The dark side of the model minority myth for Asian Americans

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Over the past few years, Asian Americans have suffered an increase in hate crimes, particularly with the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic. How can we reconcile this with the stereotype of Asian Americans being the ‘model minority’? The model minority myth is a racial stereotype imposed upon Asian Americans, often depicting them as a successful and high-achieving monolithic group in the United States. This article will examine the origins of this seemingly positive stereotype and how it might harm Asian Americans.

Over the course of the past year, hate crimes against Asian Americans have increased by 73%, according to FBI statistics. This is a disproportionate increase compared to hate crimes in general, which rose by 13%. Of course, the Covid-19 pandemic has some part to play in this, with the flames of anti-Asian sentiment being fanned by labels such as ‘China virus’ and ‘Kung flu’. Nevertheless, this change is difficult to reconcile with the idea that Asian Americans are seen as a ‘model minority’, who are seemingly impervious to the typical issues other minorities face.

The term ‘model minority’ was first coined in 1966 by sociologist William in an article for the New York Times. The term model minority refers to an ethnic minority who has achieved success in the United States despite marginalisation. However, the difficulty with this term lies in how it ignores and circumvents the discourse of over a hundred years of pervasive anti-Asian sentiments, prejudice, discrimination, and collective trauma. The model minority myth flattens the nuances and complexities of Asian American identities and experiences. Such experiences are centred around perpetual othering, treatment as foreigners, disenfranchisement, racial and collective trauma, immigrant and refugee experiences, and psychological harm and emotional distress.

Moreover, this label serves to undermine the relationships between minority ethnic groups. The model minority myth reinforces the American dream by promoting the image that hard work pays off. This rhetoric can be divisive, because it can be used as a tool to reinforce the subordinate position of other minority groups (“if they made it, why can’t you?”) and prevent cooperation between Asian Americans and other minorities. In addition, the characterisation of Asian Americans as a model minority may be used to undermine support for programs that help other minority groups to achieve success, such as affirmative action, by suggesting that affirmative action beneficiaries should be able to work hard and achieve success without any assistance.

Dr. Ellen Wu, historian and author of The Colour of Success, has traced the roots of this myth. Here are some questions she has answered previously regarding this.

How did this stereotype take root?

Asian Americans first started coming in significant numbers during the California Gold Rush. Chinese immigrants came to do mining, then they ended up working on the Transcontinental Railroad, and agriculture. When those jobs died down, a lot of them moved to the cities where they started working in manufacturing.

At that time, in the 1870s, the economy wasn’t doing that well in California. White American workers were very anxious about keeping their jobs. They looked around and they saw these newcomers who seemed very different from them.

There already had been a long tradition in the Western world of portraying the “Orient” as unknowable and mysterious. American workers started attaching these ideas to the Chinese newcomers, who were an easy target for white American anxieties about the growth of industrial capitalism and the undermining of workers’ autonomy and freedom. They believed that the Chinese threatened American independence and threatened American freedom. These ideas were particularly popular among the white working class at the time. The momentum started to build in the American West. There was the Workingmen’s Party in California — one of their platforms was “The Chinese must go.” That’s how they rallied people. And they were very successful at it. By 1882, Congress passed the first of a series of Chinese Exclusion Acts, which was the first time a race- and class-based group — Chinese workers — were singled out by American immigration law. The Chinese Exclusion Acts restricted their entry into the United States and said they couldn’t become naturalized citizens. What’s really striking is that in the 1890s, the federal government even mandated a Chinese registry. That sounds a lot like this issue of the Muslim registry today, right?

Why is it a negative stereotype?

The model minority stereotype of Asian Americans has many dimensions. In addition to caricaturing Asian Americans as smart and upwardly mobile, the stereotype also casts them as apolitical, quiet, uncomplaining—essentially embracing a don’t-rock-the-boat mindset. As “good” people of color, the model minority doesn’t get into trouble. They’re not criminals, they’re not violent protesters, they keep their heads down—and it works, supposedly.

Was any piece of this stereotype based on truth or partial truth?

It’s a tricky question to answer because if we looked at numbers alone, they do tell us a story that sure, Asian Americans today, in 2020, have higher levels of education and household income than lots of other groups. But the specific data also reveals there’s quite a bit of poverty and other related issues. Pew Research recently found that Asian Americans are the most economically divided racial group—that among themselves, they experience the most income inequality of all races in the US.  “Asian American” as a category is huge. We’re talking about some 20 million people across many generations, and they come from different places. And so generalizing overlooks a lot of disparities. When we talk about, for instance, undocumented immigration, a lot of people don’t realize that Asian Americans make up a significant amount of the undocumented population in this country. It is a mixture of fact and fiction, and we have to look beyond the numbers to understand the history of this idea and also what kind of ideological work that it does. Part of the problem of that stereotype of the model minority is that it glosses over a lot of disagreements and diversity within the community, and that’s something that still happens today. It’s a pronouncement about an entire group of people.


Many thanks to Dr. Ellen Wu for sending her interviews and engaging with me on this topic. 




By Claire Tan