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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.

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