Written by Karen Lin and edited by Melanie Kuo and Abigail Romero
The model minority myth has been imposed on Asian Americans for many years. The term “model minority” originated from sociologist William Petersen when he wrote an article for the New York Times Magazine, titled “Success Story: Japanese American Style.” This article claimed that Japanese Americans were able to overcome discrimination during and after the Japanese internment camps and still attain success in the United States due to the culture’s heavy emphasis on hard work and success. This means that these minorities are perceived to achieve higher success in terms of socioeconomics and more “smarter” than other groups, so they essentially serve as a reference to other minority groups. The model minority myth is used to describe Asian Americans since this group is seen to have attained success financially and educationally compared to other minority groups. This also overlooks the fact that there is a huge wealth gap in the AAPI community, thus it cannot be applied to the whole community. The model minority myth has spread since its initial reference and has been applied to not just Japanese people, but also those who are of Asian descent (primarily East and Southeast Asians), mainly because other people could not discern the difference between each Asian ethnic group.
Because of the model minority myth, strict immigration laws have been modified. There were restrictive immigration policies that prohibited immigration from Asia, but the 1965 Immigration Act reversed this restriction and began allowing certain people to enter the United States, which usually included people who were highly-educated, such as doctors or engineers. Many of these highly-educated and wealthy people immigrated from Asia to the United States after 1965. Many Asian immigrants have started their own successful businesses, thus playing a significant role in helping the U.S. economy thrive. This mainly pertains to those who are East Asian or Indian. Despite this, the idea of “model minority” is accompanied by “myth” because assumptions made about Asian Americans being very successful is a generalization that is not always accurate nor applicable to every single Asian American. While some Asian ethnic groups may relatively be doing well, it is not the case for every other Asian ethnic group. According to the 2000 Census, over 90 percent of the Cambodian population does not have a bachelor’s degree and have a per-capita income of $10,215. The 2005 Census data showed that a high percentage of Asian Americans are disproportionately living in poverty, with 11 percent of Asian Americans living below the poverty line.
Since the model minority myth is derived from stereotypes about Asian Americans being highly intelligent, always successful, hardworking, and socioeconomically thriving, some people, including Asian Americans, may consider the model minority myth to be positive. Despite the fact that the model minority myth is perceived as praise for Asian Americans because of their successes and achievements, it reinforces the idea that racism does not exist in the United States. It disregards the fact that Asian Americans still experience racism and discrimination. Because the myth states and assumes that all Asian Americans are successful, it leads to assumptions that Asians do not experience oppression. For instance, the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 and the Japanese internment camps in the 1940s are being erased as a result of the myth, suggesting that the United States was never racist towards Asian descents.
This also leaves Asian Americans at a disadvantage when it comes to college admissions. Even though many prestigious colleges receive a high number of high achieving Asian students, many of them still get denied despite being qualified. Nonetheless, Asian students are also being put on a relatively higher standard compared to other students, especially since the model minority myth generalizes the whole Asian community. In addition, this can primarily be detrimental to Asians from low-income families since they may not fit into the model minority myth. Many disadvantaged groups such as Cambodians, Laotians, and Hmong are disproportionately poor and have a high dropout rate from high school. It has been found that Harvard has significantly admitted less Asian American applicants than white applicants despite their grades and standardized test scores being much stronger.
Furthermore, this myth degrades other minority groups as it insinuates that if Asian Americans can succeed, then other minorities can and should as well. Because of this, other minority groups are seen as “bad” or “unintelligent” if they don’t achieve the same successes as Asian Americans. Since Asian Americans are represented as the model minority, it is suggesting that every other minority group must follow what they do. However, many minority groups, notably Black and Hispanics/Latinos, are extremely disadvantaged, have low socioeconomic status, and are usually the ones who contribute to essential fields of work, but don’t receive the opportunity to advance to other fields of work. This leaves them with much less opportunities and resources in order to achieve a high level of success. Because of this, the relationships between Asian Americans and other minority groups such as Black and Hispanics/Latinos aren’t as strong as they could be. The system that created the model minority myth pitted Asians against other BIPOC and perpetuates anti-Blackness.
Despite popular belief, the model minority myth can actually negatively affect Asian Americans. With the numerous stereotypes that come with the model minority myth that place high expectations on Asian Americans, it forces people in this community to want to reach those high levels of expectations imposed on them. With the constant pressure of these expectations, many Asian Americans may feel discouraged or depressed when they don’t live up to an expectation. These feelings can contribute to mental health issues, and Asian Americans are also less likely to seek help regarding their mental health because of the stigma on mental health among some Asian cultures. The myth immensely pressures Asian Americans to live up to it in order to feel accepted.
The model minority myth also completely ignores the diversity of Asian American cultures. The myth makes people think that all Asians are the “same” because they are depicted and generalized as certain stereotypes, which lumps the whole Asian community together. Asia, as a whole, is actually one of the most diverse continents in the world. There are many disparities in each Asian ethnic group, but the model minority myth overlooks that. For example, the model minority myth ignores the different experiences and challenges that Southeast Asian populations face, such as those who are Vietnamese, Thai, Hmong, Cambodian, or Laotian compared to East Asian, such as Chinese and Japanese people.
Overall, the model minority myth is harmful to the Asian American community in several ways. It forces them to feel pressured into ensuring that they meet expectations of the model minority myth. It also perpetuates the idea that other minority groups that aren’t Asian are inferior to them because they aren’t considered the model minority and are being disparaged if they don’t succeed. Ultimately, although there are many high achieving and successful Asian Americans, the model minority myth is still a generalization that cannot be applicable to the whole community.
Cover Art by agsandrew via Getty Images/iStockPhoto
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