How might the model minority myth — the belief that Asian Americans have “made it” despite obstacles — relate to recent attacks? A lot, our research finds. A model minority is perceived as “better” than other minoritized groups, as if its members have overcome adversities, do not face racism and don’t need anti-racist support. Here’s what that means.
The model minority myth
The “model minority” concept originated in the 1960s, during the rise of social movements addressing the U.S. war in Vietnam, the environment, and racial and gender equality. Sociologist William Pettersen praised Japanese Americans for overcoming discrimination, arguing that their ability to do so compared favorably with Black/African Americans, who were treated as problem minorities.
The “model minority” image stratifies non-White racialized groups by pitting the “good minorities” (Asian Americans) against “bad minorities” (Black/African Americans). But both communities are systematically deemed divergent from the White cultural norm — or “othered.” Further, this drives a wedge in a long history of cross-racial solidarity between Black and Asian American communities.
Our research shows that the model minority myth does three things: first, obscures anti-Asian American racism; second, renders Asian Americans invisible to broader society; and third, implies that Asian Americans don’t need anti-racist programs.
1. Obscuring racism against Asian Americans
In writing her book “STUCK,” Margaret Chin found that the 103 Asian American corporate employees she interviewed had followed what she called an “Asian American Playbook.” This included advice to excel in academics, work hard and assume leadership positions. When their progress up the corporate ladder halted, her respondents felt misled or targeted by bias. Because so many shared this story, it highlighted a systemic rather than individual problem.
Similarly, for her book “Incidental Racialization,” Diana Pan interviewed 47 law students at a tier-1 and a tier-4 law school. Most joked that they were not good at math and thus couldn’t go to medical school, revealing that they’d internalized the model minority image. Within law schools, where the majority of professors and students are White, Asian Americans’ racial awareness became heightened as they were perceived as, and expected to be, model minorities.
Both groups reported that the institutions at which they worked or studied did not acknowledge systemic racism against Asian Americans. They weren’t sure whether their experiences as Asian Americans were covered by their institutions’ diversity initiatives. These efforts included mentorships, scholarship opportunities and dedicated workplace resources. Their own and others’ experiences suggest that Asian Americans aren’t counted as “diverse,” despite studies finding that Asian Americans, like Black and Latino employees, aren’t represented at those institutions’ higher levels — a concept called the bamboo ceiling, which functions much like the professional ceiling facing many non-dominant groups.
2. Renders Asian Americans invisible to larger society
Asian Americans benefit from a concept known as “stereotype promise,” or a general expectation that they will excel. This shields Asian Americans from some forms of systemic racism such as police brutality. But it obscures Asian Americans’ encounters with other forms of racism.
Although the positive stereotypes helped them gain entry-level jobs, Chin found that Asian American professionals thought their advancement slowed because superiors did not trust them, perceiving them as “forever foreigners” who didn’t really belong. The “forever foreigner” stereotype — the shadow side of the model minority concept — presents Asian Americans as foreign with allegiance to their ancestral countries. Rather than being seen as citizens born and raised in the United States, or having generations of family in the United States, they are perceived as unable to assimilate. Together, the “model minority” and the “forever foreigner” concepts leave them perpetually categorized as outsiders, disregarded in the U.S. racial discussion, and less than fully human.
3. Implies that Asian Americans don’t need anti-racist programs
The model minority and its forever foreigner shadow mean that Asian Americans are regularly treated with such microaggressions as the assumption that they excel only at science and math; are hyperfeminine women or nerdy men; are too young for promotion; or are unlikely to have leadership experience. Further, they’re often asked where they’re from or why their English is so good. These microaggressions add up over time, hamper career progress and contribute to a permanent sense of “being other.”
Similarly, many non-Asians tell Asian Americans that they do not understand racism because they are “almost White,” not people of color. Pan’s current research finds that Asian American lawyers, professors and physicians will describe uncomfortable experiences or even discrimination without labeling them “racist” — because our society’s characterization of race-based discrimination does not include the experiences of Asian Americans.
Similarly, the news media and other institutions commonly treat race as a Black and White story. Asian Americans are left out of both the American story and the American racial story. Our history books don’t include instances of Chinese Americans being lynched, although that indeed happened. Nor do they discuss the Chinese Exclusion laws that prevented Asians from immigrating to the United States or becoming citizens, barring them from voting and due process — as happened to Black Americans.
Without acknowledging all this, Asian Americans will continue to be left out of efforts to address discrimination. The model minority image ostensibly congratulates Asian Americans while simultaneously leaning on the image to discount and marginalize their existence.
Margaret M. Chin (@ProfMChin) is professor of sociology at City University of New York-Hunter College and the Graduate Center and author of “STUCK: Why Asian Americans Don’t Reach the Top of the Corporate Ladder” (New York University Press, 2020).