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  • Writer's pictureNathanael Bueno

An intricate dissection of the model minority myth

The pursuit of success is a challenging one and the month of May marks the culmination of every student’s academic career. In the season of college admissions decisions, graduation, and final grades, the overall desperation to successfully conquer these proceedings with honor and prestige has been majorly felt by a cohort of individuals representing the various backgrounds of Asian Americans.

In the myth of the model minority, Asians are held up as intelligent, hardworking individuals who are, as most teachers would report, “a pleasure to have in the classroom.” Despite this myth's seemingly positive implications, its impact is incredibly harmful to the Asian American community and other minorities as it perpetuates anti-blackness. The myth disregards the individual diversity of the Asian American community, further marginalizes those who struggle to fulfill its expectations, and situates Black Americans as the “problem minority.”

From a hierarchical standpoint, Asian Americans are placed at the top, and the successes these groups achieve are shown as an example of what other groups should strive for. The narrative of this myth perpetuates a convenient dichotomy between Asian Americans as the “model” and Black Americans as the adverse, which is just another reinforcement of white supremacy.

Historical Context

The emergence of the model minority myth in the United States started in the mid-20th century as Densho reports. Amid the civil rights movement in the 1950s through the 1960s, which amplified the issue of racism and discrimination, politicians and the media publicized the idea that the Black and Brown Americans protesting were the “problem minorities.” At the same time, Asian Americans, specifically Japanese and Chinese Americans, were considered docile and labeled as “model minorities.” This idea was even endorsed by one Japanese American in particular, Howard M. Imazeki. In a 1963 editorial, Imazeki insisted that Black Americans should prioritize bettering themselves before asking for equal rights. This perspective highlights the complexity of dismantling these labels and the importance of unity that is truly needed for a more equitable society.

Before the fabrication of this ideology, the U.S. Congress repealed the Chinese Exclusion Act during WWII when China allied with the U.S. This led to Chinese Americans gaining recognition as “good” Americans instead of the misidentified “bad” Japanese Americans. It was not until the end of the war when Japanese Americans began to set the foundation of their social status as “model minorities.” After being released from concentration camps, they were ordered to assimilate into society. It is already implied that they would need to assimilate into a society that lived up to Eurocentric standards.

The model minority myth is derived from decades of broadcast media that heavily influences societal standards and continues to shape the stigmas surrounding Asian American communities. It is important to note that this myth overgeneralizes the Asian Americans that make up these communities and disregards the individual diversity, struggles, and achievements that every Asian American endures.

Debunking the Myth

In its flawed foundation, the model minority myth not only creates stereotypes that are harmful to Asian American Pacific Islander (AAPI) individuals and Black, Indigenous, People of Color (BIPOC), but it reinforces an unnuanced understanding of Asian communities. Through statistical data and research, the various disparities within the Asian American communities are demonstrated in a 2020 report by the Center for Economic and Policy Research (CEPR). More than 20% of certain subgroups of Asian Americans which include Cambodian, Hmong, and Vietnamese Americans face higher poverty rates than the national average.

Furthermore, these statistical findings reflect the educational disparities among Asian American groups. According to a 2021 report by NPR that highlights the disparities in income and education levels among Asian Americans, less than 40% of Cambodians, Hmong, and Vietnamese Americans have obtained a bachelor’s degree. On the other hand, more than 50% of Indian, Taiwanese, and Chinese Americans have obtained a bachelor’s degree and live on a salary greater than $80k. These key findings highlight the disparities among the groups of Asian Americans and imply that Southeast Asian Americans face challenges with education compared to their South and East Asian American counterparts.

A Personal Reflection

When the model minority myth exists in 'Hawai'i’s rich cultural landscape, its influence becomes more complex over the predominantly AAPI communities. As a Filipino American who grew up in a rich AAPI community, I have witnessed the myth’s impact on the perceptions and expectations shaped within our Filipino community.

Among the many stereotypes about Filipinos, I mainly grew up believing that we are naturally high achievers in the academic and professional realm and, quite notably, that we are unbelievably good at singing. These optimistic notions about our capabilities reinforce a sense of pride, which is both uplifting and constraining in our community because it disrupts the social equilibrium for Filipino individuals. The expectations and perceptions of success can create competition rather than solidarity for the different groups within the community.

I haven’t felt like a foreigner attending school in Hawai'i because I was always surrounded by people who are also Filipino and I was guaranteed inclusivity. However, being in classes with other “model minorities” made my academic pursuits a little more trivial, which made me feel a subtle sense of “otherness.” Comparison is such a big, innate thing as a teenager in high school, and that made it harder to navigate this quest for excellence.

The pressure, which I internalized, to try hard and be the “perfect Asian” was so painful that I emerged into someone that was depressingly Asian. Keeping up with this façade of my academic excellence was at the expense of my mental health. The model minority myth completely overshadows the ongoing mental health struggles that derive from these amounts of pressure. The myth portrays Asian Americans as successful and mentally resilient people, but it ignores the very difficult realities that we individuals face.

I surely performed well in school to get good grades. The kind of people-pleasing performance to eventually end up getting into a good university and have a well-paying job. But, there is a loss of self-respect in this sort of performance. Striving for success and the “American Dream” is, of course, referring to the standards of success set by Eurocentric ideals. This would lead to this constant comparison to white norms, which further marginalize Asian Americans and makes us both victims and accessories to white supremacy. On top of that, our portrayal as the “model minority” further supports the “American Dream” that is currently held up at the expense of Black and Brown Americans. This is when the pursuit of academic and professional achievement becomes less about money, and moreso about status and the social construct of self-identity. What does it truly mean to be Asian American?

The model minority myth is a harmful stereotype that is unfortunately deeply ingrained in American society. The myth is essentially so complex as it has such a multi-faceted impact on societal perception and individual Asian experiences in America. Efforts toward dismantling this myth begin with recognizing the issue and its detrimental effects. One great thing about Hawai'i is that its structures are the least white-dominated spaces, which allows room for this unique perspective. This inevitably contributes to a greater societal movement where we can just do our own thing. We are provided the opportunity to reclaim our own identities as we prioritize solidarity rather than competition.

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