The model minority myth is a racial stereotype that has dominated the racial framing and perceptions of Asian Americans in the United States since the 1960s. This racial stereotype frames Asian Americans as a monolithically hardworking and authority-respecting racial group whose high achievement undercuts claims of systemic racism made by Asian Americans and other racial minorities, particularly Black Americans. (Other parts of the stereotype include: submissive obedience, studiousness, math, social introversion, being demure and shy, and possessing strong family values.)
Where it came from
William Petersen is credited as the first person to use the term “model minority,” in a January 1966 article in the New York Times Magazine (pdf) celebrating the efforts of Japanese Americans and their successful assimilation into American society and contrasting these efforts against stereotypical representations of Black Americans.
Some research has shown that Asian Americans were intentionally selected as a model minority by the U.S. government to shift negative international attention away from itself.
Problems with the stereotype
1. It conceals and condones racism, and turns Asian Americans into race mascots.
By presenting Asian Americans as a model minority group that has overcome racial barriers and shown that the United States is not a racist society, but rather a land of opportunity, the model minority myth implies that other minorities fail. This results in privileging whites and maintaining the status quo.
2. It creates a hierarchy of minorities, which privileged Asian Americans then labor to support.
In order to integrate minorities into the workforce and country but keep them under control, racist societal structures can take the form of “differential racism,” where employers build a hierarchy between different minorities purportedly based on “ethnic” or cultural values rather than racial differences. In this hierarchy, Asian Americans deserve high-paying jobs due to inherent cultural traits like work ethic and obedience, and deserve them more than those of other ethnic groups. (A key piece of this control mechanism is that the hierarchy is defined by the ruling managerial class, and is flexible: it is subject to change depending on the needs of the system; for example, newer cohorts of immigrants have sometimes been moved up the hierarchy to reinforce profitable values to other groups and to supply needed compliant labor.)
3. It gives Asian American professionals and intellectuals a myth to embrace, and blinds them to truths beyond the myth.
4. It does harm to non-Asian American minorities.
Beyond 1. and 2., by presenting Asian Americans as an example of success, the model minority myth does political harm by justifying removal of social welfare policies, affirmative action, and any other judicial scrutiny of systematic oppression of minorities.
5. It does harm to non-East Asian Americans.
Though the “model minority” label was originally applied to Japanese, Chinese, and Korean Americans, it has evolved to include all Asian Americans. Lumping together such varied ethnicities has been detrimental towards Pacific Islander and Southeast Asian Americans, whose lack of racial and class privilege relative to East Asian groups is hidden by the homogeneity of the myth.
5. It does harm to East Asian Americans who don’t conform to the stereotype.
Because Asian Americans are expected (per the myth) to attain high grades and marks on standardized tests, those who fail to achieve such marks and who do not attend elite colleges and universities often experience and are disciplined through social violence. If an East Asian person is not a genius, teachers and others within educational communities may marginalize them, as if they are inadequate as a person.
6. It does harm to Asian Americans who do conform to the stereotype.
The model minority myth causes Asian Americans who are highly-educated and high-achieving to be seen only through the lens of the stereotype, and not to be valued for their other qualities.
7. Pieces of the myth have positive connotations, and cause people to strive to comply with it.
Anecdotally and in research, many Asian Americans accept the model minority myth uncritically and positively, seeing it as a way to ensure success academically, in the workplace, and in society. By complying with the myth, these actors then reinforce its strength and perpetuate the harms enumerated above. Further, by celebrating proximity to white success, this striving helps to solidify white supremacy.
Chou, Rosalind S, and Joe R Feagin. The Myth of the Model Minority: Asian Americans Facing Racism. Paradigm, Boulder, CO, 2008.
Kim, EH and Taylor, KA, The Model Minority Stereotype as a Prescribed Guideline of Empire: Situating the Model Minority Research in the Postcolonial Context. Journal of Southeast Asian American Education and Advancement, Vol. 12, Iss. 2, Art. 4. (2017)
Lee, DM et al., Academic Needs and Family Factors in the Education of Southeast Asian American Students: Dismantling the Model Minority Myth. Journal of Southeast Asian American Education and Advancement, Vol. 12, Iss. 2, Art. 2. (2017)
Osajima, Keith. Asian Americans as the Model Minority: An Analysis of the Popular Press Image in the 1960s and 1980s. In A Companion to Asian American Studies, edited by KA Ono, 215–225. Blackwell Publishing, Malden, MA, 2005.
Poon OY et al., A Critical Review of the Model Minority Myth in Selected Literature on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders in Higher Education. Review of Educational Research, Vol. 86, Iss. 2 (2016)