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The Model Minority Myth: The Story of A Complicit America

Image courtesy of Lindsey Wasson, Reuters

In recent months, a call to stop anti-Asian racism and violence has spread throughout the country as a response to the 150% increase in Asian hate crimes in the U.S. in the past year alone. This increase in violence is due to racist rhetoric surrounding COVID-19, which former President Donald Trump coined the “Kung Flu.” Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders (AAPI) were primarily used as scapegoats to blame for supposedly bringing and spreading the virus. But is this racism against AAPI new? If you just look at the hate crimes directed towards AAPI, you only see a piece of the racism that Asian Americans face. This surge of anti-Asian racism is the fruit of centuries of U.S. government policy. Historically, actions such as the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 and the Japanese internment during World War II contributed to the thought of Asians as “others” and “foreigners.”  

The model minority myth presents the false narrative that Asian Americans are, quintessentially, the “perfect” immigrant: polite, submissive, successful, and of course, inherently good at math. Asian Americans are often seen as having attained financial and educational success relative to other minority groups. 

The myth is largely attributed to a U.S. government propaganda campaign. In the mid-1800s, Americans would stereotype Asians, specifically Chinese Americans, as an opium-addicted, lazy, and “invasive species.” This hostility took a turn during the Cold War when the U.S. needed support from its Asian allies. Soviet propaganda labeled the United States as a racist country, and, as a result, the U.S. started a propaganda campaign that presented Asian American success stories. This campaign included sending an all Chinese American basketball team overseas and promoting Asian American artists and politicians. 

In 1965, Congress approved the Immigration and Nationality Act, which lifted the geographic restrictions for many Asian immigrants that were in place. The act gave preference to immigrants who had skill sets, training, and talent that would benefit the U.S. economy. These immigrants were placed in a seven-category preference system that gave priority to those with specialized skills, such as medical graduates. As a result of this act, the media and the public assumed that all Asian Americans were successful and had high-skilled professions. 

In 1966, sociologist William Peterson wrote an article in the New York Times titled “Success Story: Japanese American Style.” This article highlighted the successful “family structure” of Japanese Americans and how they overcame discrimination. After this article was released, the term “model minority” quickly spread across the country. Newspapers began to write about the success of Asian Americans, highlighting their “superior genetics” compared to other minorities. 

The model minority myth is often used to discredit Black struggles, implying that Asian Americans are somehow superior. In the 1960s, the American government compared socioeconomic data from African American communities to the “stability” of Asian American communities. Right-wing conservatives often used this comparison to tell African American communities that they had no one but themselves to blame if they experienced social disadvantages such as poverty. Additionally, they used these comparisons to argue against civil rights and justify the ends of many social programs that helped the African American community and other minority groups. These arguments ignore numerous ways in which the treatment and history of Black and Asian Americans have differed.

As a Korean American, I find myself affected by the model minority myth in everyday life. I struggle with math as a subject, but some teachers assume I do not need extra help. I am questioned by peers why I am not in a higher math course or succeed in everything I do. I hold high academic expectations for myself, and if I fail to meet those standards, I am considered a “dumb Asian” or a “failure.” 

The model minority myth invalidates the experiences of many other groups of Asian Americans, including Cambodians, Laos, and Hmongs, many of whom were low-income refugees who fled their countries due to genocide and war. There is no single Asian identity. There are nearly 50 Asian countries and far more people and cultures. To group Asians as a monolith and disregard the vast span of Asian communities is harmful. The poverty rate for Asian Americans is higher than the national average, and there is a significant disparity within the group regarding education levels. 

The model minority myth thrives under complacency and conformity. The media and entertainment industries perpetuate the faceless images painted across diverse peoples. When Asian Americans start to embrace their uniqueness and individuality, the model minority myth can begin to be taken apart

Published by Michael Pyo

Michael Pyo (he/him/his) is 17 years old and a senior at Newark Academy in Livingston, NJ. He has three dogs (Duke, Dizzy, and Louie) and loves to binge Netflix. He is an avid fencer, writer, saxophonist, and advocate for mental health.

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