The Invisible Costs of the Model Minority Myth on Asian American Families
Anti-Asian harassment and hate crimes are not new but have risen since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The model minority myth has been used as a trope to create racial divisions, which has negative costs for Asian Americans.
Recognizing different forms of racism and debunking the model minority myth are the first steps toward action and implementation of policies to dismantle racism.
Asian Americans are a diverse racial group that consists of more than 30 ethnic subgroups, each of which has a different immigration history, resettlement patterns, sociocultural characteristics (e.g., language, religion, traditions), and socioeconomic outcomes (e.g., education, employment, household income, wealth, poverty; Shih et al., 2019). The model minority stereotype portrays Asian Americans as a homogeneous group that is educationally and economically successful. This myth overgeneralizes the experiences of Asian Americans and masks important diversity within the different ethnic groups (Ishii-Kuntz, 2000).
Historical Context and Recent Incidents
Model minority is a term coined by the sociologist William Petersen in the 1960s to describe the achievement of Japanese Americans who were able to rise above the hardship they endured in World War II internment camps (Petersen, 1966). However, this stereotype has since been used as a trope to create racial divides among racial and ethnic minority groups (Leong & Tang, 2016). The image of the model minority was used to make comparisons between Asian Americans and African Americans who, during the civil rights era, were fighting for racial justice (Wu, 2014). Reinforcing Asians as the “model” simultaneously implies that African Americans, Latinos, and other racial groups are “unworthy” minorities (Shih et al., 2019).
The myth of the model minority also erroneously assumes that Asian Americans have overcome hardship, oppression, and discrimination in the United States (Alvarez et al., 2006; Lee & Joo, 2005), which is anything but their lived reality. Dehumanization of Asian people and anti-Asian sentiments go back to the mid-19th century, when male Chinese laborers first arrived in the western United States. They were viewed as the “yellow peril,” associated with filth and disease and to be feared and not be trusted (for a detailed history on Asian Americans, see Lee, 2015). The most recent surge of anti-Asian racism was first noted in March 2020 (Borja et al., 2020; Jeung et al., 2021). The insistence of some politicians and government officials referring to COVID-19 as the “China virus” further fueled anti-Asian sentiment and intensified violence against Asian Americans. For example, anti-Asian hate crimes increased by 149% across major U.S. cities, from 49 cases reported in 2019 to 122 cases in 2020; in comparison, overall hate crimes dropped by 7% (Center for the Study of Hate & Extremism CSUSB, 2021). Even though xenophobia and anti-Asian racism are not new, the increasing and most recent incidents due to the COVID-19 pandemic provide poignant examples of how Asian Americans continue to experience such racism and discrimination (Borja et al., 2020; Cheah et al., 2020).
Although the image of the model minority portrays Asian Americans as high achieving and excelling both financially and professionally, there are wide variations in employment status, household income and wealth, and poverty (see Ramakrishnan & Ahmad, 2014, for disaggregated statistical data). Asian Americans continue to face racial discrimination and barriers in the workplace in all industries and are significantly underrepresented in the leadership ranks of law firms, government, and academia (Chung et al., 2017; Dhingra, 2007; Hyun, 2005; National Center for Education Statistics, 2017; Pan, 2017). In the business realm, Asian Americans account for only 2% of executive officers and 2.6% of board members at Fortune 500 companies, as compared to Blacks and Latinos, who hold 7.4% and 3.3% of Fortune 500 corporate board seats (Chin, 2016). They are also less likely to become managers and executives in Silicon Valley’s technology industry (Gee & Peck, 2017) or to be promoted to partner status in law firms or serve as U.S. attorneys, elected district attorneys, or federal or state judges (Chung et al., 2017).
Another prominent feature of the model minority myth is its portrayals of Asian Americans as quiet and passive. During the civil rights movement, Asian Americans were depicted as a minority group who is hardworking and quiet and does not instigate troubles (hence “the model”) in order to depict African Americans as loud troublemakers who were on the streets fighting for racial and social justice (Zhou, 2003). Not only are Asian Americans expected to work harder and meet higher standards; they are also expected to stay quiet and not express grievances even in the face of racial and/or gender discrimination (Leong & Tang, 2016; Shih et al., 2019). Anti-Asian harassment and hate crimes frequently go unreported even at the height of the most recent wave of incidents (Jeung et al., 2021). Such stereotypes have resulted in a discounting of the severity of the hate crimes and harassment against Asian Americans and further affect the well-being of Asian Americans.
The model minority myth has negative impacts on Asian Americans in general, but the stereotype has devastating consequences for Asian American women. Women of Asian descent have historically been hypersexualized and fetishized as exotic sexual objects in U.S. popular culture. The objectification of Asian and Asian American women suggested that their value is only in relation to men’s fantasies and desires, thus making them vulnerable targets of sexual assault and racialized gender violence. The massacre that took place at three Asian-run massage parlors in Atlanta on March 16, 2021—during which a gunman killed eight individuals, six of whom were women of Asian descent—provides a perfect example of how the race and gender intersection is extremely harmful for Asian American women. In the workplace, Asian American women continue to face the “bamboo glass ceiling” (Hyun, 2005; Tso, 2018). Although Asian American women are well represented in the entry level of various industries, they are largely absent in the senior and management levels of organizations and institutions (see Shih et al., 2019, for further discussion).
All these stressors can take a toll on Asian Americans’ psychological and physical health. The model minority stereotype holds Asian American children and students to higher standards. For young Asian Americans, the internalization of having to achieve better academic performance places an undue burden on their psychological well-being. Suicide was the leading cause of death for Asian American young adults aged 20–24 and second for youths aged 10–19 and adults 25–34 (Heron, 2017). This high suicide rate is especially alarming for Asian American women (see Noh, 2018, for discussion). However, among all racial groups, Asian Americans are the least likely to seek help from mental health professionals. Asian American elders, especially women, reported the highest suicide rate among women 65 and older of all racial groups (Cao, 2014), as they tend to experience greater socioeconomic vulnerability and higher levels of psychological (e.g., depression, anxiety, loneliness) and physical ailments.
Asian Americans have occupied an ambiguous status in the U.S. Black–White racial hierarchy, which renders them invisible in the discourse on race in America (some have even deemed Asian Americans as “honorary Whites”). Despite generations of contribution to U.S. society, Asian Americans are continually viewed as the “perpetual foreigner,” unassimilable and racialized as more ethnic than American (Leong & Tang, 2016). It is not uncommon for Asian individuals, even those second- or later-generation individuals born and raised in the United States, to be asked, “Where are you from? Where are you really from?” or “You speak good English.”
Implications and Conclusion
In summary, the model minority myth has resulted in misunderstanding, exploitation, mistreatment, and dehumanization of Asian Americans and placed a heavy toll on Asian Americans’ mental and physical well-beings. It has also led to decades of racial tension in our society. Recognizing different forms of racism and debunking the model minority myth are the first steps toward action and implementation of policies to dismantle racism.
Family plays a vital role in shaping children’s racial identity and learning about their own and other’s race and culture (e.g., Brown et al., 2013; UNICEF, 2020). Family Life Educators can assist families in dispelling the model minority myth and promoting compassion and social justice through training and resources. In addition, family scholars and educators can promote the inclusion of accurate Asian American history into the curriculum and train teachers to better support Asian American students without reinforcing the model minority stereotypes. Furthermore, multilingual and culturally sensitive mental health services for members of the Asian American community are needed in order to dismantle the model minority myth and better support the needs of this population. Everyone should strive to create a community that ensures all voices are heard, as speaking up and speaking out may not be easy for some Asian Americans.
The myth of the model minority was created to pit one minority group against the others and to divert attention from fighting institutional racism and structural inequality. This externally imposed label not only hurts Asian Americans but also diminishes other racial and ethnic groups’ demands for social justice. To create a more racially and socially just world, family scholars and practitioners can play an important role in facilitating unity and solidarity among racial and ethnic groups (including Whites) to fight against racism and White supremacy.
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