The model minority stereotype damages Asian-American communities

When people picture Asian-Americans, they may have a hard time painting an accurate image. Most of the time, they are disregarded, forgotten and erased. Yet, at the same time, when Asians are brought to the public’s attention, they are most commonly associated with images of success.

Asian stereotypes differ from others in the broad spectrum of minority groups. A main reason behind this is the concept of being part of a “model minority,” which is the idea that Asian-Americans and other ethnic groups are successful despite being marginalized.

“The idea of stereotypes with Asian-Americans is a really profound issue because there are some that are pretty positive,” said Matthew Asuncion, a counselor-in-training at Stanford’s Newsroom by the Bay. “Like ‘hey, look at that Asian-American over there! He’s probably smart.’”

The perception of Asian-Americans has changed drastically throughout history, from being referred to as lazy, insufficient workers to highly educated, wealthy and successful individuals may be seen as a step up.

“Being Asian-American currently in our current political atmosphere has been interesting,” Stanford student Emilia said. “As we see other minority groups being pushed away from the general society, we also see Asians doing really well.”  

Coined in a 1966 issue of the New York Times, the term “model minority” first came to light in an essay explaining success stories of Japanese-Americans. Later on, a similar article, published by the US News and World Report, was released on Chinese-Americans. By the 1980s, almost all major U.S. magazines and newspapers covered the success stories of Asian-Americans, furthering an image of success and progress among them.

Yet, this idea of “positive” stereotypes can be the most harmful as they can contribute to the misconception of Asian-Americans being immune to discrimination due to their presumed “success.”

“There is a lot of stress associated with being Asian-American because you’re held to a certain standard,” Asuncion said. “You’re expected to be a certain thing that maybe you don’t want to be. Certainly we all strive to achieve success — that’s just human nature. But it definitely is ramped up as an Asian-American.”

Many of these expectations may be brought on by the previous generation of Asians, most of whom are immigrants. They often carry the traditions and norms that they themselves were raised with, Asuncion explained. The cultural gap between different generations of Asian-Americans is often seen through the contrasting ideas within each group, Emilia mentioned.

“I think this is probably a point of privilege as part of the younger generation of Asians in America because of family and typical sacrifice that has happened,” Emilia said. “I do have more freedom to explore things which is possibly why the idea [of model minority] comes up more. I do think there is a little bit of a gap in what the older generation believes and feels versus what the new younger generation feels.”

Miscommunication can play a role in the cultural gap between generations. One issue between Asian-American parents and kids is their difficulty in understanding one another due to language barriers and cultural differences, San Francisco visitor Kevin Kim mentioned. With older generations, they often struggle with their own experiences as immigrants and want their children to be free from those worries, yet fail to realize that the world of younger generations may vary from the world they came from.

“It’s harder to convince [parents] of something that may be just a new thing that comes up in the new generation because they’ve always been rooted in a long history of respecting your elders and learning from them,” Asuncion said.

Older generations, naturally, often have a major influence on their kids and the way they think. Some positive aspects that Kim explained were the values that his parents instilled in him, as it helped him focus on using his mind to better himself. However, with the positives also comes the negatives.

“One of the main drawbacks of the Asian-American identity is that you always have expectations pinned to you,” Asuncion said. “It’s not just a thing that is solely associated with Asian-American culture but is definitely one that’s amplified by it.”

With all of the struggles that come from stereotypes, being seen as the model minority, and the expectations of immigrant parents, it is clear that these all help to shape every individual’s identity as both Asian and American. With that in mind, they are able to understand what it personally means to be American while balancing two parts of one identity.

“I’m proud to be Asian and American,” Emilia said. “I’m proud of my heritage but I’m also more cognizant more and more so about the benefits and the negative aspects of being American in society.”