Unwinding the “Model Minority” stereotype

By Diana Tao

“Here is what I sometimes suspect my face signifies to other Americans: an invisible person, barely distinguishable from a mass of faces that resemble it. A conspicuous person standing apart from the crowd and yet devoid of any individuality. An icon of so much that the culture pretends to honor but that it in fact patronizes and exploits.” -Wesley Yang, Paper Tigers

Bright orange rings on the ends of cigarettes light the screen of the A-Town Boyz trailer, illuminating Asian faces before jump-cutting to a shot of a holstered gun. As the trailer progresses, we are shown more images of the young Asian American men dressed in wife beaters and snapbacks, their arms covered in ink and their ears pierced.

A-Town Boyz is a story of Asian American gang members living in Atlanta, Georgia. Far removed from the straight-laced, reticent nerd and the thickly-accented delivery boys that have become ubiquitous on network television shows, the documentary explores the socioeconomic reasons behind young Asian American men joining gangs and their struggles of identity and masculinity. A-Town Boyz’s subjects are described as the “non-achievers”; Asian Americans who face problems due to cultural, economic and linguistic barriers. Underlying the interviews and glimpses of each subject’s family lives, the film begs the question, “What happened to the ‘model minority’?”

“[‘A-Town Boyz’] epitomizes the need to revive this stereotype to take into account all of these contingencies and different populations that never fit in to begin with,” says Shalini Shankar, a professor of Anthropology and Asian American Studies at Northwestern University, arguing for the need to update our model minority definitions and understandings.

Shankar is one of a number of academics whose research focuses on the “model minority” stereotype and its impact on Asian Americans. Discussions in academic circles about the stereotype’s negative impact have gone on for decades. Recently, the stereotype has gained more attention in public circles as shows such as Fresh Off the Boat and Blackish emerge in the mainstream media, raising questions about the increasing need to see the stereotype dismantled.

Jesse Chung, a second-generation Korean American, has followed the ABC sitcom Fresh Off the Boat, a series based off celebrity chef Eddie Huang’s memoir, since its network debut in February of 2015.

“There are certain parts of the show that I really connect with. The scene where Eddie gets made fun of in school for bringing noodles, or what the white kids call ‘worms’, and how Eddie’s teachers try to be non-racist but that ends up backfiring and turning into something offensive,” he says.

“Of course, there are parts of the show that I don’t identify with, but maybe other Asian Americans identify with those. At any rate, I’m glad that there’s finally a show that places Asian Americans at the center,” he adds.

Photo Credit: American Broadcasting Company

Photo Credit: American Broadcasting Company

Nicholas Hartlep, author of The Model Minority Stereotype: Demystifying Asian American Success, views the adaptation as a step in the right direction.

“While not everyone is going to agree, I like ‘Fresh Off the Boat’ because we can at least have these conversations. If you watch the show, you can see a type of resistance… they’re stereotyping Asians, but it’s very subversive,” says Hartlep.

“We have to think about how to use what the mainstream wants and subvert it. How do we sell it to the oppressor so they can produce it? That’s the challenge,” he adds.

The “model minority” refers to the aggregate whole of Asian Americans as achieving a higher degree of socioeconomic success than the national average. Success is measured through indicators such as education, income, and family stability. The term “model minority” was first coined in 1966 in a New York Times article written by  sociologist William Petersen, originating as praise for the silent, hard-working nature of the Japanese and Chinese Americans who were removed from the civil rights protests occurring within the African American community.

During the late 1960s, when the concept of the “model minority” was popularized, racism towards Asian Americans still remained in the form of racial slurs, higher educational and professional ceilings to separate the non-Hispanic whites from communities of color.

Hartlep views the “model minority” designation as a political tool, one which contends that if Asian Americans are able to achieve success, then the failings of African Americans and Latinos are not a result of institutional racism or government inaction.

“The ‘model minority’ is part of a wedge politicking strategy that high education officials and politicians fall back upon during times of educational unrest. Policies and procedures can be declared objective and meritocratic if Asian Americans can achieve success,” Hartlep says.

“Residue of the beginnings of the ‘wedge minority’ can be seen in ‘coolie’ labor, where Chinese and Irish laborers working on the railroad were compared. [The Chinese] were used as scapegoats or wedges because they could be pointed out. Ironically, the Chinese were seen as villains in some respects, yet they were seen as good laborers,” he adds.

Hartlep first began his research on the “model minority” in his early twenties, carrying his interest on Asian American issues to graduate school and eventually writing a dissertation on the stereotype. He has authored multiple books on the “model minority”, institutional racism in the United States, and assaults on communities of color.

“During my undergraduate years, I was reading a lot about Latino and African American cultures, and I was thinking, ‘What about the Asian Americans?’ On my own, I took time out of my schedule to learn more about the topic, and my interest has been consistent,” says Hartlep, who was adopted from Seoul, Korea when he was a baby.

Hartlep along with Shankar, are among the scholars on Asian American studies who refer to the “model minority” as a stereotype rather than a myth.

“I dislike the word ‘myth’, it’s too neutral. Stereotype implicates Asian Americans in the racial triangle between whites and blacks as honorary whites,” says Hartlep.

The racial triangulation Hartlep refers to is the idea of Asian Americans being positioned between African Americans and Whites as what he refers to as “racial middlemen”.

Photo Credit: Claire Kim, “The Racial Triangulation of Asian Americans,” Politics & Society

Photo Credit: Claire Kim, “The Racial Triangulation of Asian Americans,” Politics & Society

“I think it’s not a myth, it’s a stereotype. This idea of racial triangulation of Asian Americans against Blacks and Whites is a fairly well-developed theory and one of the things that you see is that in order to advance central notions of whiteness as well as keeping certain ideas about black radicalism at bay, Asian Americans have been held up as a way to be a model minority,” says Shankar.

The racial triangulation theory has been attributed to Claire Kim in her book, Politics & Society (1999). The theory posits that one racial group can be rated high on one dimension and low on a different dimension.

Kim writes, “Because of ingrained racial stereotypes, average Americans evaluate Asians as ‘inferior’ to whites and ‘superior’ to blacks on certain racial or cultural grounds such as work ethic or family commitment, but they also rate Asians relatively low in terms of civic acceptance. This can be seen with the persistence of the ‘model minority’ and ‘perpetual foreigner’ images.”

In spite of the socioeconomic stereotypes of success perpetuated by the “model minority”, many Asian Americans lack the financial resources to climb up the social ladder. According to the most 2014 report released by the Center for Global Policy Solutions, Asian American families own 68 cents for every dollar a White family owns. Nearly 57 percent of Asian Americans own a house compared to 73.5 percent of Whites.

“From personal experience alone, I can say that this idea of all Asians being ‘well-off’ is a myth. My parents immigrated from China to give my younger brother and I a better life, but since they didn’t speak the language well, there was already a barrier in place that prevented them from many high-income jobs,” Jason Chen says.

Chen is what is commonly called an ABC, or “American-born Chinese”. Due to elimination of the Immigration Act of 1965, a piece of legislation which abolished an earlier quota on immigrants, many ABCs are second-generation. Similar designations exist for other Asian ethnicities such as ABK, for “American-born Korean” and ABJ, for “American-born Japanese”.

Photo credit: Pew Research Center

Photo credit: Pew Research Center

Chen describes his childhood as an ABC as being “completely different” from the Asian Americans described under the “model minority” stereotype.

“My Asian friends, who are Chinese, Vietnamese, [and] Filipino-born Americans, would say the same thing. Our parents want the best for us but it’s really up to us to succeed. Being where we are wasn’t handed to us because of connections or family wealth,” he adds.

Income inequality is a major contributor to the growing wealth gap, where it is estimated 20 percent of the wealth gap is a result of low household income. Taken altogether, Asian Americans earn a higher income than that of Whites. However, a great deal of the data available on Asian Americans comes from an aggregation of all of its unique, ethnic communities. Today, the category of Asian Americans has expanded from the Japanese and Chinese Americans of whom the myth was modeled after, and includes immigrants from South Asia and Southeast Asia like Vietnamese, Cambodian, Filipino and Indian Americans. With such diversity, averages can hold little meaning.

According to the same report, approximately 86 percent of Asian Americans over the age of 25 has matriculated from college slightly higher than the national average of 85 percent. Asian Americans have a lower rate of individuals who have not completed high school when compared to the total United States population.

Additionally, while 92 percent of Filipino Americans and almost 91 percent of Indian Americans graduate high school, only 70 percent of Vietnamese Americans and 67 percent of Cambodian Americans graduate.

Data credit: Center for Global Policy Solutions Photo credit: Diana Tao

Data credit: Center for Global Policy Solutions
Photo credit: Diana Tao

Statistics showing a higher percentage of Asian Americans matriculating with a bachelor’s degree becomes unrepresentative when the parts of the aggregate are singled out. For Indian Americans, 70 percent have a bachelor’s degree compared to the 17 percent of Pacific Islanders who have a bachelor’s degree.

“[The ‘model minority’] doesn’t capture the experiences of so many people who would be classified, under the census category of Asian Americans. Asian Americans get seen as uniformly upwardly mobile and uniformly prosperous as educational overachievers and those who do not live up to those standards nonetheless have to face them as benchmarks,” says Shankar.

Elissa Ha, a Pennsylvanian native of mixed Vietnamese and Chinese background, is one of many individuals who feel the stereotype has belittled the issues facing the Asian American community at-large. Ha, who aspires to attain a Juris Doctor as well as a Master of Public Health, has felt the effects of the “model minority” while working for various non-profit organizations throughout New York City.

“In the social justice world, they often talk about the institutional manipulation, politicization, and attack on ‘black’ and ‘brown’ bodies. For me, this really stuck out, because Asians, especially East Asians, likely don’t consider themselves ‘black’ or ‘brown’,” she says.

“The prejudices against Asian Americans are different than other cultures… we have suffered greatly and on large scale accounts, Japanese internment camps for one, and in subtler ways that are harder to prove. In some way, being in this middle path, makes it even more difficult to feel like we ‘belong’. We will never be equal to the white man but apparently we are not as oppressed as other people of color. And that is very isolating,” she adds.

Isolation and feelings of reclusiveness are not uncommon among first and second-generation Asian Americans. According to a report conducted by the Asian Women’s Action for Resilience and Empowerment (AWARE), “a deep desire to satisfy their parents’ expectations as well as societal expectations” led to Asian American women engaging in self-harm and suicidal behaviors.

“Empirical patterns of internalizing trauma, suffering alone, and staying silent are in accord with Asian-cultural norms of saving face and maintaining family harmony. The prevention of multiple child maltreatment may reduce high levels of depression and suicidal behaviors,” the report states.

The data collected in the study demonstrates notable negative consequences for Asian Americans’ mental health and family dynamics. For some who are familiar with the stereotype, the conclusions drawn from the study are unsurprising.

“Asian Americans get lumped into this category of intelligent, high-achieving and usually well-off body of people. When an Asian falls outside that cookie-cutter role, there’s definitely pressure for the person facing that stereotype coming from not only  their parents, but from their peers,” says Chung. Chung’s immediate family emigrated from South Korea in the 1980s, a decade which experienced a 70 percent increase in the Asian immigrant population in the United States.

“Common misconceptions like these, most of which any Asian and even non-Asian would recognize, are detrimental on all fronts. If you’re constantly being told, ‘you should do better’ or ‘why can’t you do this? You’re Asian’, it’s not hard to believe that this could lead to unhappiness and depression,” he says.

“In the ‘adult world’, Asian Americans may be advancing into higher professional roles, arguably still not as advanced as whites, but in elementary school up until high school, Asians are always treated as the ‘nerds’…at least that’s my experience. The whites and other minorities don’t have such a large typecast placed on them,” he says.

Chung remembers avoiding “stereotypically Asian” activities, such as math club and tennis club, in an effort to separate himself from the stereotype when he was younger. Like Ha, Chung describes his experience with the “model minority” as “isolating”.

Despite this push back against the Model Minority stereotype, there are some who see the stereotype as being connected to immigrant values and consequently, a form of motivation.

Cecilia Vu, a second-generation Vietnamese American, describes the “model minority” stereotype as being true to her own experiences.

“I think the ‘model minority’ is not always a myth; it is how I was raised to be. College was an expectation, not an option. To have that expectation of doing well is a silent understanding,” Vu says.

Vu received her Master of Public Health last year and currently works as a full-time epidemiologist; a career her parents approved of. She became interested in studying health and statistics after working as a researcher for Substance Use and Misuse, a report on drug use and suicides among second-generation Asian-Americans conducted by the AWARE initiative during her time as a Boston University undergraduate student.

“Studying Asian American health opened my eyes to other socioeconomic, racial and gender differences that result in health outcomes. At home, I was pressured not to waste time and I always spent my weekends doing more than just required school work. Over the summers, I kept occupied with activities, not going off to camp but buying workbooks,” she says.

In her spare time, Vu enjoys watching Fresh Off the Boat and picking up references she and her friends can identify with.

“I thought the comedy was going to be hurtful, as someone who is Asian and lived in that circumstance… though I found that when I watched it, it was really applicable,” she says.

She adds, “Media exposure, like ‘Fresh Off the Boat’ and ‘Linsanity’ is great, but it’s sad that there’s so few Asian Americans on TV. I hope there are more shows and role models that come out for Asian Americans to say, ‘Oh, he’s Asian American, and he’s kind of the same as me.’”

While viewing the stereotype as a driving force and unspoken expectation, Vu acknowledges the conflict the stereotype encompasses; the Asian upbringing of immigrant parents versus the modern American upbringing that second-generation children experience.

The relationship between first-generation Asian parents and their second-generation American born children is a cultural phenomenon that has been captured in scholarly articles but also in the form of memes, Buzzfeed articles, and popularized in comedic YouTube videos by Asian American entertainers like “Kevjumba” and “Just Kidding Films”.

These videos satirize the various stereotypes confronting Asian Americans through the use of Asian accents, usually depicting the “Tiger Mother” stereotype, an overbearing Asian mother who uses discipline and tough love, popularized by Amy Chua’s book of the same title, and their quiet, acquiescent children.

In Chua’s book, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, she writes, “Never complain or make excuses. If something seems unfair, just prove yourself by working twice as hard and being twice as good.” Chua, a second-generation ABC of Fujianese ancestry, has written four books, one on the “Tiger Mother” and her most recent book on the correlation between cultural groups and socio-economic success. Chua’s books have often been seen as reinforcing the stereotype of the “model minority” and she remains a controversial figure for many Asian Americans.

“[Tiger Mom] has had a damaging impact. Asian Americans need data, we need to desegregate but we also need stories. The issue is not as many people are writing about Asian American reality, whether it be fiction or non-fiction, ‘Fresh Off the Boat’ or others… we need more of a presence,” says Hartlep.

Ha says her biggest grievance with the Asian American community is the lack of an Asian American identity that unifies to face the community’s problems, including that of the “model minority”.

“While the typical Asian culture strives for achievement, it is also against individualism,” she says. “Fighting against something or speaking about this myth in a critical way may just not be something we or our parents were hard-wired to do.”

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