The Model Minority Myth and its Implications

December 12, 2012 § Leave a comment


In 1848, the United States of America experienced its first Asian immigration boom. The Gold Rush propelled Asians, specifically the Chinese, to “rush” to America hoping to gain wealth to bring home. However, at the sight of labor, plans changed. Some Chinese stayed in America, while others migrated after hearing about the opportunities, thus rapidly increasing the Chinese population. The Chinese, akin to other ethnic groups at the time, worked menial laborer jobs for long hours and low pay.

Since then, Chinese Americans as well as pan-ethnic Asians have made triumphant strides in all aspects of life, most certainly American life. However, during the 1960s when African Americans were at the forefront of the Civil Rights Movement, the generally uninvolved Chinese and their success paved way to two notorious articles that were used to silence African Americans.

In 1966, William Petersen wrote his observations in his article, “Success Story, Japanese-American Style.” He debuts the term “Model Minority” to applaud Japanese Americans for their ability to positively assimilate into American culture, as opposed to those he labels as the “problem minority groups,” such as African Americans and Hispanics. Also in 1966, the U.S. News & World Report wrote in their article, “Success Story of One Minority Group in U.S.,” “At a time when Americans are awash in worry over the plight of racial minorities—one such minority, the nation’s 300,000 Chinese-Americans, is winning wealth and respect by dint of its own hard work.” Unfortunately, while the Petersen and the U.S. News & World Report extolled Asians, it caused the growth of Asian stereotypes and created grave implications for all races.

Extended beyond Petersen’s use, in the age of the “Tiger mom” in the early 21st century, the Model Minority term has broadened; its current definition consists of behavioral and intellectual traits. According to researchers Wayne Chan, Melody Chao, Chi-yue Chiu, Carolyn Kwok, and Rodolfo Mendoza-Denton in their study, “The Model Minority as a Shared Reality and Its Implication for Interracial Perception,” the Myth suggests that Asians are inherently passive, respectful, economically stable, and intellectually advantaged for subjects such as mathematics and science.

Although these traits are arguably positive, it creates antithetical implications that manifest in three ways. First, the myth is used to compare Asians against other marginalized groups. Second, it threatens the “American” Dream. And third, it is used against Asians to render claims of discrimination against them as untrue.

In the book Yellow: Race in America Beyond Black and White, Howard University’s law professor, Frank Wu, writes to debunk the Model Minority Myth. His greatest scholarly contribution lies on his explanation of the myth’s backlash on both African Americans and Asian Americans. Wu writes, the Model Minority Myth forces the task of comparing Asian American and African Americans in racial terms; he uses a White Vanderbilt University student’s radio show as an example. In a conversational, and very controversial, exchange between a Ku Klux Klan member and the disc jockey himself, they argued that African Americans “complained too much” about discrimination and “abused their racial status.” The Ku Klux Klan member adds that Blacks should imitate Asians… “Asians have a subtle approach. They go out into the community and prove themselves as individuals” (Wu, p. 64, 2002).  Although a Ku Klux Klan member’s commentary on race is most likely seen as repugnant, Wu elucidates a noteworthy point; the KKK member’s thoughts are frequently shared throughout the unknowing White community. As a group, Asians are extolled for individual behavior then compared to African Americans only as a group.

While this rumination that is at odds with itself is idiosyncratically faulty, the grandiose picture that Wu extrapolates is the myth’s usage towards racial comparisons to undermine racist claims. Although Wu clearly expounds his argument, he does not discuss the implicit consequences of comparing one group to another. Remarking that one group is more successful than another is a more sympathetic way to say, “the other group is a failure.” This creates racial hierarchy.  Whites remain on top, African Americans, the failure group or the “problem-minority” as Petersen states, are pushed to the bottom, and Asian Americans are slapped in between. Nonetheless, Wu does postulate that this hierarchical relationship “fosters resentment from non-Asian minorities who are impliedly faulted as less than model.”

As Whites use the Model Minority Myth to compare Asian Americans against non-Asian minority groups, the myth is also negatively used against Asians, specifically. It becomes a double standard. The United States is home of the “American Dream,” wherein individuals strive, or should strive, for success and the pursuit of happiness. As previously stated, the Model Minority Myth suggests the positive assimilation of Asians into American culture, as well as their overwhelming success in education and careers, thus marking what the general American society defines as “happy.”  Therefore, according to the Myth, Asian Americans are achieving the American Dream. However, truly, whose dream is this? What happens when those who attain the American Dream are no longer White?

Koji Stevens, contributor to the “8 Asians” Blog, presents a diametrical argument that Frank Wu excludes. His narrative expounds the beliefs of the specific Ku Klux Klan member at Vanderbilt University. In Steven’s post, “What Do White Supremacists Think of Asians?,” he reports his findings after reading a White Supremacist Blog’s article titled, “Whites vs. Asians.” Stevens writes that the blog’s “Anti-Asian” commentators who are presumably White Supremacists share the notion that Asians can “out-White the Whites” and are a “threat to the Aryan race.”

This addresses the broader perspective: while Asian Americans are considered model minorities, they are also threatening. Asians are becoming “too successful and hardworking” or “too intelligent,” or, moreover, there are simply “too many of them.”

In her article, “The New White Flight,” Wall Street Journal writer Suein Hwang discusses the term “White flight.” During the 1960s, she writes, Whites would retreat from urban cities and move into suburbia- all to escape the rapidly increasing Black populations. However, Hwang argues that, in present-day, the “White flight” illustrates White parents’ decisions to remove their children from schools that they consider as “too Asian” or, as a whole, avoid predominantly Asian communities.

While she explains that the “White flight” phenomenon is nationwide, she focuses on two California institutions that are at the top of the nation’s public high schools: Monta Vista High in Cupertino and Lynbrook High nearby San Jose. Many White parents choose to leave Monta Vista and Lynbrook because these schools are “too academically driven” and “too narrowly invested in subjects such as math and science at the expense of liberal arts and extracurriculars like sports and other personal interests.” In short, these schools are “too Asian.”

Hwang notes that some parents do not “buy into” the negative comments about Monta Vista and Lynbrook. In fact, in an interview with Hwang and Monta Vista parent, Ms. Scott, Ms. Scott posits that parents disclose inaccurate information about Monta Vista. She continues, there are many thriving athletic and extracurricular activities. Nonetheless, one parent, Jane Doherty, decided to send her two sons to a different school. She expressed concern after watching cars unload Asian students to attend Monta Vista’s after-school study and then leaving Monta Vista’s parent’s night worried that the school has an extreme focus on test scores and the big-name colleges its graduates attend.  Furthermore, Cathy Gately, Monta Vista High School’s parent-teacher association co-president, persuaded a family to reconsider moving into Cupertino because “there are so few young White kids left in the public schools. [The family’s] child may be the only Caucasian kid in the class.”

However, as Hwang explains, this flight is the result of Whites who believe the Asian stereotypes. The nearby predominantly White student high school, Palo Alto, is equally competitive as Monta Vista and Lynbrook. Yet, there are neither occurrences of the White flight, nor, even at the very least, complaints.

Although Hwang illustrates the situation, she does not extrapolate the underlying theme: the threat to White dominance. The White students at Monta Vista High and Lynbrook High face a rarely anticipated dilemma. Their former racial dominance is stripped; they feel the effects of being the minority. This creates the uncomfortable awareness of the “Invisible Knapsack.” Coined by scholar Peggy McIntosh in 1988, the “Invisible Knapsack” refers to the privileges that Whites unknowingly “carry” because of their dominance in American culture, and ultimately, advantageous status in American systems.

Generally, Whites attending thriving schools are amongst numerous White classmates. Contrary to minority groups, Whites need not worry about being “the only Caucasian kid in class.” While historically underrepresented groups are commonly “the only minority kid in class,” they are usually forced to endure what is given to them. Luckily, the family persuaded by Cathy Gately’s comments can somewhat easily find another community with a top ranked high school where their children “fit in.”

However, there is a shift in concentration for the color focused Whites who stay in Asian dominated schools like Monta Vista and Lynbrook. These Whites no longer have the privilege to think in terms of their dominant culture; rather, they are forced to maneuver within a different culture’s environment. The shift is foreign, creating the new dominant group, the Asians, a threat. This threat, juxtaposed to the preexisting Asian stereotypical beliefs, causes Whites to magnify their position; implicitly, Whites do not perceive themselves at the forefront of the institution’s success and, ultimately, the American Dream.

Whether the Model Minority term is used to silence non-Asian minority groups and their “racist claims” or to say that Asians are becoming “too Model-like,” it ignores the well-being of its own people: Asians. Both Whites and non-Whites will frequently say, “You Asians are doing well anyway” (Wu, 2002, p. 40).  However, this undermines very real discriminatory acts against Asians.

Researchers Jioni Lewis, Stacy Harwood, Margaret Huntt, and Ruby Mendenhall elucidate the experiences of minority students in their study, “Racial Microagressions in the Residence Halls: Experiences of Students of Color at a Predominantly White University.” In their analysis, Harwood et al. suggest that African American, Asian American, Hispanic American, and Native American undergraduate and graduate students are subject to on-campus microaggressions. Their discussion presents various interviews with the aforementioned minority groups who admit to being victims of racial microaggressions from White students. The identified microagressions include “racial jokes and verbal comments, racial slurs written in shared spaces, segregated spaces and unequal treatment, and denial and minimization of racism.”

While Harwood et al.’s study confirms Asian discrimination within colleges and universities, acts on prejudice does not start there. Recalling elementary school, innocent children’s melodies were attributed to racial jokes: “Chinese, Japanese, dirty knees. Look at these!” Or chanting “Chinese, Japanese, Korean,” while stretching out eye configurations to conform to each ethnicities’ respective slanted eyes. Rhymes allowed non-Asians to laugh while Asian children often walk away confused and embarrassed.  Or, in other cases, the Asian children are left with an awkward conversation explaining that they are not Chinese, Japanese, or Korean, and, furthermore, do not have dirty knees.

Moreover, the Model Minority myth tends to exclude and ignore subgroups of Asians that are not Chinese, Japanese, or Korean. In “Report: Asian American Academic Achievement in California Lags Heavily Within Certain Subgroups,” Diverse Education writer Lydia Lunn discusses studies that are rarely part of public discourse. She writes, University of California researchers found that some Southeast Asians and other subgroups are struggling to reach college. In the 2008 American Community Survey, Lunn explains, 40% of Cambodians and Hmong and 32% of Laotians in America lack high school diplomas; 19% of Cambodians and 23% of Hmong live below the poverty line. She adds, more than 40% of Vietnamese, Koreans, Laotians, Hmong and Cambodians reported limited English proficiency. Akin to these groups, 40% of Taiwanese and Chinese who are more likely to be subjected to the Model Minority label, are limited in English proficiency.

Furthermore, as Lunn construes the educational and financial disparities within Asian subgroups, another Diverse Education author and University of Pennsylvania professor, Dr. Marybeth Gasman, illustrates a noteworthy point in her article, “The Model Minority Myth continues,” that Lunn does not address. While these aforementioned groups, as well as many other subgroups, are evidently falling below the Model Minority Myth, many Asian Americans reveal that they feel an immense pressure to conform to their stereotype. Because there is a widespread belief that Asians are uniformly intelligent and hardworking, Dr. Gasman explicates, many Asian students are left behind when needing social and academic support necessary for college success. Also, many Asian students admit that they feel as though they are excluded from classroom conversations because their professors assumed the students were quiet and shy.

However, neither of these authors address what truly happens to the Asians that “fall between the cracks,” those who “fall short” of their stereotype. They are invisible. As Dr. Gasman notes in her article, many Asian students are “left behind.” However, it is more than that. Asian students with teachers and professors who assume the myth as true, are overlooked, not tended to, and thus they are left behind. Because Asians as a monolithic group are seen as educationally driven and assumed to have financial success, Asians as a whole are excluded from a myriad of college and university scholarships, including many well-known scholarship foundations. Various colleges and universities, especially within the many districts of the University of California, have quotas to cap their increasing Asian populations. However, they, specifically the University of California, do not acknowledge that California holds the nation’s largest Asian population. As a state institution, it would be rationale for the university to display a microcosm of the state itself.

Altogether, because Asians are compared to other non-White minority groups, they are sometimes not considered minorities, themselves. Yet concurrently, because Asians are assumed to “over White the Whites,” they are frequently unaccepted on the White side of the color line. While struggling to find an identity, Asian Americans are slapped with the Model Minority Myth and pushed along the American conveyor belt untended. It is seen in libraries where the “Asian section” is limited to one shelf. It is seen in predominantly White schools that lack or struggle to maintain Asian studies. Furthermore, regardless of the multitudinous reports displaying the disparities amongst the Asian communities, they continue to be invisible in matters such as affirmative action.

Who are they? Seeing as though they are too shy to speak for themselves, would we listen to them? For many, the Model Minority is a success story of a group of people who are getting too successful. To others, Asians “made it” in America on the backs of other minorities. It’s now a game of Tug of War. How can we use the Model Minority at our own expense? Until society realizes, or wants to recognize, the myth’s truths, the game will never end. The Model Minority term as a myth is much like the racial group to which it is attributed: invisible.

Works Cited

(1966, December 26). Success Story of One Minority Group. U.S News & World Report.

Chan, W., Chao, M. M., Chiu, C.-y., Mendoza-Denton, R., & Kwok, C. (2012, June 11). The Model Minority as a Shared Reality and Its Implication for Interracial Perceptions. Asian American Journal of Psychology. doi:10.1037/a0028769

Gasman, M. (2012, September 12). The Model Minority Myth Continues. Diverse Education. Retrieved December 9, 2012, from

Harwood, S., Huntt, M., Lewis, J., & Mendenhall, R. (2012). Racial Microaggressions in the Residence Halls: Experiences of Students of Color at a Predominantly White University. Journal of Diversity in Higher Education, 5(3), 159-173. doi:10.1037/a0028956

Hwang, S. (2005, November 19). The New White Flight. The Wall Street Journal. Retrieved December 12, 2012, from

Lunn, L. (2010, December 3). Report: Asian American Academic Achievement in California Lags Heavily Within Certain Subgroups. Diverse Education. Retrieved December 10, 2012, from

McIntosh, P. (1989). White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack. In P. S. Rothenberg (Ed.), Race, Class, and Gender in the United States (188-191). New York: Worth Publishers.

Petersen, W. (1966, January 9). Success Story, Japanese-American Style. The New York Times. Retrieved December 10, 2012

Stevens, K. (2011, December 13). What Do White Supremacists Think of Asians?. In 8 Asians. Retrieved October 10, 2012, from

Those Asian-American Whiz Kids. 1987,,16641,19870831,00.html.

Wu, F. (2002). Yellow: Race in America Beyond Black and White. New York, NY: Basic Books.


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