Updated: Aug 30, 2021
What is the Model Minority Myth?
The model minority myth is the inaccurate idea that Asian Americans possess innate qualities and behaviors which make them academically superior to other minority groups.
This includes harmful stereotypes like the belief that Asian people are the “unproblematic” minority group or inherently better at math and science, which introduces harmful expectations and undervalues their achievements.
When The 1965 Immigration and Naturalization Act passed, the laws for immigration changed significantly.
Previously, many opportunities for immigration from Asia to the Americas were limited as a result of various federal interventions such as the Chinese Exclusion Act (1882-1943) and the Immigration Act of 1917. This new 1965 bill targeted highly skilled workers from all over and removed racial barriers to immigrate to the U.S. The people emigrating (leaving their country) from various parts of Asia were primarily middle to upper class due to the cost to travel and the skills necessary for the high-paying jobs that were available in America. This led to the white majority in America generalizing individuals of varying Asian descents as the "model” minority group. They were often highly educated and successful which allowed them to easily assimilate into American society. These stereotypes created a disparity between Asian immigrants and immigrants of other racial groups who were still viewed as poor, uneducated, and a threat to the American way of life by racist idealists.
Why is it harmful?
On the surface, it can seem like the model minority myth is a positive viewpoint, but it works to divide Asian Americans from other minority groups and separate their oppression and struggles from those of other racial minorities in America.
This is, after all, where the term’s roots are: attempting to separate Asian Americans from the Civil Rights Movement. The seemingly positive view of Asian Americans stemmed out of white-spurred racism and violence towards African Americans. It was spread after two major victories for the Civil Rights Movement—the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1965 Voting Rights Act. A desired outcome of popularizing this myth was to further dehumanize BIPOC and attempt to invalidate their struggles. By pitting these groups against each other, the pressure is taken off white America to change. It creates a false narrative that Asian Americans have “overcome” racism and poses the question of why BIPOC and Latinx communities haven’t “been able to”. In reality, the greater statistical success of Asian Americans is due in part to greater declines in labor market discrimination compared to other minority groups. This myth then works to falsely portray the very nature of oppression and racism as something to overcome instead of dismantle. This would allow white supremacist ideals to remain as the systematically upheld values and thoughts. It also tries to delegitimize programs and policies that try to oppose these forces, like affirmative action. By categorizing Asian Americans as the “model” minority group, their own struggles with racism are historically downplayed and overlooked, too.
The model minority myth also negatively shapes the way Asian Americans experience school and are educated.
As a result of this myth, they are often assumed to be smart and therefore overlooked for help. The consequent effects include feeling pressure to perform better academically, internalizing stereotypes, and hesitating to speak up or ask for help. These can lead to an academic downfall and even mental health issues for Asian American students.
This myth also ignores the variety of cultures and ethnic groups within the broad grouping “Asian American” and the unique array of struggles within each. In regards to education, not all sub-groups within the broad category statistically perform the same academically. Those who tend to suffer the most academically are Southeast Asian and Pacific Islander students such as the Vietnamese, Laotian, Hmong, Tongans, and Native Hawaiians. Their dropout rates, for high school and college, are among the highest of any group. However, those dropout statistics are often ignored or viewed as the anomaly, even sometimes by their families, because of the assumption that Asian Americans are academically successful regardless of the circumstances.
This is an example of how the model minority myth also works to overshadow colorism.
Colorism is the differential treatment of people within a racial group based on skin tone, with preference shown towards those with lighter skin. This discrimination is done both intentionally and unintentionally by people within that group and outside of it. In this case, there is discrimination towards Southeast Asian Americans because of their darker skin tones.
It also ignores the fact that immigration experiences between each sub-group are different.
Some came to America by choice, some came to escape war, and some came to find job opportunities. These various circumstances affect how much a family can help their children succeed with their education and – in consequence – their dropout rates. Educators and institutions often assume that Asian American students receive plenty of help from their families, but that may not be the case if they didn't have the privilege of being educated or coming from a country that wasn't suffering from high rates of poverty.
Overall, the model minority myth is a topic that needs to be acknowledged and worked on more, especially in schools.
Educators, policymakers, journalists, and others should bring visibility to the problems created by this myth and call for remedies. It’s also important to hold the white majority accountable for the dangerous stereotypes that they have created in order to further subjugate the minority and distract from the fact that they benefit from the disarray that it causes amongst various racial groups.
Chow, G. W. (2011, Winter). The Model Minority Myth. Independent School. Retrieved April 13, 2021, from https://www.nais.org/magazine/independent-school/winter-2011/the-model-minority-myth/
Chanbonpin, K. D. (2015). Between Black and White: The Coloring of Asian Americans. Washington University Global Studies Law Review, 14(4). https://openscholarship.wustl.edu/law_globalstudies/vol14/iss4/10
Museus, S. D. (2008). The model minority and the inferior minority myths: Understanding stereotypes and their implications for student learning. About Campus, 13(3), 2-8. doi:10.1002/abc.252
Wing, Jean. (Nov. 2007). Beyond Black and White: The Model Minority Myth and the Invisibility of Asian American Students. Urban Review, vol. 39, no. 4, pp. 455-487.
Image 1: Beck, C. & NPR. (2017, April 19). [Artist Depiction of what it is to be labeled a “model minority”]. NPR. https://www.npr.org/sections/codeswitch/2017/04/19/524571669/model-minority-myth-again-used-as-a-racial-wedge-between-asians-and-blacks
Image 2: Dipasupil, D. & Getty Images File. (2021). [Protesters at The End the Violence Towards Asians rally in New York]. NBC News. https://www.nbcnews.com/news/nbcblk/how-black-people-can-be-strong-allies-asian-americans-right-n1260988
Image 3: Sosa, E. & Caltech Letters. (2021). [Art expressing the diversity of Asian Americans]. Caltech Letters. https://caltechletters.org/viewpoints/model-minority-myth