Model minority myth hurts Asian-Americans

Caleb Wong

“You’re so smart — and good at math. Which college are you going to?” Well-meaning people lob these seemingly positive assumptions at Asian-Americans. The widespread “model minority myth” suggests that Asian Americans are monolithically successful. After a lifetime of these comments, I began to think that my own success came from my Asian-American background.

I was wrong.

The model minority is defined by positive stereotypes that suggest Asian-Americans are culturally more likely to be successful. I thought that accepting the pressure to succeed made me a more successful person. However, these positive stereotypes, which attribute “benevolent” characteristics to a group, hurt people they claim to uplift. They can cement the idea that these differences arise from fundamental traits about the group. And when outsiders make sweeping generalizations about a particular group, the door is also opened to negative stereotypes about the group.

Well-known academics such as Amy Chua and Jed Rubenfeld have argued that Asian-Americans’ hyperfocus on academic performance from the model minority myth “creates one of the most liberating and productive places a person can inhabit.” Their assertion isn’t entirely true. While some studies show that emphasizing positive ethnic stereotypes could increase performance, doing so can also cause “choking under pressure,” diminishing academic outcomes and placing undue stress on students.

However, this pressure to perform can undoubtedly lead to depression and anxiety. Societal and family pressures make many Asian-American students feel like they have to represent their race — that their failure is the group’s failure. They deserve better.

Beyond the sense of self, the model minority myth looks past the poverty that can affect Asian-American students and their families. Asian-Americans are not a monolithic group that uniformly attends college and gets high-paying jobs. Research from the Pew Research Center shows that Southeast Asian groups like the Hmong and the Burmese in particular tend to have lower incomes and experience higher rates of poverty than the general population. Yet many Southeast Asian students on UT’s campus are saddled with the mirage of success that belies challenges facing their communities.

“The reality of the Asian-American is that there are hundreds of Asian-Americans who are low-income,” said Milla Lubis, as social work and psychology senior. “The whole minority myth not only plays out on college campuses, but also the whole world that pretends microaggressions and discrimination does not exist.”

Positive stereotypes bind Asian-Americans as captives of their particular race — and for some Asian-Americans, that’s good enough. I wish them happiness. But for my peers who choose a different path as the captains of their own destiny, I wish them success on their own terms.

Wong is government and Plan II junior from McKinney.