, hardworking, financially thriving, & good at math & science.

We all have stories to share about these particular descriptors. Maybe it was a friend saying “you’re Indian, so you’ll pass,” or a boss saying, “I like hiring Asian women, they’re so submissive.” Maybe a parent boasting with colleagues, “We came here with nothing but $5 and look at how much we’ve accomplished.”

However, there is always a problem grouping people together and making assumptions about them. It exists in the way we perceive Black Americans, and it also exists in the way we perceive Asian Americans. Part of the problem is also the way many Indian Americans and other Asian subgroups see themselves.

There are many different ways society perpetuates the myth of the model minority. Here are some questions to ask yourself as we move forward.

  • What are the problems with this myth?
  • How do we address and dissect our own thought processes, as well as others?

The “Model Minority” myth ignores disparities among and between various South Asian groups.

In 1965, President Lyndon B. Johnson passed the Immigration Act. Restrictive immigration laws were seen as an embarrassment, especially post-WWII to the height of the Civil Rights Movement. The Immigration Act reversed years of restrictive policies and preferences for white, European immigrants, and allowed a greater number of immigrants from Asia and Latin America.

However, only those who met certain criteria could enter. Mainly, those with immediate family already in the US, and educated professionals and scientists.

If we believe in the “Model Minority” myth, we ignore the fact that the US recruited ONLY educated Asians with visas and pathways to citizenship. Since the vast majority of Asians that immigrated were educated professionals, we can assume they probably came from advantaged backgrounds. Even those who came with the legendary “$5 in their pocket” still came with a degree, a job, or admission to a graduate program.

By perpetuating the idea that we came here with nothing but $5, we also ignore the many Asians that came here as refugees. We ignore those who were able to immigrate later regardless of their educational and financial status. The myth ignores the struggles these groups face. The myth allows us to say – “they need to try harder or work harder” or “what racism? we did ok” and it gives us this false sense that being Asian is having “smart” genes.

On the flip side, it also gives the impression that because we are successful, we don’t need any extra help. Perhaps we don’t ask a teacher for help or we feel shame in collecting unemployment. Maybe we don’t share that a child has dyslexia or is on the autism spectrum, and instead withdraw from our social circles.

Some questions to ask yourself:

  • How have I been taught to hate or look down upon other groups, or individuals, within the Asian American diaspora?
  • In what ways am I critical and competitive with myself & other Asians?
  • How can I embrace Asian Americans who are different from me?

The “Model Minority” myth cites the success of South Asians in contrast to the “problems” of African Americans.

 “If you can convince the lowest white man he’s better than the best colored man, he won’t notice you’re picking his pocket. Hell, give him somebody to look down on, and he’ll empty his pockets for you.”

— President Lyndon B. Johnson

With the Model Minority myth, Asian Americans have been convinced that they are better than Black Americans. How many times have our South Asian parents warned us to stay away from “those black people” – in school, in the neighborhood, at work, and most definitely in relationships?

When we embrace the Model Minority myth, we feel that being Asian is somehow superior, instead of realizing the advantage many of us came to this country with. We decide that racism does not affect our well-being because, look at us, we are successful.  The myth suggests that if Asian Americans are doing well and that if other groups would only work harder, have stronger family bonds, and get over their histories of oppression, they too would succeed.

However, though other groups may have struggled with oppression in their countries of origin, there is really no comparison to the 300+ years of kidnapping, rape, and forced labor of 4 million+ enslaved African people and the continued oppression we still see today.

We can make excuses for an abusive person when we find out they were abused as a child. Yet, we somehow expect a generationally-abused community to be model citizens because other minorities can.

The Model Minority myth gives government, institutions, and businesses in this country a cover for their systemic racism. If Asians are successful, the impact of racism and discrimination on Black Americans can be downplayed. It also pits POC against each other and keeps us all from striving together for a more equal society.

Questions to ask yourself:

  • In what ways am I racist against Black people?
  • What stereotypes about Black people do I struggle with believing?
  • How have I been socialized to feel unsafe around Black people?
  • How can I retrain myself to see Black people as whole human beings with dignity?
  • What history can I learn to increase my empathy for Black Americans?

The “Model Minority” myth ignores struggles that groups may face. If South Asians are seen as financially well-off/well-educated, they are seen as not needing any services.

“When I was halfway through the 11th grade, my pre-calculus teacher pulled me out into the hallway. He wanted to talk about my latest test. ‘You can do better than this,’ he said. ‘I’m so surprised by grades like this from someone like you.’ Someone like you? I’d never done particularly well in his class, so the implication of his words churned in my stomach. In that moment, I felt acutely the weight of the dark braid trailing down my back and the glasses slipping down my nose.”

— SARAH-SOONLING BLACKBURN

Many Asian Americans feel pressure to succeed from a young age. Sometimes pressure comes from our parents, sometimes our communities, and sometimes from outside expectations.

There are so many stories that speak to this experience. Maybe it’s adults lying about unemployment because they didn’t want to fail. In school it’s kids finding ways to get a fake report card to their families. Perhaps it’s teachers ignoring a struggling student and dismissing poor work as “a bad day.”

It’s no surprise that Asian American college students are more likely than their white peers to attempt suicide. Suicide is the 2nd leading cause of death for Asian Americans ages 15-34.

As Asian adults we also want to ignore the problems our society faces. In our work at SEWA-AIFW, we find that many – in our Indian community especially – don’t want to acknowledge our work on domestic violence and mental health. It contrasts our successful, family-oriented image that we present not only to ourselves, but to society in general.

Questions to ask yourself:

  • How can I support positive mental health for my family and friends?
  • In what ways am I critical and competitive with myself & other Asians?
  • How can I use envision a being Asian American other than emulating or being reactionary to the Model Minority Myth?
  • How do I balance having high expectations for my kids and paying attention to their mental health?

Dismantling the myth

We hope that this has given you some insight into the “Model Minority” myth, and that you can understand and engage in conversation when presented with comments that allude to it.

This myth is damaging not only to ourselves as Asian Americans, but to every other minority group as well. Let’s stop ignoring the struggles that exist amongst all people of color and fight together for a more equal society.

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