Anna Lee ‘24
Chief Opinions Editor
In 1966, sociologist William Peterson popularized the term “model minority” in a New York Times article titled “Success Story: Japanese American Style” (Peterson). Under the term, he praises Japanese Americans for “climb[ing] over the highest barriers our racists were able to fashion in part because of their meaningful connections to an alien culture.” Thriving in education, labor, and in many ways, achieving the “American dream,” Japanese Americans quickly became a symbol of what America can offer.
As ideologies developed further, other Asian-American groups were lumped under the model minority myth, evidenced by apparent hard work, docility in the face of aggression, and proof that social mobility in America is possible. Stereotypes about Asian success in education, acceptance into top-tier schools, and “tiger parents” percolated within the Asian community and beyond. Though the model minority construction seems praiseworthy, or even a message of hope for other minority groups, it is built on a distorted and denigrated view of not just the Asian American community, but other BIPOC groups.
Not only does the model minority myth discount the diversity of the umbrella term “Asian American,” but it rejects the idea that disparities within the group itself exist. Asian Americans are the highest-earning minority and racial group in America, but they are also the most economically divided. According to Pew Research’s analysis of government data in 2018, top-earning Asian Americans earn up to 10.7% times as much in income as the bottom 10% Asian American earners (Kochhar & Cilluffo). In May of 2021, NPR shared a graph that showed the steep disparity between Indian Americans (with a median income of $127,000 a year) and Burmese Americans (with a median income of $46,000). Even within these respective groups, there are those in poverty, and those in the highest strata of American earners. Putting all Asian Americans under a phrase like the “model minority” discredits the different experiences that certain Asian groups face (based on colorism, location, etc.). To assume that all Asian Americans are inherently geared towards success and politically compliant is incredibly harmful when it comes to varied circumstances.
Apart from the Asian American community itself, the model minority myth is yet another wedge between BIPOC solidarity (Chow, NPR). It creates the idea that other communities of color are not working hard enough, pushing aside problems of racism, workplace discrimination, and equitable education.
Professor Tianlong Yu with D’Youville College’s Department of Education noted that the emergence of the model minority myth in 1966 in conjunction with the Civil Rights movement was “not simply a coincidence” (Yu, 327). Instead, it was a way to reinforce political power by weaponizing Asian Americans against the black community: after all, if Asian Americans could resist racism in America, why couldn’t the black community? But these sorts of arguments falsely muddle anti-Asian hate with anti-Black hate, comparing them upon planes that are simply not even. Asian Americans never experienced unique black history that they can only understand, and the same goes the other way around. This argument has also been extended to Latinx and Indigenous communities, where all BIPOC experiences are somehow comparable.
A few years ago, I became more sensitive about the harms of the model minority myth. Of course with the 339% increase in Anti-Asian hate crimes over the course of the COVID-19 pandemic, microaggressions and hateful incidents became more difficult to ignore (Yam, NBC). But I happened to enter college at the same time, making for a very interesting experience. With the help of two professors, I was able to speak in front of a cohort of first-year students last spring, discussing the current Asian American experience along with some guest speakers. What I realized during this discussion is that, contrary to the model minority idea that Peterson pushes, I do not want to “climb over the highest barriers our racists were able to fashion.” Instead, I like to consider why there’s a barrier in the first place, and how best to dismantle it. By resisting these imposed stereotypes among Asian-American and other BIPOC communities, I believe there can be something closer to “BIPOC solidarity” achieved, and one that openly welcomes discussions from all fronts.
Cover illustration by Amy Liu