No such thing as a “positive” stereotype: Consequences of the Model Minority Myth
Most people are probably familiar with the idea of a model minority, or that certain minority groups are so successful that, apart from numerical representation, they are not true “minorities.” The model minority label has traditionally been applied to Asian Americans, who have been observed to outperform even White Americans on a number of education- and socioeconomic status-related metrics . At first glance, the stereotype seems harmless; what could possibly be so bad about being perceived as intelligent, successful, and ambitious? A review of the research demonstrates, however, that the model minority label has serious consequences for the achievement and well-being of Asian Americans.
What exactly is the Model Minority Myth?
The first documented representation of Asian Americans as a “model” minority was in 1966, in a New York Times Magazine article titled “Success Story, Japanese-American Style,” by sociologist William Petersen . In the article, Petersen contrasts the behavior and achievement of Japanese Americans to that of “problem” minorities, like Black Americans and Mexican Americans. He paints Japanese Americans as exceptional individuals that are able to rise above and beyond the trauma of internment to become law-abiding, hard working, well-educated citizens of strong moral character without even the slightest government assistance. In popular culture, the model minority label has since been expanded to include Asians of all ethnic heritage, such as Chinese Americans, Indian Americans, and so on.
How does the Myth compare to lived experiences?
It is indeed true that there are Asian Americans who perform well in work, school, and financially, just as there are members of other ethnic groups who do. However, the Model Minority Myth fails to capture the diversity of Asian Americans’ lived experiences. By grouping together East, Southeast, and South Asians, the Model Minority Myth erases the differences in history and treatment of each group. For example, with de facto and de jure institutions such as caste in place in many parts of Asia, those of lower caste have vastly different experiences from those of upper caste, financially secure, and well-educated backgrounds [3,4,5]. Similarly, the lumping of several ethnic groups together under one label ignores the differences between immigrant and refugee experiences. Prolonged war and colonization in Southeast Asia have created humanitarian crises that have resulted in generations of refugees seeking resettlement. Similar conflicts in South Asia have also generated refugees. Unfortunately, descriptions of Asian American achievement continually fail to approach the nuance necessary to accurately document lived experiences .
In reality, though the median household income of Asian Americans is indeed greater than that of even White Americans , per capita breakdowns of socioeconomic status reveal that Asian Americans actually fare worse . In fact, White Americans continue to be the wealthiest demographic in the United States . Furthermore, wealth inequality between high and low SES Asian Americans is even larger than it is for White Americans, with the wealthiest Asian Americans earning more than their White counterparts, and the poorest Asian Americans earning less . Breaking down Asian Americans based on national origin further clarifies this picture. For example, Indian and Filipino Americans have the highest median household income (of $95,000 and $80,000 respectively), while Hmong and Bangladeshi Americans have the lowest (of $52,500 and $46,950 respectively).
In terms of educational attainment, we see similar disparities. A review of Census data by Ngo and Lee (2007) revealed that although fewer than 15% of Chinese, Japanese, and South Asian Americans broadly have less than a high school education, the numbers for Cambodian, Hmong, Lao, and Vietnamese Americans are significantly higher (52%, 59%, 49%, and 38% respectively) . Similar disparities are revealed when the percentages of Asian Americans holding at least a bachelor’s degree are disaggregated by national origin.
Consequences of the Myth for Asian Americans
Because the Model Minority Myth does not accurately reflect the lived experiences of Asian Americans, it has several consequences. These can be separated into three categories: 1) psychological well-being, 2) educational outcomes, and 3) availability of institutional support.
Research on mental health among college students has found that Asian Americans are exceedingly unlikely to take advantage of psychological services, such as therapy, in times of emotional distress [11,12]. Furthermore, Asian American students have negative attitudes towards such help-seeking behaviors . Recent work by Kim and Lee (2014) with East and Southeast Asian American college students has demonstrated that internalization of the Model Minority Myth is negatively correlated with advantageous help-seeking behaviors . In other words, Asian American students who subscribe to the stereotypes comprising the Model Minority Myth (e.g., being exceptionally hard workers, performing better than other minority groups) are less likely to seek out assistance in times of emotional distress than Asian American students who do not subscribe to such stereotypes. Other work on internalization of the Model Minority Myth reveals that, among Asian American adolescents with poor academic performance, increased internalization of the Myth was positively correlated with emotional distress .
The Model Minority Myth can also have consequences for the strength of Asian American students’ ethnic identity [15,16]. These are observed particularly among students who perform poorly in school, who report feeling like they do not belong to their ethnic group because they do not possess the attributes typically ascribed to Asians. Given that weak ethnic identity is correlated with poorer mental health , these findings are doubly concerning.
The Model Minority Myth also has consequences for Asian American students’ educational outcomes. For example, making students more conscious of their Asian identity prior to completing a mathematical task resulted in poorer performance . Similarly, internalization of the Model Minority Myth was positively correlated with performance difficulty (e.g., trouble remembering things) for Asian American adolescents with low GPA . These findings reveal that the societally- and self-imposed pressure to perform well may actually further worsen the academic performance of children who are already struggling in school.
Interviews with Asian American students have also shed light on the undue pressure placed upon them to perform as a result of the Myth . One Korean American student, Christy, stated "In the classroom, I'm sometimes scared to speak up...There's more scrutiny. There's more, 'what is she going to say?...' It's like I have to sound highly intellectual or something." Christy also shared an aversion to school-related help-seeking behaviors. That is, she was very unlikely to seek out help from her teachers, even when she was performing poorly in her classes. Given that student-teacher interaction is an important component of educational success, the inhibitory effects of the Model Minority Myth on class participation and help-seeking are especially troubling .
Some Asian American students also report purposefully failing classes and acting out in school, to fight back against expectations of high achievement, compliance, and subservience . These stories reflect a different and unexpected consequence of the Myth: intentional distancing from the “high achiever” Asian American archetype, as a method of coping with expectation-induced stress, bullying, and racial discrimination from teachers and peers.
Availability of institutional support
A third, and perhaps easiest to remedy, consequence of the Model Minority Myth is the resulting lack of institutional support for Asian Americans. For example, even in academia, issues facing Asian Americans are understudied . The body of scientific work examining the Model Minority Myth is sparse. Furthermore, Asian populations are often treated as a monolith, meaning that differences in educational background, ethnic origin, migrant status (i.e., refugee versus voluntary migrant), and socioeconomic status are unattended to . All of this leads to the exclusion of Asian Americans from conversations concerning supports for marginalized youth in schools, meaning that any programs or tools that are developed are unable to meet the unique needs of struggling Asian American students.
These issues persist at the university level. Studies have demonstrated that even university administrators buy into the Model Minority Myth, believing that Asian Americans do not struggle and are naturally successful in all endeavors . As a result, they neglect to provide adequate support for these students in times when they experience conflict between academic and familial/cultural demands. The Model Minority Myth also serves to minimize, if not completely erase, the racism that Asian American students face on college campuses. Research shows that university administrators are less likely to take action when these students are victims of racial discrimination, thus leaving them to fend for themselves in a hostile and unwelcoming environment .
The Model Minority Myth has also limited Asian Americans’ access to appropriate mental health care, given its pervasive nature . Pictures of Asian Americans as high-functioning and successful individuals have resulted in severe inattention to mental illness among Asian Americans. This inattention has contributed to the lack of targeted community outreach and culturally sensitive care for Asian Americans . Furthermore, even among mental health practitioners who are aware of the needs of their local community, the care provided is inadequate due to the lack of research and educational material available to them that explicitly deals with Asian American mental health .
So what can we do about it?
Changing the conversation around the experiences of Asian Americans can work on the individual level, by inspecting our beliefs and educating ourselves on the research that already exists. Everyone has biases, but bias is only harmful when it goes unchecked. Slowly, we can work towards challenging the beliefs and attitudes of friends and loved ones. Next time you hear someone talking about how easy Asians have it, or how Asian immigrants are stealing all the high-paying jobs, educate them.
In the meantime, scientists and scholars also have work to do. This can start with acknowledging that not all Asian Americans are the same. Instead of conducting research on Asian Americans as a whole, it is worthwhile to break participant samples down by ethnic origin (e.g., South, Southeast, and East Asian Americans), or by socioeconomic status. Scholars should also note how their research and findings may be applied differently to different populations. Rather than working with convenience samples of high-achieving college students, we should instead seek to work with participants directly from our local community.
Scientists and community members alike can also urge local government, policy makers, and community organizations to do better. By creating programs and infrastructure that are specifically designed to support Asian Americans, we can remedy the historic and present lack of institutional support available to this underserved population.
Yes, the Model Minority Myth is pervasive. We all learn to believe these stereotypes from our parents, teachers, and the media. However, by doing our part to raise awareness about the diversity of Asian America, we can dedicate the attention and resources necessary to the successes, struggles, and long-ignored needs of Asian Americans.
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