The Myth of the “Model Minority”

The brutal killing of George Floyd by police in Minneapolis was followed by peaceful protests and violent riots as the four officers involved were arrested and charged. While the man who kept his knee on the back of Floyd’s neck for over eight minutes, Derek Chauvin, was white, not all three of the officers who stood by watching as he died were. One of them was Tou Thao, a 12-year veteran of the Minneapolis Police Department and member of the Asian-American community. He has been charged, along with two other former officers, with felony aiding and abetting second-degree murder as well as second-degree manslaughter. In the video of Floyd’s killing, Thao stands and looks on as Chauvin digs his knee into Floyd’s neck, despite the outcry from civilian witnesses and Floyd’s own pleas for mercy. His involvement, or lack thereof, serves as a poignant reminder of the role of the Asian-American community as an accessory to the systemic racism against black Americans that exists in the United States. 

Often labeled the “model minority”, an idea grossly rooted in eugenics and white supremacy, Asian Americans have been able to distance themselves from the Black, Latino, and other marginalized communities in an effort to create a sense of security and belonging in an America that favors people of European descent. This mindset serves as a survival mechanism because the perception of Asian Americans as more capable and intelligent than other racial minorities helps them stand out in the search for employment. In fact, Indian Americans are the highest-earning ethnic group in the United States, with the average household earning well into the six figures and even displacing white Americans as the highest-earning ethnic group. 

However, this ideal can be deemed a myth because it operates completely on stereotypes that perpetuate a narrative that Asian-American children are spelling geniuses, math whiz kids, or musical prodigies. It relies on the dynamic of the “Tiger Mom” and the nerdy, effeminate father who holds a prestigious but non-leadership STEM position. At first glance, the idea that a community is regarded as successful and law-abiding may not seem to be detrimental, but the degree to which this ethos has endured erases any individuality between members of the community and creates a strict mold for its youth. Asian-American children are expected to be exemplary students and those who do not fit this image are seen as the outlier by the broader American society. Furthermore, Asian-American college students have higher rates of attempting suicide than those of any other ethnic background because of the high pressure they face. 

There are studies of educational achievement that show that certain ethnic groups from East and South Asia regularly score very well in some subject areas. When such students consistently score higher than even white students, teachers begin to hold their Asian-American standards to an unrealistic standard based on the false belief that all Asians are studious and intelligent. Failure to reach these higher standards can lead to alienation. Although teachers may explicitly endorse egalitarian beliefs, they may be unaware that they harbor unconscious implicit biases, tarnishing the learning experience for lower-achieving Asian-American students. These same studies also reveal that other Asian ethnic groups from Southeast Asia and the Pacific Islands have vastly different results and even underperform compared to other racial groups. 

Committing to this attitude also supports the notion that Asian Americans are perpetual foreigners. The stereotype of the nerdy Asian IT guy stems from the idea that all Asian Americans are similar in that they differ from other Americans. The perpetual foreigner stereotype is a racialized form of nativist xenophobia in which naturalized and even native-born citizens are perceived as foreign because they belong to minority groups. While they may have assimilated into the dominant white American culture better than other minorities, they still remain outsiders. This is particularly apparent in the question every Asian American inevitably faces, “But, where are you from originally?” 

In order to maintain the success the community has found in the United States, Asian-American children are often taught to align themselves not with other minorities at the metaphorical “bottom” but instead with the dominant culture due to the belief that it is proximity to whiteness that offers security. However, the dichotomy between white Americans and Asian Americans has recently become ever more apparent. In March, East Asian Americans were targeted in numerous racist attacks for supposedly bringing the novel coronavirus into the United States. These attacks echo those that followed in the wake of 9/11 targeting South Asians and Arabs. This made the reality of the situation clear: no matter how successful the Asian-American community has become, they have never completely been accepted as Americans. 

Furthermore, Asian Americans’ desire to distance themselves from Black and Hispanic minorities in the United States is ill-founded. Much of the Asian-American population today are first or second-generation, meaning that before the 1960s, the Asian population in the country was practically nonexistent. The beginning of mass Asian immigration became possible only through the Civil Rights Movement. The 1964 Civil Rights Act not only successfully advocated for rights for Black Americans but also allowed Asian Americans to immigrate to the United States in pursuit of the “American Dream”.

Racial inequality has risen to the forefront of national debate, giving the Asian-American community the chance to seriously analyze the racial divisions not only between themselves and white Americans but also with other minorities. This divisive issue often goes unrecognized within the Asian-American community, but it is only through awareness and acknowledgment within and outside of the community that it can be countered. Both the microaggressions in real life and outright stereotypes shown in the media are signs of the deep-rooted issues that the model minority myth creates and perpetuates.

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