The “Model Minority” myth is harmful to Asian Americans


Sofia Sahai, Contributing Writer

The term model minority: is it one of praise and encouragement or one of division and oppression? 

When I first heard the term, I immediately felt a sense of pride, coming from a hard working, intelligent, and strong family of Asian individuals who have taught me to be dedicated to my education, embrace curiosity, and never settle for mediocrity. But soon after, I began to examine and unpack the term, which led me to realize that this so-called “compliment” — labeling Asian Americans as the most successful minority group, rooted in strong familial structure and hard work — was really a disguise for a divisive and dangerous generalization. 

Labeling Asian Americans as the model minority undermines the unique and authentic experiences of each and every member of our diverse community. The concept of the model minority assumes that all Asians are economically successful. In America, there are over 20 million residents of Asian descent, each with their own personal stories. In New York, one in four Asians live in poverty. By feeding into the model minority myth and failing to recognize that Asian people also have struggles, we remain ignorant to poverty, food insecurity, and healthcare problems the Asian community faces, leaving these issues unsolved. While Indians have the highest median household income in the United States and a poverty rate of only 6% according to the US Census Bureau, 33.3% of Bhutanese Americans live under the poverty line, almost three times the national average of 11.6%.

The assumption that all Asian Americans are well-off leads to passivity from lawmakers and politicians when formulating health and education bills, underrepresenting Asians in both health research and school curricula. The idea that all Asian Americans fit into the concept of being a model minority erases differences between different Asian people, allows us to fall complacent to Asian struggles, and fails to recognize that we are not all the same. 

In fact, the model minority places an entire diaspora into a small box, and if you don’t fit into the confines of it, it is difficult to find a place at all. The model minority myth is rooted in stereotypes that infiltrate the media and our education system. These stereotypes are that all Asians are geniuses or musical prodigies that abide by the American system and succeed. When I was younger, I began to feel the pressures of these stereotypes on television. When I watched my favorite shows, like Jessie and Phinneas and Ferb, I longed for a South Asian character that would push beyond the stereotypical nerdy, unpopular kid with a thick and unauthentic accent. It was challenging and upsetting to see only one version of a character who looked like me. I wish that younger me could have had South Asian role models to look up to on television. Representation in the media is so important; we cannot solely stick to a niche stereotype. 

While there are many incredible, smart, and successful Asians working in high-earning fields like technology and medicine, the model minority myth discounts Asian trailblazers of other industries. Especially during the month of May, Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) Heritage month, we must recognize the contributions of all Asians, whether in Silicon Valley, Hollywood, or beyond. Asians can succeed in any field, and it is harmful to believe there is only one path for us to take. 

The pressure to be intelligent and succeed is also harmful for Asian students, discouraging us from asking for help or pursuing our true passions. These stereotypes can contribute to high suicide rates among Asian teenagers and young adults, as suicide is the second leading cause of death for Asian Americans aged 15−34. Being pushed to fit into a mold where we don’t quite belong can cause depression and feelings of inadequacy. Coming from generations of business people and scientists has made me question my natural inclination and love of the humanities. Are Indians who go to Horace Mann supposed to be poets and songwriters? When Asians try to conform to fit the stereotype of what we are expected to be, it can lead to a loss of identity. The model minority stereotype is not a harmless complement or motivation to succeed. It disregards our complexity, achievements, and passions.

The model minority myth also creates divide among Asians and other minority groups by placing Asians at the top of a racial hierarchy and downplaying racism in the United States. Beginning in the 1960s, the term model minority has been used to drive a wedge between Asians and other minority groups, specifically Black people. In 1966, William Peterson coined the term model minority in an article published in the New York Times. Peterson talked about the successes of Japanese Americans, disregarding a history of discrimination and racism against Japanese people, including Japanese internment camps during World War II. 

These internment camps were established by Franklin D. Roosevelt out of paranoia, operating under the governmental policy that incarcerated people of Japanese descent, even if they were U.S. citizens, in internment camps during World War II in order to prevent potential spies for the Axis powers. Peterson ignored this history, and went on to use Japanese success as an excuse to criticize other groups that he labeled “problem minorities.” 

This idea has continued to develop, problematically insinuating that if other minorities were harder working, had two-parent households, and recovered from histories of oppression in the United States, they would succeed more. This way of thinking trivializes racism experienced by other minority groups, and claims that the successes of Asians discredit the link between poverty and struggles of other minorities in facing racism. The model minority myth perpetuates ideas of white supremacy and allows white people to turn a blind eye to the harms of racism, and deflects responsibility in the fight for racial equality. It also pits minority groups against each other through glorifying the Asian American experience and criticizing the experience of other minority groups. Placing Asians on a pedestal above other minority groups prevents us from uniting to combat racial injustice.

To begin to dismantle this myth, we must educate ourselves about the different histories and cultures of Asia. Power to effectuate change begins with knowledge, and we can no longer assume simplicity of a group made up of millions. We must study Asian leaders in all fields and recognize their contributions to our society, from Steve Chen’s founding of YouTube, to Mindy Kaling’s Never Have I Ever, and Michelle Zauner’s Crying in H Mart

We can not ignore the struggles and histories of not only Asians, but all minority groups in the United States. Asia is the home of 49 countries, over 2,300 languages, 11 religions, and 53 currencies… how can we all be the same?