It’s Time to Deconstruct the Model Minority Myth
On March 16, 2020—3 days after the US declared COVID-19 a national emergency—then-President Donald Trump referred to the disease as the “Chinese virus” in a tweet. During a White House press conference he claimed the statement was “not racist at all.” What followed though was a slew of anti-Asian hashtags that were only rivaled by skyrocketing rates of hate crimes against Asian Americans.
Between March 19, 2020—3 days after President Trump’s tweet—and February 28, 2021, 3,795 hate incidents were reported by members of the Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) community. A little over two weeks after data for this study was collected—and exactly one year after President Trump’s anti-Asian tweet—21-year-old Robert Aaron Long killed Xiaojie Tan, Daoyou Feng, Hyun Jung Grant, Soon Chung Park, Suncha Kim, Yong Ae Yue, Paul Andre Michels, and Delaina Ashley Yaun in a series of mass shootings at Atlanta spas and massage parlors.
The Atlanta massacre was no mistake, and the people targeted were not coincidental. 7 of the 8 victims were women, 6 of which were Chinese or Japanese Americans, which has left the nation grappling again with racism and white supremacy. The response by the Atlanta police department—who did not initially classify the attack as a hate crime—and news stations across the nation—who tried to downplay the motives for the shooting—revealed the deadly underside of the model minority myth.
Coined by sociologist William Petersen in 1966, the term “model minority” refers to “minority groups that have ostensibly achieved a high level of success in contemporary US society.” It is most often used to describe Asian Americans as they have historically excelled—in comparison to other minority groups—in America. Although it can be seen as an accolade, the myth ignores the diversity amongst the group, classifying all people of Asian descent as smart and successful, placing immense pressure on members of the community to live up to an unrealistic standard without voicing concern over the obstacles and inequities they face.
While, yes, statistically speaking, Asian Americans do rank well on measures of economic wellbeing compared to the entire U.S. population, there is great disparity among the group. For example, while the average Asian income in the U.S. is about $73,060—$20,000 more than the average national household income—Nepalese and Burmese Americans annually earn (on average) $43,500 and $36,000, respectively, per household. Furthermore, their accomplishments are not often achieved on an equal scale with their white counterparts; Asian Americans typically require more years of schooling to achieve the same level of income as their white peers.
The reality is that even if members of the Asian American community—in broad strokes—achieve high levels of success, they cannot escape the “forever foreigner” trope (which asserts that no matter how long a person of Asian descent has lived in America, they will always be an outsider). The problematic construct continually separates Asians from being true Americans and simultaneously attempts to create a racial divide between minority communities. Most specifically, the model minority myth can be seen as the antithesis of the “problem minority” ideology, which is commonly applied to Black Americans. This was especially prevalent during the late 1900s when TIME Magazine referred to Asian American children as “whiz kids”—noting their success in math, science, and technology—while politicians and news outlets around the country referred to Black children as “super predators,” insisting that they were violent people who committed heinous crimes with no remorse.
The U.S. News and World Report wrote in its 1966 issue that, “At a time when it is being proposed that hundreds of billions be spent to uplift [African Americans] and other minorities, the nation’s 300,000 Chinese-Americans are moving ahead on their own—with no help from anyone else.” The article further goes on to say that “Chinese districts show up as islands of peace and stability” in crime-ridden cities. In this way, the model minority myth enforces the idea that members of racial minority groups are complaining, making excuses, and/or not working hard enough when they cannot persevere through the systemically racist society the United States operates on. It perpetuates the notion that if someone just works hard enough they can be successful when in reality, the obstacles that members of minority groups face are often much bigger than what one person can overcome or change. Further, the myth assumes that just because Asian Americans have not been traditionally outspoken about the injustices against them that they have not experienced them.
However, despite Asian Americans being characterized by a strong work ethic and reserved demeanor, the United States has a long history of attempting to exclude the race. Here’s a very brief overview: the 1790 Naturalization Act banned all non-white people from naturalizing in the US then, eight years later in 1798, the Alien Friends Act gave the President the power to imprison or deport any alien deemed dangerous. Nearly a decade later, the Immigration Act of 1875 specifically prohibited criminals and Asian laborers to migrate to the US and was followed by the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882 which banned Chinese laborers from entering the US. The 1917 Immigration Act (also known as the Asiatic Barred Zone Act) banned immigration from all Asian countries excluding Japan and the Philippines. Numerous other Acts passed in the 1900s—such as the 1921 Emergency Quota Act and the Immigration Act of 1924—created numerical caps for immigration based on nationality while immigration from Asian countries continued to be barred. People of Japanese descent were placed in internment camps between 1942 and 1945 meanwhile, in 1943 the Chinese Exclusion Act was revoked and about 105 people of Chinese ancestry were permitted to immigrate per year; in 1952 this was expanded to all Asian countries, but was still based on ancestry, not citizenship.
Today, Asian Americans constitute about 5.6% of the total U.S. population, and their fast population growth predicts that by 2055 they will be the nation’s largest minority group. But, despite this increase—and our growing societal awareness of the negative impact of racial microaggressions—the model minority discourse of the 20th century has not dissipated. Asian Americans are still held to a high standard in classrooms, on college campuses, and at work. They are expected to adapt to western culture and society without qualms—such as changing their name to be easier to pronounce. And, because of the misconception that they do not struggle, they are three times less likely to seek mental health help and more likely to attempt and/or consider suicide than white Americans.
This was especially true when the pandemic upended American lives a little over a year ago and Asian Americans—regardless of their national origin—were blamed. The aforementioned response by the then-sitting U.S. President did nothing but further normalize and validate racism against Asian Americans. The group became the scapegoat for the disease as insults such as “kung flu” and “go back to China” were used without repercussion or remorse. Last month basketball star Jeremy Lin was referred to as “coronavirus” on the court and last year, an 89-year-old woman was set on fire outside her New York apartment because she was Asian. Both Lin and the woman hesitated to speak out against their injustice.
This is the effect of the model minority myth; it downplays the marginalization and racism that Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders experience. It encourages silence about oppression and asserts that because Asian Americans have historically been able to persevere despite the discrimination they face, that they must always silently struggle.
This is America. As we’ve seen on picket signs across the country, race is not a virus—racism is. It is time to deconstruct the model minority myth. It is inherently racist, and there is no such thing as “good racism.”
“Success Story of One Minority Group in U.S.,” U.S. News & World Report, December 26, 1966.