Updated: Jul 21, 2021
By Anna Jang and Ryan Kim
At some point in our lives, we have probably heard something along the lines of “all Asians are good at math,” or “all Asians are shy and docile.” These stereotypes are some of the countless examples of a false perception known as the Model Minority Myth. This myth is a narrative in which Asian American children are characterized as academic and/or musical geniuses. This false image also includes the idea of Asian “Tiger Moms” who push their children to their limits, and Asian fathers have prestigious careers in STEM industries, but never leadership positions. Society characterizes Asian Americans as being polite, law-abiding and generally passive people who have achieved success in life through hard work and inherent talent. This apparent success ranging from academic, economic, and cultural aspects typically contrasts to the accomplishments of other racial groups, and Asian Americans are seen as the “ideal racial minority.” While these positive-sounding stereotypes may sound not all that bad, the myth actually does more harm than good because of its inherently racist background and negative employment.
The Model Minority Myth stemmed from the late 1800s, when California went through a period of economic failure. Many Chinese immigrants moved to California for the gold rush, and became scapegoats for the cause of illnesses and economic collapse in the U.S. They were accused of being dangerous criminals and job stealers, resulting in the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. This bill banned Chinese workers from immigrating to the U.S and by the year 1924, immigration from almost every Asian nation was prohibited. A “driving out” era also commenced, in which Chinese workers were violently forced to leave. However, the Chinese Exclusion Act was eventually terminated to form stronger ties with China and 150 Chinese immigrants were allowed to move to the U.S every year. This allowance did not last for long because at this time, Communist fears began to grow at an increasing rate. Rumors that the Chinese Communist Party used Chinatowns across the country spread like wildfire, and many people boycotted Asian businesses, segregated neighborhoods, and limited employment opportunities.
This is where the Model Minority Myth came into play. As a means to protect their communities, leaders of Asian American communities began to push an ideology that claimed that the Chinese people were taught to be obedient and hardworking. These leaders wanted to spread positive stories about their Asian communities to achieve upward mobility, and politicians at the time began to utilize these narratives to win allies in the Cold War. To them, the Asian American community was the perfect tool for the U.S to look like a “racial democracy” that did not discriminate against others. In addition, after the bombing at Pearl Harbor during World War II, Japanese Americans were placed into detention camps, yet still managed to thrive in socioeconomic conditions after these internments. In an article written by sociologist William Petersen in the New York Times, it was stated that Japanese Americans had been able to overcome discrimination against their group, and found success in the U.S through hard work. This further fueled the concept of the model minority, and added to the belief that “if Asian Americans could find success within, why couldn’t other racial groups?”
However, the myth is problematic for several reasons. For example, it was used to counter the demands of African Americans during the civil rights movement in the 1960s. White politicians found it a perfect opportunity to shun African Americans by using the images of hard-working Asians. The myth was used to perpetuate anti-blackness, as Asians were deemed successful in comparison to African Americans. The stereotypes that Asians were conforming, played by the rules, and did not care for social justice was the opposite of the stereotypes associated with African Americans, as African Americans were seen to be heavily involved in politics, strong advocates, and “rowdy.” Asian Americans were labelled the “model minority,” while African Americans were regarded as the “problem minority.” In reality, the Model Minority myth was just an excuse for white people to pin minorities against each other.
In addition, the Model Minority Myth has affected the Asian American and Pacific Islander community itself in a very significant way. In pushing these ignorant stereotypes based on assumptions about Asians, many Asian individuals may experience struggles and doubts when confronted with such expectations. As mentioned before, a common positive stereotype associated with Asians is that they are good at math. Although harmless on the surface, Asians can experience embarrassment or feelings of incompetence if they have struggles with math because of this stereotype. This can spiral Asian individuals down a pit of self-loathing and low self-esteem, as society’s expectations of Asians often prove to be simply unachievable. When society measures the quality of an individual based on their ability in a certain field, it cheapens their worth as a human being and promotes a conditional acceptance, where a person is measured not by their individuality but by expectations placed on them by others.
The Model Minority Myth is a poison often ignored in American society. To dismantle this myth and everything it stands for, we must take action immediately. There are three simple things you can do to aid in the removal of this myth. First, you can educate yourself about the myth and its repercussions in the lives of Asian-Americans today. Do your own research and don’t settle for social media posts or news articles. Although those are starting points, all media falls victim to bias. Second, you can talk about this myth to those around you. Whether that be parents, friends, or even the general public, opening such a topic will lead to meaningful and enlightening conversations which will allow the impact of the Model Minority Myth to be understood by many more people. Even if it is just one person, sharing your knowledge or even your experiences with the Model Minority Myth will bring us all closer to the end goal, its complete removal. Third, you can research and share the histories of the different Asian cultures in relation to America. Doing so will allow you and those around you to understand the long-lasting history of anti-Asian discrimination and bigotry and help understand the grave implications of the Model Minority Myth. When we embrace the cultures and nuances of all the groups that make up the AAPI, we move further away from the discriminatory nature that defined America in the 19th and 20th century and begin a new movement towards social equality and social awareness.
As many of you may have seen on the news, COVID-19 has illuminated Anti-Asian sentiment throughout America. The rise in hate crimes against AAPI may partially be due to COVID-19, it is important to understand how the Model Minority Myth plays a part in it too. Although Asians often hear about the myth the most, other racial groups are fed stereotypes about Asians through the media and from other individuals. This is especially damaging because it gives off the impression that Asians are perfectly fine and that they experience no hardship in life simply because of their race, which is simply not true. The myth is often indirectly used when Asian activists try to work towards reform that will address the horrendous treatment of Asians in the past, and how anti-Asian sentiment still affects many of us to this day. For many areas that do not have the greatest amount of diversity, Asians are often painted as caricatures, overexaggerated individuals living the American Dream. This simply dismisses the struggles Asians face and makes it so that talking about the Model Minority Myth has a stigma attached to it. We must speak up, and we must make our voices heard. The Model Minority Myth has lasted much too long, and its countless consequences make it clear. It needs to go.