The Hidden Danger of Calling Asians the “Model Minority"

May 27, 2017
By lily.zhu001 GOLD, Princeton Junction, New Jersey
lily.zhu001 GOLD, Princeton Junction, New Jersey
10 articles 6 photos 1 comment

The “Asian advantage.” The “model minority.” These catchy, alliterative phrases describing the Asian-American population are rapidly gaining popularity, spreading the dangerously inaccurate portrayal of Asian-Americans as being inherently superior to other minorities in America in terms of financial status and social standing. Based on incomplete research and statistics, the phrases further suggest that other minorities should elevate their economic and social status by emulating Asian-Americans’ work ethic and cultural values, or at least what their creators define “Asian-American ethic” as. While the term “Asian advantage” undoubtedly has a more positive connotation than the racial stereotypes and slurs that racists have created for blacks and Latinos/Latinas, it is an unfounded, restrictive, and stereotypical label nonetheless. Not only do these statements propagate false images of Asian-Americans, thus leading to the misinterpretation of Asian culture, but they also strain the Asian-American community and hurt relationships between Asian-Americans and other minorities.

For starters, statistics show that Asian-Americans have the highest probability of attaining a college degree, at 42.9%, surpassing all racial groups, including Caucasians. This perpetuates the image of all Asian students as glasses-wearing, fact-spouting, socially awkward geeks. In reality, Asian-Americans drop out of high school more often compared to Caucasians, and Asian-Americans coming from Southeast Asian countries such as Vietnam and Cambodia have the highest high school dropout rate of any minority. The general statement that all Asian-Americans are able to reach high levels of education diverts attention from the fact that Southeast Asian-American students need increased financial help to be able to finish their education and obtain stable careers. Moreover, while Asian-Americans have the highest median family income among all racial groups in America, this statistic is devalued by the fact that 55% of Asian-Americans live in one of six American metropolises: Los Angeles, New York, San Francisco, Honolulu, Washington DC-Baltimore, and Chicago. In these urban areas, the average family spends $9000 more on living costs each year than if they were to live in a suburban neighborhood. And actually, the median personal income for Asian-Americans is only slightly higher than that of African-Americans and still trails behind that of Caucasians, highlighting the unfair racial wage gap. For instance, for every year of higher education completed, whites earn another $522 in their post-education career starting salary; for a Chinese American, this number is only $320.

Supporters of the “model minority” theory also cite Asian-Americans’ admirable intelligence and diligence. Being automatically characterized as smart and sedulous should be a good thing, right? This question runs through the minds of many of white Americans, and at least on the surface, it is a rather innocuous and harmless assumption. But such a question is the result of decades of Asian-American marginalization and white people’s absolute refusal to recognize or address Asian-American discrimination. These “positive stereotypes” cause countless Asian-American students to feel pressured to raise their academic standards and reconsider their own intellectual level, potentially leading to depression, anxiety, and even suicidal thoughts that can go untreated due to shame. Studies have shown that female Asian Americans ages 15 to 24 have the second highest suicide death rate, and that Asian American college students are more likely to consider suicide than their white classmates. However, MaJosé Carrasco of the National Alliance on Mental Illness says that “a lot of Asians avoid seeking treatment until the disease is advanced,” and when they do seek treatment, many of them doubt whether psychotherapy will work for them.

Recently, there have also been alarming beliefs raised that all Asian mothers (and fathers) fit the “tiger mom” image. After TIME Magazine’s cover story on Yale graduate and second-generation Chinese-American Amy Chua, and her memoir Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, many readers misconstrued Chua’s anecdotes about disciplining her daughters and assumed that all Asian-American parents adopted such parenting. For instance, many accused Chua of outright child abuse for her stories about her youngest daughter, Lulu, when really Chua was pushing her daughter to reach the potential she saw in her. Thus, beliefs that all Asian-American parents punish their children for not attaining A’s in school by physically and verbally abusing them or even starving them have gained popularity. In reality, Asian-American parents have the lowest probability of physically punishing their children. This is because highly educated, middle-class parents (a category that contains many Asian-Americans) are less likely to use physical punishment to discipline their children than less-educated, working-class, and poor parents. Rather, Asian-American parents are more likely to rebuke their misbehaving children by comparing them to other children are more disciplined and successful, or they choose to outright avoid their children to show their intense disappointment.

This “positive stereotype” of Asian-Americans being bright, rigorous students has transformed into the commonly-held view that Asian-Americans are submissive laborers and incapable of being professional managers. Thus, many Asian Americans who secure high-earning positions still encounter discrimination that hinders their path to the highest professional tiers, a problem that is referred to as the “bamboo ceiling.” But Asian-Americans are wasting no time in erasing this fallacy about the Asian-American character. Last year, Asian-Americans took to social media to denounce Chris Rock for bringing Asian-American kids onstage during the Oscars by introducing them as “the accountants;” similarly, the Asian American Journalists Association strongly criticized Jesse Watters’ FOX News segment on Chinatown for being rife with Asian-American stereotyping.

The terms “model minority” and “Asian advantage” might have a nice ring to them, but they only obscure the everyday discrimination against Asian-Americans and prolong the battle for full respect towards Asian-Americans in our society. In fact, these phrases only reinforce white supremacy over minorities, paralleling the racist platform of the Nativists a political party that arose during the late 1840s and the early 1850s whose members strongly opposed immigrants and followers of the Catholic Church. Until all Americans can recognize and address Asian-American discrimination together instead of sugarcoating the situation with terms such as “model minority” and “Asian advantage,” America will be ensnared in a cycle of racism and never truly fulfill its democratic ideals.

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