The "Model Minority" Myth: Asian Americans and Stereotyping

Recent events, from Occupy Wall Street to Rep. Scott Garrett’s (R-N.J.) comments on “other” ethnicities’ work ethic, have catalyzed important discussions on inequality and prejudice in the United States. However, the popular discourse, from editorials to social media coverage, often overlooks one growing population: Asian Americans. 

Asian Americans encounter relentless stereotyping in popular culture, wide disparities in educational achievement and income, and high rates of bullying in school and on the internet. Yet these instances often garner little attention outside of the Asian American community. This broader ignorance of issues related to this diverse population poses significant obstacles for the community to legitimize of its claims to inequality and in creating public awareness of said issues.

Compounding this breach are stereotypes, particularly the model minority myth. This seemingly ubiquitous label purports that Asians are predisposed to achieve educational and economic success in America. Supporters cite socio-economic statistics such as the 2005 median yearly income, which was $61,594 for an Indian American male as compared to the overall male median of $41,965. Such statistics fail to note that Asian Americans were one of the first immigrant groups to have a large percentage of its members come to the United States having already achieved professional status or educational and economic resources.

This myth of inherent ability has serious consequences for inequality. The model framework ensconces a greater ignorance of the real issues faced by the population while downplaying its successes.

For instance, in pop culture, Asian impressions often fail to garner the same universal rebuke as other racially tinged jokes — even when those jokes are performed by white actors. Such instances add to the forever foreign construction of Asian Americans. Saturday Night Live’s depiction of presidential candidate and former U.S. Ambassador to China Jon Huntsman speaking in a generic “Chinese accent,” an attempt to mock the public fascination with this ambassadorial credential, helped underline society’s greater orientalization of Asians. Soon after, comedian Stephen Colbert’s Chinese character (Ching Chong Ding Dong) appeared to make his guest, Huntsman himself, squirm in the spotlight.    

While significant in its own right, the inequality debate also tends to focus on the disparities across major groups (blacks and whites, rich and poor), and not within them. Yet, again, the model minority myth obscures the realities of divergent living standards and educational achievement within a highly diverse sub-population.

Still, despite this slow rate of inclusion into the popular discourse, there have been some positive signs of change. For instance, one well-covered news story points to San Francisco, a city over 21% Chinese, where Japanese American candidate Jeff Adachi may become the first elected Asian American mayor in the city’s history. 

And in pop culture, the international fashion chain Forever 21 has come under fire for its culturally insensitive Oriental Girl necklace. Petitions for the stores’ removal of this stereotypical image are slowly picking up steam.

Photo Credit: Steve Rhodes

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Elizabeth Laferriere

Elizabeth Laferriere is the Legislative Director at the San Francisco Department on the Status of Women. Her research and professional interests include women’s equal right to work, political participation, and social justice, as well as US foreign policy toward South and Southeast Asia. Ms. Laferriere received her MPP in Public Policy from Georgetown University, where she studied international policy as the Wellesley College Margaret Freeman Bowers Graduate Fellow. She spent an exchange semester at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy in Singapore. She received her BA in South Asian Studies and History from Wellesley College, where she graduated with honors in 2010.

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