May 26, 2021
Not “Fresh off the Boat”: An EDI Committee Blog Post Series - Topic 3: The Myth of the Model Minority
Many Asian-Americans are familiar with the term “model minority”. While on its surface the term appears positive (being a model or exemplar is generally seen as favorable), this term is rooted in racist stereotypes and has been used to create divisions between Black, Indigenous, and People of Colour (BIPOC) groups. In the third post of the Not “Fresh off the Boat” blog series, we will explore what the model minority myth is and why it is problematic.
What is the model minority myth?
The model minority stereotype characterizes Asian-Americans1 as hard-working, highly motivated in educational pursuits and having strong family values2. This stereotype is problematic because it frames Asian-American achievement as evidence that success is attainable only to those who work hard enough - a common "pull oneself up by one’s bootstraps" expression found throughout Western culture. The phrase "model minority” was initially coined in 19663 and has subsequently made its way into political and social discourse, as well as academic research. Today, the model minority is still an actively studied stereotype (often described as the “model minority myth” to establish the relationship between this false stereotype and its negative impact) in several areas of social sciences, including Asian Cultural Studies and Psychology.
As the pervasiveness of the model minority stereotype continues, its negative impact has become more apparent. It is difficult to appreciate the problematic definition of model minority without also acknowledging its predecessor, the yellow peril stereotype - which permeated Western societies throughout the late 19th and early 20th centuries and depicted Asians and Asian-Americans as cultural, economic, and political threats to the Western/White race. The yellow peril stereotype manifested in politically sanctioned racism against Asian-Americans, such as when Chinese, Japanese, and South Asian immigrants were banned from voting in British Columbia’s provincial elections (and later Canadian federal elections)4 and Japanese Canadians/Americans were dispossessed of their property and forced into internment camps during World War II (and, many were later deported following the war). The shift from the yellow peril to model minority stereotype suggests that Asians were able to overcome the negative stereotype by conforming to Western society and "properly" assimilating.
Why is the model minority stereotype so damaging?
The model minority stereotype perpetuates the notion that Asians are a homogenous group. It also assumes that if some Asian-Americans can succeed, then anti-Asian racism is not a problem. This ignores the fact that there are great disparities in socioeconomic status, educational attainment, and immigration status between Asians of different ethnic origins. Furthermore, this myth of meritocracy constitutes a false and insidious narrative, as it is based upon immigration laws that only allowed Asian immigrants from affluent or highly educated backgrounds entrance to North America. It also reinforces assumptions that Asian-Americans are quiet, reserved, submissive, or subservient, contributing to the so-called bamboo ceiling, a term used to describe barriers faced by Asian-American workers to advance to leadership positions. The model minority myth also places pressure on young Asian-Americans to live up to this stereotype and as a result, many suffer from feelings of stress and report increased experiences of imposter syndrome (i.e., seeing oneself as an “intellectual fraud”). Finally, this myth serves to divide BIPOC groups, as the perceived success of Asian-Americans is wielded as evidence that deficits in economic, educational, or social achievement by other BIPOC individuals reflect merit, rather than inequitable systems that reinforce Western ideals and privilege people who present as White.
How do we move beyond the model minority myth?
The recent increase in anti-Asian racism in Canada and the United States has demonstrated that the model minority myth does not protect Asian-American communities from racism, and that as a community we can still experience the yellow peril stereotype, particularly when a political scapegoat is needed. Because of this, we all need to speak out against anti-Asian racism and support Asian-centered social movements such as Hate is a Virus (#hateisavirus), Stop AAPI Hate, and AAPI Women Lead.
In addition, we cannot make progress towards an anti-racist society unless we unite as BIPOC folks in solidarity against racist culture. This includes dismantling the myth of the model minority, otherwise we as Asian-Americans are complicit in racism against other BIPOC groups. BIPOC solidarity is becoming more evident. For example, when George Floyd was murdered in May 2020, Asian-American communities demanded justice for him. Similarly, Black Lives Matter officially denounced anti-Asian racist attacks after the murder of six Asian women in Atlanta5, and the recent See Us Unite May 19 project highlights the shared history of activism between Asian-American and other BIPOC communities. While all BIPOC communities have their own unique experiences and history with racism, treating equity as a zero-sum game, where there can only be one winner, is sure to entrench racism and White supremacy into our society for decades to come.
1 For the purposes of this post, the term Asian-American is used to encompass individuals of Asian heritage and/or nationality living in current day Canada and the United States.
2 Kawai, Y. (2005). Stereotyping Asian Americans: The dialectic of the model minority and the yellow peril. The Howard Journal of Communications, 16(2), 109–130. https://doi.org/10.1080/10646170590948974
3 Most credit the term's first use to sociologist William Peterson in a 1966 New York Times article describing the growth of middle-class Japanese Americans in the decades following WWII. http://inside.sfuhs.org/dept/history/US_History_reader/Chapter14/modelminority.pdf
4 Provincial voting bans were first enacted because of the high influx of Asian immigrants to the West Coast of Canada, starting with Chinese immigrants in 1872, Japanese in 1895, and South Asians in 1908. Federal election bans were later imposed on Chinese Canadians in 1885 and extended to other Asian groups in 1920 from the Dominion Elections Act. Chinese and South Asians received the right to vote in 1947, whereas Japanese Canadians did so in 1949.
5 Xiaojie Tan, Hyun Jung Grant, Yong Ae Yue, Suncha Kim, Daoyou Feng, Soon Chung Park, Delaina Ashley Yaun, Paul Andre Michels are the names of the victims in the Atlanta shooting that took place on March 16, 2021.