Updated: Oct 26, 2020
By Holly Shimabukuro
Image via TIME.
As the world witnesses one of, if not the largest movement in US history for racial justice, now is the time to dismantle a fallacy used to decelerate the fight for civil rights and plague the Asian American community: the Model Minority Myth.
The Model Minority Myth refers to the perception that Asian Americans have achieved a higher socioeconomic status than the population average. As a result of this attitude, a stereotype has surfaced around Asians Americans that forges a monolithic narrative onto an incredibly diverse community, seen through the clichés of an affinity for STEM subjects, Tiger Moms who prioritize grades over wellbeing, and their persistent presence in the upper-middle class.
Before delving into the portrait the myth creates, understanding the roots of Asian immigration to the US is crucial. The history of Asian immigration dates primarily back to 1848 during the California Gold Rush, where an influx of Chinese migrants arrived at the Sacramento Valley after The Opium Wars. The extreme weather conditions left China in debt with peasants devoid of viable land. After decades of Chinese discrimination through court decisions like People v. Hall and state legislation like the Foreign Miners Tax, The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 rooted deeper intolerance into national judgement.
Signed by President Arthur, Chinese immigration was suspended for 10 years, and those already in the US were not authorized to be naturalized. A decade later, The Geary Act extended Chinese Exclusion for an additional 10 years, and 20 years after the initial legislation was signed, The Act became permanent and officially barred Chinese Immigration. Although repealed by the 1943 Magnuson Act, historians reasoned the WWII legislation as a political strategy in order to cease Japanese propaganda and divide the US and China, allies at the time.
Despite The Magnuson Act being passed, Asian immigration was still limited by quotas nonetheless, consequently dwindling the Asian population in the US.
It wasn’t until 1965 when Asians were explicitly welcomed into the United States. Signed by President Lyndon B. Johnson, The Immigration and Nationality Act put preceding quotas to rest, hence significantly increasing the predominant East-Asian population in the US. The Act was aimed to attract skilled labor, mostly professionals and scientists with established success. The narrative that Asians held a greater achievement rate shaped during this period, for the majority of immigrants that came had already met a certain socioeconomic status. It would be a decade until high volumes of Southeast Asians migrated to the US, many finding asylum after the Vietnam War. The refugees, most coming with very little, opposed the stereotypical Asian association with wealth. Unfortunately, the “Model Minority” concept had already taken root.
The term was coined by William Peterson in his New York Times article “Success Story: Japanese American Style.” The piece praised the Japanese American expeditious comeback following their internment in WWII, claiming their success was catalyzed by family centrism, educational emphasis, sharp genetics, and Confucian values. The term was essentially creating a false impression of social mobility’s simplicity. In Peterson’s eyes, along with many others, the Japanese Americans started from nothing when they returned, and were immediately able not only to return to normalcy, but excel in the fields they pursued. The 1966 article was the beginning of a term that would soon act as an umbrella to characterize a continent’s worth of immigrants and their descendants.
This term became associated with a cookie-cutter, law-abiding citizen that other minorities should emulate. Within the Asian American community, the Model Minority Myth crafts a standard for what an Asian American “should” be, whether it regards income, education, or docility. It became another implementation of white supremacy in American culture, reinforcing the positive outcomes of bootstrapping and discrediting the civil rights movement occurring in the 1960s.
The Model Minority Myth creates the impression that all Asians are upper-middle class, but this is simply not the case. The misconception referencing high income and socioeconomic status overlooks the significant wage gaps within the race. Asian Americans have the largest income inequality for racial and ethnic groups in the US, and the difference is widening. When comparing how much an Asian American woman makes to her white male counterpart, extreme disparities exist between the different ethnicities. According to the National Asian Pacific American Women’s Forum, a Taiwanese woman makes $1.23 for every dollar a white male makes, while a Nepalese woman only makes $0.50. The Model Minority umbrella is much too broad of a generalization to accurately represent all Americans of Asian descent, especially considering those of Southeast Asian and Pacific Islander descent who are commonly left out.
As a consequence of being considered the “Model Minority,” Asian Americans are often excluded from important conversations that they should be involved in, for one in seven Asians living in the US are undocumented. DACA discussions are normally centered around those south of the US border, but the fastest growing group of undocumented immigrants are from the East.
Within the youth of the Asian American community, the Myth is deleterious since these “standards” are internalized, and if not met, seen as failure. The Model Minority Myth formed the archetype that Asian American students earn straight A’s, excel in STEM, and will become doctors or engineers. Disney Channel’s Jessie is notable in this practice. Ravi Ross, who speaks in an Indian accent despite the fact that his character was born in New York, was one of Gen Z’s token Asian Americans on TV. Ravi was undoubtedly the smartest out of the four adopted children, often seen completing his siblings’ homework or scolding them for breaking a rule, consequently playing into the smart, law-abiding Asian. The act of feeding the Model Minority Myth to the youth is dangerous, for this sets unrealistic and unnecessary expectations for Asian American children to internalize during their formative years.
Moreover, the Model Minority Myth erases the struggles and history behind Asian immigration, forgetting all racism endured pre-Immigration and Nationality Act. Today, racism and microaggressions against Asians in the US have been normalized as a result of the Myth and its impression that Asian Americans will be compliant towards any act of bigotry. For Asian Americans, the question “but where are you really from?'' is all too familiar.
Aside from its impact on the Asian American community, the Model Minority Myth is an implementation of anti-black sentiment and ultimately a perpetuator of racism.
The Model Minority Myth was the platform needed to form a racial hierarchy to justify centuries of systematic racism, pitting Asian Americans and African Americans against each other. The apparent success of Asian Americans was used to contrast other racial and ethnic minorities. In reality, the Asians that are close to the top today are mostly descended from families of wealthy immigrants coming through the Immigration and Nationality Act, a small fraction of the Asian Americans in the country today. The wealthy remained wealthy, but the fast characterization in the 1960’s persevered through the 21st century, ironically symbolizing the process it opposes: social mobility.
The idea of “pulling oneself up by one’s bootstrap” is a common term associated with a limited involvement form of government. The purpose of the quote was to encourage low class, often minority groups, to simply work hard and use grit to dig their way out of poverty. The context of the quote can also be pertained to the American Dream, a flawed and nearly impossible concept itself. Hard work will not overcome social mobility barriers in the United States as long as institutionalized racism endures. In relation to the Model Minority Myth, white politicians saw Asians as another marginalized group in the US and thought, if they could succeed while being a minority, African Americans are just not working hard enough nor prioritizing correctly.
In reality, Asian Americans not only appeared to succeed as a result of the Immigration and Nationality Act, but Asians did not have to overcome the systemic inequalities to the same extent as black people. Truthfully, it was easier for Asians to class climb since government systems had not been built to oppress them. Simply put, Asian Americans were oppressed less than African Americans. Black people faced slavery, decades of Jim Crow Laws, redlining, mass incarceration, and many other government-approved forms of discrimination and segregation on a level that did not match the oppression of Asians throughout US history.
The substantiality of this claim can be seen by comparing the incarceration rates of Asians to black people. Asians are 1.5% of all incarcerated people, but 5.9% of the US population according to the US Census Bureau. Black people are 38.2% of all incarcerated people, but 13.4% of the US population. Looking at these statistics, it is easy for one to fall into the Model Minority trap by asserting that Asians are less likely to commit crime due to their law-abiding nature, and black people are inherently more violent. However, reasoning this as a result of a minority group’s “nature” is illogical, as actions of an entire race cannot be characterized based on their genetic predispositions. The real reason for these statistics are the over-policing of predominantly black neighborhoods, an implicit bias, and a racial prejudice against black people by those sworn to serve the country. The Model Minority Myth suggests Asians do not commit as much crime, but the truth lies behind the fact that Asians are not oppressed by the system to the extent of black people.
The Model Minority Myth has been a tool used to actively ignore the need of a reformed system and ultimately feeds the anti-black narrative in America that must be dismantled. While some Asian Americans feel safe within the Model Minority bubble, it is the responsibility of those associated to recognize the flaws in this myth. As a nation, we must continue to educate ourselves and speak up in the fight for racial equity.
As Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said, “the ultimate tragedy is not the oppression and cruelty by the bad people but the silence over that by the good people.”
Written by writer Holly Shimabukuro