Roosevelt Institute | Cornell University

The Asian American "Model Minority" Myth Dismantled

By Abigail ChenPublished April 15, 2016

Invoking a stereotype of Asians being smart at math and hard workers, the joke at the Oscars broadcast prompted widespread criticism. The "Model Minority" Myth of Asian Americans has persisted for fifty years, as have its damaging effects. Ultimately, representation is a problem for all minorities, Asians are no exception. Society as a whole must be consciously honest about the critical issues facing Asian Americans and start tackling them.

    "They sent us their most dedicated, accurate and hard-working representatives," host Chris Rock told the Oscars audience. "Please welcome Ming Zhu, Bao Ling and David Moskowitz."

   Not everyone was amused by Rock's joke.

    More than 20 Academy members of Asian descent, including Ang Lee, protested the offensive joke that Rock made during the Oscars broadcast, which invoked the tired stereotype of Asians being smart at math and hard workers.

   Just like Chris Rock, many fail to see the damaging effects of such social stereotypes applied to Asian Americans.

    To begin with, it is helpful to look at the "model minority" myth of Asian Americans. The term "model minority" was first coined in 1966, when a New York Times article characterized Japanese Americans as "whiz kids" or geeks who score higher grades than average kids. In this "model minority" narrative, the Asian American group is better regarded than other ethnic groups for their socio-economic achievements, regardless of the constraints placed upon them.

    The "model minority" characterization of Asian Americans, first of all, is oblivious to the diversity within this ethnic group, which comprises people from regions including Far East Asia, Southeast Asia, and the Indian Subcontinent, with over 100 languages and dialects represented. In addition to socioeconomic status, the Asian American community also differ vastly in immigrant experience, languages, cultural and religious beliefs. To say the least, the "model minority" narrative inaccurately overgeneralizes the disparate experience of Asian Americans.

    Moreover, the deeply rooted belief that Asians are able to achieve higher-than-average socio-economic success simply neglects the rules that confine them. One telling example is Nicholas Kristof's controversial article on New York Times titled "The Asian Advantage" published last October. In the article, he contends that Asians are smart and hardworking is a "positive" cultural stereotype that contributes to their scholastic success. By contrast, the black community suffers from a "negative stereotype threat". Yes, Asians emphasize education and somehow manage to achieve some semblance of academic success. But if one thinks that such a cultural stereotype is an "Asian advantage", think again. Regarding access to education opportunities and career advancement, there is no such thing as a "positive Asian stereotype." In May 2015, a coalition of 64 organizations filed a complaint alleging that Harvard has set up quotas to keep the numbers of Asian-American students significantly lower that the quality of their applications merits. The organizations cited statistic showing that on the 2400-point scale SAT exam, "Asian-Americans have to score on average about 140 points higher than white students, 270 points higher than Hispanic students and 450 points higher than African-American students to equal their chances of gaining admission to Harvard." With this fact in mind, the "positive" Asian American stereotype that Nicholas argues for is just misleading and frustrating.

    Prompted by the angry protest from the 20 Academy members, the Oscars apologised and promised to be more "culturally sensitive" in the future. While promoting cultural sensitivity is crucial, more needs to be done to effectively dismantle the ingrained and pervasive social stereotype of Asians. Society as a whole needs to confront these problems head-on and address critical issues facing the Asian Americans.

    Instead of seeing Asian Americans as a monolithic group, policy-makers need to disaggregate data on the socio-economic status of Asian Americans. For example, while around 12.6% Asian Americans live below poverty, the poverty rates of Hmong and Cambodian are 37.8% and 29.3% respectively. Once we formulate a better understanding of the disparate policy priorities within the Asian American community, we are able to adjust the policy agenda and more effectively tackle the issues.

    One particularly important task will be assisting the full integration of the Asian American population into the American society. According to the Pew Research Center estimates, Asian immigrants are projected to comprise a greater share of all immigrants and become the biggest foreign-born group by 2055. How to more accommodate the societal and economic needs of the large immigrant group, from inadequate health care coverage to high rates of limited English proficiency, is an urgent task facing the U.S. government.

    Fortunately, as seen in the case of the Affirmative Action complaint brought against Harvard, grassroots movements have the ability to successfully mobilize broad support to challenge unfair policies towards Asian Americans. Furthermore, in an age awash with political correctness and internet rage, there is reason to be optimistic about the potential of bottom-up reforms to push forward policy changes. But again, the effects of such bottom-up reforms will be limited unless the government is consciously honest about the socio-economic constraints placed on Asian Americans and starts implementing critical policy reforms.

   The appalling joke at the Oscars is a vivid reminder of the obliviousness to the harmful "model minority" stereotype of Asian Americans, which has persisted for five decades. Ultimately, like other minorities, Asian Americans face stereotypes and disadvantages. It is time to debunk the "model minority" myth and make real changes happen.