The Breakdown is a Tempest exclusive series that attempts to tackle issues, concepts, terms, and histories that are relevant and intrinsic to conversations about social justice. This is our version of a 101 on Social Justice, with a grassroot level approach that hopes to simplify and make political and cultural conversations accessible in a global level.
The concept of the “Model Minority Myth” has been in existence since the late 60’s, however conversation around it has increased following the BLM movement, especially through conversations around how Asian Americans intersect in the systemic racism and inequality that disadvantages minorities in the US. So, what exactly is the Model Minority Myth?
The term “Model Minority” was first used in 1966 to refer to the growing success of mainly Japanese Americans, but has now grown to include both South and East Asian Americans. The myth distinguishes Asian Americans as law-abiding, productive, and polite citizens who have achieved higher success than the general population. Since its inception in popular media, the Model Minority praises Asian Americans for their apparent success across economic, academic, and cultural domains which is oftentimes used to contrast the achievements of African Americans and Latin Americans.
Asian Americans have not always been praised as being the model minority. The 1965 Immigration Act revered years of restrictive migration that prevented immigration from Asian countries. The Act allowed for a greater number of immigrants, namely highly educated professionals and scientists, to migrate to the US. Highly educated individuals were prioritized before any other profession which essentially set them up for success in the US in comparison to African and Hispanic Americans. This then posited them as being the “ideal” immigrant of color.
The myth itself marks Asian Americans with seemingly positive characteristics and many Asian Americans have embraced the positive stereotype, but it does raise the question as to whether the Model Minority myth is a benefit or a burden on the Asian American community as well as other minority communities.
On the surface, the myth hoists up the community on a pedestal for their relative success, which emphasizes the progressiveness from being referred to as “Yellow Peril” and accused of flooding the country. But now the Asian American community is seen as a socially integrated, economically successful, and an upwardly mobile racial group.
However, the Model Minority Myth can appear to be a double-edged sword. Although it does have positive characteristics associated with it, those same characteristics, of being quiet and diligent, limit Asian Americans from reaching leadership roles within corporate jobs as they are perceived as lacking confidence. This has essentially contributed to the phenomenon of the “Bamboo Ceiling” – a metaphor that stunts Asian Americans from climbing above a point on the corporate ladder – which is harmful to the Asian American community. The concept of the Bamboo Ceiling is reflected by the fact that Asian Americans make up 27% of the corporate workforce, but only hold 14% of executive seats. The positive stereotype praises the community for thriving in school and work, but again it asserts that Asian Americans are incapable of doing anything outside that scope.
On a societal level, the myth has been frequently used to drive a wedge between Asian Americans and African and Hispanic Americans. During the peak of the civil rights movements, Asian Americans were used as an example to suggest that no matter how ingrained racism could be, it could easily be overcome by working hard and by being a law-abiding citizen. They were used as proof that the inequalities that minority groups faced were brought about by sheer laziness. It allowed the white majority to rid themselves of any responsibility for the systemic racism that was faced by African Americans through Jim Crow laws. The inaccurate idea, of hard work being able to counteract racism, has continually been reinforced amongst the Asian American community which further created a belief that other minority communities, especially the African American community, were simply not working hard enough; some members of the Asian American community have used the narrative to undercut the experiences of black people since the myth places them as the superior minority. The myth further neglects the historical inequalities that have formed from the enslavement and dehumanization of African Americans and the deeply entrenched racism that occurred as a result. So, as African Americans consistently experience police brutality and racial profiling, the Model Minority myth acts as a shield to protect Asian Americans.
The trope of the wealthy successful Asian appears to further the burden on the community as it obscures the fact that they are the most economically divided racial group in the US. It also takes away from an individual’s own lived experiences as it homogenizes them, portraying them as a monolithic group with a singular identity that cuts out the struggles and discrimination that they face.
The myth is still very relevant within today’s society, continuing to feed into the Model Minority Myth could do more harm than good especially in the long term. Not only does it impede career paths by supporting the bamboo ceiling, but it also allows Asian Americans to be used against other racial minorities as an example as to why systemic racism does not exist. However, the COVID-19 pandemic has reignited old prejudices against Asian Americans which contradicts the idea that working hard and being a law-abiding citizen can overcome racism.
The Model Minority Myth has remained controversial for decades with some people wholly embracing the myth for its positive stereotypes as they benefit off of it, whilst others see it as a burden on the community as the stereotype limits their potential earning and their ability to get promoted. Although it is important to realize that some Asian Americans have benefited from a broken system and recognize their own privileges, there also needs to be a continual strive for change as the myth creates a burden on the Asian American community and other minority communities.
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