The Danger of the Model Minority

A teacher of mine this year once said that each generation battles different social issues, and the prime issues that “Generation Z” faces are immigration policy, and equality for black folks. “Don’t worry,” he immediately addressed our largely-Asian class when he finished. “The day for Asian-American representation will eventually come.”

While I have no doubts that the two issues mentioned above are the most attention-worthy in the status quo, I (as someone very interested in Asian-American identity theory) did quite some thinking about how the model minority myth perpetuates these two issues. It was actually one day when an Asian-American friend of mine approached me and asked “what exactly is so bad about the model minority stereotype?” and I ranted for twenty minutes, that I realized how many underlying dangers the myth perpetrates.

Most people, or at least those who have a basic concept of what the model minority stereotype is, already know how it negatively affects Asian-Americans as a whole (refer to this post for more info). What most people do not consider is how the myth sustains anti-blackness. Let’s jump back 50 years to the civil rights movement – post-world war II, when a number of Chinese-Americans were moving up the social ladder and Japanese-Americans had already been released from concentration camps. This 1966 New York Times Article “Success Story, Japanese-American Style” outlines the common stereotypes associated with the model minority such as solid families, abundant education, and “culture,” and able to “climb over the highest barriers.” Another article published in the same year by US News describes Chinese-Americans with similar adjectives such as hard working, clean, law-abiding, etc, and even daring to state that “Orientals in California were faced with even more prejudice than faces the Negro today.” Hence, these widespread articles led to the question “if Asian-Americans did it, why can’t African-American folk do it?”, which was both used to undermine the civil rights movement and still used today in contexts such as Black Lives Matter and the Affirmative Action debate. This is particularly dangerous because Asian-Americans often internalize and accept the model minority myth, believing that they have been offered proximity to whiteness, and thus they too become anti-black. By giving Asian-Americans this label, whites are essentially pitting minority groups together. Instead, if equality can ever be achieved, minority groups need to work together to fight against discrimination; in-fighting is extremely counterproductive and strays away from the end goal.

Regarding immigration policy, the model minority myth creates the dichotomy of the “good” and “bad” immigrant. Both white Americans and even many first generation Asian-American immigrants (like my parents) are guilty of having these ideologies. Often the question that arises is “if Asian immigrants worked hard from a poor background to come to America, why can’t [insert group here] do it legally?” or “Asian immigrants are so law abiding, why would you allow [insert group here] to come if they cause crime?”. Have they forgotten that the same arguments were once used toward Asian immigrants just a hundred years ago? Have they considered which Asian immigrants were allowed into the country in the first place? What about immigrants that are fleeing corruption, extreme poverty and starvation, joblessness, etc. and just doing the exact same thing that all immigrants want: to live a better life?

It seems quite simple, the creation of the model minority myth is used by white folk to wedge minority groups against each other and undermine certain movements, and now that many Asian immigrants/Asian-Americans have accepted the stereotype as true and even good, changing immigration policies and shifting the treatment of black folk will be a long, grueling process. Perhaps a pre-requisite to the success of status quo movements would be first eliminating the model minority myth.

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