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The Model Minority Myth Silences More Than Just Asian Voices

Asian Americans are polite. Asian Americans follow the law. Asian Americans are tiger mothers or engineers or doctors or genius math students. They are the kinds of minorities that others should look up to. They are successful because they work hard, without putting up a fight. They have overcome the discrimination they were dealt.

These are the assumptions of the model minority myth. And while they may seem like good stereotypes at first, the model minority myth is actually a silencer. It doesn’t just trivialize the struggles of the Asian American community; it also pits Asian Americans against other racial minorities — most notably African Americans — and corrodes much-needed solidarity. Ultimately, the model minority is a suppressor of not only Asian voices but also the voices of other marginalized groups as well. 

The first and biggest issue with the model minority myth is that, of course, it suppresses the discrimination that Asian Americans face. The existence of any kind of model minority in the first place implies that discrimination and racism have easy, clean fixes: work hard and don’t complain. 

Because of this mentality, Asian Americans who do experience discrimination — especially now, with anti-Asian sentiments on the rise due to the COVID-19 pandemic, paired with lingering microaggressions and stereotypes of the past — may downplay their experiences. The model minority myth displaces any responsibility for racism by turning it into a problem with a singular solution. Because as long as you “make it” and obtain that coveted American Dream of success, then what does experiencing racism matter? Be quiet. Assimilate. Deal with it. 

The toxic silence promoted by the model minority myth is especially prevalent in education or the workplace. The expectation that Asian Americans students automatically excel academically without needing external support often prevents them from feeling welcome to seek out help when they need it. The combination of academic stress with the pressures of living up to this predetermined belief can lead to mental health issues. Within the workplace, the idea that Asian Americans always lay low hurts professional Asian American leaders, as they may not be seen and respected as authority figures.

This isn’t to deny the efforts and sacrifices that Asian families have made to integrate into a new life. However, hard work and endurance is no guaranteed pathway to success, not when factors like racism pervade our society. Not all Asians have the same American experience, anyways. The diversity and disparities among different Asian ethnicities have essentially been erased, from being generalized into one group: a model minority. 

As with many immigrants, Asian Americans also live with conflicting identities. The lines between motherlands and foreign nations blur constantly. Culture and heritage aside, however, Asians have another double identity. The epidemic of “yellow peril” in the United States cast Asians as sickly, dangerous, and exotic – sexual predators or leeches on the American ideal. Now, there is another kind of Asian identity, one depicting them as meek, quiet, hard-working assimilators.

It’s worth noting that Asian Americans did play a part in forming the model minority myth themselves. According to historian Ellen Wu, the assimilation of the Asian into the American fabric was a survival strategy, an effort to be recognized as human – and not the “other” – that was later repurposed into the model minority. However, the bigger transition from perilous to praised was out of political expedience, an effort to stifle the growing Civil Rights movement of the late 60’s, as well as an attempt to maintain Asian alliances during the Cold War.

It’s hard to forgive the memory of being deemed an alien, and even harder to forget. The Asian American identity was, in a way, forged out of hatred and disregard: Asians were a despicable, fundamentally unassimilable element of America, and also a community lauded for their silence in the face of discrimination.

The model minority in no way, and never has, benefits the Asian American community. Its impact, however, stretches beyond just Asian Americans. 

The implications that racism can be solved through working hard and obeying the law strips away the impacts of oppression on other minorities, especially African Americans. The argument goes: the Asians did it, so why can’t they? 

In his book, Yellow: Race in America Beyond Black and White, University of California professor Frank Wu described the model minority as a foil, an example of the proper behavior for racial minorities. When Asian Americans are held up on a pedestal, however, the voices of other marginalized communities, alongside the oppression they face, become ignored. 

Using hard work and assimilation as the codes for minority success ignores the fact that racism has become institutionalized. Now, for example, after the cruelties of the slavery and Jim Crow eras, African Americans are more likely to be subject to racial profiling and police brutality than white people, and are also more likely to face wrongful convictions and longer prison sentences. These issues cannot be fixed by merely working hard and obeying a legal and justice system that has historically and consistently failed minorities; they require amendment on a national level. 

The kind of discrimination Asian Americans have faced also cannot be equated with the systematic oppression and segregation African Americans have endured. You cannot discount all the historical factors and events that have created the situation in which racial minorities like African Americans now live, just to explain the success of another group. Even that success cannot be fully attributed to the work of Asian Americans themselves, but rather to the changing political climate in which they lived, where the quietness and obedience of one group was preferable to the changes in status quo demanded by another.

Sometimes, there is little other choice than to fight and protest in order to be heard and noticed. That is another kind of survival strategy. But there is no correct way to survive when merely living with a skin tone that isn’t pale and fair was enough to warrant horrible discrimination and a violation of one’s humanity. 

Martin Luther King, Jr. leads a Civil Rights march at Washington, D.C. Source: Britannica

There should be no model minority because there is no one solution to survive and live in the face of something as pervasive and systematic as racism. It is so entrenched in our laws and policies, passed down from generation to generation, that just working hard is barely enough. Pointing out another group, which has endured different struggles unique to their own communities, as the exemplary model to solve racism dilutes the experiences of African Americans and other non-Asian minorities. 

Repress your history, let your identity and ethnicity become a war field, and silence yourself, because hard work can get you anywhere: this is the undercurrent of the model minority myth. It must change. The Asian American community cannot be used as the golden “poster child” for proper American assimilation and success, for their own and other communities’ sakes. 

As much as we advocate for listening to the unheard and underrepresented, we must realize how supposedly beneficial stereotypes like those of the model minority myth silence the very groups we are trying to help. To begin uprooting racism from our society, myths like this cannot be used to displace responsibility. 

Living well in American society should not come at the cost of sacrificing one’s self and racial history. Asian communities are more than shallow success stories. Likewise, black communities are more than their foils. These communities are people who deserve to be respected, heard, and understood. Silence is not inherent in any identity. 

Photo: Asian Pacific American Photographic Collection Visual Communications Archives, via Huffpost

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Katie Liu
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I'm a high school senior who is passionate about art, identity, and words.

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