Widgets Magazine


Dismantling the “Model Minority” myth

As a movement for racial equality coalesces in America, the myth of the “model minority” Asian community is again being used as an ideology to justify oppressive racial structures, to mask Asian suffering and discrimination, and to pit minority groups against each other. It is important to resist such ideas and maintain an accurate focus of the current state of racial oppression in America.

The myth of the “model minority” has a history of being used to justify the status quo. According to the book “Model Minority Myth Revisited,” the term “model minority,” first coined by William Petersen in 1966, was used as a discursive strategy during the Civil Rights Movement to prove that a segregated racial system was fair and allowed opportunity for minorities, generally, to succeed. Today, rightwing conservatives deploy the “model minority” stereotype to deny the existence of white privilege and structural racism. They posit: If Asian Americans can prosper as a minority in America, then there must be something wrong with African Americans and Latinos.

This line of thought ignores the varied historical realities that brought different groups of immigrants to America. Because of the 1965 Immigration Selection Act, a disproportionate number of Asian Americans coming to America were educationally and economically successful in their home countries. The higher education and income levels of these immigrants allowed for greater academic and career success for their children.

Meanwhile, African Americans faced brutal subjugation through slavery, which has had intergenerational effects on wealth accumulation, health and social mobility. Moreover, Latino migrants have been coerced to migrate due to free trade agreements like NAFTA which make it impossible for them survive economically in their home countries. Such migrants are typically of lower socioeconomic background and lack fluent English skills.

The “model minority” stereotype distorts the causality of differential academic and career success among various minority groups. A failure to succeed is attributed to inherent flaws within the character of an individual or the minority group as a whole. However, the historical facts indicate that the structuring of U.S. policy (mostly by white males) – be it through the Immigration Act, NAFTA or slavery – heavily determined the success of any given minority group. Likewise, structural discrimination against African Americans and Latinos in prison sentencing, employment and police brutality today is ignored in favor of blame-the-victim explanations promoted by the “model minority” ideology.

In addition to justifying oppressive racial structures, the myth of the “model minority” also masks suffering within the Asian community itself. While, as a whole, Asians have a higher median income than other racial groups, this ignores the important variations among diverse Asian ethnicities. For example, Southeast Asians, specifically the Hmong, Cambodian, Laotian and Vietnamese minorities, are some of the poorest groups in America with Cambodians receiving a per-capita household income of $10,215. Moreover, the high school dropout rates among Southeast Asian groups surpass the national average of 15 percent, including a 39.6-percent and 38.5-percent high school incompletion rate among the Hmong and Cambodian ethnic groups respectively. Clumping the various Asian ethnic subgroups into one panethnic category ignores the struggles within each subgroup.

Moreover, the myth of the “model minority” has been internalized into many Asian communities resulting in discrimination and abuse. One study shows that Asian Americans are perceived not only as studious and hardworking, but also as submissive and without complaint. Internalization of this submission can lead to mental health issues from bullying and abuse in schools and at work. In fact, the notion of Asian submissiveness is solidified in the workplace where Asian Americans are concentrated into technical positions and underrepresented in decision-making executive roles despite expressing interest in these areas. Statistically, Asian Americans make up only 1.5 percent of top executives in the Fortune 1000 firms and require more years of academic study to make the same pay as their white counterparts. In many companies, the assumption of a submissive and unambitious Asian demeanor prevents them from attaining positions of power.

The importance of dismantling the “model minority” Asian stereotype is clear. Convenient and unrepresentative aspects of the Asian identity are exalted to demean other minority groups and justify racially oppressive structures. Moreover, the “model minority” myth renders the discrimination and struggle within Asian American communities invisible. As the Stanford campus continues to organize around Ferguson, it is crucial that we reject an ideology designed to pit minorities against each other and immobilize a movement for racial equality.

Contact Neil Chaudhary at neilman ‘at’ stanford.edu.

  • tecsi

    Hi Neil,

    Powerful, informative, iconoclastic OpEd. I had fully bought into this compa=
    rison and used the incredible academic performance of “Asians” (presumably C=
    hinese and Indian) as the manifestation. My thinking was askew because I was=
    aware of the incredible discrimination against Chinese in late 1800s/early 1=
    900s and extrapolated forward from there. I think what you are suggesting is=
    that the recent Asian gains of the last 40 years comes from a relatively se=
    lect well-educated group of post-1965 immigrants from China and India.=20

    If I recall, maybe if the post-1965 immigrants may have not not been affluen=
    t, but they came with scholarships to US colleges, providing them and their o=
    ffspring much greater opportunities.

    Am i interpreting your comments accurately? Do you have any idea of what per=
    centage of Asians at Stanford are immigrants vs. U.S.-born?

    Good work. Thanks.

    Barry Smith
    Stanford Alum

  • tecsi


    Btw, tried to email you the earlier comment but got bounced back


  • Mike

    You can’t attribute the success gap between Asians and other minorities to income/socioeconomic background. Asian-American students from low-income areas consistently do better than other low-income minorities and whites. Asian Americans are known to have a much better work ethic collectively, which is why they do better than even whites.

  • skeptic

    Plus, Jewish immigrants were also forced to leave their countries and lost most possessions escaping from the war. They are now in average higher income than the rest of america.

  • skeptic

    You seem to easily buy into arguments. Chinese in america did not mostly come from wealthy backgrounds. You can easily see them working their asses off. Do you think that screams privilege and having born in a wealthy family?

    They just worked hard in their home countries and then came to america.

  • Attention Liberal Shit Heads

    Here’s a thought: contrary to popular belief, maybe not all people were created equal!

    Women are biologically different than men.
    African-Americans are biologically different than Caucasians (hint: on average, they’re faster)
    Asians, African Americans, Latinos, Jews, and White people are culturally different.

    What on earth makes you think they do, or even should, have equal outcomes in life?

    It’s no secret that education is highly correlated with success. Asians and Jews culturally value education more than African Americans and Latinos. Asians and Jews will therefore proportionately achieve greater financial success than African Americans and Latinos.

    That doesn’t stop African Americans and Latinos from raising their kids with the same educational values as Asians and Jews. Just less of them will actually do that. Of course, those who seek an education should be given equal opportunities to that education regardless of race.

    Blacks and Latinos already have far more than their fair share of that opportunity because of programs like race-based affirmative action (which strives for equal outcomes, not equal opportunities). If anything, affirmative action should be socioeconomic based, to normalize the playing field so that student’s compete with other students who had similar resources to get their education.

    The olympics doesn’t do affirmative action when they choose who runs, jumps, and swims.

  • Attention Liberal Shitheads

    And now we’re calling for affirmative action in our justice system too, because “Cops shoot more black people than white people”

    I just wonder if that has anything to do with the fact that black people commit more crimes than white people. Or if black people have the prima facia perception that white cops are out to get them, so they’re more likely to attack white cops.

    But of course in that case we should vilify the cops for even giving them the impression that they were racist. Because now all justice is decided by who’s offended, who couldn’t handle all their estrogen the morning after a one-night stand, or who felt attacked because they were a minority. It’s all about who “felt” like a victim.

  • I must admit that I’d never heard anyone go so far as to attribute Asian success in America to our earlier exclusionary immigration policies. Only the best and brightest needed apply to hammer in railroad spikes and sucky sucky long time.

    Perhaps we can learn to reform based on this revelation, and be way, way, way more picky about the hordes of ‘non-model’ (short, rotund) minorities grazing up over the border.

  • AsianAmAnon

    Completely agree with this sentiment. As an Asian American, I have often wondered where we fit in a society that often paints race as a black-white binary. We may gain some privileges from this model minority stereotype, but the fact that this construction supports and is part and parcel of oppressive structures is obvious. I worry sometimes that Asian Americans see no stake or need for their support (or at the very least engagement with race-related issues (especially now)), but I hope that this is only because of our lack of awareness of our history. We are not mere bystanders. We never have been, and we never will be.