The myth of Asian Americans as the “model minority”

Stereotypes sometimes are based on a kernel of truth, but they’re twisted and blown out of proportion and used out of context. Sometimes, stereotypes can even be “good” in that they’re not negative images. But trust me, a stereotype is still a stereotype. It’s a generalization that’s not universally true, and even the good ones are impossible to live up to.

Asian Americans are very familiar with the stereotype of the “model minority.” It goes like this: Asian Americans are smart, quiet, dependable, hard-working and never complain. Asian American kids are smart, quiet, straight-A students, play classical music on instruments like piano, cello and violin, and never complain.

It’s all hogwash, of course… but it’s based on that kernel of truth.

Asian Americans were known for a hundred years for successfully assimilating into mainstream American society. It never completely worked because we could never be accepted racially into the mainstream like European Americans could, but Asian immigrants and their families worked hard to become economically successful in America.

But a brand-new report published by New York University, the College Board and Asian American educators and community leaders found that the idea of “model minority” is a myth, and that the APA (Asian Pacific American) population is as diverse and no more homogeneous than the rest of America.

“Certainly there’s a lot of Asians doing well, at the top of the curve, and that’s a point of pride, but there are just as many struggling at the bottom of the curve, and we wanted to draw attention to that,” said Robert T. Teranishi, the N.Y.U. education professor who wrote the report, “Facts, Not Fiction: Setting the Record Straight.”

It turns out that like other American populations, Asian Americans’ level of economic success and level of education correlated to families’ economic conditions. Chinese Americans and Japanese Americans may be comfortably ensconced in suburbia today, but especially for more recent Asian immigrant communities — Vietnamese, Cambodian, Hmong, Laotian among them — the language limitations of first-generation cultures and other economic conditions mean the “American Dream” might still be out of reach.

I can speak from experience that the image of JAs getting straight A’s in school is reflected in a cracked mirror.

Yes, I got good grades as a kid. My parents used to pay my brothers and me for A’s, and I remember the horror I felt when I got a D in penmanship (that’s a whole ‘nother blog post). I graduated near the top of my high school class, and graduated with honors from art school (come on, it’s art school).

But I was into words and art in high school, not numbers. I got good grades in math classes, but it’s because I cheated, and copied a friend’s homework (thanks, Janice!). Even in art school, I was a complete slacker until a couple of weeks before the end of the semester, then go into a frenzy of art-making to b.s. my way into an acceptable review.

And those over-achieving Asian kids with their music lessons and studying for careers as doctors, dentists, engineers and lawyers? Many of them don’t really enjoy or want to follow the career track they’re on — they’re being forced by parental pressure and cultural expectations (read or watch “Joy Luck Club” again for a refresher). They take those lessons to please their parents.

But the myth has persisted, even today. The Time magazine cover above is from 1987, but it could have appeared in 1967, or 2007. For any middle-aged or older Asian American parents, Harold and Kumar are their worst nightmare: dope-smoking horn-dog slackers who can play the American Dream game, but choose not to.

The need to play that game and succeed comes out of the struggle to be accepted as a minority community in the U.S. For decades, Asian Americans suffered from anti-immigration legislation and racial hatred. Did you know there was a thriving Chinatown in Denver… in the late 1800s? It was burned down and the Chinese were chased out of town. Today, the heart of the local Japanese American community, Sakura Square, stands on one block in that part of downtown Denver. 120,000 Japanese Americans were locked up during WWII, as it turns out mostly because of racial prejudice.

No wonder why Asians work hard to get good grades, go into respectable careers and climb the corporate ladder (but not too high, of course, because Asians culturally can’t bring attention to themselves).

That’s the kernel of truth that led to the model minority tag. But the label was officially created by William Petersen, a sociologist who commended Japanese Americans in a 1966 article in the New York Times Magazine for their assimilation and economic success. That’s where he first used the term, “model minority.” Later the same year, an article in U.S. News and World Report praised the success of Chinese Americans.

Why did the profile of Asian Americans get raised to lofty heights in the mid-’60s? Because they were being used as social counterweight to the not-so-model minority, the African Americans, who had rioted in Watts in 1964, and were the focus of the government’s “Great Society” social programs to fight poverty.

Against the turbulent rise of the civil rights movement, Asian Americans seemingly offered a backdrop of calm and served as role models of how to play the American game.

So the myth was placed on us, and many of us fit the stereotype. Not any more, according to the new study. Hopefully, these facts will help retire the myth once and for all.

You can read about the origins and use of the model minority myth in the book “Orientals: Asian Americans in Popular Culture” (it’s a bit dry and academic, but an excellent book) or on this Wikipedia article. There’s also a great article on the aptly-named site

If you’re Asian American, have you bumped up against the model minority myth?

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3 Responses to The myth of Asian Americans as the “model minority”

  1. Eric Sung says:

    LOL..are you serious! They had to do a study to find out that the model minority stereotype is a myth..Like the comment above, I have fallen way short of the model minority image – probably B average student, didn’t go to a great school, don’t drive a nice car, don’t live in nice house or the right neighborhood, don’t make a lot of money and certainly am not in a stereotypical occupation. And damn it, I’m uppity, elitist, militant and all that other anti-american goodness.

  2. Eric Sung says:

    I don’t know if the reason why Asian Americans, especially Chinese, Japanese and Koreans, worked hard to achieve economic success is to be accepted. I think it’s more cultural and historical – to have face, to have material success, etc…I think Far East Asians especially tend to judge people’s success in life not by who they are, but what they have. I also think that Far Eastern Asians have a more elitist mentality when it comes to idea of racial superiority, so the idea is not to fit in, but to prove that we are as good if not better.

  3. cognitis says:

    “Stereotypes” never are based on truth: authorities create perceptions only to further their own interest; also, no mortal is who either perfectly perceives or describes; thus (to slowly spell it out for you) any portrayal of a minority is necessarily false and injurious to minority members. Why then would you corroborate injurious “stereotypes” about Japanese-Americans? Do you not understand that repeating or even attacking “stereotypes” corroborates them? You’re slow, so here’s a clear example: teenagers acknowledge parents’ authority exactly when teenagers rebel: ie ( you’re really slow) a teen with no respect for a single mother simply does whatever he wants and ignores his mother’s pleas. Acknowledge that any “stereotype” used by a Euro or African is an intentional insult and the user is trying to intimidate or deter or otherwise injure you or your interests. Keep in mind, though, that all employers sanction intimidation of minority employees: should you verbally slap someone who uses a stereotype (not a slur), expect an employer to warn you and perhaps label you as a “troublemaker”, ie ethnic minorities are permitted to work at euro-owned companies only if they permit others to use them for comic relief.

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