A recent poll conducted by the organization Leading Asian Americans to Unite for Change asked respondents to provide adjectives to describe Asian Americans. The three leading answers were: “Smart/Intelligent,” “Hard-Working” and “Kind/Nice/Thoughtful” — which are, as the LAAUNCH report states, “all highly consistent with stereotypes from the ‘model minority’ myth that have been used to describe Asian Americans for over 50 years.” The results of the poll did not surprise me because these are the words that I have heard many people use to describe me. When I was younger, I brushed aside these comments as compliments rather than pondering how they made me uncomfortable. Why did it bother me when Andrew Yang would quip, “I’m Asian, so I know a lot of doctors,” as a Democratic presidential candidate? Why did I bristle when a proctor for a standardized test winked at me and said that she was sure I aced the math section? There are worse things than to be thought of as a doctor who is good at math, I rationalized to myself. What’s the harm in a supposedly positive stereotype?
In fact, the belief that Asian Americans have overcome hardship and racism to achieve both educational and economic success is immensely harmful, not least because it generalizes Asian Americans, otherizes them and enables systems of oppression.
The idea that all Asian Americans are educationally and economically successful is often backed up with statements about this demographic’s median household income: $85,800 as of 2019, which is more than 30% higher than that of all Americans. It doesn’t help that the most visible recent piece of pop culture featuring an Asian American is the 2018 movie, “Crazy Rich Asians.” But elevating Asian Americans’ relatively higher median income hides the fact that they have the largest income gap of any racial group in the country. Indian Americans have a median household income over $100,000, but the median Burmese American household makes less than $40,000 a year. Generalizing all Asian Americans as economically advantaged — or, God forbid, “crazy rich” — ignores the heterogeneity contained within the umbrella term that is “Asian American.”
The “model minority” myth also functions to otherize Asian Americans by attributing our success to foreign cultural values. New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof, for example, credited a “long Confucian emphasis on education” for Asian Americans’ relative success in the United States. But this belief ignores the role that the United States’ selective immigration policy has had in shaping what kind of Asian immigrants are able come to America in the first place. The first large wave of Asian immigrants came to America in the 1800s as cheap, forgettable and disposable labor for building railroads and working in agriculture. These immigrants arrived from China, and then Japan, Korea, India and the Philippines, until American xenophobia and fear of the “yellow peril” led to the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. Contrary to its name, this law served to not only keep out Chinese immigrants, but all immigrants from Asia.
It was only in the 1960s, after the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II and in the wake of the Civil Rights Movement, that Congress lifted this racist immigration ban and passed the 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act instead. This bill prioritized high-skilled labor and family reunification, and efforts to recruit immigrants from Asia fitting this profile only increased in the 1990s. Now, 72% of all high-skilled immigrant visas go to Asian immigrants. On the other hand, wars in Southeast Asia during the 1960s and 1970s created a different class of Asian immigrants: refugees, who were not recruited to immigrate to America due to their professional skills but were instead fleeing from U.S.-initiated conflict and destruction. Is it any wonder, then, that Asian Americans have such income disparity among us? The myth of a “model minority” flattens our varied experiences as Asian Americans into one narrative, all the while ignoring America’s role in creating this inequality in the first place.
Further, the “model minority” myth is an effective tool of both capitalism and the maintenance of a racial hierarchy. The adjectives smart, hard-working and nice do not conjure up an image of a leader, a president, an activist, a late-night show host or a CEO, but rather that of the invisible, “interchangeable Asian.” They evoke middle management, white-collar professionals who are too diligent, humble and obedient to agitate for political change. I am both Asian American and an environmental science concentrator, but even I knew nothing about the history of Asian American environmental activism until last year. I blame the ‘model minority’ myth for sidelining Asian American political history in favor of a singular narrative painting Asian Americans as docile. This obfuscation of our political power serves to reinforce systems of capitalism and oppression. If Asian Americans can be convinced that we don’t suffer much racism, as I once thought, and that our purpose is to repay the wondrous country that has given us a second chance at life, we can be persuaded to “play our part” as interchangeable worker bees. We can forget the exclusionary immigration bills and the imperialist wars that forced many of us here.
Perhaps most dangerously, the “model minority” myth reinforces the structure of white supremacy by acting as a “racial wedge” between Asian Americans and other minority groups, particularly Black Americans. If the “model minority” framework were true, and Asian Americans could succeed against the odds due to work ethic and cultural values, it would be evidence that the American Dream is real, that capitalism works and thus, that the socioeconomic struggles of other marginalized groups must be due to their own failings. Obviously, this obscures America’s history of slavery, segregation, Jim Crow, redlining, police brutality and a host of other racial abuses perpetrated against Black Americans. Moreover, it’s convenient for the existing power structure to pit Asian and Black Americans against each other because it prevents them from uniting against white supremacy. For example, recent debates over affirmative action policies at elite universities have featured animus between Asian and Black Americans, distracting from admissions practices like legacy admissions and athletic recruiting that overwhelmingly benefit wealthy, white students.
Asian Americans must be careful not to become convinced of the “model minority” myth lest we become complicit in the oppression of other groups. As Cathy Park Hong writes in her book “Minor Feelings: An Asian American Reckoning,” “Whiteness has already recruited us to become their junior partners in genocidal wars; conscripted us to be antiblack and colorist; to work for, and even head, corporations that scythe off immigrant jobs like heads of wheat.”
It is comfortable, as an Asian American, to be satisfied with the “model minority” myth because it is usually good to be kind, hard-working and smart. But this comfort comes at the expense of challenging the systems that both oppress us and make us complicit in other groups’ oppression. Thus, we must reject the “model minority” myth and find a way to highlight Asian American identity, diversity and political agency.
Bliss Han ’23 can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Please send responses to this opinion to email@example.com and op-eds to firstname.lastname@example.org.