By Allie Skalnik
When people use the phrase ‘model minority’, they are usually referring to a racial minority that is perceived to hold a higher socioeconomic status than other minority groups. But this phrase holds many important connotations as well. In addition to socioeconomic status, it is not uncommon for the perceived privilege of model minority groups to extend to other elements of privilege. For instance, connotations include the assertion that model minority groups experience fewer instances of racism or unrealistic academic expectations that confine adolescents to a stereotype. These claims are reasonable to some degree. Asian Americans, the group most cited as a model minority group, have high socioeconomic and education levels on average, but there are also many complexities not acknowledged by the model minority myth. It ultimately does more harm than good. Not only does it not do a good job of describing what it sets out to do, it sows divisions within racial minorities and allows a way for us to ignore the deeply entrenched systemic racism of America.
Proponents of the model minority myth would argue that it is important to acknowledge the privileges a member of a minority group can still hold, that there is complexity within the topic of discrimination that should be acknowledged. While I agree that complexity is important and should be acknowledged, the model minority myth has strayed far from this original goal. The phrase ‘model minority’ has become most commonly–and narrowly–attributed to Asian Americans. This disregards the fact that a group that is vastly diverse is difficult to define. Asian Americans can be ethnically Chinese, Indian, Cambodian, Japanese, Korean, Filipino–the list goes on and on. When considering each of these groups more closely, it becomes clear that there are significant disparities within Asian Americans. Painting all Asian Americans with one brush is not only inaccurate, but it undercuts the very goal of using the phrase ‘model minority’. It fails to recognize the complexities, while actively misrepresenting many Asian Americans.
Most troubling, the model minority myth has long been used as a way to shift the blame of racial inequalities from systemic racism and hundreds of years of slavery to the personal choices of individuals. The narrative suggests that if Asian Americans, who have made it through the Chinese Exclusion Act, the Yellow Peril, and Japanese Internment, can become a privileged group, then America must not be nearly as racist as many suggest. The American Dream does exist after all! What this neglects to mention is that hundreds of years of slavery were justified by deeply entrenched racism and dehumanization that is still felt today.
It’s another problem with painting groups with the same brush. The struggles Black and Asian Americans face are not comparable because they are entirely different, not to mention the perceived ‘success’ of Asian Americans is an overgeneralization in itself. At its core, the model minority myth fails to look beyond the surface, and as a result, perpetuates harmful and unproductive stereotypes. Finally, the myth lets its proponents believe that racism is a thing of the past, when in reality racism against Black and Asian Americans is as strong as ever.