Model Minority Myth Revisited

If there's one tired trope I'm sick of hearing, it's the one of the model minority. For those who might not be familiar with the term, it's pretty self-explanatory: a "model" minority is one that sets an example for other minorities, a minority that seems to "have it all." Often times, it's a minority that's considered the closest to being "white." Asian groups are often considered a "model minority" because we are all apparently "good at STEM subjects" and "nerdy" and "goody-goody." Since these stereotypes don't seem on the surface derogatory, some people are surprised to hear that they are still harmful. Growing up in a predominantly white suburban town, I have vivid, rather traumatizing memories of such expectations tormenting me throughout childhood. One of the worst was when I was in 7th grade, and I was the highest achieving student in my math class. The other students immediately attributed that to my being "Asian" and dismissed my hard work and determination as my race. One time, I received an 86 on my test (by no means a bad grade), and though my teacher posted our grades by our student ID number in an attempt to keep things "anonymous" the entire class knew that grade was mine because I had the highest average in the class. One student, who had scored an 87, immediately pumped his fist and crowed that he had "beat me" and was "smarter than an Asian." I, crushed, began to bawl as the rest of the class clamored to check their grades and see if they too, could be "smarter than an Asian." The expectations that young Asian women have to face by virtue of being female, coupled with the model minority myth, results in a very difficult burden for them to bear.

It's no wonder that a 2011 publication by the National Alliance on Mental Illness stated that:

  • Asian American girls have the highest rates of depressive symptoms of any racial/ethnic or gender group;
  • Young Asian American women ages 15 to 24 die from suicide at a higher rate than other racial/ethnic groups;
  • Older Asian American women have the highest suicide rate of all women over 65; and
  • Among Southeast Asians, 71 percent meet criteria for major affective disorders such as depression—with 81 percent among Cambodians and 85 percent among Hmong.

On the last note, part of the issue is the painting of very different cultural groups with the broad stroke of "Asian."

In a piece by the AP published on Monday, the author says, "Taken together on paper, Asian-Americans and Pacific Islanders appear to be a high-achieving bunch with few of the challenges faced by other racial and ethnic minorities in the U.S. when it comes to education. Break these populations down into their many ethnic groups, however, and stark disparities emerge."

Robert Teranishi, an associate professor at New York University, stated in the article that because of the model minority myth, different ethnic groups within the category of "Asian" often struggle to get their needs met.

I've often wondered about using the blanket term "Asian" and whether it might not be more trouble than it's worth, and of course, the challenges created by model minority myths. Readers: any thoughts?