“Model Minority” Seems Like a Compliment, but It Does Great Harm

For labels that sound so promising in tone, the “model minority” and “Asian advantage” stereotypes do nothing but render discrimination against Asian-Americans invisible.

Arguments of Asian cultural superiority often try to validate the model minority label: The success of Asian-Americans in the United States is “a tribute to hard work, strong families and passion for education.” Positive stereotypes about Asian-Americans are frequently seen as more beneficial than detrimental to the student psyche, in spite of research that these stereotypes harm Asian-American students’ mental health and well-being.

The most poignant consequence of the model minority label is its failure to acknowledge socioeconomic and education disparities among the diverse range of communities categorized as Asian-American. Not all ethnic communities under the Asian-American umbrella are advantaged. Southeast Asian-Americans drop out of high school at an alarming rate; nearly 40 percent of Hmong-Americans, 38 percent of Laotian-Americans, and 35 percent of Cambodian-Americans do not finish high school. These Asian-American subgroups, along with Vietnamese-Americans, earn below the national average. Sweeping generalizations of Asian-Americans as the “privileged” and “successful” minority cannot replace unnerving disaggregated data that bring truth to the inequalities that many Asian-Americans face daily.

Often in history, Asian-Americans cultural values have been lauded as a way to enable interracial tension. The term “model minority” seems to have been first coined during the Civil Rights Movement in a 1966 New York Times article entitled “Success Story, Japanese American Style”. The positive stereotype caught on, influencing articles such as U.S. News and World Report’s “Success Story of One Minority Group in U.S.” in 1968, Newsweek’s “Success Story: Outwhiting the Whites” in 1971, and the Time magazine’s 1987 cover headlining “Those Asian-American Whiz Kids”. These sensationalized articles similarly argue: if Asian-Americans can “work hard” and “never complain”, why aren’t other racial groups following suit? Cultural normalization and perpetuation of the model minority label operates as a racial wedge that divides Asian-Americans from communities of color while maintaining white dominance in leadership (i.e. the “bamboo ceiling”) and politics.

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Written by Bernadette Lim


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