home Commentary, Culture, North America, Racism Who is Forgotten in the “Model Minority” Myth?

Who is Forgotten in the “Model Minority” Myth?

To many people hearing the term, “model minority” sounds like a good thing.

Why wouldn’t you want to be the “model”, the “best”, the example that inspires others? If you are in the majority, it can seem like a compliment.

You’ve done such a good job of assimilating we want other such minorities to be like you! 

And at times the AAPI community, usually the Chinese-American and later the Japanese-American community, has benefitted from such stereotyped status. At its best, the idea of the model minority has helped Asian-Americans gain acceptance and evade public scorn; at its worst it has reinforced the idea of “otherness”.

It is manipulation. The model minority ideal was created not only as a political tactic during World War II, but it has served as a tool to use those in the model minority (Chinese-Americans, Japanese-Americans) against those who are not (Black Americans, Mexican-Americans, etc.). They were able to overcome discrimination, why can’t you?

But what is often overlooked when considering the model minority idea is that not all Asian-Americans are contained in that stereotype. “Asian-American” is such a broad term. While the western gaze equates Asian-American with the image of Chinese-Americans, Japanese-Americans, or even Korean-Americans (how many times have you heard someone describe any AAPI person as “a Chinese”), the AAPI community is much more diverse. Not everyone looks like “a Chinese” and not everyone is as well off as the model minority myth would have you believe.

By viewing Asian-Americans as monolithic – an affluent, high achieving, highly educated group – the poverty, crime, mental health issues, and social issues rampant in some communities is never addressed and largely ignored.

Estimated that Asian-Americans will be the largest minority group in America by 2065, it’s estimated that over 2 million Asian-Americans live below the poverty line. And while Chinese-Americans are part of that number, Cambodian, Vietnamese, Laotian, Hmong, Indian, Pakistani, and Bangladeshi communities tend to experience poverty at higher numbers than other Asian-Americans. In the Hmong, Cambodian, and Laotian communities, approximately one third of the population “over the age of 25 don’t have a high school degree”. Approximately 46 percent of Cambodian and Laotian-Americans do not continue their education after high school, whereas approximately only 6 percent of Chinese-Americans do not continue their educations.

A high number of Vietnamese and Cambodian immigrants suffer from depression and/or PTSD – conditions that go untreated and undiagnosed due to lack of resources. Sadly, suicide rates are high in such communities.

As of the end of 2015, Asian-Americans had the highest poverty rate in New York City. A number that tends to surprise people. Shahana Hanif, a public housing organizer based in Manhattan’s Chinatown, told Mashable that people are surprised that she works with “Bangladeshi, Korean and Chinese-American tenants”.

“There is ‘this idea that South Asians don’t live in public housing,’ she said. The belief is, ‘the Indians, the Bangladeshis — they’re the doctors and the engineers,’ not the ones living in public housing.”

While some of the overlooking of certain Asian-American communities is due to America’s inability to see Asian beyond East Asian, but a lot of it has to do with how the population is observed.

When Pew Research Center released a report on the Asian-American community in 2012, many were excited to have some insight into the state of being AAPI in America. However, the report was not only disappointing, it was downright damaging.

The Rise of Asian Americans” only focused on “Chinese, Filipino, Indian, Vietnamese, Korean and Japanese” communities, excluding a significant portion of the AAPI population. Due to the exclusion of such communities like Hmong or Indian, Asian-Americans were portrayed (yet again) in broad strokes: high income, highly educated, and generally satisfied with their lives.

Pew not only reinforced the model minority stereotype, but rendered many communities invisible; not included in the Asian-American conversation. It’s no wonder that the majority of the American population can’t get beyond the stereotypes, even anger, aimed at AAPIs. If an institution with such familiarity and respect as Pew can’t get beyond the surface of AAPI issues, how can the general American public?

Said Karthick Ramakrishnan, “a political scientist at the University of California, Riverside” and a member of Pew’s advisory council on the report, “What’s really unfortunate is you have studies done by Asian Americans that are very rigorous that get no attention,” (refering to the National Asian American Survey and Advancing Justice’s 2011 study “Community of Contrast”). “And then you have an organization like Pew that has a lot of credibility on other things that gets instant recognition.”

Deepa Iyer, “head of the National Council of Asian Pacific Americans and executive director of South Asian Americans Leading Together” said, “The danger in framing the study the way Pew did, and the way the media picked up on it, is that folks who are in the general public and institutional stakeholders and policy makers might get the impression that they don’t necessarily need to dig deep into our communities to understand that any sort of disparities that exist.”

Yet, amidst all the Asian-American communities that are forgotten, few feel it as acutely as the Filipino-American community.

Having been called the “forgotten Asian-Americans” or “invisible minorities”, Filipino-Americans suffer from being largely ignored in conversations about AAPIs.

The second largest Asian-American population, the first Asians to make it to American shores, and “the only Asian group to be colonized by the U.S”, Filipino-Americans’ invisibility is largely due to their unique history.

Often “complimented” on being adept at assimilation into American culture, Filipino-Americans tend to be comfortable with Americanness (more so than some other Asian-American groups), fluent in English, and Catholic. Yet, with all these “easy on the Americans” attributes, Filipino-Americans often defy categorization.

With typically darker skin and features that don’t appear “typically Asian” (East Asian), many Filipino-Americans find themselves mistaken for other races – those of Latin or Hispanic descent. Due to a history of Spanish colonization, many Filipino-Americans have Spanish-sounding last names which, to a western culture obsessed with putting its citizens in boxes, is confusing. Additionally, because of that colonial history (both Spanish and American) the Filipino-American experience has much in common with Native American or African American culture. Attempting to “lump” them in with Chinese or Japanese experiences is incongruous AKA requires more work and less stereotyping.

But perhaps most telling about the Filipino-American experience and its erasure from American consciousness is how it’s excluded from the model minority myth. Filipino-Americans do not garner the same social status as Chinese-Americans or Japanese-Americans might. They are often stereotyped as less qualified, less educated, and more prone to crime – stereotyping more in keeping with Latinx, Native American, and Black experiences. As a result of such racism, some Filipino-Americans have chosen not to identify as Filipino; thus lending to the community’s low profile.

“Asian-American” is a huge term. It includes communities large and small, highly visible and less visible. In 2017 mainstream culture is just now barely understanding who is AAPI, Asian-American, not just “a Chinese”. Yet still the model minority myth persists, insuring that communities are underserved and even condemned to slip through the cracks. The model minority myth is no inspiration, it is an excuse to turn a blind eye when a group of Americans need help and recognition.

Featured image, “Teahouse of the August Moon, 1956” via Creative Commons


Louise Hung

A Chinese-American writer living in New York, Louise is a contributor and researcher for the Order of the Good Death and Ask a Mortician. You can find her on Twitter @LouiseHung1.