The most memorable prologue to a novel I’ve ever read was the one in Kevin Kwan’s Crazy Rich Asians (also in the movie) where the Chinese family enters an upscale hotel in England and is treated with barely veiled derision. That family casually purchases that very same hotel a few moments later. While this is a triumphant moment for those of us who grew up witnessing our Asian parents treated like dirty children, it also perpetuates the myth that East Asians are, in fact, crazy rich and that their success makes them immune to harmful biases and discrimination.

The Model Minority Myth is a concept that heralds Asian Americans as a model community of immigrants who have succeeded at the American dream, due to their quiet, law-abiding, academically-achieving nature. Asian stereotypes in Western countries include being good at math, Tiger Moms, quiet rule-followers, doctors, lawyers, and engineers.

Cathy Park Hong wrote in her book Minor Feelings, “[Asian Americans] have been cowed by the lie that we have it good. We keep our heads down and work hard, believing that our diligence will reward us with our dignity, but our diligence will only make us disappear. By not speaking up, we perpetuate the myth that our shame is caused by our repressive culture and the country we fled, whereas America has given us nothing but opportunity. The lie that Asians have it good is so insidious that even now as I write, I’m shadowed by doubt that I didn’t have it bad compared to others. But racial trauma is not a competitive sport.” The model minority myth was designed to triangulate polarized black-white binaries of race and racism, placing Asian Americans and other people of color in a comparative racial contest. In other words, in a society where whiteness is the default place to aspire to, Asian Americans are placed as the shining example of how the “other” should behave. The reward, of course, is monetary prosperity and proximity to whiteness. But the barrage of attacks on the Asian American community that have recently been exposed in mainstream news cruelly and promptly dispels the myth that being the “good” immigrant will protect us.

Professor David L. Eng and psychotherapist Shinhee Han wrote about the model minority myth in Racial Melancholia, Racial Dissociation: On the Social and Psychic Lives of Asian Americans, “…a long history of discrimination is what binds Asian Americans together as a collective, and the adoption of a coalition Asian American identity is often a conscious, politicized choice. Paradoxically, while Asian Americans are always included in diversity statistics, they are largely excluded from affirmative action programs – a significant point of controversy in ongoing national debates concerning the politics of race and colorblindness. In short, we are seen as a homogenous and self-sufficient community in no particular need of assistance or support. This stereotype is the dominant way we are perceived- socially fixed and psychically formed as subjects.”

The Model Minority Myth harms Asian Americans in two major ways:

  1. It homogenizes the diverse experiences of Asian Americans. It ignores the fact that different Asian ethnic groups within the United States and across the globe have drastically different poverty rates. 3% of Asian Americans live below the federal poverty level, ranging from 6.8 % of Filipino Americans to 39.4 % of Burmese Americans, according to the American Community Survey (ACS). Prior to COVID, the poverty rate among Korean, Arab, and West Asian Canadians ranged from 27% to 32%. Chinese-Canadians had a poverty rate that reached 20%, Southeast Asians had a poverty rate of 16-17% and South Asians were just under 15%. 39% of Asian families in the UK were reported living in poverty in the 2018-2019 UK Census.
  2. It pits racial and ethnic groups against each other, and ignores the reality of systematic racism. Model minorities as a contrast with other communities implies a false narrative that other groups are at fault for failing to assimilate or prosper. It shifts the accountability from those who benefit from unfair systems in place to the people who are oppressed by those systems.

    As with all our work surrounding bias and inclusion, it is important to recognize the diversity of experiences within the Asian American community. We must continue to debunk myths like the Model Minority Myth, question stereotypes, even “positive” stereotypes, and become more aware of how our daily rhetoric about a group of people as a monolith can have a harmful – even violent – effect on how they are treated in society.