The Myth of the Model Minority

The Impact of the Model Minority Myth -

In spite of the fact that Asian Americans have diverse levels of education attainment, financial success, and fill varying socioeconomic brackets in the United States, they are often treated as a homogenous monolith that fits the stereotype of a “model minority.” The model minority minority stereotype (also called the model minority myth) is a perception of Asian students as perfect: highly intelligent, capable, respectful, and hardworking. It’s the ridiculously misguided perception of Asian Americans as some kind of perfect, modelminority. It’s also a view of Asian Americans that is largely untrue, harmful — to those students who are furthest from the stereotype, and those close to it, since it can exacerbate pressures they face.

It is also fairly outdated. Yet many teachers may tend to assume their Asian American students fit this description (see some of the data here.)

In Dr. Rice’s study of South Asian Americans reflecting on their K-12 experiences, most (77.7%) participants said their teachers seemed to believe the model minority stereotype, and that they were smarter than peers from other cultural groups (chart displayed below; you can see more of the data here).

Why does it matter if teachers believe the model minority myth?

The “model minority myth” is misguided and misleading, and is a false stereotype (Leong, Chao, & Hardin, 2000). Even if we ignore the implications of a teacher engaging in stereotyping about students, and ignore what belief in the stereotype says about the teachers’ general cultural proficiency or multicultural education readiness, the model minority myth is still harmful. The model minority myth hurts Asian American students, whether they are low-achieving or high-achieving, and creates divides between these students and others. It may also lead teachers to provide less support to their Asian American students, as they may believe the students need less support than they actually do.Even if we argue that the model minority myth is a positive stereotype, we need only look at the impact this myth has on lower achieving students, whose needs may be overlooked because of low cultural proficiency.

Rahman and Paik’s (2017) study reports that South Asian Americans in the United States are diverse and varied. In particular, their work shows that occupational trends for South Asian American are bimodal, and while there are many South Asian Americans who may have financial and academic success, a great many South Asian Americans work in lower-wage jobs and have lower academic achievement. This further supports the importance of teacher cultural proficiency, since many South Asian Americans do not fit the model minority stereotype, or may come from families that do not (or are unable to) provide supports that teachers may assume they receive.

In the best case scenarios, the highest achieving students still experience greater pressure from teachers (who still do not understand them or may not bother to get to know the students as individuals). Further, they may still be less likely to receive additional supports teachers may provide other students, and succeed academically in spite of having overlooked needs.

Moreover, the model minority myth creates divides between Asian Americans members of other minority groups (Leong, Chao, & Hardin, 2000). This is consistent with the findings of Lee (2015): the model minority stereotype “promotes interracial tension between Asian Americans and other groups,” including other minority groups and White Americans (p. 2).

A belief in the model minority stereotype (as well as a tendency to overgeneralize about South Asian or Asian students) may result in a tendency to assume all students from these groups fit the model minority stereotype, and consequently, may not need general or specific support; this may lead to overlooking these students’ needs.

In fact, a majority (68.2%) of South Asian American participants in Dr. Rice’s study reported that teachers seemed to think they needed less help than their peers from other cultural or racial groups. 

For the great many South Asian and other Asian American students who do not fit the stereotype, experience academic underachievement, or have special needs, the model minority myth can be invalid, inaccurate, and harmful, which may be particularly true if it results in receiving less support than they need.

For those who are high achieving, it can still results in a great deal of pressure, including pressure to fit into a particular stereotype, or can compound existing pressure they face from other sources. Moreover, the model minority stereotype creates divides between student populations.

Moreover, most South Asian Americans really may have needs that far exceed the support they receive:

  • In a constructed response question, most (70.6%) participants indicated that their teachers could have better supported them or their academic needs
  • A majority (64.7%) of participants felt teachers seemed to believe they needed less help developing time management and organizational skills than peers from other cultural/racial groups

So if we know the model minority myth is harmful, untrue, and outdated, why does it persist?

It may be, in part, because it’s been around a long time. Sociologist William Petersen is the first to have used the term in a 1966 piece for The New York Times Magazine, and then in 1973, researchers Kitano and Sue brought the term to the academic realm in the Journal of Social Issues, suggesting Asian Americans were overlooked in terms of research attention and aid, due to being perceived as a non-oppressed minority. Since then, people honed in on the non-oppressed bit (the history of Japanese internment seemingly glazed over), without much concerning themselves with the overlooking-of-attention-and-aid bit.

Consequently, researchers for decades following the Kitano and Sue study have been discouraged from studying challenges faced by Asian and South Asian Americans. According to researchers Leong, Chao, and Hardin (2000), this has had the added effect of making Asian American students’ problems and difficulties less visible compared to other groups that are perceived as more disadvantaged.

In fact, as NPR’s CodeSwitch reported earlier this year, the “Model Minority Myth” is even used as a “racial wedge between Asians and Blacks.” Janelle Wong, Director of Asian American Studies at the University of Maryland, shared with NPR that holding Asian Americans up as a paragon of minority success creates a “flawed comparison” between Asians and Blacks, and minimizes both the role of racism in Black Americans’ struggles, and the nuances that contribute to the model minority stereotype.

But teachers are trained in general cultural competence and multicultural education, and know that stereotypes — even the ones that seem, at first blush, to be positive stereotypes — are dangerous. But it may be that teachers gravitate towards the model minority stereotype because they don’t necessarily realize just how diverse Asian American students are. And who can blame them?

Existing literature on Asian American kids is grossly limited, and what little literature does exist tends to grossly over-generalize and lump all Asian Americans together (see Blair & Qian, 1998; Leong, Chao, & Hardin, 2000). This lack of research has far-reaching implications, but the impact is likely most felt in a classroom context, where it likely means a lack of professional development to support teachers’ cultural proficiency, and lower cultural literacy, including a belief in this misguided view of Asian American kids.

Mainstream media portrayals of Asian Americans don’t help either. In spite of ongoing campaigns to increase representation of Asian Americans in non-stereotypical television roles, the ever-present nerdy Asian friend trope continues to exist, and Asians continue to be cast as unattractive doctors, or creepy IT workers (but rarely, you’ll notice, as CEOs or media moghuls). A social media campaign last year, aimed to combat the still present stereotype and reimagine the perception of Asian Americans in in the public eye, using the hashtag #ReModelMinority, but if you fall into a casual conversation with a teacher colleague, you’ll find they still buy into the stereotype. There are just too many examples that support the view, and not enough that buck it.

So is there a way forward?

First, education research has to delve more deeply and more frequently into the experiences of specific Asian American subgroups. We’re combatting belief in a term that has enjoyed 50 years in the American lexicon, so we have to work hard on this one. Doing so will simultaneously combat the tendency to overgeneralize about Asian populations, provide deeper insight into the experiences and needs of individual Asian communities, and through more clearly exposing the diversity within those communities, demonstrate the inaccuracy of the model minority stereotype. To do this, multicultural education and teacher education researchers have to start conducting actual, empirical studies that outline the effectiveness of cultural competence training. There’s a lot of great literature about best practices for culturally proficient teaching, but not a lot of formal work has been done. This means the research community doesn’t have a ton of evidence that teachers’ beliefs can be remedied, or, for that matter, that there are measurable ill-effects of believing the stereotype.

Then, we have to present teachers, and their students, with diverse stories from and about Asian Americans. The lack of diverse representations of Asian Americans in the media is certainly a part of the problem; from a young age, children absorb the messages they are delivered about themselves and others, including the stereotypes delivered to them by the mainstream media, and Asian Americans are portrayed in books, tv, and movies more frequently as doctors, engineers, or computer programmers than as teachers, athletes, or public relations managers. Teachers are susceptible to the influence of this as well. But we cannot sit around and wait until Hollywood overhauls casting trends and television shows that break the mold become the rule and not the exception; exposing teachers and students to diverse representation can be supported by actively promoting the use of diverse literature in classroom booklists (the #WeNeedDiverseBooks and #BrownBooksProject campaigns on Twitter are good places to start).

Beyond that, teachers, teacher educators, school counselors, and administrators all have to be willing to reflect on their own beliefs and determine whether they might engage in believing the model minority myth. If the answer to that question is even a “maybe,” they have to be willing to consider how that maybe might be impacting their interactions with, and support of, students from Asian American backgrounds. They then need to work to actively overcome this view, with the full recognition that overcoming beliefs in stereotypes, and particularly those stereotypes that don’t at first blush seem that harmful, is a difficult task. But they must know that they can do it.

Educators, ultimately, are at the forefront of combatting the pervasiveness of the Model Minority Myth, because, after all, school is where a lot of learning happens.

You can see more of the data here.