The Year We Weaponized The Model Minority Myth
Ironically, it’s “model minorities” who benefit the most from calling it a myth.
Barely a month following the horrific mass shooting in Atlanta, I noticed accounts on my Twitter timeline roasting a certain op-ed. Featuring a black-and-white portrait of the Chinese American author in a smokey eye and slicked-back hair, the title claimed that beautiful faces like hers were not going anywhere. “We're seen as the ‘model minority’ — certainly not by choice,” she wrote. My mind flashed back to the onset of the pandemic, when Instagram was inundated by East Asian fashion influencers posting selfies tagged #modelminoritymyth to protest the former President’s inflammatory and sinophobic rhetoric around the coronavirus. Nearly a year later, I saw the same pattern continue: Rather than consider the myriad systemic issues that underlie the increased hate crimes against Asian Americans, the author boiled it all down to “the scarce and inaccurate portrayals of us in television and film.”
Don’t get me wrong: It’s important for people to speak their truth. But actions rooted in representation politics often end up centering one type of Asian American experience while obscuring the realities of the most vulnerable. Claiming that the lack of robust Hollywood roles for Asians is the catalyst for violence suggests that the solution would be casting more actors with beautiful faces like hers.
This kind of shallow logic hinges on a fundamental misunderstanding of not just the model minority as a stereotype, but also as a myth. Ironically, this misreading endangers many of our own.
There’s a general awareness among progressive Asian Americans of how white supremacy weaponizes the model minority stereotype. Whiteness codes Asian American people as single-minded in their work ethic and also obedient and acquiescent to authority. The myth asserts that all Asians are inherently intelligent and successful, and thus wealthy, and coerces us into performing those traits. It suggests that those who aren’t any of those things, even if they’re Asian themselves, are personally to blame. Jiyoung Lee-An and Xiaobei Chen from Carleton University point out that “[these stereotypes] hide many issues including anti-Asian racism, poverty, labor abuse, and psychological needs.” Mainstream rebuttal to the model minority myth typically pushes back against stereotypes about our math skills, parenting styles, assertiveness, or our desirability. But what’s often overlooked is the central evil of the myth, which concludes that the people most susceptible to racist policies and violence are to blame for their own hardships; that those who are Black or brown, poor, disabled, or undocumented suffer simply because they have not worked as hard as others.
From the get-go, the model minority stereotype was used to pit minorities against each other, originating in a January 1966 issue of the New York Times. Sociologist William Peterson praised Japanese Americans for supposedly having overcome racial discrimination in the aftermath of the World War II internment camps, attributing their successes to their family values and strong work ethic while pushing the narrative that Black Americans, who supposedly lacked those attributes, were responsible for their own oppression.
Following that were decades of immigration policies that favored highly educated professionals in STEM fields, and later, their families. These waves of immigrants, predominantly from China and India, on top of the norms set forth by Peterson’s op-ed, crystallized the image of the model minority as East or South Asian Americans who pulled up so hard on their bootstraps that they “overcame” racial inequality, as famously commemorated by the 1987 cover of Time Magazine featuring “those Asian American whiz kids” surrounded by textbooks. Thanks to the model minority myth, the well-resourced, studious, and shy Asian (typically of Chinese or Indian descent) became our archetypal mainstream representation in pop culture, rendering the existence of anyone else to the shadows. These newly immigrated Asian Americans took the model minority moniker as a blueprint for survival: As discussed by Melissa Pandika at Mic, cultural assimilation was presented as a condition of citizenship. Asian immigrants came to understand that their very lives were contingent on how well they could approximate American whiteness, and if they abided by the characteristics imposed on them.
The pressure to assimilate can be suffocating. But imagine, then, how heavy the burden is for those unable or unwilling to conform to the model minority. When the loudest conversations about equality are dominated by the relatively privileged experiences of the upper class, the model minority myth, even when denounced, becomes further reinforced at the expense of those who have been at the center of the ongoing wave of violence. Without acknowledging, protecting, and uplifting the groups the model minority myth stereotype harms the most, rich, famous East and South Asians ultimately legitimize it. Invoking the model minority myth to validate the pain of the most privileged doesn’t draw more attention to the plight of the most vulnerable, much less address the most insidious ways in which racism works. At some point, we have to recognize the harm we cause in justifying our own survival.
The ugly truth is that the exploitation of Asian immigrants by other Asians is also part of Asian American history. Assimilating into whiteness demands that we wield prejudice and xenophobia against other minorities, an effective tactic to dehumanize us by instilling hatred towards our own people, and naturally, ourselves. Pandika writes that biases like colorism construct a hierarchy on which we’re all assembled in relation to one another, positioning lighter-skinned East Asians on top and darker-skinned South and Southeast Asians at the bottom. Of course, immigration status, class, gender identity, sexuality, among many other identifiers also factor into where we rank. Chinese entrepreneurs took advantage of displaced Japanese-owned businesses whose owners were forced into internment camps, established Korean salon owners who exploit Tibetan and Nepali laborers, or Asian American politicians urging displays of “Americanness” in the face of hate crimes. Assimilating into whiteness may buy us safety in the short-term, but it’s only a matter of time before the dominant class consumes the perpetually foreign model minority too.
This continual erasure of marginalized Asian Americans widens the massive income and education gap that persists regardless of how well we’re portrayed in the media. It’s not that positive representation isn’t important — it objectively is. What’s troubling is that our most prominent social justice issue remains Hollywood representation, given that its prolonged salience overwhelmingly benefits upper-class Asian Americans. After all, despite having supposedly “broken the bamboo ceiling” after this year’s Oscars, ICE continues to deport Cambodian and Vietnamese refugees and stories about violence against Asian elders remain prevalent in the news. If #StopAsianHate was actually about addressing the inequality that Asian Americans face, it would center on the needs of the marginalized. Instead, it effectively appeals to white people in power who may not overtly hate us, but certainly don’t care enough to agitate against racist systems. Without addressing the root cause and attending to the needs of demographics that are actually impacted by systemic inequality, this cycle of violence against Asian Americans will continue.
The antidote to this inter-group hijacking can also be found in our history. According to late activist Gordon Lee, the term “Asian American” emerged as a radical, deliberately anti-racist political identity. Though it collected dozens of ethnicities under one group, grouping us together meant establishing our solidarity with other non-white communities, declaring unity against all institutionalized oppression. It was our way of challenging and subverting the stereotypes projected onto us by whiteness. The persistence of the model minority myth disconnects us from our radical roots, isolating us from our inherent power as a diverse community. We must remember that our identity as Asian Americans is not based in a shared language, culture, home country, nor appearance, but rather in our commitment to fighting injustice for all. Stopping Asian hate begins with confronting how the model minority stereotype still thrives today. The end of institutionalized oppression won’t be found in seeing more rich, beautiful Asian faces in Hollywood, but rather in coming together as a community to protect those that need it most.
Asian Americans have been uniquely scrutinized in this pandemic year: Our elders are being targeted, our small businesses are closing, and geopolitical games between America and other Asian countries have threatened the safety and wellbeing of the diaspora. These events cast light on a fact about our Asian Americanness that’s rarely reckoned with: Within our overarching identity group are separate, isolated communities that rarely interact. Our fragmentation is our weakness. This year’s Not Your Token Asian interrogates who among us benefit at the expense of others, and how part of demanding justice for ourselves means demanding justice for each other.