Transferring from a full-time private Islamic school with only about 20 children in my grade to a public school with over 300 students was definitely a culture shock for me. But what I felt more was the number of stereotypes and expectations present when I did. Today the small town where I live in New Jersey is quite diverse, but in the early 2000s, I couldn’t say the same. There were barely any South Asians; looking back, I can recollect multiple microaggressions towards me that in some cases I was “too little” to understand.
Flashback to when I was taking biology in high school: My teacher pulled me aside one day to discuss my grades. I had a B in the class, which to me wasn’t a big deal, but to my teacher apparently it was. She noted that she expected more of me because normally students of my background did well in the sciences, not to mention she was “fearful,” she said, of how my family would react. Fearful. That is exactly the word she used, and to this day the memory is engraved in my head. She was fearful I would be physically abused because of a grade.
It was clear where her ideology came from: The “model minority myth.” I wasn’t being compared to my work from previous classes or assignments, but instead against the ideology that Asians do better. As moments like this happened more frequently, I became more aware. More aware when my accomplishments and hard work were considered the norm for my culture and dismissed. More aware when comments like “oh of course you got an A, you’re Asian” were said. More aware when I was held to a higher standard of academics than others.
But before we dive into the harmful effects of the model minority myth, let’s address what it is exactly.
The model minority myth is based on stereotypes. It perpetuates the ideology that Asian Americans are the ideal immigrants. That our communities force us to work harder and better than everyone else. That while we cannot hold leadership positions, we hold prestigious ones in STEM-based industries.
The myth also goes beyond success. It has created a personality type, classifying Asian Americans as polite individuals who abide by the law and have an inability to say no.
Looking at this definition, obviously, you're going to think, “Okay, this is bad.” But not everyone has that mentality. What’s so bad about being part of a group that’s seen as successful? Well, it not only sets up standards and expectations for an entire race, but like other stereotypes, it eliminates the ideology of choice and individuality.
Expectations that Asian Americans can do better impacts not only the success of individuals but their mental health. By having an expectation that measures what success is for an entire race, when one individual is unable to “achieve,” a negative self-image is created. Being compared to other members of your race and being asked why you aren’t doing well in a subject is difficult.
Honestly speaking, sometimes I think I stopped taking science classes because of this issue. I wasn’t doing as well as the other South Asians in my class and was consistently reminded of this. It got to a point where I thought maybe I’m just not as smart as other Asians. But that wasn’t the case—looking back at my grades, I didn’t get less than a B in any of those courses. Since the standard for my race was so high, even that was looked down upon. Did my parents say this? No, but my white teachers did.
Being discouraged from taking specific courses is not even the worst of it. Studies have found that Asian American college students have higher rates of attempted suicide than students in other groups. The model minority myth not only perpetuates stereotypes but masks pressures on Asian Americans.
It fails to acknowledge the different cultures and diversity of Asian Americans and instead groups them all together into one category. If you fail to meet the criteria, you are considered not only a failure but an outsider.
“Are you really Asian?” I got asked once because I had requested a tutor for geometry. Apparently, it was expected of me to be the tutor as opposed to requesting one.
While many people argue that Asian Americans tend to hold higher degrees and work prestigious jobs in STEM, the truth is this has nothing to do with our genes or identity. It’s all individual. Not all Asians are crazy rich, and just like other races, socioeconomic differences exist in Asian communities as well.
Asian Americans are all seen as the same, and worse, we are seen as different from Americans. This ideology is often why you’ll see Asian American youth becoming closer to one another, or sometimes even distancing themselves from their culture. Take me for example: I had no Asian friends when I first started public school. I did not want to be part of the stereotypes, so I disassociated myself from anything “Asian.” But as I grew older, I had the opposite approach. I am now so brown it's sometimes overwhelming for my South Asian friends.
The model minority myth comes in various forms, but they are all negative.
The ideology that Asians are succeeding beyond other immigrants at the American Dream eliminates the struggles Asian American communities have faced. It erases the history of xenophobia and racism they have been subjected to. It implies that Asian Americans have it easy and increases not only microaggressions but violence against them while simultaneously downplaying these very things.
While awareness of Asian hate crimes may have increased as of late, but America has a history of Asian hate dating back to its early years.
“For people to assume we’re OK, that we don’t have any reason to complain, it is frustrating, but it also speaks to the work that needs to be done to really challenge this narrative that’s been built into our society for generations,” Gregg Orton, national director of the National Council of Asian Pacific Americans (NCAPA) told NBC News.
According to Stop AAPI Hate, a national coalition addressing anti-Asian hate amid COVID-19, since the start of the pandemic, more than 3,800 hate crimes against the AAPI community have been self-reported. Additionally, in 2021 hate crimes against Asian Americans increased by nearly 150% according to a recent report.
I could go on about the harmful impact of the model minority myth and how it classifies Asians as other, as foreigners no matter how many generations have lived in the U.S.; how it erases violence faced by communities; how it eliminates identities; etc.
But most importantly, the model minority myth harms the fight for racial justice.
It pits Black and brown communities against each other. In some cases, it perpetuates anti-Blackness because we are seen as the “smarter” race, the more “cultured” race, the race closer to ideal “beauty, standards,” the race more likely to be successful. The model minority myth puts us on a pedestal, one higher than Black communities. While it’s harmful because it associates Asians with success, the other horrific impact it has is that it classifies another race as being violent and less than.
No race is better than another. The ideology that white is the standard must end.
There is no good way to end this piece because there is just so much to speak to when it comes to this issue. But here is a poem I wrote a few years ago that sums up my experience with the model minority myth:
Racism and discrimination can occur in various ways. Often through erasure and assumptions. Don't want something? Give it no representation. Take my story out of history books. Teach me my place is to be quiet. Make me a part of the model minority myth. Spend my childhood telling me that white is beautiful but brown is exotic- different.That to be American is to eat PB&J. Tell me my food is weird when we’re young, but ask me to cook for you when we grow up. Tell me my parents will beat me if I don't get an A. Ask me if you can cheat off my homework. Don't ask me if I want to go to medical school but when and where I plan on going. Take away the illusion of choice. Compliment my family on their English. Be surprised when they don't have an accent. Ask me if I worship cows. Ask me how to say something in Indian. Be ignorant. Don't ask me if I even am Indian or anything about my cultural or religious background. Say it doesn't matter because we all look the same. Say my name wrong. Refuse to say it right because it sounds too hard. Try to teach me about my roots. About how my family’s country is backward. Ask me why I wish to visit my family’s origin. Ask me if I am afraid of dying when abroad. Ask me if I am glad I am here because my country lacks women’s rights. Then ask me where I’m from. Correct me. Not in the U.S. where I was born. Be surprised when I consider myself an American. Fast forward. Call me a terrorist. Consider us all the same. Confuse the names of my language and my religion. Correct me. Tell me I pronounce my own ethnicity wrong. That my last name is not correctly spelled. Tell me not to be so upset or angry enough to correct you. Tell me I’m too opinionated for my men. Tell me you think someone is cute, but for me not you because he is brown. Ask me if I will be able to love. Ask me when my arranged marriage will be. Ask me if I will worship my husband. Ask me if I will wear white when he dies. If i will shave my head. Send me stories written by white men about my people. Don’t look me in the eye when I call you out on your racism. Or worse roll your eyes. Tell me I am ruining our friendship by noticing these things. Tell me if I am so upset about the lack of resources here I can go to the the Asian Studies section to learn more. Tell me that your history is a major while mine is a concentration. An elective. Tell me you understand. Tell me you know my history. Tell me we are the same. Tell me all our lives matter.
Are you familiar with the model minority myth? What are your thoughts on it?