What Is the Model Minority Myth?

Two young Asian students smiling.

When I was halfway through the 11th grade, my pre-calculus teacher pulled me out into the hallway. He wanted to talk about my latest test. “You can do better than this,” he said. “I’m so surprised by grades like this from someone like you.” 

Someone like you? I’d never done particularly well in his class, so the implication of his words churned in my stomach. In that moment, I felt acutely the weight of the dark braid trailing down my back and the glasses slipping down my nose. 

I knew my performance was being evaluated not against my own earlier work but against the image of the perfect, straight-A, Asian student who lived in my teacher’s mind: the myth of the “model minority.”   

The myth of the model minority is based in stereotypes. It perpetuates a narrative in which Asian American children are whiz kids or musical geniuses. Within the myth of the model minority, Tiger Moms force children to work harder and be better than everyone else, while nerdy, effeminate dads hold prestigious—but not leadership —positions in STEM industries like medicine and accounting. 

This myth characterizes Asian Americans as a polite, law-abiding group who have achieved a higher level of success than the general population through some combination of innate talent and pull-yourselves-up-by-your-bootstraps immigrant striving.   

What’s So Bad About the Model Minority Myth?

While most people agree that negative stereotypes of Asian Americans are harmful, some still question the harm of the model minority myth. What could be so bad about being part of a group that’s seen as being successful?

Like all stereotypes, the model minority myth erases the differences among individuals.

My own 11th-grade experience offers one example. My mother is Malaysian Chinese; my dad is white. I am usually perceived as Asian. So, because of the model minority myth, my failure to reach an expected level of achievement in math was attributed to some kind of deficiency or lack of effort on my part.

Instead of differentiating for me like I saw him do with others in the class, my teacher let me continue to slip. I was not offered extra help or any other support, and I did not know how to live up to the image of the model minority student. I stopped trying.

While I was eventually able to overcome this negative self-image, many others are not. Asian American college students have higher rates of attempting suicide than those in other groups . The model minority myth hides the pressures and paradoxes inherent within an Asian American identity. If you don’t fit into the myth, it is hard to find your place at all.

The model minority myth ignores the diversity of Asian American cultures. 

Data about Asian American achievement typically lumps this diverse population together into a singular group. Taken as a whole, it shows that Asian Americans tend to hold higher degrees and earn larger incomes than the general population. These successes are often attributed to differences in family attitudes toward education . From these metrics and attributions, the stereotype emerges that Asians are winning in their pursuit of the American Dream. But when we break these numbers down, the myth begins to crack.

Take pay disparities , for example. For every dollar the average white man makes in the United States, an Asian Indian woman makes $1.21 and a Taiwanese woman makes $1.16. A Samoan woman makes $0.62. A Burmese woman makes 50 cents. The experiences of these groups are not the same. 

The model minority myth operates alongside the myth of Asian Americans as perpetual foreigners. 

The model minority myth is just one of a collection of stereotypes about Asian American people. Popular television and films exoticize Asian culture and peoples. If you’re a man, you’re a kung fu master. If you’re a woman, you’re a submissive sex object. If you’re gender non-binary or transgender, you don’t exist at all. Mickey Rooney’s racist portrayal in Breakfast at Tiffany’s lives in our collective imagination alongside every East or South Asian actor who has played a bit part as a humorless doctor or IT guy . 

Buried under these stereotypes, the message is clear: Asian Americans are all the same—and all different from other Americans. On one hand, Asian Americans are often perceived as having assimilated better than other minority groups. On the other hand, Asian Americans are seen as having some foreign quality that renders them perpetual outsiders. 

It’s a paradox familiar to every Asian American who regularly faces the question, “But where are you from, originally ?” 

The model minority myth erases racism against Asian Americans.

Positioning Asian Americans as beneficiaries of the bounty of the American Dream, the myth of the model minority ignores the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 and Japanese internment in the 1940s. It suggests that the U.S. has always been a welcoming place for people of Asian descent, in spite of the mass lynchings of Asian Americans in the 19th century and the murder of Vincent Chin in 1982 . 

The myth persists in spite of the fact that 1 in 7 Asian immigrants in America today is undocumented and facing potential deportation, a fact that is repeatedly overlooked in our national conversation about immigration. The model minority myth says Asian Americans are doing well today and must therefore have benefitted from an elevated status among people of color, in spite of centuries of systematic discrimination. 

The model minority myth is harmful to the struggle for racial justice. 

The myth says that Asian Americans have played within the rules of the American system to their own group benefit. The success of some groups of Asian American immigrants is often held as an example toward which other groups should strive. It suggests that Asian Americans are doing well and that if other groups would only work harder, have stronger family bonds and get over their histories of oppression, they too would succeed. 

When paired with racist myths about other ethnic or racial groups, the model minority myth is used as evidence to deny or downplay the impact of racism and discrimination on people of color in the United States. Given the history of that impact on Black Americans particularly, the myth is ultimately a means to perpetuate anti-Blackness .

The model minority myth pits people of color against one another and creates a hierarchy in which Asian people are often represented at the top. By putting people of color in competition with one another, the myth distracts us from striving together toward liberation for all.  

Dismantling the Myth

Understand that the collective is important while individual differences still exist..

The term Asian American was coined in the late 1960s as a means of harnessing the collective power of people of Asian origin, much in the same way the term Hispanic was first used. Asian American political identity was strongly inspired by the Black Liberation Movement. Today, more inclusive terms like Asian-Pacific American (APA) or Asian American Pacific Islander (AAPI) signal the continued need for collective striving against similar experiences of racism and imperialism within our various ethnic subgroups. This collective political identity remains important.

At the same time, focusing solely on collective identity can perpetuate the model minority myth: The experiences of the most visible Asian American ethnic groups can hide the experiences of other groups. 

Some studies of educational achievement have shown that certain Asian ethnic groups, particularly those from parts of East and South Asia, indeed score very well in some subject areas. When students from these groups consistently do better than even white students, it is easy for educators to take inherently biased actions based on a belief that all Asian students are innately intelligent and hardworking. Those same studies, however, reveal that other Asian ethnic groups have vastly different results. For example, Southeast Asian and Pacific Islander students in particular often underperform when compared with all other racial and ethnic groups. 

As an educator, it is important to understand the different histories and experiences of Asian American and Pacific Islander students and communities. Some of these communities arrived in America as refugees escaping war or genocide, and some were imported as sharecroppers to replace enslaved people of African descent after the Civil War. Still other communities, particularly those native to various Pacific Islands, were here long before white settler colonialism. As educators, we must unlearn the biased, simplistic beliefs that we might hold about what it means to be Asian American or Pacific Islander in order to better attend to the real needs of our students and communities.

Feature Asian American figures and texts in your classroom.

One of the commonly felt experiences of Asian Americans is that of being invisible or erased. The model minority myth means that neither our historical struggles nor activism tend to be covered in schools and classrooms. The significant underrepresentation of Asian American educators furthers this problem. 

Asian American and Pacific Islander history has been a part of American history for centuries. May is AAPI Heritage Month. Use this as a starting point, but do not limit your conscious inclusion of AAPI people and experiences to a single month. Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders comprise the fastest-growing ethnic group in the United States. We must make a conscious effort to represent these stories and people in our classrooms, regardless of our own identities and those of our students.

Raise awareness in yourself and others.

There may be names and examples in this piece with which you were unfamiliar. Learn about activists like Grace Lee Boggs , Larry Itliong and Yuri Kochiyama . Say the name of Vincent Chin. Teach your students about Ela Bhatt . Research Supreme Court cases like U.S. v. Bhagat Singh Thind and Lum v. Rice . 

Dive into data to help understand the collective and individual experiences of various AAPI groups. Check your own biases and assumptions. Do not let a student like me slip through the cracks because you expect her to be smarter or more studious than her classmates. 

As you raise your own awareness, you’ll help those around you to understand and dismantle the model minority myth as well.

Blackburn is a professional development trainer for Teaching Tolerance.

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Why the Model Minority Myth Is So Harmful

  • Janice Omadeke

model minority essay

In large, conservative industries, there’s historically been a trend of promoting a small percentage  of minority professionals, who the organization then considers to be sufficient for equitable representation on their leadership teams. As a result, the one or two people of color who do make it into senior roles often have to overcompensate, or act as the “model minority.” There is huge pressure on their shoulders to assimilate in order to make themselves more palatable for their non-diverse team members, along with a fear that, if they don’t, their opportunity may be taken away.

  • Together, these factors lead to increased feelings of isolation at work, and also feed into a false myth that there can only be one successful person of color in any organization.
  • So, if you’re a young, professional of color, how can you avoid the model minority trap and bring your whole, courageous self to work early in your career?
  • First, When applying to jobs, look for companies that rank highly on diversity and inclusion index reports and have a proven track record of promoting underrepresented professionals.
  • Second, build yourself a support system who can provide you with advice when you face challenges (or biases) in the office, and champion the unique perspectives you have to offer.
  • Finally, while the work ultimately falls on leadership teams (and not you personally) to build inclusive environments, there are still ways you can prepare yourself for the worst-case scenarios in order to protect your physical and emotional health.
  • Build a script around how you want to respond to biased comments that you encounter during work. Taking the time to think about the tone, language, and message you want to send will empower you to speak out when the timing feels right.

You shouldn’t have to perform for anyone.

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Where your work meets your life. See more from Ascend here .

In my early twenties, I was promoted to a senior role in a large, conservative corporation. As a Black woman, I was conscious of needing to fly under the radar and not ruffle any feathers for fear of being seen as difficult in a space where my race was considered a key attribute in earning my title.

  • JO Janice Omadeke is the CEO and founder of The Mentor Method , an enterprise platform helping companies keep and develop their diverse talent using the proven power of mentorship. She has also been featured in Forbes, Entrepreneur magazine, and she was a subject matter expert at the 2016 White House Summit on Building the Tech Workforce of Tomorrow.

model minority essay

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Discrimination Experiences Shape Most Asian Americans’ Lives

3. asian americans and the ‘model minority’ stereotype, table of contents.

  • Key findings from the survey
  • Most Asian Americans have been treated as foreigners in some way, no matter where they were born
  • Most Asian Americans have been subjected to ‘model minority’ stereotypes, but many haven’t heard of the term
  • Experiences with other daily and race-based discrimination incidents
  • In their own words: Key findings from qualitative research on Asian Americans and discrimination experiences
  • Discrimination in interpersonal encounters with strangers
  • Racial discrimination at security checkpoints
  • Encounters with police because of race or ethnicity
  • Racial discrimination in the workplace
  • Quality of service in restaurants and stores
  • Discrimination in neighborhoods
  • Experiences with name mispronunciation
  • Discrimination experiences of being treated as foreigners
  • In their own words: How Asian Americans would react if their friend was told to ‘go back to their home country’
  • Awareness of the term ‘model minority’
  • Views of the term ‘model minority’
  • How knowledge of Asian American history impacts awareness and views of the ‘model minority’ label
  • Most Asian Americans have experienced ‘model minority’ stereotypes
  • In their own words: Asian Americans’ experiences with the ‘model minority’ stereotype
  • Asian adults who personally know an Asian person who has been threatened or attacked since COVID-19
  • In their own words: Asian Americans’ experiences with discrimination during the COVID-19 pandemic
  • Experiences with talking about racial discrimination while growing up
  • Is enough attention being paid to anti-Asian racism in the U.S.?
  • Acknowledgments
  • Sample design
  • Data collection
  • Weighting and variance estimation
  • Methodology: 2021 focus groups of Asian Americans
  • Appendix: Supplemental tables

In the survey, we asked Asian Americans about their views and experiences with another stereotype: Asians in the U.S. being a “model minority.” Asian adults were asked about their awareness of the label “model minority,” their views on whether the term is a good or bad thing, and their experiences with being treated in ways that reflect the stereotype.

What is the ‘model minority’ stereotype?

Amid the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s, another narrative about Asian Americans became widespread: being characterized as a “model” minority. In 1966, two articles were published in The New York Times Magazine and U.S. News and World Report that portrayed Japanese and Chinese Americans as examples of successful minorities. Additionally, in 1987 Time magazine published a cover story on “those Asian American whiz kids.” The model minority stereotype has characterized the nation’s Asian population as high-achieving economically and educationally, which has been attributed to Asians being hardworking and deferential to parental and authority figures, among other factors. The stereotype generalizes Asians in the U.S. as intelligent, well-off, and able to excel in fields such as math and science. Additionally, the model minority myth positions Asian Americans in comparison with other non-White groups such as Black and Hispanic Americans.

For many Asians living in the United States, these characterizations do not align with their lived experiences  or reflect their diverse socioeconomic backgrounds . Among Asian origin groups in the U.S., there are wide differences in economic and social experiences. Additionally, academic research has investigated how the pressures of the model minority stereotype can impact Asian Americans’ mental health and academic performance . Critics of the myth have also pointed to its impact on other racial and ethnic groups, especially Black Americans. Some argue that the myth has been used to minimize racial discrimination and justify policies that overlook the historical circumstances and impacts of colonialism, slavery and segregation on other non-White racial and ethnic groups.

An opposing bar chart showing the share of Asian adults who have heard of the term "model minority." 55% of Asian adults say they have not heard of the term, while 44% say they have. Across immigrant generations, 62% of second-generation and 60% of 1.5-generation Asian adults have heard of the term, compared with smaller shares of third- or higher-generation (40%) and first-generation (32%) Asian adults.

More than half of Asian adults (55%) say they have not heard of the term “model minority.” Just under half (44%) say they have heard of the term.

There are some differences in awareness of the term across demographic groups:

  • Ethnic origin: About half of Korean and Chinese adults say they have heard of the term, while only about one-third of Indian adults say the same.
  • Nativity: 57% of U.S.-born Asian adults have heard the term “model minority,” compared with 40% of immigrants.
  • Immigrant generation: Among immigrants, 60% of those who came to the U.S. as children (“1.5 generation” in this report) say they have heard of the term “model minority,” compared with 32% of those who came to the U.S. as adults (first generation). And among U.S.-born Asian Americans, those who are second generation are more likely than those who are third or higher generation to say the same (62% vs. 40%).
  • Age: 56% of Asian adults under 30 say they have heard of the term, compared with fewer than half among older Asian adults.
  • Party: 51% of Asian adults who identify with or lean to the Democratic Party say they’ve heard the term, compared with 34% of those who identify with or lean to the Republican Party.

Awareness of the term ‘model minority’ varies across education and income

A bar chart showing the share of Asian adults who have heard of the term "model minority" by education and income level. Highly educated and higher income Asian adults are more likely to have heard of the term.

Asian adults with higher levels of formal education and higher family income are more likely to say they have heard of the term “model minority”:

  • 53% of Asian adults with a postgraduate degree say they have heard the term, compared with smaller shares of those with a bachelor’s degree or less.
  • 54% of Asian adults who make $150,000 or more say they have heard the term, higher than the shares among those with lower incomes. Among Asian Americans who make less than $30,000, only 29% say they have heard of the term “model minority.”

Notably, awareness of the term is higher among those born in the U.S. than immigrants across all levels of education and income.

Among Asian adults who have heard of the term “model minority,” about four-in-ten say using it to describe Asians in the U.S. is a bad thing. Another 28% say using it is neither good nor bad, 17% say using it is a good thing, and 12% say they are not sure.

An exploded bar chart showing among Asian adults who have heard the term, their views of whether describing U.S. Asians as a "model minority" is a good or bad thing. 42% say it is a bad thing, 28% say it is neither a good nor bad thing, 17% say it is a good thing, and 12% say they are not sure.

These views vary by ethnic origin, nativity, age and party. Among those who have heard of the term:

  • Ethnic origin: Among Indian adults, the gap between those who say the term “model minority” is a bad thing and those who say it is a good thing (36% vs. 27%) is smaller than among other ethnic origin groups.
  • Nativity: 60% of U.S.-born Asian adults say describing Asians as a model minority is a bad thing, while 9% say it is a good thing. Meanwhile, immigrants’ views of the model minority stereotype are more split (33% vs. 21%, respectively).
  • Immigrant generation: Among immigrants, 43% of 1.5-generation Asian adults say using the term “model minority” is a bad thing, compared with 26% of first-generation Asian adults.
  • Age: Asian adults under 30 are far more likely to say the model minority label is a bad thing than a good thing (66% vs. 8%). Meanwhile, Asian adults 65 and older are more likely to say describing Asian Americans as a model minority is a good thing (36%) than a bad thing (17%).
  • Party: 52% of Asian Democrats say describing Asians as a model minority is a bad thing, about three times the share of Asian Republicans who say the same (17%). 

Among those who know the term “model minority,” views of whether using it to describe Asians in the U.S. is a good or bad thing does not vary significantly across education levels. By income, Asian adults who make less than $30,000 are somewhat less likely to say it is a bad thing than those with higher incomes. 18

Views of the ‘model minority’ label are linked to perceptions of the American dream

An opposing and exploded bar chart showing among Asian adults who have heard of the term, their views of whether describing U.S. Asians as a "model minority" is a good or bad thing by their perceptions of the American dream - whether they believe they have achieved the American dream, are on their way to achieving it, or believe it is out of their reach. Asian adults who see the American dream as out of their reach are more likely to say calling Asians a "model minority" is a bad thing, and less likely to say it is a good thing.

In the survey, we asked Asian Americans if they believe they have achieved the American dream, are on their way to achieving it, or if they believe the American dream is out of their reach. Among those who have heard of the term “model minority”:

  • 54% of Asian adults who believe the American dream is out of their reach say describing Asian Americans as a model minority is a bad thing. This is higher than the shares among those who believe they are on their way to achieving (44%) or believe they have already achieved the American dream (30%).
  • Meanwhile, 26% of Asian adults who believe they have achieved the American dream say the model minority label is a good thing. In comparison, 14% of those who believe they are on their way to achieving the American dream and 11% of those who believe that the American dream is out of their reach say the same.

In this survey, we asked Asian Americans how informed they are about the history of Asians in the U.S.

Whether Asian adults have heard of the model minority label is linked to their knowledge of Asian American history:

  • 62% of Asian adults who are extremely or very informed of U.S. Asian history have heard of the term “model minority.”
  • Smaller shares of those who are somewhat informed (44%) or a little or not at all informed (29%) about U.S. Asian history say they are aware of the term.  

A bar chart showing Asian Americans' awareness and views of the "model minority" label by their knowledge of U.S. Asian history. About 62% of Asian adults who are extremely or very informed of U.S. Asian history say they have heard of the term "model minority," compared with smaller shares among those who are less informed. However, among those who have heard of the term, similar shares of Asian adults across knowledge levels say describing Asians in the U.S. as a "model minority" is a bad thing.

However, among those who have heard of the “model minority” label, views on whether using it to describe Asian Americans is good or bad are similar regardless of how informed they are on Asian American history. About four-in-ten across knowledge levels say describing Asian Americans as a model minority is a bad thing.

A bar chart showing the share of Asian adults who say in their day-to-day encounters with strangers in the U.S., people have assumed that they are good at math and science (58%) or not a creative thinker (22%). 63% of Asian adults say they have experienced at least one of these incidents.

The model minority stereotype often paints Asian Americans as intellectually and financially successful, deferential to authority, and competent but robotic or unemotional , especially in comparison with other racial and ethnic groups. Additionally, some stereotypes associated with the model minority characterize Asian Americans as successful in fields such as math and science, as well as lacking in creativity.

Nearly two-thirds of Asian adults (63%) say that in their day-to-day encounters with strangers, they have at least one experience in which someone assumed they are good at math and science or not a creative thinker.

Broadly, Asian adults are far more likely to say someone has assumed they are good at math and science (58%) than not a creative thinker (22%).

Across these experiences, there are some differences by demographic groups:

A bar chart showing the share of Asian adults who say in their day-to-day encounters with strangers in the U.S., people have assumed that they are good at math and science or not a creative thinker, by education, income, and race. Highly educated, higher income, and single-race Asian adults are more likely to say people have assumed they are good at math and science.

  • Ethnic origin: 68% of Indian adults say strangers have assumed they are good at math and science, a higher share than among most other origin groups. Meanwhile, about half or fewer of Japanese (47%) and Filipino (43%) adults say people have made this assumption about them.
  • Immigrant generation: About seven-in-ten Asian adults who are 1.5 generation and second generation each say people have assumed they are good at math and science, compared with 50% among the first generation and 46% among third or higher generations.
  • Education: About two-thirds of Asian adults with a postgraduate degree or a bachelor’s degree say strangers have assumed they are good at math and science, compared with roughly half of those with some college experience or less. Similar shares regardless of education say people have assumed they are not a creative thinker.
  • Income: 69% of those who make $150,000 or more say strangers have assumed they are good at math and science, compared with 43% of those who make less than $30,000.  
  • Race: 59% of single-race Asian adults (those who identify as Asian and no other race) say someone assumed they are good at math and science, compared with 45% of Asian adults who identify with two or more races (those who identify as Asian and at least one other race).

In our 2021 focus groups of Asian Americans, participants talked about their views of and experiences with the “model minority” stereotype.

Many U.S.-born Asian participants shared how it has been harmful , with some discussing the social pressures associated with it. Others spoke about how the stereotype portrays Asians as monolithic and compares them with other racial and ethnic groups.

“You have to be polished. There’s no room for failure. There’s no room for imperfections. You have to be well-spoken, well-educated, have the right opinions, be good-looking, be tall. [You] have to have a family structure. There’s no room for any sort of freedom in identity except for the mold that you’ve been painted as – as a model citizen.”

–U.S.-born man of Pakistani origin in early 30s

“As an Asian person, I feel like there’s a stereotype that Asian students are high achievers academically. They’re good at math and science. … I was a pretty mediocre student, and math and science were actually my weakest subjects, so I feel like it’s either way you lose. Teachers expect you to fit a certain stereotype and if you’re not, then you’re a disappointment, but at the same time, even if you are good at math and science, that just means that you’re fitting a stereotype. It’s [actually] your own achievement, but your teachers might think ‘Oh, it’s because they’re Asian,’ and that diminishes your achievement.”

–U.S.-born woman of Korean origin in late 20s

“The model minority myth … mak[es] us as Asians [and] South Asians monoliths. … I’ve had people go, ‘Oh, so your dad’s a doctor? Is he a lawyer? Do you have money? Do you have this? Do you have that? Are you [in] an arranged marriage?’ And just the kind of image that portrays and gives us. But the expectations put on us as being high performing and everyone assumes you’re going to be smart. … I am a black sheep in many ways, not only within my family, but within Asian [and] South Asian culture, being [in my profession], someone who’s not a doctor, who hasn’t gone the professional, traditional, educational route. So, it’s very harmful, that too, for those communities within the Asian diaspora who have come to the United States. … [M]any of them come from impoverished and underrepresented communities and the expectations put on them to produce or the types of jobs and menial labor they have to take on as a result is really a very poisonous mythos to have out there.”

–U.S.-born woman of Indian origin in early 40s

“One of the reasons the model minority fallacy works so well as an argument against affirmative action [for Indians is] they are a newer immigrant group that has come here and … [t]here’s a lot of education [in India]. People have opportunity there that then they can come [to America] and continue with those connections. Whereas Blacks and Hispanics have had generations of oppression, so they don’t have anything to build off of. So when you bucket everybody – Black, Hispanics and Asians – into one group, then you can make those arguments of, ‘Oh, [Asians] are the model minority, they can do it.’”

Some participants talked about having mixed feelings about being called the “model minority” and how they felt like it put them in a kind of “middle ground.” 

“I feel like Asians are kind of known as the model minority. That kind of puts us in an interesting position where I feel like we’re supposed to excel and succeed in the media, or we’re seen in the media as exceeding in all these things as smart. All of us are not by any means. Yeah, I feel like we’re in this weird middle ground.”

–U.S.-born man of Chinese origin in early 20s

“A lot of people believe that Japanese are the most humble and honest people, even among other Asians. I feel like I need to live up to that. I have to try hard when people say things like that. Of course, it is good, but it’s a lot of work sometimes. As Japanese, and for my family, I try hard.”

–Immigrant man of Japanese origin in mid-40s (translated from Japanese)

Others had more positive impressions of the model minority label, saying it made them proud to be Asian and have others see them that way:

“Whenever I apply for any job, in the drop-down there is an option to choose the ethnicity, and I write Asian American proudly because everyone knows us Asians as hardworking, they recognize us as loyal and hardworking.”

–Immigrant woman of Nepalese origin in mid-40s (translated from Nepali)

“I think any model is a good thing. I mean the cognitive, the word ‘model,’ when you model after somebody it’s a positive meaning to it. So personally for me I have no issues with being called the model minority because it only tells me that I’m doing something right.”

–U.S.-born man of Hmong origin in early 40s

  • Some of these groups had relatively small sample sizes. For shares of Asian adults who have heard of the term “model minority” and say using the term to describe the U.S. Asian population is a good or bad thing, by education and income, refer to the Appendix . ↩

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'Model Minority' Myth Again Used As A Racial Wedge Between Asians And Blacks

Kat Chow at NPR headquarters in Washington, D.C., July 25, 2018. (photo by Allison Shelley) (Square)

The perception of universal success among Asian-Americans is being wielded to downplay racism's role in the persistent struggles of other minority groups, especially black Americans. Chelsea Beck/NPR hide caption

The perception of universal success among Asian-Americans is being wielded to downplay racism's role in the persistent struggles of other minority groups, especially black Americans.

A piece from New York Magazine's Andrew Sullivan over the weekend ended with an old, well-worn trope: Asian-Americans, with their "solid two-parent family structures," are a shining example of how to overcome discrimination. An essay that began by imagining why Democrats feel sorry for Hillary Clinton — and then detoured to President Trump's policies — drifted to this troubling ending:

"Today, Asian-Americans are among the most prosperous, well-educated, and successful ethnic groups in America. What gives? It couldn't possibly be that they maintained solid two-parent family structures, had social networks that looked after one another, placed enormous emphasis on education and hard work, and thereby turned false, negative stereotypes into true, positive ones, could it? It couldn't be that all whites are not racists or that the American dream still lives?"

Sullivan's piece, rife with generalizations about a group as vastly diverse as Asian-Americans, rightfully raised hackles. Not only inaccurate, his piece spreads the idea that Asian-Americans as a group are monolithic, even though parsing data by ethnicity reveals a host of disparities; for example, Bhutanese-Americans have far higher rates of poverty than other Asian populations, like Japanese-Americans. And at the root of Sullivan's pernicious argument is the idea that black failure and Asian success cannot be explained by inequities and racism, and that they are one and the same; this allows a segment of white America to avoid any responsibility for addressing racism or the damage it continues to inflict.

"Sullivan's comments showcase a classic and tenacious conservative strategy," Janelle Wong, the director of Asian American Studies at the University of Maryland, College Park, said in an email. This strategy, she said, involves "1) ignoring the role that selective recruitment of highly educated Asian immigrants has played in Asian American success followed by 2) making a flawed comparison between Asian Americans and other groups, particularly Black Americans, to argue that racism, including more than two centuries of black enslavement, can be overcome by hard work and strong family values."

"It's like the Energizer Bunny," said Ellen D. Wu, an Asian-American studies professor at Indiana University and the author of The Color of Success . Much of Wu's work focuses on dispelling the "model minority" myth, and she's been tasked repeatedly with publicly refuting arguments like Sullivan's, which, she said, are incessant. "The thing about the Sullivan piece is that it's such an old-fashioned rendering. It's very retro in the kinds of points he made."

Since the end of World War II, many white people have used Asian-Americans and their perceived collective success as a racial wedge. The effect? Minimizing the role racism plays in the persistent struggles of other racial/ethnic minority groups — especially black Americans.

On Twitter, people took Sullivan's "old-fashioned rendering" to task.

4. Importantly: Elevating Asian Americans as "deserving" and "hardworking" was a tactic to denigrate African Americans — Jeff Guo (@_jeffguo) April 15, 2017

"During World War II, the media created the idea that the Japanese were rising up out of the ashes [after being held in incarceration camps] and proving that they had the right cultural stuff," said Claire Jean Kim, a professor at the University of California, Irvine. "And it was immediately a reflection on black people: Now why weren't black people making it, but Asians were?"

These arguments falsely conflate anti-Asian racism with anti-black racism, according to Kim. "Racism that Asian-Americans have experienced is not what black people have experienced," Kim said. "Sullivan is right that Asians have faced various forms of discrimination, but never the systematic dehumanization that black people have faced during slavery and continue to face today." Asians have been barred from entering the U.S. and gaining citizenship and have been sent to incarceration camps, Kim pointed out, but all that is different than the segregation, police brutality and discrimination that African-Americans have endured.

Many scholars have argued that some Asians only started to "make it" when the discrimination against them lessened — and only when it was politically convenient. Amid worries that the Chinese exclusion laws from the late 1800s would hurt an allyship with China in the war against imperial Japan, the Magnuson Act was signed in 1943, allowing 105 Chinese immigrants into the U.S. each year. As Wu wrote in 2014 in the Los Angeles Times , the Citizens Committee to Repeal Chinese Exclusion "strategically recast Chinese in its promotional materials as 'law-abiding, peace-loving, courteous people living quietly among us'" instead of the "'yellow peril' coolie hordes." In 1965, the National Immigration Act replaced the national-origins quota system with one that gave preference to immigrants with U.S. family relationships and certain skills.

In 1966, William Petersen, a sociologist at the University of California, Berkeley, helped popularize comparisons between Japanese-Americans and African-Americans. His New York Times story, headlined, "Success Story, Japanese-American Style," is regarded as one of the most influential pieces written about Asian-Americans. It solidified a prevailing stereotype of Asians as industrious and rule-abiding that would stand in direct contrast to African-Americans, who were still struggling against bigotry, poverty and a history rooted in slavery. In the opening paragraphs, Petersen quickly puts African-Americans and Japanese-Americans at odds:

"Asked which of the country's ethnic minorities has been subjected to the most discrimination and the worst injustices, very few persons would even think of answering: 'The Japanese Americans,' ... Yet, if the question refers to persons alive today, that may well be the correct reply. Like the Negroes, the Japanese have been the object of color prejudice .... When new opportunities, even equal opportunities, are opened up, the minority's reaction to them is likely to be negative — either self-defeating apathy or a hatred so all-consuming as to be self-destructive. For the well-meaning programs and countless scholarly studies now focused on the Negro, we barely know how to repair the damage that the slave traders started. The history of Japanese Americans, however, challenges every such generalization about ethnic minorities."

But as history shows, Asian-Americans were afforded better jobs not simply because of educational attainment, but in part because they were treated better.

"More education will help close racial wage gaps somewhat, but it will not resolve problems of denied opportunity," reporter Jeff Guo wrote last fall in the Washington Post . "Asian Americans — some of them at least — have made tremendous progress in the United States. But the greatest thing that ever happened to them wasn't that they studied hard, or that they benefited from tiger moms or Confucian values . It's that other Americans started treating them with a little more respect."

At the heart of arguments of racial advancement is the concept of "racial resentment," which is different than "racism," Slate's Jamelle Bouie recently wrote in his analysis of the Sullivan article. "Racial resentment" refers to a "moral feeling that blacks violate such traditional American values as individualism and self reliance," as defined by political scientists Donald Kinder and David Sears.

And, Bouie points out, "racial resentment" is simply a tool that people use to absolve themselves from dealing with the complexities of racism:

"In fact, racial resentment reflects a tension between the egalitarian self-image of most white Americans and that anti-black affect. The 'racist,' after all, is a figure of stigma. Few people want to be one, even as they're inclined to believe the measurable disadvantages blacks face are caused by something other than structural racism. Framing blacks as deficient and pathological rather than inferior offers a path out for those caught in that mental maze."

Petersen's, and now Sullivan's, arguments have resurfaced regularly throughout the last century. And they'll likely keep resurfacing, as long as people keep seeking ways to forgo responsibility for racism — and to escape that "mental maze." As the writer Frank Chin said of Asian-Americans in 1974 : "Whites love us because we're not black."

Sometimes it's instructive to look at past rebuttals to tired arguments — after all, they hold up much better in the light of history.

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  • model minority

Asian Americans Are Still Caught in the Trap of the ‘Model Minority’ Stereotype. And It Creates Inequality for All

model minority essay

T he face of Tou Thao haunts me. The Hmong-American police officer stood with his back turned to Derek Chauvin, his partner, as Chauvin knelt on George Floyd’s neck for 8 minutes and 46 seconds and murdered him.

In the video that I saw, Tou Thao is in the foreground and Chauvin is partly visible in the background, George Floyd’s head pressed to the ground. Bystanders beg Tou Thao to do something, because George Floyd was not moving, and as he himself said, he could not breathe.

The face of Tou Thao is like mine and not like mine, although the face of George Floyd is like mine and not like mine too. Racism makes us focus on the differences in our faces rather than our similarities, and in the alchemical experiment of the U.S., racial difference mixes with labor exploitation to produce an explosive mix of profit and atrocity. In response to endemic American racism, those of us who have been racially stigmatized cohere around our racial difference. We take what white people hate about us, and we convert stigmata into pride, community and power. So it is that Tou Thao and I are “Asian Americans,” because we are both “Asian,” which is better than being an “Oriental” or a “gook.” If being an Oriental gets us mocked and being a gook can get us killed, being an Asian American might save us. Our strength in numbers, in solidarity across our many differences of language, ethnicity, culture, religion, national ancestry and more, is the basis of being Asian American.

But in another reality, Tou Thao is Hmong and I am Vietnamese. He was a police officer and I am a professor. Does our being Asian bring us together across these ethnic and class divides? Does our being Southeast Asian, both our communities brought here by an American war in our countries, mean we see the world in the same way? Did Tou Thao experience the anti-Asian racism that makes us all Asian, whether we want to be or not?

Let me go back in time to a time being repeated today. Even if I no longer remember how old I was when I saw these words, I have never forgotten them: Another American driven out of business by the Vietnamese. Perhaps I was 12 or 13. It was the early 1980s, and someone had written them on a sign in a store window not far from my parents’ store. The sign confused me, for while I had been born in Vietnam, I had grown up in Pennsylvania and California, and had absorbed all kinds of Americana: the Mayflower and the Pilgrims; cowboys and Indians; Audie Murphy and John Wayne; George Washington and Betsy Ross; the Pledge of Allegiance; the Declaration of Independence; the guarantee of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness; all the fantasy and folklore of the American Dream.

Two immigration officers interrogate Chinese immigrants suspected of being Communists or deserting seamen at Ellis Island.

Part of that dream was being against communism and for capitalism, which suited my parents perfectly. They had been born poor to rural families, and without much formal schooling and using only their ingenuity and hard work, had become successful merchants. They fled communist Vietnam in 1975, after losing all of their property and most of their fortune. What they carried with them–including some gold and money sewn into the hems of their clothes–they used to buy a house next to the freeway in San Jose and to open the second Vietnamese grocery store there, in 1978. In a burst of optimism and nostalgia, they named their store the New Saigon.

I am now older than my parents were when they had to begin their lives anew in this country, with only a little English. What they did looms in my memory as a nearly unimaginable feat. In the age of coronavirus, I am uncertain how to sew a mask and worry about shopping for groceries. Survivors of war, my parents fought to live again as aliens in a strange land, learning to read mortgage documents in another language, enrolling my brother and me in school, taking driver’s-license examinations. But there was no manual telling them how to buy a store that was not advertised as for sale. They called strangers and navigated bureaucracy in order to find the owners and persuade them to sell, all while suffering from the trauma of having lost their country and leaving almost all their relatives behind. By the time my parents bought the store, my mother’s mother had died in Vietnam. The news nearly broke her.

Somehow the person who wrote this sign saw people like my mother and my father as less than human, as an enemy. This is why I am not surprised by the rising tide of anti-Asian racism in this country. Sickened, yes, to hear of a woman splashed with acid on her doorstep; a man and his son slashed by a knife-wielding assailant at a Sam’s Club; numerous people being called the “Chinese virus” or the “chink virus” or told to go to China, even if they are not of Chinese descent; people being spat on for being Asian; people afraid to leave their homes, not only because of the pandemic but also out of fear of being verbally or physically assaulted, or just looked at askance. Cataloging these incidents, the poet and essayist Cathy Park Hong wrote, “We don’t have coronavirus. We are coronavirus.”

Looking back, I can remember the low-level racism of my youth, the stupid jokes told by my Catholic-school classmates, like “Is your last name Nam?” and “Did you carry an AK-47 in the war?” as well as more obscene ones. I wonder: Did Tou Thao hear these kinds of jokes in Minnesota? What did he think of Fong Lee, Hmong American, 19 years old, shot eight times, four in the back, by Minneapolis police officer Jason Andersen in 2006? Andersen was acquitted by an all-white jury.

A classroom composed of Chinese children in New York, 1900

Confronted with anti-Asian racism from white people, the Hmong who came to the U.S. as refugees in the 1970s and 1980s were often resettled in diverse urban areas, some in dominantly Black communities where they also confronted racism. “Stories abounded within our community of battery, robberies and intimidations by our Black neighbors,” Yia Vue wrote recently. “Hmong people live side by side with their African-American neighbors in poorer sections of town, with generations of misunderstanding and stereotypes still strongly entrenched on both sides.” Yet when Fong Lee was killed, Black activists rallied to his cause. “They were the loudest voices for us,” Lee’s sister Shoua said. “They didn’t ask to show up. They just showed up.”

Unlike the engineers and doctors who mostly came from Hong Kong, Taiwan, China and India–the model minority in the American imagination–many Hmong refugees arrived from a rural life in Laos devastated by war. Traumatized, they were resettled into the midst of poverty and a complicated history of racial oppression of which they had little awareness. Even the Hmong who condemn Tou Thao and argue for solidarity with Black Lives Matter insist that they should not be seen through the lens of the model-minority experience, should not be subject to liberal Asian-American guilt and hand-wringing over Tou Thao as a symbol of complicity. Christian minister Ashley Gaozong Bauer, of Hmong descent, writes, “We’ve had to share in the collective shame of the model minority, but when have Asian Americans shared in the pain and suffering of the Hmong refugee narrative and threats of deportation?”

Like the Hmong, the Vietnamese like myself suffered from war, and some are threatened by deportation now. Unlike many of the Hmong, a good number of Vietnamese refugees became, deliberately or otherwise, a part of the model minority, including myself. The low-level racism I experienced happened in elite environments. By the time I entered my mostly white, exclusive, private high school, the message was clear to me and the few of us who were of Asian descent. Most of us gathered every day in a corner of the campus and called ourselves, with a laugh, or maybe a wince, “the Asian invasion.” But if that was a joke we made at our own expense, it was also a prophecy, for when I returned to campus a couple of years ago to give a lecture on race to the assembled student body, some 1,600 young men, I realized that if we had not quite taken over, there were many more of us almost 30 years later. No longer the threat of the Asian invasion, we were, instead, the model minority: the desirable classmate, the favored neighbor, the nonthreatening kind of person of color.

Or were we? A couple of Asian-American students talked to me afterward and said they still felt it. The vibe. The feeling of being foreign, especially if they were, or were perceived to be, Muslim, or brown, or Middle Eastern. The vibe. Racism is not just the physical assault. I have never been physically assaulted because of my appearance. But I had been assaulted by the racism of the airwaves, the ching-chong jokes of radio shock jocks, the villainous or comical japs and chinks and gooks of American war movies and comedies. Like many Asian Americans, I learned to feel a sense of shame over the things that supposedly made us foreign: our food, our language, our haircuts, our fashion, our smell, our parents.

What made these sentiments worse, Hong argues, was that we told ourselves these were “minor feelings.” How could we have anything valid to feel or say about race when we, as a model minority, were supposedly accepted by American society? At the same time, anti-Asian sentiment remained a reservoir of major feeling from which Americans could always draw in a time of crisis. Asian Americans still do not wield enough political power, or have enough cultural presence, to make many of our fellow Americans hesitate in deploying a racist idea. Our unimportance and our historical status as the perpetual foreigner in the U.S. is one reason the President and many others feel they can call COVID-19 the “Chinese virus” or the “kung flu.”

Japanese-American residents of Los Angeles wave a farewell to relatives and friends who are being deported to Japan in October 1941.

The basis of anti-Asian racism is that Asians belong in Asia, no matter how many generations we have actually lived in non-Asian countries, or what we might have done to prove our belonging to non-Asian countries if we were not born there. Pointing the finger at Asians in Asia, or Asians in non-Asian countries, has been a tried and true method of racism for a long time; in the U.S., it dates from the 19th century.

It was then that the U.S. imported thousands of Chinese workers to build the transcontinental railroad. When their usefulness was over, American politicians, journalists and business leaders demonized them racially to appease white workers who felt threatened by Chinese competition. The result was white mobs lynching Chinese migrants, driving them en masse out of towns and burning down Chinatowns. The climax of anti-Chinese feeling was the passage of the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act, the first racially discriminatory immigration law in American history, which would turn Chinese entering the U.S. into the nation’s first illegal immigrant population. The Immigration and Naturalization Service was created, policing Chinese immigration and identifying Chinese who had come into the U.S. as “paper sons,” who claimed a fictive relation to the Chinese who had already managed to come into the country. As the political scientist Janelle Wong tells me, while “European immigrants were confronted with widespread hostility, they never faced the kind of legal racial restrictions on immigration and naturalization that Asian Americans experienced.”

American history has been marked by the cycle of big businesses relying on cheap Asian labor, which threatened the white working class, whose fears were stoked by race-baiting politicians and media, leading to catastrophic events like the Chinese Exclusion Act and the internment of Japanese Americans in 1942. The person who wrote that sign I remember seeing as a child, blaming the Vietnamese for destroying American businesses, was simply telling a story about the yellow peril that was always available for fearful Americans.

The reality was that downtown San Jose in the 1970s and 1980s was shabby, a run-down place where almost no one wanted to open new businesses, except for Vietnamese refugees. Today, Americans rely on China and other Asian countries for cheap commodities that help Americans live the American Dream, then turn around and blame the Chinese for the loss of American jobs or the rise of American vulnerability to economic competition.

It is easier to blame a foreign country or a minority, or even politicians who negotiate trade agreements, than to identify the real power: corporations and economic elites who shift jobs, maximize profit at the expense of workers and care nothing for working Americans. To acknowledge this reality is far too disturbing for many Americans, who resort to blaming Asians as a simpler answer. Asian Americans have not forgotten this anti-Asian history, and yet many have hoped that it was behind them. The slur of the “Chinese virus” has revealed how fragile our acceptance and inclusion was.

In the face of renewed attacks on our American belonging, the former presidential candidate Andrew Yang offered this solution: “We Asian Americans need to embrace and show our Americanness in ways we never have before … We should show without a shadow of a doubt that we are Americans who will do our part for our country in this time of need.” Many Asian Americans took offense at his call, which seemed to apologize for our Asian-American existence. Yang’s critics pointed out that Asian Americans have literally wrapped themselves in the American flag in times of anti-Asian crisis; have donated to white neighbors and fellow citizens in emergencies; and died for this country fighting in its wars. And is there anything more American than joining the police? Did Tou Thao think he was proving his belonging by becoming a cop?

None of these efforts have prevented the stubborn persistence of anti-Asian racism. Calling for more sacrifices simply reiterates the sense that Asian Americans are not American and must constantly prove an Americanness that should not need to be proven. Japanese Americans had to prove their Americanness during World War II by fighting against Germans and Japanese while their families were incarcerated, but German and Italian Americans never had to prove their Americanness to the same extent. German and Italian Americans were selectively imprisoned for suspected or actual disloyalty, while Japanese Americans were incarcerated en masse, their race marking them as un-American.

Asian Americans are caught between the perception that we are inevitably foreign and the temptation that we can be allied with white people in a country built on white supremacy. As a result, anti-Black (and anti-brown and anti-Native) racism runs deep in Asian-American communities. Immigrants and refugees, including Asian ones, know that we usually have to start low on the ladder of American success. But no matter how low down we are, we know that America allows us to stand on the shoulders of Black, brown and Native people. Throughout Asian-American history, Asian immigrants and their descendants have been offered the opportunity by both Black people and white people to choose sides in the Black-white racial divide, and we have far too often chosen the white side. Asian Americans, while actively critical of anti-Asian racism, have not always stood up against anti-Black racism. Frequently, we have gone along with the status quo and affiliated with white people.

The Japanese owner of this grocery store in Oakland, California displays a sign reminding pedestrians of his loyalties to America, and not Japan, in 1944.

And yet there have been vocal Asian Americans who have called for solidarity with Black people and other people of color, from the activist Yuri Kochiyama, who cradled a dying Malcolm X, to the activist Grace Lee Boggs, who settled in Detroit and engaged in serious, radical organizing and theorizing with her Black husband James Boggs. Kochiyama and Lee Boggs were far from the only Asian Americans who argued that Asian Americans should not stand alone or stand only for themselves. The very term Asian American, coined in the 1960s by Yuji Ichioka and Emma Gee and adopted by college student activists, was brought to national consciousness by a movement that was about more than just defending Asian Americans against racism and promoting an Asian-American identity.

Asian-American activists saw their movement as also being antiwar, anti-imperialism and anticapitalism. Taking inspiration from the 1955 Bandung Conference, a gathering of nonaligned African and Asian nations, and from Mao, they located themselves in an international struggle against colonialism with other colonized peoples. Mao also inspired radical African Americans, and the late 1960s in the U.S. was a moment when radical activists of all backgrounds saw themselves as part of a Third World movement that linked the uprisings of racial minorities with a global rebellion against capitalism, racism, colonialism and war.

The legacy of the Third World and Asian-American movements continues today among Asian-American activists and scholars, who have long argued that Asian Americans, because of their history of experiencing racism and labor exploitation, offer a radical potential for contesting the worst aspects of American society. But the more than 22 million Asian Americans, over 6% of the American population, have many different national and ethnic origins and ancestries and times of immigration or settlement. As a result, we often have divergent political viewpoints. Today’s Asian Americans are being offered two paths: the radical future imagined by the Asian-American movement, and the consumer model symbolized by drinking boba tea and listening to K-pop. While Asian Americans increasingly trend Democratic, we are far from all being radical.

What usually unifies Asian Americans and enrages us is anti-Asian racism and murder, beginning with the anti-Chinese violence and virulence of the 19th century and continuing through incidents like a white gunman killing five Vietnamese and Cambodian refugee children in a Stockton, Calif., school in 1989, and another white gunman killing six members of a Sikh gurdwara in Wisconsin in 2012. The murder of Vincent Chin, killed in 1982 by white Detroit autoworkers who mistook him for Japanese, remains a rallying cry. As do the Los Angeles riots, or uprisings, of 1992, when much of Koreatown was burned down by mostly Black and brown looters while the LAPD watched. Korean-American merchants suffered about half of the economic damage. Two Asian Americans were killed in the violence.

All of this is cause for mourning, remembrance and outrage, but so is something else: the 61 other people who died were not Asian, and the majority of them were Black or brown. Most of the more than 12,000 people who were arrested were also Black or brown. In short, Korean Americans suffered economic losses, as well as emotional and psychic damage, that would continue for years afterward. But they had property to lose, and they did not pay the price of their tenuous Americanness through the same loss of life or liberty as experienced by their Black and brown customers and neighbors.

Many Korean Americans were angry because they felt the city’s law-enforcement and political leadership had sacrificed them by preventing the unrest from reaching the whiter parts of the city, making Korean Americans bear the brunt of the long-simmering rage of Black and brown Angelenos over poverty, segregation and abusive police treatment. In the aftermath, Koreatown was rebuilt, although not all of the shopkeepers recovered their livelihoods. Some of the money that rebuilt Koreatown came, ironically, from South Korea, which had enjoyed a decades-long transformation into an economic powerhouse. South Korean capital, and eventually South Korean pop culture, especially cinema and K-pop, became cooler and more fashionable than the Korean immigrants who had left South Korea for the American Dream. Even if economic struggle still defined a good deal of Korean immigrant life, it was overshadowed by the overall American perception of Asian-American success, and by the new factor of Asian capital and competition.

This is what it means to be a model minority: to be invisible in most circumstances because we are doing what we are supposed to be doing, like my parents, until we become hypervisible because we are doing what we do too well, like the Korean shopkeepers. Then the model minority becomes the Asian invasion, and the Asian-American model minority, which had served to prove the success of capitalism, bears the blame when capitalism fails.

The National Guard at the Korean Pride Parade in Los Angeles on April 29, 1992 following the riots that swept the city after three of four police officers accused of the 1991 beating of Rodney King were cleared of all charges.

Not to say that we bear the brunt of capitalism. Situated in the middle of America’s fraught racial relations, we receive, on the whole, more benefits from American capitalism than Black, brown or Indigenous peoples, even if many of us also experience poverty and marginalization. While some of us do die from police abuse, it does not happen on the same scale as that directed against Black, brown or Indigenous peoples. While we do experience segregation and racism and hostility, we are also more likely to live in integrated neighborhoods than Black or Indigenous people. To the extent that we experience advantage because of our race, we are also complicit in holding up a system that disadvantages Black, brown and Indigenous people because of their race.

Given our tenuous place in American society, no wonder so many Asian Americans might want to prove their Americanness, or to dream of acceptance by a white-dominated society, or condemn Tou Thao as not one of “us.” But when Asian Americans speak of their vast collective, with origins from East to West Asia and South to Southeast Asia, who is the “we” that we use? The elite multiculturalism of colored faces in high places is a genteel politics of representation that focuses on assimilation. So long excluded from American life, marked as inassimilable aliens and perpetual foreigners, asked where we come from and complimented on our English, Asian immigrants and their descendants have sought passionately to make this country our own. But from the perspective of many Black, brown and Indigenous people, this country was built on their enslavement, their dispossession, their erasure, their forced migration, their imprisonment, their segregation, their abuse, their exploited labor and their colonization.

For many if not all Black, brown and Indigenous people, the American Dream is a farce as much as a tragedy. Multiculturalism may make us feel good, but it will not save the American Dream; reparations, economic redistribution, and defunding or abolishing the police might.

If Hmong experiences fit more closely with the failure of the American Dream, what does it mean for some Asian Americans to still want their piece of it? If we claim America, then we must claim all of America, its hope and its hypocrisy, its profit and its pain, its liberty and its losses, its imperfect union and its ongoing segregation.

To be Asian American is therefore paradoxical, for being Asian American is both necessary and insufficient. Being Asian American is necessary, the name and identity giving us something to organize around, allowing us to have more than “minor feelings.” I vividly remember becoming an Asian American in my sophomore year, when I transferred to UC Berkeley, stepped foot on the campus and was immediately struck by intellectual and political lightning. Through my Asian-American studies courses and my fellow student activists of the Asian American Political Alliance, I was no longer a faceless part of an “Asian invasion.” I was an Asian American. I had a face, a voice, a name, a movement, a history, a consciousness, a rage. That rage is a major feeling, compelling me to refuse a submissive politics of apology, which an uncritical acceptance of the American Dream demands.

But the rage that is at the heart of the Asian-American movement–a righteous rage, a wrath for justice, acknowledgment, redemption–has not been able to overcome the transformation of the movement into a diluted if empowering identity. In its most diluted form, Asian-American identity is also open to anti-Black racism, the acceptance of colonization, and the fueling of America’s perpetual-motion war machine, which Americans from across the Democratic and Republican parties accept as a part of the U.S.

Refugees from Vietnam descend a flight of stairs from an airplane in Oakland, California, April 1975

My presence here in this country, and that of my parents, and a majority of Vietnamese and Hmong, is due to the so-called Vietnam War in Southeast Asia that the U.S. helped to wage. The war in Laos was called “the Secret War” because the CIA conducted it and kept it secret from the American people. In Laos, the Hmong were a stateless minority without a country to call their own, and CIA advisers promised the Hmong that if they fought along with them, the U.S. would take care of the Hmong in both victory and defeat, perhaps even helping them gain their own homeland. About 58,000 Hmong who fought with the Americans lost their lives, fighting communists and rescuing downed American pilots flying secret bombing missions over Laos. When the war ended, the CIA abandoned most of its Hmong allies, taking only a small number out of the country to Thailand. The ones who remained behind suffered persecution at the hands of their communist enemies.

This is why Tou Thao’s face haunts me. Not just because we may look alike in some superficial way as Asian Americans, but because he and I are here because of this American history of war. The war was a tragedy for us, as it was for the Black Americans who were sent to “guarantee liberties in Southeast Asia which they had not found in southwest Georgia and East Harlem,” as Martin Luther King Jr. argued passionately in his 1967 speech “Beyond Vietnam.” In this radical speech, he condemns not just racism but capitalism, militarism, American imperialism and the American war machine, “the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today.” In another speech, he demands that we question our “whole society,” which means “ultimately coming to see that the problem of racism, the problem of economic exploitation and the problem of war are all tied together.”

Little has changed. The U.S. is still a country built on war and for war. This is why “Vietnam,” meaning the Vietnam War, continues to haunt this country, stuck in a forever war. And this is why Tou Thao’s face haunts me. It is the face of someone who shares some of my history and has done the thing I fear to do when faced with injustice–nothing. Addressing Tou Thao, the poet Mai Der Vang, also Hmong, wrote in her poem “In the Year of Permutations”: “Go live with yourself after what you didn’t do.” Thao was “complicit in adding to the/ perpetration of power on a neck … Never truly to be accepted/ always a pawn.” While the life of a Hmong-American police officer descended from refugees is different from that of a stereotypical model-minority Chinese-American engineer or a Vietnamese-American writer like me, the moral choices remain the same. Solidarity or complicity. Rise against abusive power or stand with our back turned to the abuse of power. If we as Asian Americans choose the latter, we are indeed the model minority, and we deserve both its privileges and its perils.

Our challenge is to be both Asian American and to imagine a world beyond it, one in which being Asian American isn’t necessary. This is not a problem of assimilation or multiculturalism. This is a contradiction, inherited from the fundamental contradiction that ties the American body politic together, its aspiration toward equality for all, bound with its need to exploit the land and racially marked people, beginning from the very origins of American society and its conquest of Indigenous nations and importation of African slaves. The U.S. is an example of a successful project of colonization, only we do not call colonization by that name here. Instead, we call successful colonization “the American Dream.” This is why, as Mai Der Vang says, “the American Dream will not save us.”

“Asian Americans” should not exist in a land where everyone is equal, but because of racism’s persistence, and capitalism’s need for cheap, racialized labor, “Asian Americans” do indeed exist. The end of Asian Americans only happens with the end of racism and capitalism. Faced with this problem, Asian Americans can be a model of apology, trying to prove an Americanness that cannot be proved. Or we can be a model of justice and demand greater economic and social equality for us and for all Americans.

If we are dissatisfied with our country’s failures and limitations, revealed to us in stark clarity during the time of coronavirus, then now is our time to change our country for the better. If you think America is in trouble, blame shareholders, not immigrants; look at CEOs, not foreigners; resent corporations, not minorities; yell at politicians of both parties, not the weak, who have little in the way of power or wealth to share. Many Americans of all backgrounds understand this better now than they did in 1992. Then, angry protesters burned down Koreatown. Now, they peacefully surround the White House.

Demanding that the powerful and the wealthy share their power and their wealth is what will make America great. Until then, race will continue to divide us. To locate Tou Thao in the middle of a Black-Hmong divide, or a Black-Asian divide, as if race were the only problem and the only answer, obscures a fatal statistic: the national poverty rate was 15.1% in 2015, while the rate for African Americans was about 24.1% and for Hmong Americans 28.3%.

model minority essay

The problem is race, and class, and war–a country almost always at war overseas that then pits its poor of all races and its exploited minorities against each other in a domestic war over scarce resources. So long as this crossbred system of white supremacy and capitalist exploitation remains in place, there will always be someone who will write that sign: Another American Driven Out of Business by [fill in the blank], because racism always offers the temptation to blame the weak rather than the powerful. The people who write these signs are engaging in the most dangerous kind of identity politics, the nationalist American kind, which, from the origins of this country, has been white and propertied. The police were created to defend the white, the propertied and their allies, and continue to do so. Black people know this all too well, many descended from people who were property.

My parents, as newcomers to America, learned this lesson most intimately. When they opened the New Saigon, they told me not to call the police if there was trouble. In Vietnam, the police were not to be trusted. The police were corrupt. But a few years later, when an armed (white) gunman burst into our house and pointed a gun in all our faces, and after my mother dashed by him and into the street and saved our lives, I called the police. The police officers who came were white and Latino. They were gentle and respectful with us. We owned property. We were the victims. And yet our status as people with property, as refugees fulfilling the American Dream, as good neighbors for white people, is always fragile, so long as that sign can always be hung.

But the people who would hang that sign misunderstand a basic fact of American life: America is built on the business of driving other businesses out of business. This is the life cycle of capitalism, one in which an (Asian) American Dream that is multicultural, transpacific and corporate fits perfectly well. My parents, natural capitalists, succeeded at this life cycle until they, in turn, were driven out of business. The city of San Jose, which had neglected downtown when my parents arrived, changed its approach with the rise of Silicon Valley. Realizing that downtown should reflect the image of a modern tech metropolis, the city used eminent domain to force my parents to sell their store. Across from where the New Saigon once stood now looms the brand-new city hall, which was supposed to face a brand-new symphony hall.

I love the idea that a symphony could have sprung from the refugee roots of the New Saigon, where my parents shed not only sweat but blood, having once been shot there on Christmas Eve. But for many years, all that stood on my parents’ property was a dismal parking lot. Eventually the city sold the property for many millions of dollars, and now a tower of expensive condominiums is being built on the site of my parents’ struggle for the American Dream. The symphony was never heard. This, too, is America.

So is this: the mother of Fong Lee, Youa Vang Lee, marching with Hmong 4 Black Lives on the Minnesota state capitol in the wake of George Floyd’s killing. “I have to be there,” she said. She spoke in Hmong, but her feelings could be understood without translation.

“The same happened to my son.”

Nguyen is a Pulitzer Prize–winning novelist and a University Professor at the University of Southern California

Correction, June 29, 2020

The original version of this story misstated the spelling of the last name of the police officer who killed Fong Lee. It is Andersen, not Anderson.

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A poster that says "I am not your Scapegoat" is held up at a protest.

The model minority myth hides the racist and sexist violence experienced by Asian women

model minority essay

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model minority essay

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Six women of Asian descent were among eight people tragically killed in a targeted shooting on March 16 in Atlanta. The initial denial by the Atlanta police that this was a hate crime , along with some news reports highlighting the offender’s version of the incident , evoked a swift reaction by communities all over North America . Many spoke of the invisibility of anti-Asian racism.

One of the reasons for the invisibility of anti-Asian racism is inextricably connected to the model minority myth. The model minority myth focuses on prevailing stereotypes of Asians as hard-working, independent, intelligent and economically prosperous.

But the stereotypes — while seemingly positive — hide many issues, including anti-Asian racism, poverty, labour abuse and psychological needs. It disappears the realities of working-class Asian women’s lives.

The myth has also sometimes disrupted inter-racial solidarity and has been used against Indigenous, Black and other racialized groups .

The reality of working-class Asians

The Asian model minority myth was popularized by sociologist William Pettersen through a 1966 New York Times article. For the past several decades, the Asian model minority myth has been prevalent in the general public as a counter-argument for anti-Asian racism.

The myth is that Asians are rule-abiding and thus do not have needs that warrant societal and government policy concerns.

women hold placards at a rally.

Some even talk about reverse discrimination and highlight a few successful stories of Asian Americans and Asian Canadians. Leaders have used examples of Asian Canadian and Asian American success to deny deeply rooted systemic racism and instead point to that success as evidence of a “colour-blind” society.

However, this celebratory tone systemically excludes the reality of working-class Asian Canadians and Asian Americans. It also excludes a specific form of anti-Asian racism against Asian women that is intertwined with gender and sexuality .

Fear of failure

The Asian model minority myth produces Asian subjects who are encouraged to be the model, in other words, the non-trouble-making minority. The narrative creates this idea of the essentialist “other” — those who are part of the “model” group. It also discourages that group’s potential collective actions to overcome challenges.

Numerous studies have shown that the model minority myth itself causes a fear of failing to conform to the positive stereotype among Asians .

The sentiment that we ought to “take care of the problem ourselves, without troubling others” (as someone said in a research interview) hides socio-economic, political, educational and psychological needs of Asian Canadians from public view .

High poverty rates

Contrary to common notions about Asian Canadians’ economic success, an analysis of Canada’s 2016 census data shows that “among Korean, Arab and West Asian Canadians, the poverty rate ranged from 27 per cent to 32 per cent.” Among Chinese and also Black Canadians, the poverty rate reached 20 per cent. Filipinos were the only visible minority group that had a lower poverty rate (7.2 per cent) than the white population (12.2 per cent).

While Asian Canadians are highly represented in skilled occupations, particularly among those born in Canada , the high poverty rates of Asian Canadians suggest that they are also over-represented in low-paying occupations, particularly among immigrants.

However, these statistics do not clearly show the feminized poverty, violence and exploitation that many Asian women face due to their precarious immigration status, gender stereotyping and fetishization of Asian women’s bodies.

In fact, anti-Asian racism is intertwined with the sexualization of Asian women , a fetishization of Asian women’s bodies and the stigmatization of sex work.

Colonial ideas of ‘orientalism’

The sexualization of Asian women stems from a history of European colonization of the Asia Pacific as well as colonial ideas of orientalism that constructed Asian women as “exotic” sexual objects. In North America, settler colonialism constructed Asian immigrants as threats to the biological reproduction of the white nation .

a black and white image of men working on the railway

One example of this is the Chinese Head Tax and the Chinese Exclusion Act in Canada during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Surrounding the immigration ban, Chinese women’s sexuality was constructed as immoral compared to white women. Their exclusion to legitimate immigration was justified by constructing Chinese women as potential “sex workers.”

Femininized workforce

Asian women migrants are mainly employed in a feminized workforce, including domestic and care work, service industry and the sex industry. These feminized low-paying workforces have traditionally been considered white women’s work but are now mostly taken up by racialized women. In this work, Asian women workers are stereotyped as “ideal” docile labour .

A woman kneels down to place flowers at a memorial. Behind her, a protest.

Asian women workers who have precarious migration status are particularly vulnerable to labour exploitation, abuses and police violence from potential deportation threats. However, these women’s stories remain silenced in the celebrated myth of Asian success.

The model minority myth repeats symbolic and racist traps. To move beyond this, alternative narratives are needed to build solidarity both within Asian groups and with other racialized people.

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Asian Americans and the Model Minority Dilemma

Photo of a sign laid on the grass during a Stop Asian Hate rally at Discovery Green in downtown Houston, Texas on March 20, 2021. A flower is laid across the cardboard sign that reads “#Stop Asian Hate” in black sharpie.

School of Social Work Professor Hyeouk Chris Hahm says that almost 70 percent of young Asians who responded to a survey said they or their family members had been exposed to some violence or microaggression, and 15 percent said they were exposed to verbal or physical assaults. Photo by Mark Felix /AFP via Getty Images

In light of recent attacks, a BU Asian health expert on the group’s experiences of racism, alienation, and anxiety

Many Asian Americans live their daily lives with a baseline unease that most white Americans rarely experience. They feel stereotyped as a model minority—smart in math and science, but poor in sports, and rarely in need of mental health resources. 

That unease, says Hyeouk Chris Hahm , a School of Social Work professor and chair of social research, ratcheted up last year after then-President Trump branded COVID-19 “the China virus,” a repeated reference that has been blamed for a 150 percent increase in crimes against Asian Americans in 16 American cities in 2020. “We all felt it,” says Hahm, who is Korean-American. “I live in Newton, which is a nice community, but even in Newton, there were incidents. My Asian friends were yelled at: “Go back to your country!”

The March 16 shooting deaths of eight people in Atlanta, six of them Asian women, has left the Asian American and Pacific Islander communities not only grieving and fearful—but also organizing to raise awareness around the bias they live with daily, and to show unity.

Headshot of Professor Hyeouk Chris Hahm smiling.

Hahm’s own anxiety escalated last spring when she read that an Asian American woman had a chemical thrown at her and an Asian American girl was beaten by a group of boys in Brooklyn. It escalated further when Hahm’s son found the body of a dead animal in the family’s front yard. “I had seen on the internet something that happened to another Chinese couple,” she says. “Somebody had killed a cat and thrown the body in their yard. Immediately, I thought that’s what just happened to us. We called the police, and they came right away and called animal control. Ultimately, the conclusion was that a coyote had killed the animal, but until they came to that conclusion, my body was shaking. I’d never experienced such terror before.”

Hahm’s personal observations are reinforced by academic research. In collaboration with Cindy H. Liu , a Harvard Medical School assistant professor in psychiatry and director of the Developmental Risk and Cultural Disparities program at Brigham and Women’s Hospital. Hahm launched a study of young adults’ well-being and resilience last year. Out of 1,300 participants, she analyzed the responses of 212 Asian American young adults to find the impact of COVID-related anti-Asian discrimination on their mental health. 

“We found that among almost 70 percent of these young people, either they or their family members were exposed to some violence or microaggression,” she says. “That included people making comments about ‘the Wuhan virus,’ or people refusing to go to Chinese restaurants or Asian restaurants because of the coronavirus.” Additionally, she says, 15 percent reported that they were exposed to verbal or physical assaults, and that was at the beginning of the pandemic. “We asked respondents to write anything they want to talk about, and many people said they had PTSD-like symptoms. They said they were in fear, and some said they had been staying in their house for weeks. Now a year into the pandemic, even more Asian Americans have experienced discrimination, physical violence, and murder.”  

Hahm is a founder of the SSW Asian Women’s Action for Resilience and Empowerment (AWARE) lab. Funded by the National Institute of Mental Health, AWARE provides what Hahm describes as “culturally grounded and trauma-informed psychotherapy intervention” for Asian American women. A frequent problem, she says, is persuading Asian Americans to take advantage of resources, such as AWARE and others.

“Many Asian Americans, even though they were born in the United States, feel that there is a stigma attached to seeking help,” Hahm says. “And when they actually try to seek mental health treatment, they often find that the existing psychotherapy does not necessarily help them. That’s because it doesn’t address the ‘dual-culture’ experience of being raised in the United States, but also being influenced by Asian family and community attitudes towards mental health.”

Hahm is now developing AWARE online training courses, supported by Digital Learning & Innovation at BU, in order to teach clinicians to help Asian American women who deal with a unique set of mental health concerns, many stemming from the stereotype of Asian Americans as a model minority.

“A lot of Asian Americans worry that they would not meet the high standards as ‘model minority,’”  she says. “The common stereotype that says Asian students are great in math and science and bad in sports hurts a lot of young people. Asian students feel that they are not automatically smart; they have to work extremely hard to reach it. That creates unreasonable expectations and can cause a lot of stress.”

Hahm also sees institutional alienation of Asian Americans in the amount of research focused on their health. For the past 26 years, she says, the NIH has invested only 0.17 percent of funding altogether for clinical research for Asians, Hawaiians, and Alaskans. “That says to us that we are not worthy of attention,” she says. “We are not worthy of health improvement because we are invisible. And that goes back to the model minority issue, the belief that we don’t have problems, so why should we do research on Asian Americans or look for treatments for you?”

Hahm is convinced that the model minority stereotype can create a harmful dynamic in the broader context of other ethnic groups. It doesn’t just set Asian Americans apart from other groups, she says, it also can place them at odds with other groups.

“When the Black Lives Matter movement happened,” she says, “a lot of Asians showed their support for this movement. At the same time, Asians felt that they were not included in racial discourse conversation. Right now, for example, many people are angry about a recent surge of discrimination. They worry about the shootings of Asian women in Atlanta, which is potentially a hate crime, but there is a feeling that Asian Americans are left alone to deal with these problems.”

Hahm believes that the anxiety that many Asian Americans feel could be mitigated if Asian Americans shared a stronger group identity and felt a greater sense of solidarity and unity. “We don’t really have that,” she says. “Black people identify strongly as Black, but Asians tend not to have strong identity. A lot of Asians are not that sure where we belong. We don’t have a strong group voice.

“The bottom line,” says Hahm, “is that we are an integral part of this society. People forget that Asian Americans can be your neighbor. They are your wives, they are your husbands, or they are your best friends. We need to amplify our voices and have political visibility. We have lots of work to do.”

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There are 16 comments on Asian Americans and the Model Minority Dilemma

Thank you for this thoughtful article! I just want to share some of my experience related to being Asian and mental health.

I am a Chinese student who immigrated to the US in middle school. At that time, I lived in a rural area where I was the only Chinese, and one of very few Asian students in school. I was called racial slurs and asked if I have eaten dogs. It might seem innocent or just a curious comment to some, but to a child who have been raised with love and understanding in her homeland, I felt shocked, degraded, but couldn’t say anything at that time due to language barrier. I loved my motherland and enjoyed my time there, but those heartless comments made me feel very insecure toward myself and my cultural identify.

I have struggled with my identify since then. Even after many years now, I feel traumatized and would easily tear up thinking back about those memories. When I had a psychotic episode years ago, I hallucinated thinking I was watched by the US government, thought of as a Chinese spy, and would be killed because of so. It sounds funny, but I believe it is partly induced by US politics and media’s aversion to China or other countries US deems as its rivals.

I am sure many other Asian people share similar experiences and there are many factors that contribute to our anxiety. I think it is especially important to understand the role of politics that play in one country’s media outlets and not to trust everything from mainstream media as the only true story. Secondly, it is important to train or teach empathy to adults and (especially) children. It is powerful to imagine standing in another person’s shoes and think about how the words we are going to say or have said could make another person feel.

I moved to the US because I wanted to experience and appreciate diverse cultures. Although there are many hardships, I am glad that I have learned new perspectives and met friends that I would not have otherwise done.

Hope you have a lovely day and hope the world will become more peaceful <3

I am genuinely sorry you went through such traumas. As a white student growing up in the 1970s and 1980s I watched students of Asian origin like yourself go through the type of racist comments and attitudes you describe. I felt badly at the time and even worse when I got older: For I knew you were being treated unjustly and while I spoke up in defence of people like you at times, I should have done so much more so. Having lived my adult life in overseas in Asian nations, I am now on the “other side”, experiencing some of the racism you went through. One of the saddest things about humans is that where ever you go, the lower 30% of society “just doesn’t get it” when it comes to racism. Please know that there are many of us –from all colors– who understand what you went through and are supportive.

Thank you Eric for your supportive voice. HC Hahm

Thank you for your thoughtful comment. I was so moved by your comment. HC Hahm

Thanks for sharing your story. I had the privilege of taking a course from Doctor Hahm, and related closely to one of her studies around Asian American women and the intersecting worlds we struggle with, and how this can relate to mental health barriers for second/third generation women. It helped me see myself clearer and tell my story. Thank you for all you do.

Jen, Alaska.

Thank you so much for sharing your experience, that’s not easy to do. I’m so sorry for all of that, and I’m grateful you’ve fought through the hardships and continued to fight to engage with a culture that doesn’t always love you well. I’m glad you’re here.

As someone born in East Asia, on an originally Chinese territory, and with a family history in East Asia, I have a problem with the introduction to this article, which characterizes Asian-Americans as “a model minority—smart in math and science, but poor in sports, and rarely in need of mental health resources.” Surely, it is not that they are “poor in sports” that makes Asian-Americans a “model minority.” It is their academic strength and hard work that makes them a model, so what’s the point of putting them down by stressing a presumed weakness? This weakness is only presumed, because Asian-Americans cannot be in fact considered as “poor in sports”: think of China’s regular performance in the Olympics and the athletics of martial arts. Given the long tradition of these demanding forms of sport, native to East Asia, Asian-Americans may be less interested in the American sports, but interpreting this lack of interest as lack of ability serves only to create and perpetuate a belittling stereotype which adds to the psychological burden of dealing with the stereotype of a “model minority” which needs no consideration afforded to other minorities.

““A model minority—smart in math and science, but poor in sports, and rarely in need of mental health resources.”” In my experience, these stereotypes are held mainly by people who form assumptions based on what they see in front of them or on TV programmes, which often maintain these stereotype of different groups. “The nerdy but runty Asian kid with glasses” is a common stereotype depicted in all forms of media.

Also, in my experience, when someone has formed an opinion about you based on a behaviour that THEY have seen, regardless of how infrequently you actually act that way when you’re not with them, that’s what they’ll tell people about you and you’re kind of stuck with it in their perception.

The private citizens who hold onto these assumptions & images don’t often do their research to find out the truth. I doubt they would know that China is a powerhouse in many sports, such as diving, table tennis, badminton & weightlifting, or that South Korea dominates in archery, because they aren’t really interested in watching these sports or, the Olympics, unless it’s a sport where the US dominates.

Of course many people aren’t like this and they’re curious enough to research other countries, cultures, etc. but that also leads to another rabbit hole of stereotyping – making assumptions about those countries & cultures based on animal welfare, human rights, environmental health, etc. – instead of talking to someone from that country who will hopefully give an honest insight about their culture and the customs they practice.

Powerful article highlighting the importance for more funding of research on Asian-American health. Dr.Hahm highlighted her lab’s effort all while presenting a perspective on the situation that is very honest and humane.

Thank you so much for bringing more attention to these issues in this article. Dr. Hahm perfectly sums up a lot of the pressures and experiences I’ve had since I moved to the US. Before I was aware of important terms such as the “model minority myth” and when I had a weaker understanding of how the AAPI community was treated, I mostly dismissed my own racial and discriminatory experiences as ‘not that bad’. Most times, I didn’t even know these experiences were racially motivated. For instance, I’ve had so many random encounters where strangers would come up to me and say things such as “ni hao” or express other racial assumptions. Only after talking through these microaggression experiences with other people have finally understood how important it is to not dismiss my experiences. Why is it that random strangers are even allowed to do this? How come I still don’t know the best way to respond in instances like this?

Since the Atlanta shootings, I found myself more on edge and more cautious while walking out on the streets. Yesterday, I felt jumpier and more stressed as I went on a run, stopping maybe four times on the street to make sure that I was safe. Even before this tragedy, I was inclined to stay in more because of all the social media news on how AAPI, especially the elderly, were being attacked. It was clear that these vicious physical and verbal attacks against individuals mostly stemmed from prejudice and warped mindsets against China (ex. use of certain terms such as “Wuhan virus” by the previous administration). These violent acts need to stop now and there needs to be an increase in accountability for these perpetrators. It is not enough that social media posts are the ones looking for and identifying these individuals. We need more than empty promises in speeches given by individuals in power. As Dr. Hahm emphasizes, we are not invisible despite the barriers placed against us. We are integral members of society and now is the time to fight for our place and rights and fight against racial rhetorics.

I am also very appreciative of everyone’s responses here in the comment section. Thank you all for sharing your experiences and/or showing your support for this important conversation for the AAPI community.

Thank you so much for sharing this story, it’s so important to highlight the struggles that Asians and Asian Americans are facing particularly during this time. I’ve particularly felt anxious during this time and am extremely grateful that people like Dr. Hahm are investing their time and effort to expose the model minority stereotype and uplift the community. It’s extremely important for us as Asian Americans to be able to seek mental health support and receive culturally specific treatment.

A very important article that everyone should take time to read. It is time for the AAPI community to stop being ignored, and for resources to be allocated to decrease health disparities within the community.

Thank you so much for shedding light on these important issues regarding violence, stereotyping, and lack of awareness in regards to Asian-American discrimination and alienation in American society. It is incredibly frustrating that as a society, we appropriate Asian culture, including yoga, food, matcha, etc yet are unable to defend and protect Asian/Asian American lives and well-being. It is incredibly frustrating that the awful recent acts of violence against Asians/Asian Americans, including the shooting in Atlanta, is what has woken up America to the hardships and struggles of Asians/Asian Americans. On a more optimistic side, however, people are finally awake. They are demonstrating and spreading the word on social media and finally fighting for the lives of those they had once neglected. I hope this continues and action, not just words ensues.

Thank you Dr. Hahm for sharing. It is so important for us all to hear.

The racist attacks and murders of the six Asian women in Atlanta were horrifying. Unbelievably heartbreaking. My heart hurts for these women and their families: Xiaojie Tan; Daoyou Feng; Soon C. Park; Hyun J. Grant; Suncha Kim; and Yong A. Yue. Their murders are the result of a centuries long history of racism in our country, escalated by recent rise in anti-Asian rhetoric and discrimination.

I have had the privilege of working with Dr. Hahm this spring to work on AWARE 2.0. Especially in my own positionality as a white woman, with all of the privilege that entails, it has been an absolutely important experience for me. I have learned so much through this work- about the model minority myth, the impacts of racism in the context of COVID-19 on Asian American young women’s mental health, the lack of funding for interventions for people of Asian descent, etc.

As a white person, I can say that we white folks have a responsibility to call out and stop anti-Asian racism. The fight for racial justice is one that we white folks need to participate in, and this can happen in any field. For example- in the field of social work, we can ask: how is racism showing up in our field? Underfunding of interventions is one place: more resources from the National Mental Institute of Health need to be devoted to studying interventions like AWARE (invest money!!!). And we need to call out racism when we see it among our colleagues, clients, in our institutions and government.

I am proud to work with you and proud to know you Dr. Hahm, and I am so happy you are at the BUSSW. The program and your students are so much better for it.

In solidarity, Chloe

What is the ‘dilemma’ here?? A dilemma refers to a tough choice. The title of this article seems to play into the idea that Asians might want to uphold the MM myth, instead of busting it, because of its “positive aspects.” As a Chinese American woman, I’m tired of giving people the chance to continue this harmful myth.

Bias can be found on all sides and can come in many forms, sometimes overt and sometimes subtle – some Asian friends and family have told me I am “too white” and were critical of my choice to marry a white man. They call me “Oreo” as in brown on the outside and white on the inside. Funny? well, I never laugh.

And some white friends and extended family still think of me as “other”, as different from them, not just having different customs but truly different in a deep and fundamental way. I used to get a lot of “you speak such good English” but haven’t heard that in a long time, thankfully.

My mixed-race kids are always asked “where are you from?” (they always answer “Boston” – which I love). I believe that bias is a learned behavior and that makes me optimistic that unbiased behaviors can also be learned. Lots of work to be done, and I am glad these conversations are happening. Peace and love.

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I Am Not a Model Minority

I am a third generation Asian-American woman at Harvard, and I despise living under the impression that I belong to the “model minority.” For a label that sounds so positive in tone, living under this stereotype has been anything but ideal.

In high school and at Harvard, I have encountered the consequences of living under the model minority myth constantly. My personal and academic achievements are the result of simply “being Asian.” My interests in biology and physics in high school were “typical,” and being stereotyped as “too smart” garnered unwarranted envy and competition from classmates and friends. My achievements weren’t considered the byproduct of hard work; they were simply expected and representative of the Asian-American model minority stereotype.

Many believe that the model minority label allows me to ride on the coattails of my ethnicity, giving me a “one-up boost” ahead of others. Yet to me, the model minority myth has done nothing but strip me of my humanity.

The term “model minority” was first introduced to the public by sociologist William Peterson in a 1966 New York Times article entitled “Success Story, Japanese American Style.” Peterson purported that the Japanese cultural emphasis on hard work was a mechanism for overcoming discrimination and achieving success post World War II. Perpetuating Peterson’s views, U.S. News and World Report published an article called “ Success Story of One Minority Group in U.S. ” in 1968, and Newsweek published “Success Story: Outwhiting the Whites” in 1971. In 1987, TIME Magazine’s cover headlined “ Those Asian-American Whiz Kids ” with a smiling group of young Asian-American students. The Asian-American community has for decades been presented as a homogenous group of people who 1) work hard 2) never complain and 3) live with above average success and satisfaction—a dangerous myth calcified by the media and ingrained in the minds of the public.

Looking closely, one can see that the Asian-American model minority myth is simply that: a myth. While Asian Americans earn higher median household incomes than whites, blacks, and Hispanics/Latinos, these statistics obscure the fact that Asian-American families include multiple earners (white vs. Asian American per capita income is close; household income is not ), likely the result of the many generations living under one roof and the retirement savings of elders. Southeast Asian Americans drop out of high school at an alarming rate; nearly 40 percent of Hmong Americans, 38 percent of Laotian Americans, and 35 percent of Cambodian Americans fail to finish high school. These Asian-American subgroups, along with Vietnamese Americans, earn below the national average.

Believing that Asian Americans are the model minority diverts attention from past and existing discrimination. The stereotype renders racial inequity for Asian Americans invisible and unimportant. For example, the portrayal of the Asian-American woman as the servile “Lotus Blossom” or the domineering, deceitful “Dragon Lady” has been common for years. There’s the 1958 movie “China Doll” and Lucy Liu’s cunning character Ling Woo on the popular TV show “Ally McBeal". Before the cancellation of Margaret Cho’s TV series “All-American Girl” in 1995, her producer hired an Asian consultant after claiming that Cho’s acting simply wasn’t “Asian enough.” Nearly 20 years later, we still see incredibly sparse representation of Asian Americans in the media, as well as in other areas like government, journalism, and high levels of business.

Perhaps the most poignant repercussion of the model minority label is the assumption that being “Asian” is an automatic guarantor of success, a mark of coming from a “privileged” racial group that has “achieved more and struggled less” than other minority groups. The model minority myth has thus undermined the formation of positive relationships among minority groups by preventing the recognition of the intersection among racial histories. It is more than simple chance that the appearance of the “model minority” term coincided with the rise of the African-American Civil Rights Movement and Chicano Civil Rights Movement. Why don’t we acknowledge this? The model minority myth is a wedge that impedes solidarity, emphasizing differences in socioeconomic outcomes rather than commonality in the historic struggle for civil rights.

By being part of the model minority, I am expected to feel nothing less than gratitude and honor for being labeled through a “positive stereotype.” Yet focus on the upper echelons of the Asian-American population has rendered everyone else invisible. In grouping all Asian Americans as high achievers, avid students, and career climbers, society fails to acknowledge the nuance and disparity. “Asian American” encompasses a diverse range of dialects and ethnicities (and of course, a diverse umbrella of individual, personal, human experiences within those subgroups).

I am not a model minority and never will be. No such thing exists.

Bernadette N. Lim ’16 is a joint human evolutionary biology and women, gender and sexuality studies concentrator in Dunster House.

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  • Students will be able to define the model minority myth and identify the reasons it was created.
  • Students will be able to analyze the impact of the model minority myth on Asian Americans, Native Hawaiians, and Pacific Islanders (AANHPIs).
  • Students will learn how the model minority myth has shaped the relationship of the AANHPI community with other groups of color in the United States.
  • Delegitimize 1 : to make something seem not valid or not acceptable
  • Discrimination 2 : to distinguish someone as being inferior or less than, especially based on their sex, race, religion, gender, or age
  • Extoll 3 : to praise highly
  • Meritocracy 4 : a system, organization, or society in which people are chosen and moved into positions of success, power, and influence on the basis of their demonstrated abilities and merit
  • Monolithic 5 : a large, regular, without interesting differences
  • Quintessential 6 : embodying or possessing the essence of something
  • Stereotype 7 : a simplified and over-generalized understanding or image of a group of people, place, or thing; when referring to a group of people, stereotypes can lead to certain expectations/assumptions of how or what that group may act, think, talk, care about, etc.
  • Systematic 8 : something done according to a specific system, plan or method
  • Systemic 9 : of or relating to a system.
  • How and why did the model minority myth develop?
  • Does the model minority myth present an incomplete, potentially stereotypical view of AANHPIs? If so, how and what are the costs of this incomplete view?
  • What are the realities of the experiences of different AANHPI communities?
  • Does the model minority myth serve as a tool to create division between different groups of Americans in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries? If so, how?
  • Are there such things as “positive” or “good” stereotypes?
  • If stereotypes are oversimplified generalizations, what impact might they have on groups of people who are stereotyped?
  • Statistics of different Asian groups that are living in the United States.
  • Statistics on how AANHPI groups are doing in terms of education.
  • Statistics on how AANHPI groups are doing in terms of income level.
  • How are different AANHPI ethnic groups faring? Are different groups having the same experience? Different experiences?
  • What are the disparities within major Asian ethnic groups?
  • What are the realities for different AANHPI ethnic groups?
  • Based on what you know about the realities for different AANHPI ethnic groups how might this reality help AANHPIs’ drive for diversity in all aspects of American society in jobs, services, government funding, employment, small business, education, etc?
  • During World War II, how were Japanese Americans treated? Why would being seen as “Good Americans” be so important to Asian Americans after the war?
  • What are the characteristics of a “Good American”? What are the connections between this stereotype and ideas about the American Dream and meritocracy?
  • How is the “Good American”, the model minority, used in the 1960s? What was the historical context of the 1960s? Was the model minority image used in the discussion of the War on Poverty?
  • What types of discrimination do AANHPIs face? Do AANHPIs get treated as foreigners even if their families have been in the U.S. for several generations?
  • AANHPIs as “model minority” are perceived to have achieved a higher level of success than other minority groups. Do you think this thinking is problematic? What does it imply about other minority groups?
  • What types of discrimination do other minority groups face?
  • Describe the benefits that AANHPIs actually gained through the Civil Rights Movement.
  • Do AANHPIs need alliances with other groups of people? Why or why not?
  • How does this idea of “model minority” hurt AANHPIs in their attempts to build coalitions or alliances with other groups of people?
  • Based on what you know about AANHPI is not a monolithic group, how might affirmative action support AANHPI students applying to college?
  • How might the model minority stereotype potentially be an obstacle to college admissions for AANHPIs?
  • How would affirmative action help AANHPIs in the work place?
  • Describe how the model minority myth is used to drive a wedge between AANHPIs and other communities of color in policies like affirmative action.
  • In what ways have people tried to stereotype you? How are you more than these stereotypes? Write a letter to the people who have stereotyped you, in which you share how you are more than the stereotype they have placed on you.
  • The model minority stereotype has historically been used to drive a wedge between different groups of color. How would you try and bring different groups together? Create a visual representation showing how and/or why different groups of people need to come together.
  • Bouie, Jamelle. “Andrew Sullivan’s Pathology.” 17 April 2017. Slate . https://slate.com/news-and-politics/2017/04/andrew-sullivans-perpetuation-of-model-minority-and-black-pathology-myths-is-pretty-boring-at-this-point.html
  • Chen, Sally. “I’m An Asian-American Harvard Student — Here's Why I Testified In Support Of Affirmative Action,” 30 October 2018. Bustle . https://www.bustle.com/p/im-asian-american-harvard-student-heres-why-i-testified-in-support-of-affirmative-action-13028469
  • Gidra Media. “Why the Model Minority Myth is Harmful to Asian American Health,” 16 Apr 2020. Medium . https://medium.com/gidra-returns/why-the-model-minority-myth-is-harmful-to-asian-american-health-86baf470a626Hartlep , Nicholas D. “Killing the Model Minority Stereotype: Asian American Counterstories and Complicity” Information Age Publishing, 2015
  • Hartlep, Nicholas D. “Model Minority Stereotype Project.” https://nicholashartlep.com/
  • Jung, Carrie. “Judge Upholds Harvard's Race-Conscious Admissions Process,” 2 Oct 2019. NPR. https://www.npr.org/2019/10/02/766330708/judge-upholds-harvards-race-conscious-admissions-process
  • Louie, Vivian. “The Hidden Story of What Drives Success: Institutions and Power.” Asian American Studies Online, CUNY Forum. http://asianamericanstudiesonline.com/2014/01/01/the-hidden-story-of-what-drives-success-institutions-and-power/
  • Williams, Joseph P. “A New Face for Affirmative Action?” 3 February 2017. U.S. News & World Report. https://www.usnews.com/news/the-report/articles/2017-02-03/are-asians-the-new-face-of-affirmative-action


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