How assumptions about Asian American assimilation and success force invisibility upon important issues in our communities.
“What’s so bad about her thinking your dad is good at math? You’re overreacting,” my friend said while we ate our lunch in the cafeteria. We were in 7th grade.
We were talking about my math teacher, whose attention I was trying to get after class. This week’s math lessons were lost on me, and I didn’t know how to do the homework. “Let me just answer Kyle’s question first, then I’ll get to you,” my math teacher assured me. Kyle had actually approached her after I did, but I waited patiently on the side, anxious about whether or not I’d get my questions answered. Five minutes went by, and I knew my teacher would have to run off to her next class.
“I’m sorry Marissa, but I have to go.”
“Oh, okay, but just one quick — ”
“I’m sure you’re fine for tomorrow’s homework, just ask your dad for help.”
I put my notebook in my backpack and walked out of the classroom feeling defeated. First off, my dad wasn’t in my life, and second, why did she assume my parents could help me with my math homework? Kyle was able to get the extra help he needed, but there was this perception that without help, I’d be okay. I ended up getting a C on the following week’s math test, and as I reflect on this moment 12 years later, I can’t help but blame it on the fact that my needs were ignored because of an assumption about my upbringing and my parents’ math abilities.
Misguided by the model minority myth, society holds an inaccurate perception that Asian Americans have successfully assimilated while overcoming the challenges of discrimination and bias. However, those barriers still exist in prevalence, especially in today’s political climate. In fact, those barriers never came down since 1966, when the “model minority” term was first widely published. For Asian Americans — past and present — the model minority label is just another stereotype with negative consequences.
Around the height of the 2016 American presidential election season, Michael Luo, an American-born editor at the New York Times, wrote an op-ed titled, “An Open Letter to the Woman Who Told My Family to Go Back to China” where he recounts an interaction he, his wife, and two young daughters experienced on the Upper East Side of New York City. Luo’s story is one that resonates far too well with Asian Americans, as the situation he describes is nearly identical to the ones that so many other people of Asian descent are forced to face. In Luo’s letter, he writes, “Maybe you don’t know this, but the insults you hurled at my family get to the heart of the Asian-American experience. It’s this persistent sense of otherness that a lot of us struggle with every day. That no matter what we do, how successful we are, what friends we make, we don’t belong. We’re foreign.” While the model minority myth assumes successful assimilation, experiences like Luo’s show that the myth is very far from reality.
There’s also this generalization that Asian Americans are successful by means of diligent hard work: exactly how every immigrant community should strive to be like — what’s so bad about that, right? After all, isn’t it flattery? While seemingly complimentary in nature, the myth fails to recognize the reality in which immigrants and underrepresented groups must endure. The myth makes the supposition that Asian communities are able to achieve the American Dream in a linear, logical fashion — all while keeping our heads down and being obedient citizens within the neighborhoods in which we reside. This is assumed to happen without hardships or tragedy, and also without any loud, heroic triumphs either. The belief is that the success of Asian Americans is achieved humbly and quietly, muted by the myth itself.
And this is exactly how a seemingly positive assumption about Asian American communities ends up doing damage — by muting the reality we live in. While society continues to look at Asian American lives through rose-colored glasses, governments, businesses, academic institutions, and other organizations are unable (or perhaps, unwilling) to provide the support that Asian Americans need.
For example, poverty is rarely associated with Asian American communities, but in reality, research shows that 12.5% of Asian Americans live below poverty levels — a figure that’s higher than the US national average. Yet, Asian populations are frequently left out of studies that analyze poverty dynamics in the United States, ultimately contributing to the overall invisibility and negligence of Asian Americans in poverty.
Another issue that’s overshadowed by the model minority myth is access to healthcare. While Asian countries report impressive life expectancy figures, high rates of limited English proficiency among Asian immigrants living in the US present obstacles when it comes to staying in good health, particularly for elderly individuals. Research done by the Obama Administration for the White House Initiative on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders concludes that this is because over 1 in 3 AAPI’s in the United States are unable to communicate effectively with healthcare providers, and sufficient translation services are unavailable. According to the same study, approximately a quarter of Asian Americans do not see a doctor on an annual basis (the lowest reported figures among all racial groups), and on top of that, Asians are understudied and underfunded when it comes to health research. The model minority myth also buries the fact that Asian Americans are three-times less likely to seek professional mental health services (in comparison to White populations), even though there is no evidence that suggests that Asian Americans suffer from mental health issues any less than other races. This point on mental health is extremely important and is a separate, loaded topic on its own as it continues to be a seemingly invisible issue that Asian Americans face. These aforementioned obstacles — on top of the racism, bias, and discrimination — exist with very little acknowledgement from society, because the model minority myth tells everyone around us that everything is just fine.
In addition to creating blatant misrepresentation of Asian American issues and needs, the model minority myth further homogenizes our race, resulting in underrepresentation of certain Asian populations, particularly those of Southeast Asian descent.
For instance, the model minority myth often highlights the educational successes of Asian Americans, pointing to various statistics: graduation rates, percentage of adults with college degrees, post-graduate degrees, and so on. The stressed importance on education is embedded within many Asian cultures, but what the statistics fail to capture is the struggle that parts of the Asian community face when it comes to receiving and paying for a good education. The high school drop-out rate among some Southeast Asian American populations is unbeknownst to many (for reference, 40% of Hmong, 38% of Laotian, and 35% of Cambodian populations do not complete high school), but because of the model minority myth, it’s easy to simply gloss over these sub-sets of Asian Americans because the top-level numbers tell a different story. As if Asians weren’t already the subject of so many stereotypes and generalizations, the model minority myth adds yet another layer of inaccurate homogeneity that pushes the reality of Asian Americans’ struggles further below the surface, until no one can see them. It’s as if those challenges never existed in the first place.
As a first-generation Filipino American female myself, I recognize the needs of my community and am acutely aware of the barriers that Asian Americans face. The model minority myth is not an easy myth to dispel. For decades, it’s been influencing society’s perception of what Asian Americans are (and are not). William Petersen, the sociologist and demographer credited for the coinage of the “model minority” term, has since created this dangerous illusion that Asian Americans don’t need help — and if they don’t need help, neither do Black communities, Latinx communities, or other communities of color. The adaptation and adoption of the model minority myth over the past five decades has not only made the Asian American reality invisible, it’s also reduced the empathy society has for other non-White races. There is no upside to the model minority myth if you’re a person of color.
The best way to combat erasure is to be as visible as possible via any method available. Vote in all elections and educate yourself on candidates running for local leadership positions. Make sure you’re counted in this year’s census, because census figures help shape government incentives and policies for the next ten years. Get involved with local Asian organizations, because no matter how Americanized you may consider yourself to be, you voluntarily make part of yourself invisible when you disassociate from your roots. During those difficult periods when you might struggle with your identity (and I get it, I’ve been there), remember that you can be both Asian and American, and nothing about your identity, your parents’ identity, or your ancestors’ identity should be erased, made invisible, or forgotten.
After all, myths are simply folklore — fiction, if you will. And we don’t have to hold ourselves to other people’s beliefs when they simply aren’t true.