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Thursday, April 24, 2014

The model minority myth

Most people in the U.S. believe that Asian American success in the academic field is indicative of idealized immigrant assimilation, but this image is not completely accurate and may be more harmful than beneficial

                It is commonplace to assume that Asian Americans’ academic and monetary success in the United States can be attributed to “natural” intellect and a culture that inherently places emphasis on education.  However, this attitude silences Asian American and Pacific Islanders’ (AAPI) voices in discussions of racial injustice in addition to numerous, serious repercussions.

What the model minority myth is

                In short, it is the idea that AAPIs are a prime example of an immigrant group that has reached a higher level of achievement than the rest of the population average. This success is typically measured in high achievement in academics and in the workplace, as well as other factors such as low crime rates.

                AAPIs have had a history of being seen as the “Yellow Peril”, a fear that manifested itself as initiatives to restrict immigration from Asia and the Japanese internment camps of World War II. That is, until it became convenient for them to be portrayed otherwise.

                During the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s, blacks mobilized across the nation calling for action against segregations laws, voter disenfranchisement, and mass racial violence at the time. In response, the white American press began publishing rags-to-riches stories of AAPIs who achieved success in the U.S. despite facing similar racial segregation and marginalization as blacks. White America essentially broadcast the message that if AAPIs are doing so well, black America’s concerns were unfounded and the system was fine as is.

By the 1980s, every major U.S. publication had run a feel-good story about the high achievements of AAPIs 

AAPIs were nonthreatening enough to utilize as symbols of idealized minority assimilation to American society because their population was much smaller and their history of political activism was quieter and less visible. Thus, AAPIs have been a tool to justify institutional racism ever since, and the model minority myth is taken as fact to this day.

Flaws of the Model Minority Myth

                The model minority myth seems to be fairly easy for the general public to understand. After all, it’s hard to argue against a “positive” stereotype and the statistics that tell us that AAPIs have “obtained the highest educational attainment level and median household income of any racial and ethnic demographic in the country”. This idea alone is misrepresented, as are many other aspects that constitute the myth at large.

It homogenizes an incredibly diverse group
                Asia is the world’s largest continent, not simply made up of the Chinese, Japanese, and Korean. AAPIs therefore have many differences in class, ethnic, geographic, cultural, and religious backgrounds. Claiming otherwise one-dimensionalizes AAPIs on traits based on stereotypes rather than as complex humans with complex experiences.
It needlessly pits AAPIs against other minorities

                The model minority myth contributes to the historical tension between “the model minority” of AAPIs and those who the myth seeks to put down: blacks and Latinos. This is precisely what the manufacturers of the myth intended in a classic “divide and conquer” tactic. If minorities are too busy feuding with each other over harmful stereotypes and illusory privileges of “positive” stereotypes, they will spend less time resisting the actual oppressors. Black and Latino communities’ struggles with social inequity are attributed to “bad culture” without the press exploring whether institutional racism is at play. In contrast, when a well-educated, upper middle class East Asian community seems to be flourishing, the media is quick to attribute it to how much the current system is working. The latter story is easier to swallow at the expense of creating a very problematic racial hierarchy, leading into the next point.
It makes racism seem less harmful to certain minorities over others
                It’s very troublesome that success is being measured in wealth and academic success, and it’s even more problematic that supposed social and economic equality means there are no significant forms of discrimination left in American society.

                Instances of microaggressions are so prevalent in our society that they are considered normal, which silence AAPI voices in discussions of racial issues.
It puts undue, unfair pressure on AAPIs

                For starters, reduction of AAPI into superhuman machines thriving in the American education system and workplace is pure objectification at best. Its implications beyond that are far worse.

                Higher expectations of AAPIs means Asian-American college students in particular are more likely than white American students to have suicide thoughts and to attempt suicide. Additionally, 15.9% of U.S.-born Asian-American women have a higher lifetime rate of suicidal thoughts than the general 13.5% of the U.S. population, according to the American Psychological Association. This is not helped by the studies that show AAPIs in general are less likely to seek psychological and counseling services .

Hard facts about the “model minority”
Infographic compiled by the Asian Americans Advancing Justice - Asian Law Caucus

AAPIs face more economic inequality than the model minority myth would suggest

                First and foremost, it should be noted that while AAPIs seem to boast impressive statistics with having a higher median income than white Americans, AAPIs also have a higher rate of poverty. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, while 12.4% of the general U.S. population is living below poverty, 37.8% of Hmong (the highest in the country for any one ethnicity), 29.3% of Cambodian, 18.5% of Laotian, and 16.6% of Vietnamese people show stark poverty rates that are not discussed enough. For reference, 27.6% of blacks and 25.3% of Latinos compared to 9.9% of whites live under the poverty line. 

The fixation on the successful numbers of AAPIs is a result of an inaccurate depiction of their economic diversity. The reason for the earning disparities in the first place is due to higher educational attainment by Chinese and Indian Americans in particular. When white men and AAPI men with similar educational backgrounds and qualifications are compared, however, it is shown that white men will still earn up to 8% more. Something in the current system, therefore, still discriminates against AAPIs.
The relationship between AAPIs and higher education is bleaker than the model minority myth suggests

                The idea that AAPIs are overrepresented in universities is also, simply, a myth. University officials have used this myth as justification to cap their “quotas” of AAPI students during the admissions process. This means that AAPIs have to actually work harder to score higher than their white counterparts and compete amongst themselves for a limited number of spots. Prestigious institutions such as Brown University, Harvard University, and UC Berkeley have been investigated for their discrimination against AAPIs in admissions.

 According to a detailed publication compiled by College Board, “The AAPI student population is concentrated in a small percentage of institutions, giving the false impression of high enrollment in higher education overall.” AAPI college students tend to be distributed in only a limited number of institutions, such as in 2000 when two-thirds of AAPIs attended college in only eight states.

                Facts such as these tend to be glossed over in major policymaking decisions, such as the Supreme Court’s recent decision to uphold Michigan’s ban against affirmative action. The model minority myth alone serves as a pillar of color-blind racism and suggests that for society to move forward, minorities need only to pull themselves up through hard work rather than protest and policymaking. In the same way, proponents of the ban of “racial preferences” would rather take away the social programs and protections that seek to amend historical segregation and racial bias than openly discuss the inequities inherent in the current higher education system. The fact remains that minorities in general are still vastly underrepresented at universities, yet the ban outright ignores this.  Because the model minority myth persists, bans on affirmative action and related protections persist, meaning chilling consequences for the advancement and empowerment of already marginalized minorities.