In her high school math class, English sophomore Ashley Lang felt like an imposter. Balancing the flurry of questions she would receive and her peers’ inflated opinion of her left Lang feeling inadequate.
“People had an image of me, [thinking] I was smarter than I actually was, so I always felt like I was playing catch-up and just trying to fit their vision of me,” Lang said.
A perception of success, also known as the model minority myth, is far from reality for many Asian Americans and can actually lead to damaging consequences, Lang said.
The model minority myth describes the tendency of labeling Asian Americans as particularly successful across academic, economic and cultural domains. Often, this idea is contrasted to the perceived achievements of other minority groups. Perceived characteristics of Asian Americans include being bright, studious and docile.
Due to these unrealistic expectations, Lang said she felt the need to work harder and understand better to satisfy this false image. She also felt she needed to excel in STEM classes, when liberal arts was her speciality.
Lang said she wants teaching about the model minority myth to be incorporated into traditional education. With that education, she feels individuals can be more conscious of the pressures and realities of the Asian American experience.
At face-value, the myth seems to be harmless and even a compliment, she said.
“Yet, in reality, it just works to perpetrate, like, this excuse for racism,” Lang said.
History of the model minority myth
History and Asian studies professor Margaret Bodemer said this concept was born in a time of civil change involving affirmative action programs, post civil rights movements and inner-city poverty.
“Government agents, policy makers and academics were trying to figure out why it is that Asians have seemed to have pulled ahead among minority communities,” Bodemer said.
The term “model minority” was coined in 1966 by sociologist William Petersen in his article “Success story: Japanese American style” in The New York Times Magazine. Petersen emphasized that family structure and a cultural emphasis on hard work allowed Japanese Americans to overcome discrimination and achieve success in the United States.
After attributing Asian Americans’ achievements to a focus on education and family, their success stories would be trumpeted in the media, Bodemer said.
During this period, there was a reluctance to name institutional racism, Bodemer said. When comparing Asians to other minority groups, individuals ignored the institution of slavery and interracial traumas, Bodemer said.
Internal Asian culture
Political science sophomore Andrew Kim lived in both China and Korea before moving to the United States. He believes the model minority myth stems partly from the priority of education in internal Asian culture.
“Since I lived [in Asian countries] I know how competitive it gets and how that culture hasn’t transferred over to America as well,” Kim said.
The priority in Asia is education, whereas the priority of America is more lifestyle, he said.
Yet, he thinks these ideals inherited in Asian American families can contribute to a culture of stress and burden.
Biological sciences sophomore Thomas Tang felt the pressure of the model minority myth during his early youth and later on.
When Tang played on his high school’s water polo team, he felt a consistent lack of acknowledgement from his coach.
“[My coach] would always compliment me, but always in a really, really backhanded way,” he said.
After Tang scored a goal, his coach would say, ‘What a smart play.” At the senior banquets, Tang would be described as “cerebral.”
Tang believed his coaches’ compliments of intellect, rather than athletic ability, stemmed from the tunnel vision of the myth where Asian Americans are disregarded in areas outside of their intelligence.
Impact on other minority groups
Tang defines the model minority myth as “a wedging tool for white supremacy.”
“It seems as a way to put Asian Americans on this podium, that they’re better than the rest,” Tang said.
This comparison of Asian American success to the perceived success of other minority groups breeds animosity, making people more tentative to help each other, and can similarly breed harmful mentalities, as seen with anti-Blackness within the Asian community, Tang said.
“[Immigrants believing the model minority myth] sometimes see themselves as better, thinking ‘We’re not like them,’” Tang said.
Learning about the model minority myth shocked business administration sophomore Joie Wong in how much it resonated with her.
“[I thought] ‘this is like my entire childhood,’” Wong said.
Having stricter parents and participating in activities such as Chinese school and playing the piano were realities for Wong.
This concept also affected Wong on a social level.
Not only did her parents want her to associate more with people that looked like her, she felt an internal gravitation towards her Asian peers, since they would push each other in similar ways, like a focus on education.
The media often highlights a thin slice of the Asian American experience with recurring tropes, Wong said.
Typical portrayals of Asian Americans are the “tiger mom,” a demanding parent pushing their kids to succeed, “china doll,” the submissive and delicate woman and “dragon lady,” the mysterious and sexualized woman. Fathers are often demasculinized and seen as not affectionate.
Wong noticed casting for Asian roles often extends to all Asians, instead of a specific nationality, creating a monolith for Asian identity.
“The idea that Asian roles are interchangeable suggests there’s not really a difference between each culture when there definitely are very concrete differences,” Wong said.
The Monolith and anti-Asian hate
The model minority myth erases the struggles and complexity of the Asian American experience, as seen with recent anti-Asian hate, according to ethnic studies professor C.T. Aradanas.
As the name suggests, this is a myth, Aradanas said.
According to a 2018 Pew Research Center analysis of United States Census Bureau data, although being the highest-earning racial and ethnic group in the U.S., Asian Americans are also the country’s most economically divided group.
According to the analysis, from 1970 to 2016, the gap in the standard of living between Asians near the top and the bottom of the income ladder nearly doubled. The income gap between Asian Americans at either ends of the income distribution also widened 27% during the same period.
“There’s dozens of national origins of Asian people, people who are poor, people who are suicidal, people who are involved in criminal activity,” Aradanas said. “These are things we don’t hear about because we don’t want to know about them.”
This lack of visibility can lead to a disregard of Asian hate, he said.
“It’s a lot easier for us to be resentful of these successful Asians, and look at them like, ‘They don’t need anything; they don’t have any problems,’” Aradanas said.