There is a popular image of Asian American students as the "model minority." The stereotype suggests that Asian Americans are more academically, economically, and socially successful than any other racial minority groups. Most people believe that Asian American students are more successful than other racial minority students because of their supposedly unique Asian cultural values that emphasize hard work, strong family values, and/or stronger belief in the American meritocracy (Wu, 2002). Contrary to these popular beliefs, the overly positive caricature of Asian Americans as the model minority is false. Further, this inaccurate and distorted comparison leads to adverse effects in the lives of Asian American students (Chun, 1995; Wong & Halgin, 2006).  

Why Are Asian Americans The Model Minority?

During the U.S. civil rights movement of the 1960s, Asian Americans were first characterized as the model minority. In reaction to efforts in removing institutional, legal, and social disparities between majority and minority groups, political conservatives pointed to Asian Americans as an exemplar and testimony that the American dream was colorblind. The message was loud and clear: "If Asian Americans can succeed in America, why not Blacks, Hispanics, and Native Americans?" In 1966, William Petersen solidified this ideology by coining Japanese Americans the "model minority" (Petersen, 1966). The success of Japanese Americans quickly generalized across all Asian ethnic groups, regardless of their diversity in culture, education, and class.

Is The Model Minority Label True?

There is a germ of truth to the comparative success of Asian Americans. When examining aggregated mean group differences, Asian American students generally fare better than other racial minority groups in respect to grade point averages, standardized test scores, or even numbers of high school, bachelor, and advanced degrees obtained compared to other racial minorities (NationalCenter for Education Statistics, 2003; U.S. Census Bureau, 2003).  

There are Many Examples That Debunk the Model Minority Myth

1. The model minority myth ignores the heterogeneity of Asian American groups and their significantly varied levels of success. While many South and East Asian American groups such as Asian Indians and Japanese have been successful in receiving high school, bachelors, and advanced degrees, most Southeast Asian Americans including Hmong, Cambodians, and Laotians never finished high school-at times, rates comparable if not lower than other racial minority groups (U.S. Census Bureau, 2004).

2. The model minority myth neglects history and the role of selective immigration of Asian Americans. The 1965 Immigration Act significantly changed the demography of Asian Americans in the U.S. today. In particular, the Act allowed a greater number of educationally and economically successful Asian American professionals who could "contribute" to the American society (Takaki, 1993). Like many other Americans, academic success of Asian American students was correlated with income and educational levels of their parents.

3. The model minority myth fails to capture the more complex representation of Asian Americans in the education system. The myth suggests that Asian American students are over represented in the U.S. higher education. In actuality, the National Commission on Asian American and Pacific Islander Research in Education (2008) recently found that the increasing presence of Asian Americans in higher education parallels similar increases of other racial minority groups. Further, Asian American student populations concentrate in a small percentage of institutions, giving a false impression of high enrollment in higher education overall. In fact, Asian American students were more likely to be enrolled in community colleges than in either public or private four-year colleges.

What Are The Implications Of The Model Minority Label?

The positive tenor of the model minority label may lead some people to believe it is flattering, regardless of whether it is true or not. However, this stereotype can be dangerous and harmful to Asian American students.

There are many implications of the model minority myth on Asian American students.

  • The model minority myth inherently pits Asian American students with other racial minority students creating interracial tension. The group comparison superficially compliments the success of one group, as it implicitly points to failure of another group. It creates a distorted portrait of all Asian American students as hard working, studious, persevering without complaint; while all other students of color are lazy, disruptive, and complaining. The internalization of these false images can lead Asian Americans students to be more verbally and physically harassed by their peers (Greene, Way, & Pahl, 2006).  
  • The model minority myth dismisses actual experiences of racism faced by many Asian American students ranging from personal to institutional practices. They are oftentimes teased as perpetual foreigners (e.g., "Where are you really from?" or "You speak good English!"). Asian American students will make less money upon entering the workforce compared to their White classmates. In particular, Asian American men will be making 10-20% less and Asian American women will be making 40-50% less than their White counterparts-even with the same level of qualifications and educational experiences (Woo, 2000).
  • The majority of Asian American students do not like to be referred to as a model minority (Oyserman & Sakamoto, 1997). They recognize the unfair burden, expectation, and pressure placed on them simply because of their race. There is a growing body of literature that has linked internalizing model minority pressure with greater psychological distress (Chen, 1995; Chu, 2002), lower academic performance (Chun, 1995; Cheryan & Bodenhausen, 2000), and even suicide (Cohen, 2007).
  • The model minority myth may encourage Asian American students to silence and hide their personal problems. In fact, studies have found that Asian Americans are less likely to seek help, whether it is for school, physical, or mental health needs-even though they may have serious issues. Further, there is a serious gap in providing culture-specific services that address the unique needs of Asian American populations (U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 2001).

What Can Parents And Educators Do?

Color-Blind vs. Racial-Blind

Nobody wants their children to judge others based on their skin color or physical appearance. However, racism and racial disparity faced by our children are real with dire consequences. Being colorblind also blinds a person from understanding unique hardships faced by many students of color. Talk to your children about unique racialized experiences of specific racial and ethnic groups, while appreciating the diversity found within each group. Help to challenge these stereotypes, but also validate and normalize these experiences.

Doing Well vs. Feeling Well

People often assume that students with excellent academic performances have excellent psychological well-being. The model minority myth may motivate Asian American students to achieve higher test scores; but with often unfair and unrecognized burden, pressure, and discrimination, they may struggle emotionally feeling overwhelmed and socially disconnected. Parents and educators must attend to and properly assess for the mental health needs of their students, regardless of their academic achievement.

Multicultural Awareness vs. Multicultural Practices

The model minority myth narrows our racial discourse to discussions about individual differences. It implies that success can be achieved through hard work and determination, and racism is only perpetuated by the few. The myth therefore distracts us from serious conversations about institutional and cultural systems of advantages and disadvantages based on race-everything from your salary to how long you live is determined by race. Parents and educators should complicate their own understanding about race and racism in this country. But, most importantly, you must act! Actively talk with your children and others about the role and implications of race and racism in your family, school, community, and pop culture. Participate in multicultural festivals, workshops, and conferences. Always challenge yourself and others to disrupt the cycle of racism.      


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