The Plight of Asian Americans As the “Model Minority”

A family that some may consider a “model minority”

“Model minority.” You’ve heard the term before. It’s all over the New York Times and the Washington Post, but what does it actually mean? The “Model Minority” stereotype is the “cultural expectation placed on Asian Americans as a group that each individual will be: smart (i.e., ‘naturally good at math, science, and technology’), wealthy, hard-working, self-reliant, living the ‘American Dream,’ docile, submissive, obedient, uncomplaining, spiritually enlightened, and never in need of assistance. Some may wonder why Asian American people are getting up in arms about being a “model minority.” These cultural expectations can seem like wonderful compliments to the outside observer.Newsflash: They’re not.

The reality is that no one lives up to the Model Minority stereotype—or any stereotype for that matter—with 100% accuracy. In fact, as noted by UT-Austin’s Counseling and Mental Health Center, “in 2004, 11.8% of Asian Americans lived below the poverty line, experiencing the greatest rise in poverty among all groups.” Furthermore, Asian American college students “were more likely than White students to report difficulties with stress, sleep, and feelings of hopelessness.” On top of that, “Asian Americans have a 17.30% overall lifetime rate of developing any psychiatric disorder and a 9.19% 12-month rate, yet Asian Americans are three times less likely to seek mental health services than Whites.” This increased deterioration in the mental health of Asian-Americans can be attributed to, among other reasons, “discrimination due to racial or cultural background”, “difficulty in balancing two different cultures and developing a bicultural sense of self”, and most of all, “the pressure to live up to the ‘model minority’ stereotype.” Thus being considered a “model minority” really is not quite as nice as it may seem.

What may come off as even more shocking, however, is the origin of the label “model minority” and its associated term, “Asian advantage.” According to the New York Times op-ed “‘Model Minority Seems Like a Compliment, but It Does Great Harm” written by Bernadette Lim, the term “model minority” was first used during the Civil Rights movement—but not for the purpose of promoting and advocating for equal rights. The term was coined in a 1966 New York Times article titled “Success Story, Japanese American Style,” which led to similar articles, such as “Success Story of One Minority Group in U.S.” and “Those Asian-American Whiz Kids.”  

What did these articles have in common? As Bernadette Lim explains, they all argued that “if Asian-Americans [could] ‘work hard’ and ‘never complain’, why [weren’t] other racial groups following suit?”. To put it into context and in broader terms, the label “model minority” originally “[operated] as a racial wedge that [divided] Asian-Americans from communities of color while maintaining white dominance in leadership (i.e. the ‘bamboo ceiling’) and politics.” Interestingly enough, it seems as if the “Asian advantage” seemed to work rather to the advantage of white dominance.

Therefore it should be clear the label “model minority” and all of its associated terms (i.e. “Asian advantage” and “bamboo ceiling”), are degrading and oppressive. The worst part is that no matter how hard Asian Americans have tried, we still cannot escape this idea that we are “model minorities,” that we should be grateful for our “Asian advantage.” People are correct when they say I should be grateful for some things. I am grateful to have had the opportunity grow up in a multicultural household where I learned to value American and Chinese culture simultaneously. I am grateful for growing up in a country inhabited by so many different ethnicities, nationalities, and cultures. However, I am not grateful for the fact that my family’s success as Asian Americans is being used as a method of silencing other people of color, and I am not grateful for the common expectations of being submissive, good at math, and devoid of a personality. For these reasons, we must continue to push for a renormalization of what it means to be Asian American, because being Asian American does not mean being a “model minority.” Being Asian American simply means being part of a diverse group of individuals who identify as male, female, non-binary, gay, straight, bisexual, queer, runners, dancers, singers, musicians, etc., who also just happen to originate from the same general geographic location. Indeed, Asian American is just one identifier in a sea of qualities and characteristics that make us unique.


Jane Yang