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This week we welcome Dr. Michelle Ami Reyes to the CAAC blog. Michelle Reyes is the vice president of the Asian American Christian Collaborative (AACC) as well as a church planter, pastor’s wife, author, speaker, and activist in Austin, TX. In 2014, Michelle and her husband co-planted Hope Community Church, a minority-led multicultural church that serves low-income and disadvantaged communities in East Austin. She also serves as the local CCDA Austin Networker. She is the author of Becoming All Things: How Small Changes Lead To Lasting Connections Across Cultures. Her writings on faith and culture have appeared in Christianity Today Women, ERLC, Missio Alliance, Faithfully Magazine, and Patheos, among other publications. She and her husband have two young kids aged four and one.

In the opening scene of Crazy Rich Asians (2018, directed by Jon M. Chu), a soaking wet Chinese family enters an upscale hotel in England during a dark and stormy night. The mother, Eleonor Young (played by the lovely Michelle Yeoh), asks for a room and is treated with barely veiled derision. The hotel manager suggests she go find accommodations in Chinatown. Young then makes a phone call and casually purchases that very same hotel. The tension in the room subsides as upbeat music begins to play and the family walks upstairs, leaving the hotel workers in shock and confusion. The film would have us believe the Chinese family has triumphed, that they overcame a racist encounter with money. However, therein lies the problem. The Young family is caricatured as model minorities who are “crazy rich” and whose success in the United States has made them immune to harmful biases, discrimination, and even racism. The question, however, is: Is this true? Are most Asian Americans wealthy? Have Asian Americans collectively found a way to use wealth and success to mitigate our experiences of racism in the US? In this article I unpack the history of the model minority myth, consider four negative effects this myth has on Asian Americans, and offer tangible steps to begin busting this myth.

Supposed Success Stories

The phrase “model minority” didn’t come from within the Asian community, unlike the phrase “Asian-American,” created by University of California, Berkeley graduate student Yuji Ichioka and his partner, Emma Gee, in 1968 as an alternative to “oriental.” While “Asian American” was a “by us, for us” description, “the model minority” was a term placed on Asian Americans from the outside. A white journalist, William Peterson, helped coin this latter term in the 1960s. His article, “Success Story of One Minority Group in the U.S.,” which featured in the New York Times Magazine on January 9, 1966, argued that Japanese Americans were racially smarter and more successful than other minority groups in the United States. Peterson writes, 

“By any criterion of good citizenship that we choose, the Japanese Americans are better than any other group in our society, including native-born white. They have established this remarkable record, moreover, by their own almost totally unaided effort. Every attempt to hamper their progress resulted only in enhancing their determination to succeed. Even in a country whose patron saint is the Horatio Alger hero, there is no parallel to this success story.”

Peterson’s article and others at the time implied that Japanese Americans—and later, by extension, all Asian Americans—were good at math, had self-discipline, and were all for the most part rich and successful. His eight-page article planted the seeds for what is now known as the model minority myth, which goes like this: our parents came with nothing but the shirt on their back. All they had was a suitcase and a few pennies to their name, but because they worked hard, they succeeded. Asian Americans became glorified as industrious, law-abiding citizens who kept their head down and worked hard. 

In addition, the model minority myth helped perpetuate the belief throughout the 1960s and 70s that Asian Americans had surpassed African Americans in average household earnings and that they had closed the wage gap with whites. Asians were praised as the model minority because of their supposed upward mobility and rising education. Moreover, as William Peterson argued, Asians experienced less racism because they had proved and improved themselves. His claim couldn’t have been further from the truth.

In the mid-20th century, white Americans were investing in positive portrayals of Asian Americans because it was a convenient way to deny the demands of African Americans. As a  recent study by Brown University economist Nathaniel Hilger shows, the schooling rates among Asian Americans didn’t change all that significantly during the 1940s-70s. Nevertheless, both liberal and conservative politicians pumped up the image of Asian Americans as a way of shifting blame for Black poverty. By 1965, our country was entering the height of the Civil Rights Movement, and White America utilized the model minority myth about Asian Americans to demonize African Americans. Asian Americans were painted as hard-working, high-achieving, and well-behaved citizens. But even this is complicated because only the smartest, wealthiest, and most successful Asians were even being admitted into the U.S. during this time. Asia was experiencing a sort of brain drain. Yet, white America used this intentionally to turn Asians into a wedge and pit Asians against African Americans in order to undermine civil rights efforts. The idea was, if Asians could find success within the system, why couldn’t African Americans? On the surface Peterson and other journalists in the 60s were saying, “Look at these good, hardworking, quiet, passive people who come to the United States and they don’t cause any trouble.” The subtext, however, was, “…unlike the way that Black Americans are currently causing trouble for the United States.”

Has the Model Minority Myth become a Reality?

The question has also arisen: Haven’t Asian Americans lived into the model minority myth today? Haven’t Asian Americans basically become the model minority? The author, Candice Owens, once tweeted: “If white privilege exists — why are Asian-Americans the most successful group in America? If we award people based on race, why are Asians the top-earners with [the] best credit and the highest educational achievements?”

On a surface level, some data appears to back this modern stereotype. On average, Asian-American households have higher incomes than households of other races in the US, and Asian Americans are disproportionately represented in many elite schools. For example, Asian Americans typically comprise about one-fifth of the entering classes at Ivy League universities and, and at the University of California’s flagship Berkeley campus, they make up more than 40%. Of all Asian college students who enter a four-year postsecondary institution, 71 percent will attain a bachelor’s degree within six years compared to 67 percent of their white, 47 percent of their Latina/o, and 46 percent of their black counterparts. Indian Americans have come to dominate the Scripps National Spelling Bee (the total number of Indian American champions since 1999 is 26). Indian Americans have an average household income of $100,000, well above the national average of $53,600. Some Indian immigrants to America lean into the stereotype not to make white people happy, but because they know that academic excellence is their family’s ticket to the American Dream. There’s a running joke about how, if an Indian kid gets a 97% on the exam, the first question their parents ask is “where did the other 3% go?” These are all “facts” that have prompted lots of comments from the New York Times and elsewhere that maybe Asian Americans really are model minorities now. However, as the Novelist Chimamanda Adichie warns us, we should see the danger of a single story. Like any people group, there is no single story for Asian Americans. 

The aggregated data above obscures an important part of the overall picture: Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders comprise a diverse group. The Asian American population in the U.S. is estimated to be between 20 to 22 million. Asians represent 48 different countries in Asia as well as an Asian diaspora around the world, speaking hundreds of languages collectively and holding a wide spectrum of theological and political views. According to a recent survey, the largest Asian demographic in the US is Chinese (4.9 million). The second largest is Indian (4.3 million). The third largest group is Filipinos (4 million). Many of these Asian sectors have lower average incomes and are less likely to earn college degrees than the typical American. As Christopher Kang, director of the National Council of Asian Pacific Americans, wrote recently, it’s crucial that we look at disaggregated data to help dismantle the model minority myth. 

For example, some Asian American groups, such as Cambodian and Hmong Americans, are among the poorest in the country. Select Asian ethnic groups, including Southeast Asian refugee communities in Connecticut, experience disproportionately high rates of welfare dependency and unemployment alongside disproportionately low levels of income and education. 1.7 million Asian in the US are undocumented immigrants. This means that Asians account for about 16 percent or one out of every six undocumented immigrants in the United States. In other words, one out of every seven Asian immigrants are undocumented. Also, while Asian-American kids overall had SAT scores 143 points above average in 2012 — including a 63-point edge over whites — a 2005 study of over 20,000 adolescents found that third-generation Asian-American students performed no better academically than white students. Not all Asians are good at math and physics. There is no proof that Asians are racially smarter or more successful academically than other racial groups. These statistics are important for us to understand because they are key information in busting the model minority myth.

Ultimately, we must understand that the model minority myth is not a compliment. Before the 1960s, Asians were seen as yellow peril, as cunning and treacherous. Consider Lothrop Stoddard’s 1920 book, The Rising Tide of Color Against White World-Supremacy and the 1899 cartoon of The Yellow Terror in all His Glory. These texts served to activate white Americans to collectively fight against the non-white Chinese “invaders.” White Americans hadn’t just simply changed their minds in the 60s. They were creating a new form of weaponized language to control Asians, now for their own purposes. Law professor, Frank Wu, says that the model minority myth is just false flattery. It’s not a compliment because it’s used to insult other people of color. In fact, this is how Asians are used as a racialized wedge between whites and other minorities. Asian Americans are used to keep whites safe and to keep Black, Latino, and Native Americans down. Asians are treated as a pet, falsely imagined as the desirable classmate, the favored neighbor, and the non-threatening kind of person of color.

The Negative Consequences of the Model Minority Myth

First: Shame

The model minority myth diminishes Asian experiences of racism and prevents Asians from being able to verbalize their shame-filled experiences of racism. Many Asians, including South East Asians, such as Singaporean and Indonesians, suffer shame and guilt for not living up to the model minority myth. Cathy Park Hong, author of Minor Feelings, writes, 

“[Asian Americans] have been cowed by the lie that we have it good. We keep our heads down and work hard, believing that our diligence will reward us with our dignity, but our diligence will only make us disappear. By not speaking up, we perpetuate the myth that our shame is caused by our repressive culture and the country we fled, whereas America has given us nothing but opportunity. The lie that Asians have it good is so insidious that even now as I write, I’m shadowed by doubt that I didn’t have it bad compared to others. But racial trauma is not a competitive sport.” 

Chou and Feagin also argue in the Myth of Model Minority that many Asian Americans lack adequate language to comprehend their experiences of racism, leading to confusion and internalization such as self-hatred. An example of this today is that many non-Asians deny the realities of anti-Asian racism related to Covid-19. They are told outright, “You don’t experience racism in the US. You’re the model minority.”

Second: Leadership Ceiling

Asian Americans are seen as safe neighbors but are rarely imagined as someone who should be in a position of power, such as your boss or a CEO. This is especially true for Asian American women who are pigeon-holed as meek, exotic, and unassertive, rather than depicted as leaders. In fact, the model minority myth ends up perpetuating a phenomenon called “the bamboo ceiling,” in which, despite their incredible efforts and endeavors, Asian women continue to be systematically shut out of leadership positions or even acknowledged for their efforts. There was a study by a national Chinese American Leadership Organization in November 2005 that showed that “while Asian Americans are the most widely represented minority group within faculty ranks, the lack of Asian Americans serving as presidents, vice presidents, and executive management positions demonstrates that Asian Americans are egregiously under-represented in executive decision-making roles.”

Third: Depression

When an Asian American student does not meet the expectation that she or he will excel, especially in the math and sciences, their stress can be acute. A 2010 study found that the number of Asian-American students suffering from depression was significantly greater than their Caucasian counterparts. A comprehensive review released in May 2021, surveying the risk factors for suicide and depression among Asian-American youth listed concerns over school performance, being subject to bullying, low parental support, and difficulty orientating to American culture as largely responsible for the pervasiveness of suicide and depression within the community. 

Fourth: Lack of Resources

Asian Americans are less likely to accept resources such as counseling services or ask for help. Research from the US Department of Education indicates that AA college students are less likely than students within other racial groups to seek out support services. This is because acknowledging mental health issues and seeking therapy can be viewed as an admission of weakness and/or failure in Asian culture. Seeking therapy can also be seen as bringing shame to the individual as well as the family. If Asian American and Pacific Islander undergraduates are not using campus resources, it does not mean that they do not require, need, or desire support. 

Next Steps

Here are four suggestions to begin busting the model minority myth today:

First: Celebrate Asian diversity through storytelling practices, celebrate Asian holidays (e.g. Chuseok, Diwali, Chinese New Year etc.), and incorporate Asian foods into gatherings.

Second: Read books about Asian Americans struggling and overcoming. We need to normalize failure and mistakes. Asian Americans need to be given permission to just be human.

Third: In your organizations and institutions, develop counseling programs and outreach to at-risk Asian American students that create informal settings for Asian Americans to talk about their struggles. Consider also hiring Asian counselors.

Fourth: Acknowledge anti-Asian racism. Address it in your programs and have clear policies and processes in place to address anti-Asian racism.

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