Negative Effects of the “Positive” Model Minority Image

Negative Effects of the “Positive” Model Minority Image

The model minority was first coined by sociologist William Peterson in an article titled “Success Story: Japanese American Style” published in the New York Times Magazine in 1966. Peterson concluded that Japanese culture, family values, and a strong work ethic enabled the Japanese Americans to overcome prejudice. The Japanese model minority soon began to include other East Asians such as Chinese, Koreans, and Taiwanese as well as Indians. The model minority stereotype praises these Asian groups as being hard-working, intelligent, honorable, loyal, and obedient. Such acclaim one-demensionalizes Asian-Americans and suggests that collectively, they lack other human qualities such as laziness or aggression. It also subtly implies that Asian-Americans lack other positive characteristics the model minority stereotype fails to address such as leadership ability, sociability, and creativity. The stereotype puts social pressure on young Asian-Americans to adhere to their supposed identity and succeed in life, which puts unneeded stress that other young people do not face. It also gives other Americans the impression that the Asian-American community is well-off, causing citizens and government officials to downplay or outright ignore the problems of Asian-Americans. The myth further isolates Asian-Americans from mainstream society and other minorities, while simultaneously discriminating against both “model” and “problem” minorities. The model minority image is discrimination disguised as admiration.

The model minority stereotype one-dimensionalizes Asian-Americans and groups all Asian-Americans into one group, stripping them of individual identities. It collectively labels all Asians as to having the given characteristics outlined in the model while implying that characteristics not addressed by the stereotype are traits that Asians lack. Asians are seen as intelligent and hard-working in the model minority model, but it does not address the “soft” skills. The image implies that Asians are good for jobs that require strict cognitive ability and technical or menial work, not jobs requiring leadership ability, management skills, aggressiveness or interpersonal skills.

The model minority image perpetuates the stereotype of Asians having technical white-collar positions in computer programming, engineering, investment banking, and financial management or professional occupations in law or medicine. However, Asians working in the primary sector are working in the lower ranks as there is a presumed “glass ceiling” to advancement. As Asians presumably lack interpersonal skills and leadership, they account for less than 0.5% of the 29,000 officers and directors of the nation’s thousand largest companies even though Asian-Americans college graduates are increasing in number (Chin, par 16). The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission reported in 1991 that out of 38,000 companies, 5% of all professionals were Asians, which is well above the 2.9% representation of Asians in the population, but only 2% of officials and management were Asian (Chin, par 19). According to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, Asian-American men born in the United States are 7 to 11 percent less likely to hold managerial jobs than white men with the same educational and experience level (Kangas, par 10). For example, Asian-Americans in an investment banking firm will be given an analyst or an associate job fairly easily in order to perform technical analysis and number crunching. On the other hand, the model minority image prevents promotion into management as it completely disregards leadership ability and interpersonal skills.

Young Asian Americans are stereotyped as being overly studious, smug, materialistic, arrogant about their academic and professional successes, yet simultaneously passive. The “positive” image connotates a negative “nerd” image while excluding other types of achievement not explicitly addressed by the model minority image. Athletic or creative accomplishments are downplayed by the general public (Coolican, par 8). Asian-American culture may be partially responsible, as athletics are not emphasized as much as academics in many families, but the problem is that the general public labels Asian-Americans as being nonparticipants in athletics, which may cause problems for those who do wish to pursue athletics.

The model minority stereotype causes people to downplay or ignore both individual and collective problems Asian-Americans face. The model minority myth disguises the fact that there are many Asian-Americans in need of special education that are overlooked (Chang, par 4). Whether an Asian-American has a learning disability or not is irrelevant; not all Asian-Americans excel in academics. Like all people, there are those who perform well academically and those who need personalized help. The myth allows people to ignore those who do not fit the image of the model minority.
The myth also causes the government to overlook universal problems that Asian-Americans have such as poverty. Many government officials who buy into the myth are unaware of the income disparity among Asian-Americans (Kangas, par 12). In 1994, Asian-American poverty rate was 15.3 percent, compared to a national rate of 14.5 percent, and a white rate of 12.2 percent (Ibid). The poverty rate for Asians in Los Angeles, San Francisco, and New York is nearly twice as high as that of whites (Ibid). Despite complaints from Asian-Americans, their poverty programs have been drastically underfunded compared to other communities due to the model minority myth. The stereotype leads federal, state, and local agencies to overlook the discrimination and problems facing Asian-Americans. For instance, from 1972-1977, only 2 million dollars (0.8%) of 213 million was given to Asian American groups from OMBE, a federal group intended to implement improvement programs for minorities (Chin, par 13). The underfunding of poverty programs is further exasperated by misleading or incomplete statistical data. Many people are mislead statistical numbers on salary, reaffirming their incorrect perceptions that the model minority image is empirically supported.

Median Household Income: 2004. US Bureau of Labor Statistics
Ethnicity Household Income
(South Asian) Indians $68,771
Filipinos $65,700
Chinese $57,433
Japanese $53,763
Koreans $43,195
Vietnamese $45,980
Whites $48,784
Total US Population $44,684

The income figures lead people to believe that Asians do not need to be on welfare and leads to the underfunding of poverty programs such as welfare. What the above statistical data fails to address is that 59% of Asian Americans live in California, Hawaii, and New York, which have higher per capita income and costs of living than the national average (Chin, par 8). It also fails to mention that more members of a family work in comparison to other races (Kangas, par 11)

It is argued that Asian-American problems are ignored due to the small Asian population and thus, a small number of voters who can influence government policy. Asian-Americans only account for only 4.4% of the population in the United States in 2006. In certain communities however, Asian-Americans have sizeable populations. In Los Angeles, Asians account for 10.16% of the population. It is 16.6% in Seattle, and a whopping 31.8% in San Francisco according to major US census bureaus. Despite problems in cities with large Asian populations, their problems are largely downplayed by local and state governments due to the myth. On the other hand, it is important to realize that with a large number of registered voters, some initiative (other than mere complaining) should fall on the Asian-American as they can affect public policy decisions and influence officials with even a 10% demographic.
The blanket image also overstates the performance and hides the problems of traditionally deprived ethnic groups. The model minority model conveys the idea that all Asians are homogenous when in fact Asia is a continent with 27 countries, many separated by oceans and with vastly different cultures and background circumstances. This erroneous all-inclusive stereotype downplays the problems many Southeast Asians face. 67.2% of Laotians, 65.5% of Hmong, and 46.9% of Cambodians, and 33.5% of Vietnamese live below the poverty line (Kangas, par 14). As the stereotype encompasses all Asians, it ignores special circumstances such as war refugees, a demographic that is generally less educated and poorer to begin with than other groups. Being blanketed with other Asians also prevent Southeast Asians from being admitted through schools offering affirmative action. Asians do not benefit from affirmative action as they allegedly have high levels of success. Schools choose lower-scoring applicants from other racial groups over Asian-Americans in an attempt to promote racial diversity and to maintain some proportion to the society’s racial demographics (Matthews, par 5). This discriminates underperforming Asians, especially Southeast Asians, many of whom never had formal postsecondary education in the first place.

Another major problem is that not only do white Americans believe the myth of the model minority, but Asian-Americans themselves do too, a cause for psychological torment and stress. Asian-Americans, especially Asian-American students, suffer from relatively higher rates of stress, mental illness, depression, and suicide attempts than other races (Nawho, par 1-12). The model minority is emotionally damaging as Asian-Americans are expected to perform at a level that is allegedly relative to their peers and live up to the myth (Ibid, par 17). Asian-Americans who cannot live up to the inflated standard feel ashamed of themselves. The image gives well-performing Asians a false sense of pride and security while putting a heavy toll psychologically and emotionally on those who feel they do not meet live up to the myth.

The model minority myth further alienates Asian-Americans. Due to the stereotype of high academic performance that sets Asians apart from others, it gives others a license to discriminate. The general public and other minority groups feel resentment towards the perceived success that Asian-Americans have. Minority groups feel resentment for Asian-Americans not sharing their success while the mainstream public feels that these “foreigners” are robbing them of their jobs and success (Yeung, 17). As the stereotype places Asian-Americans on a nonexistent pedestal, it invokes jealousy from everyone else, invoking more discrimination.

The supposedly positive model minority image is essentially a jab at what the public deems “problem minorities,” meaning blacks and Latinos. The question is, “If blacks and Mexicans are being held down by discrimination, then why do Asians come to this country and do so well for themselves?” (Kangas, par 2). The reason why the model minority image gained prominence in the late 1960s was not to admire Asian-Americans, but to discredit the Civil Rights Movement. By attributing Asian-American successes to Asian culture and values, the stereotype downplayed the significance of racial discrimination (Chin, par 2). The model minority image was used to justify the underprivileged status of minorities. If Asians can overcome discrimination and contribute to society, why not blacks and Latinos? Obviously, the myth did not mention that underprivileged Southeast Asians performed comparably to blacks and Latinos.

The “positive” model minority stereotype is a form of soft bigotry that causes immense harm to Asian-Americans – It threatens the Asian-American identity, marginalizes their problems, elicits more prejudice, alienates the community, and increases the level of discrimination Asian-Americans face. Perpetuation of the myth further isolates Asians from everyone else in society. By “praising” Asians, it invokes jealousy from whites and other minority groups. It labels all Asians under one stereotypical umbrella, when Asians are just as diverse in personality and characteristics as everyone else. This one-dimensionalization prevents Asians from being perceived as having any sort of individuality, as Asians are seen as family and society-oriented people where individuality is frowned upon. The myth asserts that all Asians have certain characteristics while lacking others, which prevents advancement in the work force. Asians are pressured to conform to artificially high standards of performance. Asians who buy into the myth undergo psychological and emotional turmoil in an attempt to conform. Modern US society generally considers institutionalized racism and prejudice socially abhorrent, but the myth bypasses this social conscience. Since the myth of the model minority seems positive at face value, it is accepted and propagated by society. But in reality, it is one of the ugliest forms of discrimination as it is tacit discrimination cloaked in praise.