Five ways the myth of the “model minority” hurts all of us

Last week the Pew Center released a report that confirmed preconceived notions about Asian Americans (all of us!)–and found that as an immigrant group we earn more money, we get more education and we take marriage more seriously. You can’t argue with concrete evidence if you haven’t done your own research (what–you don’t like a sample size of Samhita?) but you can critique the framing and the methodology.

From a cultural standpoint, they are missing a lot of little nuances that make up the “Asian” experience in the US. It’s not actually the peachy, pull yourself by your boot straps, American dream story that Republicans like to jack off to. Our lives are diverse, complex and we didn’t all graduate with a 4.0 from Stanford with a full ride. We have feelings, interests, diversities and our parents aren’t just big meanies that make us study all the time (even though they really can be!). The researchers didn’t draw these specific conclusions, obviously–but this is the cultural context within which they are releasing their data.

So, yes, perhaps Asian Americans are earning more or getting better jobs–but the intense focus on how this makes Asian Americans exceptional instead of surrounding factors hurts everyone.

Here are five reasons the myth of the “model minority” is problematic:

1. It assumes all Asians are the same. The myth of the model minority homogenizes our very, very diverse class, ethnic, geographic, cultural and religious experiences. Some Asian communities having higher salaries (specifically Indian Americans) as opposed to other groups. Also, there are so many countries that make up Asia, thousands of languages and customs–how did we all just become one group that worked hard to come to America to become doctors? I have tons Asian friends that are not doctors!

2. It pits Asian immigrants against other immigrants. Republicans love to uphold Asian immigrants as the “little immigrants that could”–unlike those lazy Latino/a immigrants (and black people, if you just want to extend to all minorities). This is called divide and conquer and it totally works! And it’s not just Republicans–lots of people believe that Asians are smarter and work harder, so they are more likely to hire them. But don’t worry, they might make more than most other immigrant groups, but they still make less than their white bosses. (Also, turns out when people give you a chance at education and believe you can do it, it works!)

3. It ignores the very real and harsh conditions many Asian immigrants are living within. 547, 000 Asians are living in poverty–that’s still a lot of people  Also, many Asian immigrants have several dependents here and overseas–when they lose their jobs or their houses, they don’t have communities of wealth to fall back on, they are on their own.

4. It puts unfair pressures and values on our lives. The myth of the model minority puts excess pressure on Asian immigrants and Asian Americans to be super human, exceptional students and career people. My calculus teacher in high school actually wanted to know why I wasn’t good at math because I’m Indian. My parents wanted to know as well. This hurt my educational career. This hurts every young person that isn’t seen for who they are or what their actual abilities are. Being seen as an embodiment of your race, instead of who you actually are sucks!

5. It silences authentic stories about the lives of Asians. The myth of the model minority keeps many Asian immigrants silent about the real conditions they are facing financially, career-wise, in their relationships and in their families. This diversity of experience that the majority takes for granted, is not allowed for those of us that are expected to be super.

The trend to really hold up the idea that Asians are better than “those other immigrants” comes from within the community (Amy Chua!) and outside of it–but what’s missing in this conversation is all the cultural conditions that give Asians permission to flourish and ignores them when they aren’t able to. Asian immigrants experience crime, poverty, hate crimes, police brutality, incarceration, racism, sexism and all those other awesome things that every other person who is considered an “other” does. It’s time to create space in the media to talk about those stories.

(If this sounds like familiar analysis, it’s because I’ve written about the myth of the model minority many times before.)

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3 Comments

  1. Posted June 26, 2012 at 1:36 pm | Permalink

    Thanks for this Samhita! Although, I have to say this – I’ve noticed that it is always you, an Asian American woman, who blogs on feministing about AAPI issues. I’ve noticed a diversity of bloggers write about racism against black women and Latinia women, but I can’t say I have observed allyship with AAPI issues on feministing. I get the feeling that the non-AAPI feministing bloggers don’t really understand issues pertaining to the AAPI community and AAPI women.

  2. Posted June 26, 2012 at 7:26 pm | Permalink

    Thanks for posting! I love seeing AA issues being tackled in feminist conversation.

    For those interested, AAM compiled responses to the Pew research report from various AA advocacy groups here, along with a comprehensive demographic portrait of the AA community at the bottom.

  3. Posted June 27, 2012 at 4:31 pm | Permalink

    Great post. At least my calculus teacher could blame my lack of math skills on the fact that my mother was a white American. Mixed Asian Americans have complicated stories..

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