Most Asian Americans have probably heard, at some time or another, something along the lines of, “Oh, you’re Asian — you must be smart.” From a young age, people make assumptions that we love school, receive stellar grades and anything less is unacceptable.
This is all a part of the “model minority” myth: the idea that Asian American children are extremely smart and successful, especially with STEM subjects, and their parents enforce extremely strict rules regarding education. It also perpetuates the idea that Asians “accomplished” the American Dream.
Upon first glance, the model minority myth seems to be positive. Who wouldn’t want to be thought of as smart, successful and accomplished? However, the model minority myth is, in all actuality, quite harmful to the Asian American population as well as other people of color.
The model minority myth is extremely exclusive, as it suggests that in school, all Asian Americans must receive high grades and excel in classes. Those who do not are excluded, which is immensely detrimental from a mental health standpoint. As of 2017, Asian American college students were reported to be about 1.6 times more likely to make a serious suicide attempt than all other racial or ethnic groups. However, Asian Americans are the racial group least likely to report mental health conditions and seek help for their mental health, such as therapy. According to the model minority myth that has burdened us since we were young, we’re not supposed to struggle; we’re supposed to excel. But what happens to those of us who don’t excel and need help?
Many Asian Americans who feel as if they do not conform to the model minority myth may feel out of place. Since many of the issues that Asian Americans face are largely invisible, these struggles go unnoticed, and Asian Americans who are suffering continue to suffer and are unable to seek help.
Put it this way: From the moment you enter school, imagine if your peers constantly tell you that you should be performing a certain way. Your teachers make comments as well, asking “Are you feeling OK? I wasn’t expected such grades from someone like you.” You get to college and you feel like you’re drowning; people around you seem to be doing well, but you just can’t catch your breath. According to society, you’re not supposed to be struggling, so why are you incapable of doing well?
And this is a cycle with historical roots; it is nothing new. Sociologist William Peterson first coined the term in 1966 when he wrote an article for The New York Times, claiming “family structure and a cultural emphasis on hard work” had led to Japanese Americans overcoming discrimination in the U.S. due to their success. The myth suggests all other discrimination and struggles Asian Americans face should be minimized or overlooked entirely, simply because research suggests we have achieved success in certain facets of education and our lives.
The model minority myth also treats all of Asia as a monolith when in reality, Asia is the largest continent, with extremely diverse cultures and ethnicities. When Asia is treated as a monolith, it is an assumption that every single Asian American is immensely successful, especially in terms of socioeconomic standing. However, upon closer examination, this is not the case.
For every $1 that a White man makes, Malaysian, Taiwanese, Indian and Chinese women all earn on average at least $1. However, as of 2018, Nepalese women made about $0.50 and Burmese women made $0.52. When Asia is treated as a monolith, the average is about $0.90 for every $1 a White man makes, which minimizes the struggles many Asian women face.
Outside of harm to just Asians and Asian Americans, the model minority myth is also harmful to other non-Asian people of color, because it creates a racial hierarchy among people of color. It suggests that Asian Americans have flourished in this society, and if Asian Americans can do it, other racial minorities should be able to as well when in reality, the struggles that people of different racial minorities have faced cannot be equalized. The model minority myth suggests that Asian Americans are superior to non-Asian people of color when this is certainly not the case.
It is high time that the model minority myth is understood as a false statement that should have no bearing on the treatment of Asian Americans or anyone else. Learn to recognize when people are perpetuating this myth and refute these statements when you hear them. This myth has been affecting generations of people and it should not continue to do so when it has such horrible consequences.