With the countless articles featuring Asians and their high test scores and amazing successes, Asians appear to have “made it” in American society. Portrayed as a successful, intelligent, and determined race, a generalization which often goes uncontested, Asians are thought to be a “Model Minority.”
Despite the positive connotations that reside on the surface of the concept, the Model Minority stereotype has critical negative impacts on members of all ethnic groups, including Asians themselves. The historical background of Asians and their role in the multicultural United States has been greatly shaped by this notion of the ideal minority and continues to disadvantage them and others who are marginalized even today.
Before analyzing the effects of the Model Minority stereotype on multicultural race relations, it is imperative not to overlook the longstanding history of discrimination against Asians in the United States, which I detailed in this post.
The Model Minority Myth
The Civil Rights era was a monumental time period for Asian Americans. Japanese Americans joined together in the “Redress Movement” demanding reparations from the government for the internment during World War II. During this tumultuous time, the White majority was facing opposition from Black Americans fighting for equal treatment. Coincidentally, it was during this time, 1966 to be precise, that the term “Model Minority” was coined by sociologist William Peterson. Petersen “went to great lengths in a New York Times Magazine article to praise the efforts of Japanese Americans in their successful struggle to enter the mainstream of American life.” (Osajima, Keith. “Asian Americans as the Model Minority.” Contemporary Asian America.)
Other articles that year highlighted the successes of Chinese Americans for their prosperous businesses and apparent triumph over discrimination. This image of Asians as a Model Minority was a colossal shift from the Yellow Peril stereotypes, and its timing was not an accident. Asians were placed on a pedestal as examples of what other minorities should strive for. Their “success” stood to crush appeals from Black Americans for the institution or government support of social programs that would help achieve equality.
The Model Minority image was an important politically as it implied that America was not the racist and White supremacist nation that the Civil Rights activists accused it to be. “Asian Americans had made it because America judged and rewarded people, not by the color of their skin, but on the basis of their qualifications, skills, attitudes, and behavior.” (Osajima, Keith. “Asian Americans as the Model Minority.” Contemporary Asian America.) The Model Minority stereotype continued to evolve, adding other Asian nationalities’ achievements such as Korean and Vietnamese to the Chinese and Japanese success stories. The thesis is prevalent even today.
No Such Thing as a “Positive Stereotype”
The strength of this stereotype and reason for its continuity could be that many consider it to be a “positive stereotype” and insist that it does not hurt anyone. While it may seem like a good thing for Asians to be praised for their achievements and recognized for their intelligence and determination, this stereotype has vast consequences both for Asians and other minorities. Critics of the stereotype claim that “the image is racially stereotypic, empirically inaccurate, and no longer applicable to the changing Asian American population.” (Cheng, Lucie and Yang, Philip Q. “The ‘Model Minority’ Deconstructed.” Contemporary Asian America.)
Supporters of the Model Minority theory use statistical information selectively and give a false and over-generalized representation of Asians to the public. One thing that many people forget about Asian immigrants is how Asian American immigrants were largely “self-selective.” Because of the strict immigration laws that were in place, most Asian immigration was restricted to highly skilled, educated, or wealthier individuals and families which is in no way, shape, or form similar to the forced capture and enslavement of Africans. The Asians who do fit the model of refugees escaping the hardships of their homeland by coming to the United States are the Southeast Asians who, incidentally, have the “lowest success rate of all Asians.” (Kangas, Steve. “Myth Vs. Facts: Asian American and Model Minorities.” http://academic.udayton.edu/race/01race/model02.htm)
Another claim in support of the stereotype is that Asians have higher incomes than even White Americans. This claim is problematic in many aspects. The statistics used to support this claim are skewed. They reflect the incomes of Asian households in their entirety and ignore the fact that most Asian families have more than one family member in the workforce often including children. Also, Southeast Asians are also overlooked as over fifty percent of immigrants from Southeast Asia such as Laotians and Hmong are living below the poverty line.8 Asians in upper managerial positions of companies are virtually non-existent. This invisible barrier preventing upward mobilization for Asians is often referred to as the “Glass Ceiling,” and it is very important in the contestation of the Model Minority perception of Asians as obtaining widespread economic success.
The Glass Ceiling is Real
A study by the Federal Glass Ceiling Commission showed that “97% of the senior managers of the Fortune 1000 Industrial and Fortune 500 are white.” (“The Glass Ceiling for African, Hispanic, and Asian Americans.” http://www.ethnicmajority.com/glass_ceiling.htm) In fact, “among all racial groups (including Whites), Asian American professionals have the lowest likelihood of advancing into management positions.” (Chen, Tina. “How Stereotypes Affect the Careers of Asian Americans.” http://www.modelminority.com/article858.html, 2004.) Despite this obvious under-representation of Asians in the higher rungs of business hierarchies, some theorists have gone so far as to suggest that Asians are a genetically superior race, citing test scores and “higher” IQ’s as evidence. These studies have been proven inaccurate and inconclusive, and they also overlook the complicated history of Asians as well as the ethnic and socioeconomic diversity within the Asian community.
The Model Minority and Mental Health
The high standards to which they are held can have serious consequences for Asians. The idea of Asians as being “good at math” or “passive, hard workers” can add immense pressure to individuals, as well as grave psychological costs for those who do not live up to the ideals. For some, the fear of failure or falling below expectations for Asians can cause anxiety or even depression.
The National Center for Health Statistics (1994) indicated that Asian American women over the age of 65 have the highest female suicide rate among all ethnic and racial groups. In addition, Asian American adolescent girls have the highest rates of depressive symptoms of all racial groups and have the highest suicide rate among all women between 15 and 24 years of age. (American Psychiatric Association. “Briefing Sheet on Women and Depression.”)
Not only do Asian women have higher rates of depression, they also have been known to seek help or treatment less often than other women. A tragic case that epitomizes the Model Minority stereotype’s danger to Asians is the suicide of Massachusetts Institute of Technology student, Elizabeth Shin. Elizabeth was a model student who seemed to exemplify the Model Minority ideals. However, the academic and social stress that she endured while a student at M.I.T. led her to attempt suicide by overdosing on Tylenol and Codeine. After recovering from the suicide attempt, Shin continued to have thoughts of depression.
“Elizabeth voluntarily made her first visit of the year to the campus mental health center. A therapist there reported that Elizabeth told her that she had ”passive thoughts” about death — 10 percent of college students do, according to a C.D.C. study — but did not have any plan to kill herself. Elizabeth did, however, report that she was cutting herself, superficially.” (Sontag, Deborah. “Who Was Responsible for Elizabeth Shin?”)
After confessing to a biology instructor via e-mail that because of a low test score she had purchased a bottle of sleeping pills, the dean was notified. However, no action was taken by the school. After Elizabeth Shin committed suicide by setting herself on fire, accusations of blame went to M.I.T. for their knowledge of Shin’s depression and their lack of intervention. Although there were psychiatric professionals who knew about her suicidal thoughts and attempts, it was difficult for them to comprehend that an intelligent, successful girl like Shin would kill herself.
The positive Model Minority image that people expect often masks real dangers and psychological consequences and in the case of Elizabeth Shin, could easily have been prevented or treated if her concerns had been taken seriously.
A less extreme, but no less valid consequence of the Model Minority stereotype is the exclusion of Asians from programs such as Affirmative Action. Due to the “apparent” success of East Asian groups such as the Chinese, Japanese, and Korean people, Asians do not receive preferential treatment in areas such as education or government contracts. Unfortunately Asians, especially ones from Southeast Asian countries are still underrepresented in higher education. Some argue, although not with substantiation from facts, that Affirmative Action even hurts Asians. Despite this myth, banning Affirmative Action in Universities such as in California has not significantly hurt Asians or White, but the overall number of admitted students of color decreased significantly which is injurious to multiculturalism as a whole. (Americans for a Fair Chance, Factsheet: “Legal Cases Related to Affirmative Action, 1999.)
The Model Minority’s role in Affirmative Action and other such conversations is detrimental not only to Asians but other minorities as well. Affirmative Action is a textbook example of the Model Minority stereotype as means to stratify Asians and other marginalized groups. Politically, Asians are often grouped with White Americans, which oftentimes leaves them vulnerable to become scapegoats and targets for criticism from members of other ethnicities or races by pitting them against each other. Asians sometimes, due to lack of information regarding the policy, see Affirmative Action as a threat to their stability and therefore do not give support to Black, Latino, or Native American citizens who are fighting against Affirmative Action bans, creating racial and multicultural discourse.
The conflict between Asians and other minorities extends beyond Affirmative Action and stems greatly from the initial purpose of the Model Minority in using Asians as an example of what other minorities were supposed to strive for. Resentment against Asians for being considered “honorary whites” has caused tensions that have upon more than one occasion catalyzed serious and violent outcomes. One such outcome is the catastrophic L.A. riots.
This battle between Korean store owners and angered Black Americans is remembered by Koreans as “Sa-I-Gu” which literally means “April 29” (the day of the riots) was a manifestation of the multicultural conflict between minority groups. In low income areas where White flight had led to the decreased presence of White Americans, Korean immigrants took over many of the businesses in areas which were mostly populated by Black Americans.
There were two key events that led up to Sa-I-Gu. The first was the Soon Ja Du vs. Latasha Harlins incident. Latasha Harlins was a teenage girl who was stealing orange juice from a Korean-owned grocery store. When owner, Korean woman Soon Ja Du questioned Latasha about the bottle, Ja Du claims that Latasha made an assaulting move towards her. In defense, Soon Ja Du pulled out a gun, and fatally shot the girl. The sentencing, which found her guilty of voluntary manslaughter, angered the African American community as Soon Ja Du was given a lenient sentence of only 5 years’ probation, 400 hours of community service, and a $500 fine. Black American frustrations were further fueled by the violent arrest of Rodney King by four L.A.P.D. officers which was caught on film and released to the media triggering the L.A. riots.
The outrage over the decision quickly led to violence and civil unrest, with the city erupting into flames and chaos. For three days, people looted stores, set fire to buildings, and destroyed sections of South Central Los Angeles and nearby Koreatown. Fifty-five people died, neighborhoods were left in ruins, and the damage was estimated at over a billion dollars. Hardest hit were the Korean small-business owners who owned shops in South Central LA and neighboring Koreatown. (“The Impact of the Los Angeles Riots on the Korean-American Community.” http://www.asiasource.org/news/at_mp_02.cfm?newsid=79441, May 2002)
The destruction and violence of the L.A. riots left a strong impression on both Korean and Black Americans and tension between the two groups and fear of the other can be observed even today.
Widespread fallacies, increased interracial hostility, and catastrophic ends prove that in no respect is the “Model Minority” a positive stereotype. The Model Minority functions to trivialize and/or ignore the years of discrimination and oppression faced by Asians in the United States as well as the Asians who still struggle today. It alienates Asians from other minorities when pan-ethnic cooperation and understanding are critical to the advancement of marginalized groups in this country. Despite the delusion of the Model Minority stereotype as advantageous to Asians and those that hope to achieve success in the United States by following their example, the perpetuation of this ideal threatens the progress of today’s multicultural society.