Revising a Model Minority Myth:
Relevance and Implications for Asian Americans
For more than a century since the time when the first Asian immigrants took up their residence in the United States of America, they evolved in public eye from the strange persons with buck-teeth and squinty eyes, ill-mannered ‘yellow peril’ to the hard-working, technically gifted and intelligent minority group – ‘model minority’. This term was first mentioned in the middle sixties of last century by a demographer William Petersen who published an article “Success Story, Japanese American Style” in the New York Times Magazine to praise Japanese Americans’ successful entry to the American mainstream. He argued that Asian Americans, although having been a marginalized group in the past, had overcome most problems and barriers other minorities in the U.S. faced owing to such their inherent features as diligence in work and purposefulness (Lee, 1996, p. 8).
In fact, the history of Asians in the United States has been a continuous struggle against racial exclusion and subordination as minority which combines the immigrant’s quest for the American dream and the racial minority’s confrontation with discriminating laws and attitudes. Asian Americans have waged fierce battles on the railroads, in the mining camps, in the courts, in the fields, in the factories and the universities, to assert their claim to be American and to define what ‘American’ means (Lee, 1996, p. 12). However, throughout the decades which followed emergence of the model minority myth up to our time the scholars in the fields of sociology and other humanities and mass media alike have been keeping on maintaining and promoting this myth and opinion that Asian Americans are a striking example of such model minority (Barkan, 1996, p. 16). Although this century-long span has witnessed significant changes for the roles and perceptions of Asian Americans, it has also witnessed a noticeable and important lack of change that concerns the basic political representations of Asian Americans. In the past and in the present, dominant American society has tended to cast Asian Americans in one of two ways: as an inevitably foreign threat or as a typical example of domestic integration — the model minority (Lee, 1996, p. 15).
The purpose of this study is to reexamine the model minority myth, analyze its veracity and scrutinize how it affects Asian Americans’ lives. Toward this end we will define the meaning of the notion ‘model minority’, examine the factors contributed to emergence and perpetuation of this myth in public opinion, evaluate to what extent it is applicable to Asian Americans, analyze what are the consequences of the myth for them, and make the conclusion with regard to appropriateness of further perpetuation of model minority stereotype.
Definition of Model Minority and Emergence of the Myth
Model minority attributes to a minority group characterized by higher attainments by its member in comparison with achievements of the population average. In measuring these attainments such parameters as level of income, quality of education, extent of social inclusion and participation, family stability, rates of delinquency and other associated indices are usually considered (Lee, 1996, p. 5). There were Asian Americans who were initially called model minority, as we mentioned above, although other minority groups were also ascribed to be model minorities such as Jews and Russians (Barkan, 1996, p. 9). The capability of model minority to assimilate without difficulty into mainstream America is generally considered to be based on positive traits inherent to the given minority – hard-working and mobility, intelligence and discipline, adaptability and devotion to family values. For example, sociologists posit Asians as middlemen minorities and as crucial components of a split labor market (Okihiro, 1994, p. 36), which is a vivid reflection of model minority notion utilization.
As we have already discussed, since 1960 there have been significant changes for Asian Americans. During a few last decades the whole philosophical basis of American immigration law has been revamped. Also, for the first time, Asia has surpassed Europe as a source of immigrants. Foreign affairs have continued to have a major effect on the Asian Americans condition: the misbegotten war in Vietnam produced a massive exodus of Asian refugees which helped to swell the incidence of persons of Asian ancestry and birth to the highest proportion in American history. By the 1980s the United States Congress was ready, after four decades, at least to consider some kind of redress for the victims of the wartime incarceration of the Japanese Americans (Barkan, 1996, p. 13). But prior to all of these changes, a basic change took place in the minds of most Americans toward Asians – a model minority myth. Initially applied only to Japanese Americans, as we mentioned above, by the 1970s the term was increasingly used to describe successful, upwardly mobile Asian Americans of any ethnicity (Lee, 1996).
Thus, the model minority image has become a stereotype describing the socioeconomic success achieved by Asian Americans through hard work, respect of traditional values, and accommodation that they brought over from their homelands. This stereotype has been widely supported and facilitated by mass media for many decades. For example, the mass media have reported the numerous rags-to-riches stories of Asian immigrants who came to the United States with nothing and became wealthy business owners, stories of students who have won spelling bee contests throughout the country, numerous accounts of high school students who graduated as valedictorians in their class, outstanding collegiate athletes, multitudes of graduate students who have obtained advance degrees in a variety of academic and professional fields, and professionals who have succeeded and moved toward the top of their fields (Okihiro, 1994, p. 61). A growing number of Asian Americans have been noted for their academic achievement and their ability to use education as a means for social and economic mobility. Strong work ethics, a high value placed on educational achievement, and a stable nuclear family have been cited as among the most influential factors promoting upward mobility for Asian Americans (Lee, 1996, p. 26). Accordingly, success in educational and economic advancement stems from deeply held values embedded in the Asian culture. Strong familial ties, close control of children, traditional family values, low rates of divorce, and collective solidarity over individual interest supposedly explain why Asian Americans have overcome racism and poverty to attain educational and income levels that exceed even those of Euro-Americans (Barkan, 1996, p. 18).
What is surprising that this old stereotype is still alive and well nowadays fruitfully cohabiting with the new multiculturalism doctrine. Moreover, in some political circles, Asian Americans, their dedication to upward mobility combined with safely familiar exoticism, are trumpeted as the success story of American multiculturalism (Okihiro, 1994, p. 72).
At the same time, in parallel with the notion of model minority, the idea of the ‘yellow peril’ has perhaps been the most enduring of all the images of Asians and Asian Americans. Whereas the notion of the yellow peril implies a threat to the nation’s body politic, the stereotype of the model minority affirms the status quo. The former is filled with negative images, and the latter, with positive ones. Both proponents and critics of the concept of model minority generally agree that it stands in opposition to the earlier notion of the yellow peril (Okihiro, 1994, p. 140).
Scholars argue that both notions are anti-Asian and form a closed loop that ameliorates and reinforces both. Thus, the model minority blunts the threat of the yellow peril, but the former, if taken too far, becomes the yellow peril. These two stereotypes are engendered categories, a product of the when and where of Asians’ entry into the Western historical consciousness, and can be passive and active, weak and strong, nurturing and threatening. In fact, the dual natures of both ideas, like biracial or bicultural people, present a special problem because they destabilize the borders that delineate power and disempowerment of minority group (Okihiro, 1994, p. 146).
Factors Contributing to Myth Perpetuation
To realize whether the model minority myth is relevant to what in reality Asian Americans are and how they were treated within American multiculturalism doctrine, we have to consider the factors which contributed to perpetuation of the myth to our days.
At a high rate of growth, Asian Americans are among fastest growing minority group in the U.S. This continues a demographic tendency which has been observed since the liberalization of the U.S. immigration policies in 1965. However, the political significance of the rapid and continuing rise of the Asian American population remained heavily filtered through the stereotypical lens of Asian Americans as a socially and economically successful and politically acquiescent model minority (Barkan, 1996, p. 26).
In order to obtain political voice and economic equality, Asian Americans found themselves forced to participate in a pluralist political system that privileges representation by large political interests, one of the most noticeable being, after the civil rights movement, racially defined groups. Political representation through race, taking the form of multiculturalism, has transformed minority racial identities from being stigmatized to being celebrated. This celebration of race in the form of pluralist political and cultural representation has also meant that racial identity has become a cultural icon and commodity, in variable ways for different racial populations (Lee, 1996, p. 52). For Asian Americans, this transformation of race into a cultural icon and commodity in the marketplace of multiculturalism is embodied in the model minority. The model minority became the vehicle of entry for a racial population not only into American capitalism but also into American politics. For Asian America, therefore, a significant tension exists between attraction to the marketplace of multiculturalism, represented by the model minority, and a distrust of or outright resistance to capitalism, represented by the mainstream of the Asian American intellectual class (Lee, 1996). This ideological conflict within Asian America is a problem for the Asian American communities and signifies that Asian America is and will be in a state of flux that is part of the process of racial formation (Barkan, 1996, p. 10). It is necessary to note here that attempts to locate Asians within America’s racial formation usually pose the false problematic: is yellow black or white? Asians have been marginalized to the periphery of race relations in America because of its conceptualization as a black and white issue – with Asians, Latinos, and American Indians falling between the cracks of that divide. Thus, to many, Asians are either “just like blacks” or “almost whites” (Okihiro, 1994, p. 76). Such attitudes resulted in the fact that discussions of race in the United States are often cast solely in black and white terms, and often are conducted only by blacks and whites, while a range of Asian American perspectives on race and racism are being neglected or get inadequate attention. In 1974, the writer Frank Chin expressed it this way: “Whites love us because we’re not black” (qtd. in Lee, 1996, p. 68). From this point of view, the elevation of Asian Americans to the position of model minority had less to do with the actual success of Asian Americans than to the perceived failure of African Americans to assimilate. Asian Americans were “not black” in two significant ways: they were both politically silent and ethnically assimilable (Lee, 1996, p. 68). Hence, it is evident that the representation of Asian Americans as a racial minority whose apparently successful ethnic assimilation was a result of stoic patience, political obedience, and self-improvement was a critically important narrative of American ethnic liberalism that simultaneously promoted racial equality and sought to contain demands for social transformation.
Implications of Model Minority Myth for Asian Americans
Many scholars and observers in the U.S. have challenged the model minority myth which has been perpetuated, albeit with different intentions, by both successful Asians and the mainstream culture (Okihiro, 1994, p. 143). First of all, critics of the myth argue that it masks the economic disparities and ethnic differences among Asian Americans. While it is true that Asian immigrants to the United States were already highly educated and originated from the higher social classes having more advantageous starting position in their new motherland, they have faced glass ceiling problem at workplace, got lower salaries for well-qualified jobs, and even demonstrated higher rates of poverty, in comparison with the mainstream population (Barkan, 1996, p. 43).
The model minority myth perpetuates the false notion that Asian American communities are generally wealthy, with broad access to financial, educational, health and other social services. This false assumption translates into little funding for services earmarked for Asian communities. Aggravating this problem, the mainstream media unabashedly reproduce the myth of Asians as the nation’s model minority, suggesting, for example, that the class privilege, social status, and political perspectives that some Asians bring with them when they arrive on U.S. shores are shared by all Asians in this country (Okihiro, 1994, p. 147). Instead, Asian Americans’ experience is far from monolithic. Myths about Asian Americans belittle the damage done by the discrimination they face, and obscure the complexity of their experience. Lee (1996) convinces that while for the first sight the stereotype of Asian Americans as a model minority looks gratifying, praising, and encouraging, the motives for erection of the myth and the implications which it has on Asian Americans are rather the opposite, and the model minority myth has been utilized as an instrument to uphold the supremacy of whites. He accuses the myth of labeling all Asian Americans which resulted in erasing “ethnic, cultural, social-class, gender, language, sexual, generational, achievement, and other differences” (Lee, 1996, p. 6). Besides, denial of necessity to help Asian Americans among sociological circles and welfare agencies, on the basis of assumption that they are all-sufficient and do not need any support, resulted in exclusion of Asian Americans from many affirmative action programs as well let to give good reasoning for fiscal cutbacks for them (Barkan, 1996, p. 54).
Secondly, as critics reasonably point out, the myth exacerbates tensions between Asian communities and other communities of color, who are often compared in a pejorative manner with this model minority. Asian Americans are often treated as scapegoats by low-income whites and other minority groups who claim they take away educational and job opportunities. Accordingly, Asians’ perceived successes in attaining financial well-being, getting higher education and making a career provoke envy and hostility between ethnic minorities (Lee, 1996, p. 7), thus pitting Asian Americans against blacks and other minorities. It results in the tendency that, with the present pervasiveness of the notion of the model minority, Asians have all too often identified and been identified with Europeans while confronting invisible ceilings in labor market and visible anti-Asian violence from both ends of the racial spectrum (Okihiro, 1994, p. 62). Moreover, in 1970s some articles in mass media reported that model minority myth was utilized to blame the whites of losing competition with Asian Americans in labor market because the former became to lose the spirit of hard-working while the latter continued to maintain it (Barkan, 1996, p. 41).
The myth was applied to disconsider claims of other minority groups of inequality and racial discrimination and establish a standard of the behavioral patterns for other minorities (Lee, 1996, p. 9). Here the myth implements an idea that racial discrimination is not critical agent for obtaining success in the U.S., that American dream is real, but racial disparity – not. Such supposition stipulates that for achieving American dream it does not matter of what race the persons is, as the United States remains a country equal opportunities, accordingly, if the individual is determined and hard-working, she is ‘doomed’ to success, while sluggish one would fail, irrespective of race (Barkan, 1996, p. 32). If anyone consents to such assumption, then the logical conclusion suggests itself that the other minority groups failed to succeed in the U.S. not because of the barriers of racial discrimination, but only on account of their negative personal traits, reluctance to work at self-improvement and to strive for determined life goals.
Thirdly, the pressure of being a ‘model’ minority imposes the obligations on Asian Americans to ‘fit’ the ascribed features and patterns of behavior. In particular, this pressure has been apparent in educational institutions. Asian American students were blamed of being teachers’ pets not only due to their high academic attainments, but rather owing to teachers’ adherence to widespread public opinion that they are high-achievers (Lee, 1996, p. 34). An in-depth empirical study of Korean Americans in a program for high school dropouts, that is, on Asian American students who do not fit the model minority stereotype, which was conducted in 1990s, demonstrated that in fact there was limited expertise accumulated of the educational experiences of Asian American students who may be academically ‘at-risk’ of dropping out of high schools, moreover, to a large extent, they were invisible children in American society whose economic and social conditions were ignored or simply denied. The study concluded that the pervasive model minority discourse overlooked young Asian Americans who were not faring well educationally or socially, discounted the significance of the structural resources they would need to succeed academically, and validated a picture of a static Asian culture rooted in nuclear families determinedly pursuing the American Dream. It comes as no surprise that critics of the model minority stereotype assert that it divides minority groups, pitting one against the other, and prevents truly needy Asian Americans from receiving assistance (Okihiro, 1994, p. 141).
The conducted study clearly demonstrated that model minority myth which constitutes a testimony to the Asian Americans’ ability to be good citizen, productive worker, reliable consumer, and member of a niche lifestyle suitable for Western values, although seeming positive at the first sight, after closer examination proves to have actually numerous negative effects for Asian Americans. As we revealed being labeled the model minority Asian Americans face the triple pressure created by the growing myth as well as by widespread multiculturalism’s identity policies. The myth serves as justification for exclusion Asian Americans from affirmative action programs and for denial of tax remissions, as ‘model’ minority by definition cannot have any difficulties in obtaining financial prosperity and high social status being self-sufficient. Besides, model minority myth-making is being supported because it implies that there is a ‘good’ minority in tacit opposition to the ‘bad’ minorities – African Americans or Latinos etc., which evoke tough racial tensions among Asian Americans and other minority groups. And, finally, we revealed that pressure to fit the high standards of model minority myth forces Asian Americans to suffer from steep demands the society and even their own community members all wanted to promote.
It is evident that further perpetuation of model minority myth has to be ceased, and its relevancy has to be thoroughly re-examined and revised. As a nation which declared a multiculturalism to be one of its strategic priorities, the U.S. has to stop to distinguish one minority among others on the basis of false supposition that it is all-sufficient, and recognize that Asian Americans are not homogenous mass of people who are all successful in achieving American dream, recognize their actual daily wants as well as closely consider the problems they face. Without such recognition and provision of an insight of what real assistance to Asian Americans can be delivered by the society to smooth their way to success and to facilitate improvement of their highly estimated by the model minority myth inherent personal features the nation has not moral right to call itself the really multicultural country in the true sense of this doctrine.
Thinking about race and community building in this way is a necessary first step to dismantling both institutional and hidden racism in the United States.
Barkan, E. R. (1996). And Still They Came. Immigrants and American Society, 1920s to the 1990s. Wheeling, Ill.: Harlan Davidson.
Lee, S. J. (1996). Unraveling the ‘Model Minority’ Stereotype: Listening to Asian American Youth. New York: Teachers College Press.
Okihiro, G. Y. (1994). Margins and Mainstreams: Asians in American History and Culture. Seattle: University of Washington Press.