The Danger of the 'Model Minority' Myth
The Danger of the
"Model Minority" Myth
----- By Beverly Cruel, Staff Writer
"Look at the Asians".
This is a phrase many people, Asian and non-Asian
alike, have no doubt heard since the great wave of
Asian immigration began in the 1960's.
It is a sort of reprimand directed at non-Asian
minorities, often repeated by individuals appalled
with the state of affairs which they perceive
are plaguing those minority communities.
Educators, unsure of what to do with "low-achieving"
"black" and Latino students, have uttered those
words in exasperation in public conferences
and in the privacy of break rooms.
Political commentators have used those four words
as evidence to back up their arguments opposing
affirmative action and social welfare programs.
Ordinary people say it in passing when the
conversation turns towards some news tidbit
about inner city crime or some protest
held by dissatisfied minority groups.
These people point to the Asian community as if we
were some kind of modern-day Horatio Alger story.
We come here speaking very little English,
and emerge in a few years as middle-class
entrepreneurs, professionals, and scholars.
And the majority indicates us to the other
minorities, in what they see as well
meaning, friendly rebuke, as if to say,
"Why can't you be like them?"
It seems like a compliment at first glance.
It seems as if we have gained what no
other minority group has up to this point:
the equality and admiration of White America.
Asians can move into upper-class suburban
neighborhoods and whites will not fear
them, will not move out in droves.
We can attend prestigious colleges, and most people
will `take for granted' that we were admitted upon our
own merits, and not aided by a "minority quota".
Most of the time, we can even date their sons
and daughters -- with little opposition.
But upon closer examination, the idea of
the "model minority" is a condescending,
divisive, and furthermore insidious myth.
It is a manifestation of "Orientalism" and
closet racism towards all minorities,
Asians included, and though it affects
Asians subtly, it hurts them just as much,
if not more, than the minorities as a whole.
To begin with, the implications of the model minority
myth are patronizing and insulting towards immigrant
communities, the effects of which are rather
divisive to the immigrant community as a whole.
When someone urges other minority groups to
"look at the Asians," one must wonder what,
exactly, about the Asian community they
are urging those groups to emulate.
This reprimand toward non-Asian minority
communities relies on one assumption:
that unlike the diligent, conscientious Asians,
other minorities somehow lack the discipline
and industry so closely associated and often
credited with the success of the Asian community.
62.7 percent of Hispanics and 64.9 percent of
"blacks" are employed; not a far deviation from
61.8 percent of Asians and 62.7 percent of whites.
Why then, does the majority population assume
that indolence is so rampant in those communities?
Perhaps it is because many minority communities,
Asian included, live in poverty, remain poor for
many years, continue working menial jobs, and
never seem to gain any semblance of social mobility.
Still, because many Americans are raised with the
belief (some might say "myth") that hard work alone
is sufficient to guarantee a financially secure lot in
life, they also assume that anyone who has not
prospered in life has not worked hard enough.
They then conclude that the poverty among
minorities results from their own inactivity,
rather than considering other factors:
for example, the average education level and
social standing of an Asian immigrant before
he or she enters the country, which, for the
most part, differs drastically from most Hispanic
immigrants' or even "black" native-born Americans.
It would be unfair to think that an Asian
computer programmer with a bachelor's
degree, albeit from a foreign university,
and a Mexican laborer from a rural part of his
country with only a sixth grade education could
have the same financial and professional
opportunities upon entering this country.
It would be doubly unfair and also insulting
to them to imply that their work is somehow
less worthy of recognition than that of the
Asian community, simply because of
the poverty that persists among those
particular immigrant communities.
Such an insulting attitude toward minority groups
is highly divisive, one that creates hostility
among minorities as a whole.
Like the parent [who compares] one child to another
while completely disregarding the virtues of that child,
it is a situation, perhaps not deliberately designed
to breed contempt among the races, but one that
will almost certainly result in such a manner.
Non-Asian minorities "may" look upon Asians
resentfully, knowing they work as diligently as
they do but are treated nowhere as equally;
Asians may look upon other communities
with scorn because they believe the
majority population's perception of those
communities, and fear them just as they do.
However, we cannot afford to be politically
divided from other minority groups.
After all, while the term "model minority" implies that
we are model citizens, the corollary to that philosophy
states that we are also, of course, a minority.
No matter how "highly"
`the majority population'
may [appear to] think of us,
they nonetheless think of us as
"minorities," as outsiders,
as somehow not part of `
the general' population.
We are still an "other".
Many "native-born" Americans, it seems, [are]
all too happy to leave their "model minority"
by the wayside when someone gets the
delusion that "American jobs" are being "stolen".
We then cease to be the "model minority,"
but become instead `an alien threat' from
a foreign shore, snatching jobs from the
ones who supposedly "truly deserve"
When put in such a situation, we cannot afford
to be politically-isolated from other "minorities".
But because the idea of `the model-minority' is
so disruptive to political unity, it sadly results
in such a fashion the majority of the time.
An additional implication of the statement
"look at the Asians" is one that strongly suggests
"Orientalist" views that still exist in this country today:
the idea that Asians simply work hard and
"quietly keep to themselves," rather than
participating in the country's political-processes.
The insidious nature of this philosophy is twofold.
First, it masks a sort of unprofessed racism
on the part of `the majority population'.
Many of these people, when they admonish
minority groups to "look at the Asians,"
they paint how supposedly the Asian community
supposedly remains quiet and assuming as a virtue.
They are thus reproaching other minorities
to be, what, in their minds, amounts to being
the same as the Asians - uncomplaining,
humble, and politically-inactive.
They don't want minorities getting too
"uppity" - fighting for their rights and
complaining about the status quo would
pose a problem for `the powers that be'.
It is a dangerous, however subtle and
unconscious attempt, to disenfranchise
minority voters by sending them the
message that in order to be considered
one of the "good" minorities, they cannot
give voice to the injustices occurring in
their communit[y/ies], and furthermore,
cannot take their qualms to the ballot box.
This attitude furthermore implies that if
Asians want are to the "model minority,"
they themselves must thus remain
politically-docile and not participate
in the democratic process, which
can only hurt the Asian community.
The assumption that Asians are not
a viable political-entity ensures that
politicians will never attempt to assure
that the Asian community has its needs met.
Asians are indeed a strong political force
- we are a community that has established
legal defense funds, civil rights organizations,
and labor unions who demand representation
of the needs of their communities.
A statistic shows that Asian Americans contribute
more money per person to political parties and
candidates than any other racial or religious group.
Still, during political campaigns, one will hear
of politicians who try to cater to the "Latino vote,"
in California, `the "black" vote' in the South, `the
Catholic vote' and `the womens' vote' nationwide.
Even in such fairly well-established Asian
communities such as the ones in California,
New York, and New Jersey, a politician does not
concern him or herself too much with capturing
the "Asian vote," despite the fact that it very
well may help secure one's seat in office .
The website Newsaic.com states that
"Asian-Americans 'have only recently become
a group even worth factoring into exit-polls,"
indicative of the scorn with which `the
majority population' treats the Asian
As long as politicians and political scientists
continue to dismiss us as a political force,
and continue thinking of us as an isolated,
foreign community of drones who do nothing
but concern themselves with work, we stand
in danger of having our political needs unmet.
The model minority myth, while it may "seem"
flattering when taken at face value, is also an
attitude that not only conceals latent racism
in the among the majority population, but
is additionally very detrimental toward
Asians and non-Asian minorities alike.
First, it insults and disregards the hard work and toil
put in by other immigrant and minority groups.
Yes, it is true that Asians are diligent, and have
made good lives for themselves in America ,
but one would be completely remiss to say that
other ethnic groups have not done so as well.
Such a way of thinking belittles Asians as well,
as it implies that they are politically inactive and
docile - and that such behavior is commendable.
What is more, it fosters an atmosphere of divisiveness
between ethnic communities, ensuring that they are
not only socially divided, but politically divided as
well - very much a danger, especially when many
recently arrived Asians are in a position where
they need all the political help available to them.
Additionally, it ensures that even while
Asian Americans are a great political force,
the majority population will not see them as
such, and thus not attempt to meet their needs.
While it would be counter-productive to the
well-being of the Asian community to disregard
the stereotypes we are known for - industry,
perseverance and academic and financial
success - simply to combat the stereotype
of the "model minority," we must nonetheless
resist the discordant effect it has both between us
and other minorities, and within our community itself.