The Destructive Legacy of the Model Minority Myth

The “model minority myth” is derived from the stereotype of Asians as hard-working, intelligent, passive, and economically prosperous. The term was coined by sociologist William Pettersen in a 1966 New York Times article to counter claims of white supremacy. He pushed the idea of Asians as the “perfect” minority group: rule-abiding, complacent, and successful. Since then, the myth has been repeatedly used against other marginalized communities to deny the existence of white supremacy. While the stereotype may initially appear positive, the model minority myth excludes the reality of working-class Asian-Pacific Americans and enables the invisibility of issues like labor abuse, poverty, mental illness, anti-Asian racism, and sexism within the Asian-Pacific American community. 

The Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 attempted to reverse decades of restrictive racial immigration policies and encouraged an unprecedented wave of immigration from foreign nations, primarily Asian countries, into the United States. The Act remains a significant watershed event that transformed the demographics and cultures of major cities and the Asian-Pacific American community, in general. However, the new immigration policies only opened the gateway of opportunities to individuals who met a set of strict educational requirements. This caveat in the seemingly supportive law ensured that Asian migrants would immediately be cast into the model minority myth. The industrial, technological, and social advances of Asian-Pacific Americans during the 1960s were the product of the same system that suppressed the success of Black, Latinx, and Indigenous Americans — white supremacy.

The stereotype specifically pits Asian-Pacific Americans against Black Americans, disrupting the interracial solidary by implanting implicit tension between the two ethnic groups. The model minority myth has been repeatedly employed by the government and major politicians as a weapon against other racialized groups, primarily the so-called “problem minorities” who fail to conform to white culture and society. Political leaders exploited the stereotype to deny the deeply rooted systemic racism which the United States was built upon by providing evidence of a so-called “color blind” society. In an attempt to undermine the ongoing Civil Rights Movement, they argued that Asian-Pacific migrants were more successful than other ethnic minorities because of hard work, high education, and law-abiding nature. Politicians and media sources used mass propaganda to imply that if Asian-Pacific Americans were successful, then the difficulties that the “problem minorities” faced were a product of their own creation. The perceived inclusion of Asian-Pacific Americans was weaponized to impede the activism of Black Americans and other marginalized communities, perpetuate anti-blackness, and deny the inherent system of white supremacy that valued and devalued entire communities on their proximity to whiteness.

The model minority myth dictates that Asian-Pacific Americans are the obedient and rule-abiding minority who are guaranteed financial and educational success on the basis of their hard-working nature. The narrative’s emphasis on individualism and complicity discourages collective actions from Asian-Pacific Americans to overcome challenges and speak out against social discrimination. Because issues of mental illness and basic disparities are not discussed in the Asian-Pacific American community, many AAPI youths experience the fear of failure to conform to these stereotypes and may feel the obligation to possess an ethos solely obsessed with professional status and accruing wealth. Asian American college students are 1.6 times more likely to attempt suicide, yet are 3 times less likely to seek professional assistance compared to other ethnic groups. The stereotype ignores the socio-economic, political, educational, and psychological needs of Asian-Pacific Americans by preventing them from voicing the disparities.

The model minority theory designates that Asian-Pacific Americans, as a group, are highly economically and academically prosperous, usually to contrast the perceived achievements of other racial groups. However, the stereotype is wildly misleading and doesn’t accurately represent the financial difficulties faced by the vast majority of Asian-Pacific Americans and Asian immigrants. Despite having the highest annual income of all racial groups, the AAPI community also boasts the largest income gap. Statistics published in the New York Times indicate that, as of 2016, the top earning 10% of Asian-Pacific Americans earn 10.7 times more than the bottom 10%, in comparison to 9.8 times for Black Americans and 7.8 times for White Americans. According to Harvard Business Review, Asian-Pacific Americans, particularly Asian-Pacific American women, are the least likely to be promoted to management and are most likely to be silenced in decision making under the so-called “bamboo ceiling” in corporations. However, the lack of media representation of Asians beyond the richest 10 percentile has rendered the ever-increasing disparities fundamentally invisible.

Studies regarding racial achievement and success often conglomerate the diverse AAPI community together into a single group. Sources that claim Asian-Pacific Americans as a group hold higher degrees and earn greater incomes than other racial minorities often attribute their success to attitudes and “complacent” nature. However, a deeper dive into the statistics reveals otherwise. Data from the American Council on Education reveal that while 73.2% of Korean Americans ages 18-24 are pursuing higher education, only 44.3% of Filipino Americans and 23% of Vietnamese Americans have been enrolled in college. According to the National Asian Pacific American Women’s Forum (NAPAWF), for every $1.00 the average white American man, an Indian woman makes $1.21, a Taiwanese woman makes $1.16, a Samoan woman makes $0.62, and a Nepalese woman makes $0.50. The concept of Asian-Pacific Americans as a whole fit under the model minority myth discredits the diverse, complex, and nuanced composition of the community while undermining the disparity of major parts of the Asian-Pacific American community.

 Political leaders utilize the stereotype to perpetuate the notion of the United States as a welcoming country filled with opportunities, ignoring the long history of racial discrimination. Under the carefully crafted veil of the model minority, acts of racial suppression — the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, the 1871 Chinese Massacre, the Japanese Internment Camps of the 1940s, the KKK’s brutal attack on Vietnamese refugees in 1981, the violent race-motivated murder of Vincent Chin in 1982, the anti-Asian discrimination amidst the coronavirus pandemic — are rendered insignificant. The theory implies that Asian-Pacific Americans are thriving even after these horrific attacks. However, data from the American Community Survey (ACS) shows that, despite only making up 6.2% of the US population, 12.8% of the Asian American Pacific Islander community are living under federal poverty levels, ranging from 6.8% of Filipino Americans to 39.4% of Burmese Americans. According to data from the AAPI Data Organization, one of every seven Asian immigrants are undocumented and Asians currently account for about 1.6 million of the 11 million undocumented immigrants in the United States. The popularization of the model minority myth erases the decades of systemic anti-Asian racism by publicizing Asian-Pacific Americans as the living manifestations of the American Dream. 

The roots of anti-Asian racism intertwine with the objectification and fetishization of Asian women as a result of ingrained stereotypes. The model minority myth suggests that Asian women are sexually submissive originates from the wave of Asian immigration into the United States during the 19th century. A significant portion of less financially established Asian women migrants, among other racialized women, were employed and grew to dominate in the low-paying feminized workforce, primarily domestic work and the sex industry. The 1870 census indicated that 61% of Chinese women in California had listed their occupation as prostitution. Eventually, Asian women became seen as threats to the biological reproduction and birth of white babies, facing horrid treatment and press coverage that reduced them to little more than an erotic sexual object. To contrast the supposed widespread success of Asian-Pacific Americans, Asian sexuality is often depicted to be more immoral compared to those of white women and is often attributed to a lack of personal effort rather than their circumstances. To this day, the fetishization of Asian women, or the so-called “Yellow Fever”, has grown increasingly pervasive and renders Asian-Pacific American sex workers especially vulnerable to exploitation and abuse that are ultimately silenced by the celebration of Asian success.

Recently, outcries from members of the AAPI community and allies against the rising anti-Asian hate crimes rate amidst the coronavirus pandemic have called to awareness of the problematic effects of the model minority myth. Debunking the model minority myth requires adequate and accurate representation of the AAPI in media and literature. From the significant underrepresentation of Asian-Pacific American literature in classroom curriculums to the mockery of the Asian appearance in TV shows, the media has continuously failed to portray a genuine depiction of the rich diversity within the Asian-Pacific American community. The “token Asian friend” trope in mainstream books, movies, and TV shows assist in further perpetuating the model minority myth. Until the complex and nuanced reality of the Asian-Pacific American experience is accurately explored, the model minority myth will continue to thrive and amplify its destructive legacy.

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