Posted: November 7th, 2023
The Model Minority Label and its Marginalization of Asian Americans
‘Hard-working, ‘ingenious’, ‘smart’ and ‘committed’ are some of the adjectives commonly used to describe Asian Americans. The ethnic group is often labelled ‘the model minority’ due to their success, high education, health and prosperity. However, the false perception represents a cover used to hide the reality of the trope’s socio-economic harm. The stereotype obscures racism that manifests in microaggressions, which contributes to the marginalization of Asian Americans. In this secondary research, an exploration of the complexity of the model minority label is done to highlight how it interplays with other types of racism. Asian Americans are the fastest-growing immigrant group in the United States, making it imperative to understand the barriers that prevent their full integration into the economy. Despite the model minority label flattening the diverse experiences of Asian Americans into a collective experience, it also acts as a capitalistic form of racial control that makes Asian Americans invisible for their endeavours but highly visible as expansionists when they succeed at what they do.
The Model Minority Stereotype
The model minority trope refers to the myth that considers all Asian Americans as intelligent, diligent, tame and generally positive. According to Kim, Lu and Stanton, the label emerged in the mid-60s when several researchers claimed that Asian Americans had higher household income and education levels than the average U.S family and other ethnic minority groups (612). Despite the lack of scientific evidence to support the claims, the assertions led to Asian Americans being put on a pedestal as the most prosperous ethnic group. The false perception was used as a political tool by politicians to highlight that racism had decreased when the United States was dealing with changing civil rights perceptions (Kim, Lu and Stanton 612). The stereotype instils the belief that Asian Americans attain a higher socio-economic status, positively impacting the ethnic group.
The model minority label invalidates the individual experiences of Asian Americans. Currently, over 22 million people of Asian origin reside in the United States, comprising 7% of the total population (Nguyen). Members of the group trace their heritage to different parts of the Asian continent, with Southeast Asians and East Asians comprising the biggest share. However, no group makes up the majority. The U.S Census Bureau contributed to the amalgamation of Asian experiences into a collective trope in the 80s when it categorized Asians, Pacific Islanders and Native Hawaiians as ‘Asian Pacific American’ (Nguyen). Activists and scholars often criticize the formal categorization for masking different historical experiences in Asia and America. For example, the Vietnamese do not share the same political history with the Americans as the Chinese or Mongolians. Many ethnicities comprise the Asian American umbrella, but the model minority stereotype turns all of them into a monolithic group.
The Origins of the Model Minority Stereotype
The model minority stereotype has its roots in the pre-Victorian labour market. Whites have depended on Asian immigrants and their American-born children to provide cheap manual labour throughout American history. The United States initiated the mass importation of Asian immigrant workers in the early 1850s to fuel the expansion of America’s west (Nguyen). As the immigrant numbers grew, the workers were confined to ethnic enclaves and subjected to suspicion by native Whites. Increased social anxiety would result in Asian Americans becoming the first victims of restrictive immigration laws. The 1875 Page Act sought to regulate the number of Asian-born Americans by impeding Asian women from entering the country. Asian women did not access America under the pretext that they were prostitutes (Blakemore). Further restrictions were introduced in the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act. As early as the 19th century, the legislation indicated how American law considered all Asians as Chinese.
While initial restrictions targeted the prevention of Chinese entry into America, other laws prioritized the prevention of naturalization. Asian Americans faced laws that prohibited them from becoming legal Americans or being termed ‘free white’ (Blakemore). The prevention of naturalization was the main public sentiment shared in the late 19th century and the early 20th century. It was not until the 1940s, during the Second World War, that anti-Asian sentiment reached its peak (Blakemore). The Japanese’s unwarranted attack on Pearl Harbor led to the federal government placing over 120000 Japanese Americans into federal prisons and intermittent camps. According to Blakemore, the forced relocation of Japanese Americans into intermittent camps was one of the most visible forms of anti-Asian sentiment in America’s history. The same colonist strategy was used before the Civil war and in Canada against Aboriginal communities. The relocation was a reflection of the need to instil capitalistic controls on the Japanese, especially with the start of the Cold war.
Following the end of the Second World War, America had to show it was open to global peace through trade and diplomacy. In 1947, it repealed the Chinese Exclusion Act to create better diplomatic grounds for an alliance with China (Nguyen). As a show of gratitude toward Japanese Americans who contributed to the war, America granted the immigrants the right to naturalization in 1952 (Nguyen). The tactic was also meant to foster positive post-war ties with Japan, a country experiencing an economic boom during the 50s. Thirteen years later, the path to naturalization was formalized by introducing the Immigration and Naturalization Act of 1965 (Blakemore). The legislation provided a channel for increased Asian immigration. There were greater opportunities for America to exploit the readily available and cheap labour. However, increased inclusion did not imply a reduction or the eradication of anti-Asian racism and prejudice.
The pervasive label of the docile Asian American took root in the late 1960s. For over half a decade, the minority ethnic group had already been stigmatized as not worthy of citizenship status or equality (Nguyen). At the end of the civil rights movement, America was dedicated to courting its cold war allies. Due to their proximity to Russia, Asians were labelled as desirable and hard-working compared to African Americans and Latino. The praise was all to court the Japanese. However, there was a subtle form of exclusion despite the courting. Japanese Americans did not find themselves in portrayals of the American dream (Blakemore). Cold war fears fueled the obedience, but the media used it as a tool for shaping public racial sentiment. The reality remains that Asian Americans continuously face systemic bias like other people of colour. The model minority trope is a successful divide and conquer strategy for immigrant, racial minorities in the United States.
The Model Myth in Ignoring the Plight of Asian Americans
While the model minority complements Asian Americans, the negation of individual experiences puts community members at an increased risk of experiencing mental health complications. A metadata analysis of stressors for Asian American college students highlights that parental and social pressures are the main sources of stress (Kim, Lu and Stanton 613). Stress is often associated with a decline in academic performance and an increased risk of mental health complications. The stereotype underlies the social stigma facing Asian American students and manifests in the same way as social inequalities. Because Asian Americans are anticipated to have access to medical care, disadvantaged members fail to establish health-seeking behaviours (Kim, Lu and Stanton 613). Compared to other ethnic minorities, Asian Americans are less likely to report poor health. Even though the group has a lower cancer or chronic incidence rate, the self-isolation from seeking medical helps subjects the greater Asian American community to a greater mortality rate.
The labelling of Asian Americans as successful is misleading as some Asian communities experience the greatest levels of household inequality in the United States. East Asians in the U.S. come from various demographics. For instance, census data highlights that Koreans in Los Angeles have the least median financial worth compared to Latinos and other Asian American communities (Kim 273). The income disparity played a vital role in the emergence of Asian activism on the west coast. Changes in household income correlate with mortality and morbidity rates. Since the onset of the millennium, cancer has been the leading cause of mortality among Asian Americans (Kim 273). The statistic is counter-evidence of the model minority myth as there are gaps in preventive behaviours, cancer risk and patient outcomes. Growing health disparities between Whites and Asian Americans only signify increasing household inequality, another counter-evidence against the trope.
The ‘hard-working’ identity constrains Asian Americans from accessing executive management roles because it reinforces gatekeeping. Organizations tend to position Asian Americans in middle and lower positions due to their ingenuity and commitment (Kim 274). The realization is supported by a comparison of academic and professional occupation data. Over 60% of Asian Americans finish college education compared to 45% of the general population (Blakemore). The learned population comprises 13% of the total national workforce; however, only 5% secure executive leadership positions (Blakemore). The problem with the model minority myth is that it makes Asian Americans visible as easy-to-manage and productive workers but invisible as great leaders. The false perception has turned Asian Americans into the least likely ethnic group to receive work promotions. As a result, top management has remained predominantly White. Overall, the stereotype is another successful strategy used by Whites in the United States to maintain the corporate status quo.
Gatekeeping management positions also imply a lack of political representation due to the model stereotype. As per the 2018 elections, Asian Americans had the lowest rate of political representation in Congress compared to other minority groups (Ruiz, Edwards and Lopez). Asian Americans hold only 3% of Congressional power, which impedes their ability to contribute to liberal democracy. Asian Americans have increasingly participated in collective action since the 1960s, but their history of activism does not translate into political leadership (Cohan 20). A Pew Research poll indicates the role of the model minority myth as 92% of Americans are comfortable with Asian Americans as nurses or doctors. Still, only 53% feel comfortable with an Asian American president (Ruiz, Edwards and Lopez). Asian immigrants might increase their voter turnout, but the false perception will impede their participation in representative positions. A lack of representation implies the inability to influence national policy to address community concerns. The direct implication is continuity of the status quo.
The model minority hides the fact that Asian Americans also experience significant levels of systemic racism and discrimination. A Pew Research survey indicates that 32% of Asian American adults feel threatened or fear physical attacks due to racial tension (Ruiz, Edwards and Lopez). Racialized violence is not a new concept among the Asian American community. For instance, in 1989, Patrick Purdy shot and killed five Asian American children after blaming the minority community for taking employment positions reserved for Whites (Ruiz, Edwards and Lopez). Most racialized crime during the 80s was anecdotal until scrutiny of the criminal justice system in the early 90s. In 1991, Asian Americans were the second-largest incarcerated ethnic group after African Americans (Ruiz, Edwards and Lopez). The statistic highlights institutional racism against Asian Americans despite their model citizen status. The myth hides that the minority ethnic group continues to suffer from law enforcement and public racialized violence.
Rebuttal: Model Minority in Fostering a Shared Identity
The struggle to become American has led to the ‘ethnic disidentification’ of Asian immigrants resulting in a shared meaning of what it means to be Asian in America. Throughout the 20th and 19th centuries, immigrants from Asia did not consider themselves Asians. The groups did not even consider themselves Chinese or Japanese but more distinctively as people from Hiroshima, Yamaguchi or Guandong (Jung 3). The different immigrant groups perceived themselves as politically and culturally unique. Upon entry into the United States, the immigrants experience Whites using racialist constructions of Asians as a singular race for the first time (Jung 3). Shared oppressive experiences led to the emergence of Asian American movements, which promoted a shared Pan-Asian consciousness. In simpler terms, the Pan-Asian concept became a rallying point for later generations (Cohan 20). The model minority label is validated because Asian Americans today are Pan-Ethnic with minor internal divisions.
The model minority concept created the economic and political basis for Asian Americans to maintain their suburban social niche. Jung talks about how mass media marketed the rigorous discipline required to establish oneself as a suitable candidate in the competitive labour market (5). The author languishes that even undeserving Asian Americans hold an advantage in neoliberal capitalism compared to other minority ethnicities. History shows that ethics often fail or become negligible in the face of self-interest. Throughout the late 20th century, Asian Americans have been marketed as ideal corporate employees despite having the highest organised crime rates (Jung 5). The portrayal as hard-working and obedient increases opportunities for self-development in capitalistic markets. Given that neoliberalism is the United States’ core political philosophy, Asian Americans are bound to benefit from its precepts of human capital.
The model minority trope and its model of shared identity provided a space for Asian Americans to test their identity achievement. Psychological research on the social identity formation process outlines that exploring shared experiences, interests, and identities can serve as an important basis for developing positive attachments towards the group (Negin et al. 79). As immigrants, understanding collective meanings facilitates the creation of one’s identity and purpose. For instance, when a person learns about same-sex attractions, it is then that they begin to explore what it entails to be a homosexual (Negin et al. 81). Therefore, by understanding shared meanings as immigrants, Asians have been able to create individual identities as Asian Americans. The trope has made it easy for Asian immigrants to settle and survive in America compared to Africans and Latinos. Cognitive science highlights a positive relationship between identity achievement and personal well-being.
The model minority myth is not the true problem, as class and race are the main culprits behind the continued marginalization of Asian Americans. A historical analysis of America’s political and economic development implies a continuity of the stereotype as long as the system of capitalist exploitation of White dominance remains intact (Negin et al. 79). Science affirms the relationship between capitalism and racism with low discrimination evident in the least capitalistic societies and vice versa. Racism only offers the opportunity to blame the poor or the weak instead of the powerful in times of crisis (Le Espiritu 48). The cyclic relationship makes Asian Americans hyper-visible for their financial success when the U.S. economy suffers a decline.
In another scenario, identity politics means that the law and the criminal justice system are designed to defend Whites, their properties and allies. African Americans are too familiar with this reality (Negin et al. 80). Rejecting neoliberal capitalism and its structures is the only solution to ending the perception of the model minority. The United States is a hopeful nation, and Americans can comprehend how they ended up with the existing social systems. Education, politics, prison, media and arts, and culture contribute to the sustainability of White supremacy and Asian anti-blackness (Nguyen). It is up to Asian American community to increase its participation in political leadership.
The expanding ethnic minority has the civil power to set the foundations for a different, more inclusive future. Learning from history means that Asian Americans can no longer shy away from representative positions in corporate and politics (Le Espiritu 48). Transforming existing social systems also implies a move away from anti-Black sentiment. The structures Asian Americans use to discriminate against African Americans are the same ones used on them by Whites. If the Asian American community unravels Black racism, there will be little use for the model minority trope.
In the post-coronavirus era, the challenges of race relations and Asian American identity politics have become more complex and evident. For far too long, policy and research have under-examined the needs of Asian Americans due to false perceptions. The continued use of the model minority to encourage the acceptance of post-racial politics is failing. More and more people, including Asian Americans, are reluctant to acknowledge the portrayal due to its reinforcement of racism in American life. While it might be true that Asian Americans are diligent and hard-working, they also experience systemic poverty, lack of healthcare access, poor political representation and high incarceration rates. These factors are the classical hallmarks of ethnic marginalization in the United States. Asian Americans have to devise new communication avenues to express themselves and share the distinct ideas that exist within the group. However, as Asian Americans move towards more ethnic distinctiveness, they should be cautious of intra-Asian political tension. A perfect liberal society is characterized by acknowledging diverse experiences, equal political representation and an understanding of cultural differences.
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Cohan, Carley. Who Killed Vincent Chin. Cineaste, vol. 17, no. 1, 1989, p. 20.
Jung, Stacey. The Model Minority Myth on Asian Americans and its Impact on Mental Health and the Clinical Setting. Asian American Research Journal, vol. 1, no. 1, 2021, pp. 1-14.
Kim, Elaine. Home is where the Han is: A Korean American Perspective on the Los Angeles Upheavals. Social Justice, vol. 2, no. 2, 1993, pp. 270-291.
Kim, Jacqueline, Qian Lu and Annette Stanton. Overcoming Constraints of the Model Minority stereotype to Advance Asian American Health. American Psychologist, vol. 76, no. 4, 2021, pp. 611-621.
Le Espiritu, Yen. “Coming Together: The Asian American Movement.” Asian American Panethnicity: Bridging Institutions and Identities, Temple University Press, 1992, pp. 19–52, http://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt1bw1jcp.6.
Negan, Ghavami et al. “Testing a model of minority identity achievement, identity affirmation, and psychological well-being among ethnic minority and sexual minority individuals.” Cultural Diversity & Ethnic Minority Psychology, vol. 17, no. 1, 2011, pp. 79-88. doi:10.1037/a0022532
Nguyen, Viet Than. Asian Americans are Still Caught in the Trap of the Model Minority Stereotype, and it Creates Inequality for All. Time, 26 June 2020, https://time.com/5859206/anti-asian-racism-america/, Accessed 16 May 2022.
Ruiz, Neil, Khadijah Edwards and Mark Lopez. One Third of Asian Americans Fear Threats, Physical Attacks, and Most Say Violence Against them is Rising. Pew Research Center, 21 April 2021, https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2021/04/21/one-third-of-asian-americans-fear-threats-physical-attacks-and-most-say-violence-against-them-is-rising/, Accessed 15 May 2022.
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