Model Minority Myth

The term “model minority” debuted in a 1966 New York Times Magazine article which told of the “success story” of Japanese-Americans. Later that year, U.S. News published a story arguing that Chinese-Americans could “offer us a lesson” about ways to prevent juvenile delinquency. Just two decades after Japanese-Americans had been sent to internment camps, Asian-Americans had, at least according to the media, made an amazing transformation from “yellow perils” to “model minorities.” [Washington Post]

However, this praising of Asian American culture has been found to have both ulterior motives and unfortunate consequences (including for Asian Americans).

Journalist Jeff Guo points to research that shows that bootstrapping and education were not the keys to Asian economic success – it was the dismantling of key barriers and an intentional reduction of racist sentiment that allowed Asian Americans to earn wages in line with white workers. [Fortune]

Janelle Wong, the director of Asian American Studies at the University of Maryland adds that the model minority myth "1) ignores the role that selective recruitment of highly educated Asian immigrants has played in Asian American success, and 2) makes flawed comparisons between Asian Americans and other groups, particularly Black Americans, to argue that more than two centuries of black enslavement can be overcome by hard work and strong family values." [NPR]

Guo writes that “Elevating Asian Americans as ‘deserving’ and ‘hardworking’ was a tactic to denigrate African Americans,” he says, which also minimized the potential impact of the civil rights movement. [Fortune]

The drop-off of Asian and Asian American workers from professionals to executives is very steep [Economist]

Facts and data

  • Asians and Asian Americans are well represented in lower-level tech positions but severely underrepresented at management and executive levels. Asian Americans (including Indians) are 27% of the workers in these companies, but only 19% of managers and 14% of executives. In contrast, whites represented 62% of professionals and 80% of executives in these firms. This is worse than the glass ceiling effect that’s been identified for women: men are 42% more likely to have an executive role than women, but white people are 154% more likely than Asian people to hold an executive role [HBR]
  • It's much worse for Asian women. Asian women comprise only 3.1% of executives in the tech companies mentioned above, while Asian men comprise 13.5%.
  • People hold seemingly positive and obviously negative stereotypes about Asian Americans. In two separate studies participants generated lists of all stereotypes they had heard about Asian people. Similar items were clustered together, and two main stereotypes emerged: Asian people are high on competence (they were seen as successful and intelligent) and low on social skill (nerdy, antisocial) [HBR]
  • Asian American stereotypes DO negatively affect them. Another study found that people sometimes feel envy towards supposed Asian competence and hostility towards supposed "low social skills". The researchers theorized that non-Asian people are sometimes threatened by the mythical Asian “unfairly high” competence and use the "low social skill" stereotype to discriminate against them. Researchers found that these stereotypes made people less likely to want to interact with Asian people, learn more about them, or become roommates with them [HBR]
  • The labels "Asian" and "Asian American" cover many subgroups, many of which aren't as economically privileged. While 75% of Taiwanese and Indians in the US have a bachelor’s or higher, many other Asian groups don't come anywhere near this level of education. Compare this figure to Southeast Asian groups from countries like Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos. Youth from these places drop out of high school at an alarming rate; 40% for Hmong-Americans, 38% for Laotian-Americans, and 35% for Cambodian-Americans [NY Times]

There is a huge variety of educational and income levels with "Asian Americans" and these two factors are highly correlated [NY Times]

From History

At a time when it is being proposed that hundreds of billions be spent to uplift Negroes and other minorities, the nation's 300,000 Chinese Americans are moving ahead on their own – with no help from anyone else... few Chinese-Americans are getting welfare handouts – or even want them... they don't sit around moaning. ~ U.S. News, Dec. 26, 1966 (source)

Within racial groups, Asian has the highest level of income inequality indicating the "Model Minority" label does not cover all Asian subgroups [NY Times]

Take Action

  • Recognize that stereotypes are harmful. Though Asian and Asian-Americans may at times be helped by the so-called "positive" stereotype of quantitative intellect (since leaders are expected to be competent, intelligent, and dedicated), the data shows that they are also harmed by negative stereotypes of low social skills (since leaders are expected to be charismatic) [HBR]. Also note that all stereotypes can be harmful because people are treated based on assumptions and generalizations rather than as individuals
  • Rethink the “good leader” prototype of being masculine, dictatorial, and charismatic. Evidence shows that neither men nor women prefer to be treated in an aggressive fashion, yet that model persists as a valid expectation for leadership. As the population of workers in the United States changes, so too can models for leadership [HBR]
  • Respectfully encourage Asian and Asian-American people to become leaders. Research suggests that the bias against Asian leaders can decrease motivation to lead among Asian Americans, which can further exacerbate and reinforce the view that they’re not suitable for leadership. Help counter this negative thinking through encouragement and advocacy [HBR]