19 October, 2021

The Humanitarian Collective

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The Failures of the Model Minority

A look into the distinction between stereotypes that have been used to define Asian-Americans, versus the diverse set of circumstances and realities that the community faces.

I hear the twist of a door knob and stomps up the steps as my mother returns from work. Her black hair is up in a bun, wisps knocked loose by a day of managing her office. Large cat eye glasses frame her tired face. Bent down to remove her old Mary Janes, she continues to talk about the events of her day. 

“He called me into his office. I was there for an hour before he started talking about shipment prices and I told him, ‘I only look Chinese. I can’t do math.’”

A red flag waves in my mind. Why do people assume my mother is good with math? What about her skill is connected to her Asian heritage? The answer lies in a stereotype that formed before I, or even my mother, was born. 

In 1966, the term “model minority” was used to describe the “success” of Japanese Americans in a New York Times article by sociologist William Petersen. Following this, many other “success stories” about additional Asian American minorities surfaced. 

Together, these pieces created the model minority stereotype. It refers to Asian Americans and the expectation that they are naturally smart, hardworking high achievers, thereby overcoming racism and attaining educational and financial success without the need of assistance. While it may seem like “model minority” is a positive title, there is more beneath the surface that quickly disputes this.

On the whole, Asian Americans appear better than average in terms of academic success. According to the Pew Research Center, research conducted in 2015 shows that only 30% of all Americans over 25 have at least a bachelor’s degree, while 51% of Asian Americans in the same age group do. However, more than 20 origin groups make up the Asian American population, creating a wide variety of data points. Indian Americans have the largest percentage at 72% compared to the lowest at 9% for Bhutananese Americans. 

This obviously false stereotype that Asian Americans will all excel academically can be harmful to students. Experts, interviewed in an NBC new article, say that additional pressures to get perfect grades are piled on top of the normal ones young adults face, having negative consequences on mental health. Trying to fit the model minority label can lead to increased anxieties and even mental breakdowns if the stress becomes overwhelming. 

Moreover, teachers can unintentionally leave Asian American children at a disadvantage. They may pay less attention to an Asian American student if they hold the assumption that help is unnecessary. Lacking the help they need, struggling  students may end up receiving grades that don’t match their full potential. Worse, they may feel unsupported in the classroom.If no one is providing the assistance they need, Asian American students may be less likely to ask for help. Nkauj Iab Yang, an Asian American interviewed for the same NBC news article, experienced this first hand. When she needed tutoring, she felt like she couldn’t ask for it. If teachers believe in the model minority, Asian Americans, like Yang, will be left with a disadvantage compared to other students who receive the support they deserve. 

Unfortunately, generalizations about economic well being can also be made. From the same research, it was found that Asian Americans had a lower poverty rate than the U.S. as a whole, 12.1% and 15.1% respectively. Once again looking closer, this statistic differs greatly between Asian American subgroups. Burmese Americans have the highest poverty rate at 35.0% whereas both Filipino and Indian Americans have the lowest at 7.5%. 

This immediately disproves the stereotype that all Asian Americans are succeeding financially. Even as a whole, there are many impoverished Asian Americans and, looking closer, certain subgroups are much worse. The success stories that created the model minority myth only showed the best of the best. According to The Routledge Companion to Race and Ethnicity, by assuming all Asian Americans are financially successful, it hides the struggles of groups that actually need help. While everyone focuses on the top, they never realize the suffering at the bottom.

Even so, there is still more that is brushed under the rug. The racism that Asian Americans face, both now and historically, is downscaled by the model minority myth. Once again, people only look at the positives and disregard the low points. How can it be said that Chinese Americans have overcome racism when Chinese immigrants were barred from this country because of their race? How can it be said that Japanese Americans have overcome racism when they were locked away in internment camps? Even now, during the COVID-19 pandemic, Asian Americans are being attacked for somehow causing the virus. It’s obvious there is still a fight against racism and the model minority myth is doing nothing to help. 

In fact, it’s only separating racial groups, pitting them against each other when they should be supporting each other. Asian Americans are being held up as a model for other minorities, the perfect example of what they should achieve. As mentioned in the The Routledge Companion to Race and Ethnicity, the stereotype tells minorities, “Asian Americans are succeeding, so why can’t you?” The competitive environment created by this may lead struggling groups to house negative feelings towards Asian Americans who are beating them at being the “best” minority. This competition also affects the majority. Asian Americans appear to be doing so well that they may top the success of Whites. However, it is impossible to move forward if we are clashing based on our race. 

Right now, there is a powerful movement of minorities fighting for equality. By identifying and rejecting stereotypes, we can make a step in the right direction. The model minority title has been hanging over Asian Americans for over fifty years. Looking at the evidence, it is not only false, but it is harmful to both them and their connection with others. We need to stop pairing race and ability and start looking past the model minority label. My mother shouldn’t have to broadcast her weakness because of her Chinese heritage. Her race doesn’t control those factors. And it shouldn’t control others’ perception of her. If our vision is clouded by stereotypes, how will anyone ever attain the equality for which we are fighting today?

Sources: 

My name is Lain Brewer and I am a high school student in Westchester, NY. Growing up, I was surrounded by both Chinese and American culture as a Chinese American. Nowadays, I enjoy reading, drawing, programming, and watching TV and on-stage performances. In school, I am head of the musical’s sound crew and a member of the computer science club and my school’s GSA.

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