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The Model Minority Myth: The Silence it Breeds, The Privilege it Enables, and its Impact on Social Activism

by Hugh and Douglas Mo

Over the last week or so, we have all been outraged, saddened, and dismayed. The unconscionable deaths of Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, Tony McDade, and the countless others at the hands of police brutality have prompted us to reflect on our own experiences as Asian Americans. We have a moral obligation to speak up and stand in solidarity with the Black community. We realized that to become better allies, we have to first examine our unwitting internalization of the model minority myth. As Asian Americans, we have both benefited from the model minority myth, a pernicious trope that we expound below. Our experiences and upbringing, as two American-born Chinese kids from Queens, NY and college graduates from prestigious liberal arts colleges in Maine, have greatly informed our racial identity. These are our words.

What is the Model Minority Myth?

The model minority myth was constructed by politicians and the mainstream media to portray Asian Americans as the highest achieving minority group in the U.S. The myth deliberately pits Asians against other minorities in the U.S. and shifts the focus away from
“the real issue of conflict between the dominant racial group [Whites] and minorities” (Da, 2007).

Asian Americans in the U.S. experienced a dramatic shift in their public image during the 20th century. During the first half of the 20th century, Asian Americans were largely viewed as exotic, threatening, and unassimilable. To combat invidious racism, and in their efforts to be recognized as human beings as well as survive in the U.S., Asian Americans pointed to their docile children and traditional Confucian family values, portraying themselves as “good Americans” and white-adjacent. As historian Ellen Wu puts in her book “The Color of Success:” “The insinuation [of the model minority trope] was that hard work along with unwavering faith in the government and liberal democracy as opposed to political protest were the keys to overcoming racial barriers as well as achieving full citizenship.”

According to Wu, the model minority myth started to take root in the 1950s because China had become an ally of the U.S. during WWII against Japan. During WWII, white liberals felt that racism was impeding the country’s ability to fight for democracy against the Axis powers. The New York Times Magazine lauded Chinese youth for their “unquestionable obedience,” which bolstered the Cold War era thinking: the exaltation of the nuclear family. By the 1960s, as the Civil Rights Movement started to gain steam, the stereotype of the obedient and industrious Asian American was invoked by many white Americans. The National Immigration Act of 1965 allowed the U.S. to hand select immigrants based on how they could benefit the economy and furthered the model-minority myth because many of the  Asian immigrants arriving in the U.S. were already highly educated and well-off. These historical events, put together, led the U.S. to deny African American demands for equality, and have reinforced systemic racism (i.e. the mantra of “if they (Asian Americans) can succeed in the face of discrimination, why can’t you (African Americans)?”)

Why is the Model Minority a Myth?

The model minority trope is a myth because it falsely presumes that the Asian American community is a monolith. Instead, the Asian American community is an expansive umbrella with a myriad of countries of origin under it. It also erroneously assumes that ‘all’ Asians are socioeconomically well-off and downplays discrimination against Asian Americans. Over a quarter of NYC’s Asian  population lives below the poverty line, and many Asian immigrants tend to not utilize services that could help them because of language barriers. According to a Pew Research study conducted in 2018, Asians displaced Blacks as the most economically divided group in the U.S. For instance, although education levels in the aggregate illustrate that Asian Americans are over-performing in the U.S., less than 1 in 5 Hmong, Cambodian, Laotian and Bhutanese people have a bachelor’s degree or higher. Native Hawaiians, Pacific Islanders, Southeast Asians and other low-income Asian Americans continue to benefit enormously from affirmative action, but the model minority myth serves to conceal these truths. In sum, across outcomes, wide disparities continue to exist within the Asian American community — disparities that the model minority regrettably elides.

Asian Privilege & Its Toxicity

The harmful internalization of the model minority myth continues to play a central role in why Asians remain silent with respect to voicing outrage at injustices perpetrated at other people of color, especially the Black community. In fact, a number of Asians take the destructive position that being a person of color absolves them from speaking out against issues that menace other minority groups (e.g., police brutality). We cannot disagree more profoundly with that view.  

We have implicitly and explicitly been fed this myth by society that Asians are supposed to demonstrate high intelligence by virtue of their “culture” and all of them go to prestigious schools and have success in life. It is this false notion that achieving the American Dream simply entails putting your head down, working hard, receiving good marks in school, and being involved in extracurricular activities. Like the children of many Asian immigrants in New York City, we attended prep classes outside of school to prepare for examinations and overcome hurdles to reach our goal of attending name brand schools. Surely, it was not a mere coincidence that nearly all of our classmates at these after-school programs were Asian. The environment of these classes and the purported American Dream that is internalized exemplifies an unequal playing field, and results in our ability to leverage these experiences to our benefit.  

Further, we never fretted about being surveilled in public spaces by the police growing up or being falsely accused of crimes. We never worried about being violently assaulted by the police for simply the color of our skin, or worse, being murdered for playing with a toy gun, or wearing a hoodie late at night. Our chest does not clench in fear when we walk past police officers. Even feeling comfortable calling the police is itself a form of privilege. We have been given the benefit of the doubt; these privileges are born of the model minority myth. Our privileges in public spaces have been invisible to us our entire lives.  

What’s more, our parents growing up would tell us that Asians, like all other people of color, must confront racial discrimination. The irony is that at the same time we were concerned about discrimination directed at our communities, we ignored the larger narrative and dynamics of U.S. race relations and the discrimination against Black and Latinx communities. As a result, we were implicitly perpetuating racial discrimination towards Black and Latinx people. The idea of meritocracy that our parents preached to us was facilitated by a system that continues to weaponize it against other people of color and is opposed to addressing systemic racism.  

It was not until we went to college that we learned about the Chinese Exclusion Act, Japanese internment, the Chinese Massacre of 1871, and the intricacies of the model minority myth. In Asian American history and race courses, we tackled unfamiliar concepts like “white privilege” and “systematic or institutionalized” racism. We learned that while Asian struggles in the U.S. are significant and not to be minimized, Blacks endured a history of Jim Crow segregation, discrimination in employment, racist housing policies, mass lynchings, redlining, systematic police brutality, and mass incarceration. We further learned that Asian “success” and certain cultural traits have been repeatedly co-opted by white America to drive a wedge between the Asian American and African American communities. Needless to say, these courses gave us an opportunity to meditate on how Asian Americans uniquely fit into the black/white binary paradigm of race in the U.S. In other words, we started to understand our own Asian American experience as both victims and perpetrators of systemic oppression in the U.S. 

What We & Asian American Leaders Recommend              

To precipitate positive changes as an Asian American and to be vehemently anti-racist (as opposed to just being “not racist”), Asian Americans should turn to previous civil rights champions for inspiration, individuals who have made innumerable sacrifices and contributions in the name of racial justice. Learn about the leaders that have paved the way for your rights. Understand what MLK Jr. and Malcolm X did for this country and the Asian American community. Understand that the Black liberation movement planted the seeds for the Asian American movement to end racism. Grace Lee Boggs and Yuri Kochiyama were two prominent Asian American activists; both fully understood the importance of Black-Asian American unity. Let’s commit ourselves to follow and learn from contemporary Asian racial justice activists, like Mia Mingus. 

Consider watching films and documentaries that educate about racism in the U.S. Watch “13” and “When They See Us” by Ava Duvernay and read “The New Jim Crow” by Michelle Alexander. 

We, as Asian Americans, have to seek opportunities to edify ourselves and ask probing questions of the communities that are hurting, be proactive in lending our support, and bring genuine curiosity and empathy to conversations. Speak to your family members. Call them out on their racist remarks, particularly when they spew anti-Black sentiments. 

Put your money where your mouth is. Asian Americans cannot simply just resort to only posting black squares and re-posting stories and say that is enough. As a community, we must show our steadfast allyship to the Black community and to demand justice for all of our Black brothers and sisters in this country. 

Think about the ways in which the model-minority myth has impacted this country, your Asian American communities, and your own life. Take time to understand your privileges and the origins of it, and how you can play a part in dismantling the model minority myth.  

Conclusion 

Asian Americans must work tirelessly to combat the anti-Black sentiments within our community, dismantle the model-minority myth, untangle our internalization of it, and re-appropriate our privilege to stand united with other people of color. We plan to elevate Black causes, galvanize our Asian American community to fight against oppression in all forms, and hold ourselves accountable. We, as Asian Americans, will not end injustices toward our own community if we stay silent on issues that affect other communities of color. When the Black community and the Asian American community stand together, we are more powerful. Until and unless the Black community is free, Asian Americans will not be free. Racism towards Blacks is racism towards Asians. 

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