The term "model minority" was first used in popular culture over half a century ago. It refers to minority groups that are described as having achieved a high level of success in contemporary American society. Most often, "model minority" is applied to Asian Americans because this particular immigrant group is often praised for its apparent academic, economic and cultural success.
What is the model minority myth?
In practice, the characterization of Asian Americans as model minorities leads to the "model minority myth." In this narrative, Asian American children as framed as whiz kids, musical geniuses and academic wunderkinds. Their mothers — sometimes referred to as Tiger Moms (a phrase coined by Amy Chua in her 2011 book Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother) are stereotyped as forcing their children to work harder and be better than everyone else, and their dads are stereotyped as nerdy, effeminate STEM workers with prestigious (but not leadership-level) positions in industries such as medicine and accounting.
In sum, the model minority myth characterizes Asian Americans as a polite, law-abiding group that has achieved a higher level of success than other immigrant groups through a combination of innate talent and immigrant striving.
Why is the myth harmful?
While it may seem to be a positive characterization of Asian Americans on its face, the model minority myth is actually harmful to both Asian Americans and other immigrant groups.
It erases differences between individuals.
Like all stereotypes, the model minority myth erases differences between Asians as individuals and allows lazy mischaracterizations of Asian American students and workers.
It erases differences — both cultural and economic — between Asian groups.
Because the model minority myth is perpetuated by data that lumps Asian Americans into a single monolithic group, it ignores the significant differences between different Asian immigrant groups, which are both cultural and economic.
For example, while it's true that Asian Americans as a whole tend to hold higher degrees and earn more than the general population, there are significant differences between pay among different Asian groups. The National Asian Pacific American Women's Forum (NAPAWF) notes that for every dollar the average white man makes in the U.S., an Asian Indian woman makes $1.21, a Taiwanese woman makes $1.16, a Samoan woman makes $0.62, and a Burmese woman makes 50 cents — a significant difference. Additionally, certain South Asian communities, such as Cambodians, Filipinos and Laotians, are significantly overrepresented in low-wage positions.
When Asian Americans are regarded as a single group, this significant economic disparity between different Asian immigrant groups and the general population is invisible. This can have significant repercussions, as it means that many social welfare programs don't take Asian communities with need into account.
It hurts Asian American students in the classroom.
For youth Asian American students, the model minority myth makes them constantly strive to meet an ever-rising academic bar. It may also make these students afraid to ask for help in school because the model minority myth tells them they shouldn't need it.
Some studies show that teachers are affected by the model minority myth, too. Due to their perception that Asian American students already "get it," teachers may be less likely to offer help to struggling Asian American students because they don't realize that they're having a hard time in class.
It relegates Asian Americans to perpetual foreigner status.
Along with popular culture stereotypes of Asian Americans (e.g., men as kung fu masters and women as submissive sex objects), the model minority myth maintains the perception that Asian Americans are all the same — and all different from other "real" Americans.
It erases racism and discrimination against Asian Americans.
By positioning Asian Americans as beneficiaries of the American Dream, the model minority myth erases Asians' oppression throughout American history. This allows past wrongs, such as Japanese internment during World War II, the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, Asian Americans' mass lynchings in the 19th century and Vincent Chen's murder in 1982 to go unaddressed.
The model minority myth also makes current injustices invisible: for example, the myth doesn't leave room for discussion of the fact that 1 in 7 Asian immigrants in the U.S. today is undocumented and facing potential deportation. By saying that Asian Americans are doing well today and have benefited from an elevated status relative to other minorities despite discrimination, the model minority myth implies that Asian Americans can't be experiencing continued challenges today.
It uses Asian Americans as a wedge against other minority communities.
By saying that Asian Americans have succeeded in the American economic, academic and political system despite being a minority group, the model minority myth weaponizes Asian Americans against other minority groups.
Paired with racist myths about other ethnic or religious groups, the model minority myth is used as evidence to downplay racism and discrimination's impact on people of color in the U.S. This is especially true relative to black communities, against whom the Asian American model minority myth is often used to perpetuate anti-blackness.
As evidence of this, one need look no further than the affirmative action lawsuit against Harvard. The suit, which was brought by Asian American students, is funded by conservative activist Edward Blum (who also funded Fisher v. University of Texas, a case that challenged UT's affirmative action practices in 2016). Observers note that the case's underlying intention is to dismantle affirmative action, which has historically helped students from minority communities overcome the legacy of discrimination.
How to combat the myth.
While the model minority myth is complex and deeply rooted in American understandings of the Asian American experience, it can be fought. Some of the following tactics can help:
Understand that while the collective experience is important, individual differences still exist within the larger group.
While the terms "Asian American," "Asian-Pacific American" (APA) and "Asian American Pacific Islander" (AAPI) are important ways to create a collective Asian identity and help bring the community together to exert political power and work together on mutual concerns, recognizing the differences between the ethnic subgroups within these groups is important for combating the model minority myth.
This means working to understand different Asian American and Pacific Islander groups' histories, their economic circumstances and the issues they're currently facing. Teasing apart the differences between these groups is an important step toward seeing Asian Americans as a diverse, rather than monolithic, group.
Make Asian Americans more visible in pop culture, media and general history.
Making Asian Americans and their unique experiences more visible in popular culture, media and generally taught history will also make the community more visible. With the previously discussed points in mind, it will also make Asian Americans' different experiences in the U.S. more visible and break down the stereotype of Asians as a monolithic culture with a single unified immigrant experience.
Recognize the model minority myth when it's perpetuated and call it out as a false simplification of the Asian American experience.
Merely recognizing the model minority myth isn't enough to dismantle it. Those who are aware of this issue should also seek to actively call it out when others use it as a means of understanding Asian American experiences. Doing this is important to both educate others and combat manifestations of the model minority myth.
Encourage Asian Americans' self-documentation of their own (and their communities') experiences.
Telling Asian Americans' individual stories makes the individuality of each person's experience visible. Supporting Asian American writers, storytelling projects and documentation projects is an important way to ensure that Asian Americans — rather than others outside their communities — have control over their own narratives. Telling the full story of Asian Americans' experiences is a natural way to combat the model minority myth.
Identify areas where the model minority myth is particularly harmful to Asian Americans and end its application in that area.
College admissions — where mounting evidence from cases such as the Harvard suit shows that Asian American students are held to higher and different standards from white students — are an obvious area where the model minority myth is actively hurting Asian Americans today. Similarly, the dearth of Asian American business leaders despite Asian Americans' high employment in many STEM and white-collar jobs is another manifestation of the model minority myth.
Combating these relatively obvious manifestations of the model minority myth is a great first step towards combating the model minority myth more broadly. To do this, it's necessary to challenge the assumptions that create these practices, seek to hold institutions that apply different standards to Asian Americans accountable for their discrimination and demand that they do better.
Breaking down the model minority myth is important to Asian Americans, but it should also be important to those who are interested in justice, nuanced understandings of the world around us and the fair treatment of all minority communities in the United States.