May 29, 2017

Model Behavior

Underlying the Asian “model minority” myth is a little-known history of marginalization.

Understanding my Chinese-American identity was not one finite act that came easily or smoothly. Rather, it was, and is, a process—a continuous act swathed in emotions, none of which are mutually exclusive: realization, insecurity, acceptance, happiness. Considering it’s Asian American Heritage Month, my cultural identity—and the inner tumult that comes to characterize it for me—is something that feels more formally relevant now.

As May draws to a close, I am considering more deeply what it means to be Chinese-American in a context that extends past merely the personal. Growing up, I came to understand that there was a distinct set of stereotypes that framed others’ perceptions of who I was solely because I looked different: I had straight, sleek, black hair, a tan hue to my skin, and almond-shaped eyes with a color so dark that it vacillated between black and brown. People assumed that I was “smart,” did well in school, was good at math and science, passive and quiet, the list goes on and on.

These stereotypes came at odds with who I actually was as a person. I abhorred math, science, and just about anything quantitative. Instead, I immersed myself in my books and journals, appreciating the infinitely vast worlds I could create for myself through reading and writing. But, at the end of the day, it still seemed as though I could only be one thing: I could only be the perfect model minority that was expected of me, with all its unyielding standards.

Unlike other minority groups, Asian Americans are known as a “model minority.” We, somehow, are the universal emblem of success, an example of excellence. However, this myth is one of the most damaging things that can be done to our progress as a group in this country. Not only does labeling Asian Americans as a model minority obscure a historical narrative of marginalization, but it also alienates members of our community who don’t fit the inflexible standards assumed of us.

The stereotype of the “model minority” finds its roots in 1966, first used by sociologist William Petersen in an article for The New York Times called “Success Story: Japanese-American Style.” Petersen praised Japanese Americans as being able to overcome their discrimination through hard work. Here, the model minority myth bled into mainstream media: In the racial turmoil that colored the ’60s, Asian Americans were positioned as proof that it was indeed possible to find success as a racial minority, largely due to a cultural emphasis on work ethic and education.

What this tale of supposed success leaves out is the long history of struggle Asian Americans have faced in this country. First there was the stigma: the wave of “yellow peril” and xenophobic attitudes against East Asian immigrants. Then there was the exclusion: The Chinese Exclusion Act in the late 19th century directly prevented immigration on the basis of national origin. Even the 1976 Magnuson Act, which was believed to repeal the exclusion enacted a half century ago, was still restrictive as it held a quota on Chinese immigrants. Not to mention the forced relocation of thousands of Japanese Americans into internment camps during World War II. After horrors like these, it becomes clear that Asian Americans are not quite the simple, untroubled group that a model minority identity often dilutes us to.

But the most critical issue that the model minority myth imposes on the Asian-American community is that it overshadows serious systemic problems. Cambodian, Hmong, and Laotian Americans have some of the highest poverty rates, at 29.3 percent, 37.8 percent, and 18.5 percent, respectively—well above the national average. The gap between wealthy and poor Asian Americans spans a greater distance than that of wealthy and poor white Americans. In New York City, where I’m from, a quarter of Asian Americans live below the poverty threshold, despite the fact that Asian Americans as a group tend to have higher levels of educational attainment.

The problem doesn’t end here, though. Research shows that the model minority label can have negative psychological effects, potentially inhibiting academic performance. And the logic makes sense—when you are not only pigeonholed, but also praised for having certain attributes, then you become pressured to fit that mold.

We notice Asian Americans who are conventionally successful as the model minority dictates, but we often ignore those who aren’t. The most tangible harm of these stereotypes is that it diminishes our voices and presence in the media and in the political realm. Those of us in the Asian-American community who need help and reform can’t get it because our struggles are rarely acknowledged.

In light of Asian American Heritage Month, it’s worth taking the time to recognize not just the model minority myth, but also how we consider Asian Americans in a social and political context. By choosing to work and think against stereotyping, we can begin to dissolve the cloud of prejudice that taints our political climate.

Annie Geng is a first-year in the College.