Illustration by Emma Sosa, Graduate Student in GPS, for Caltech Letters
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When I was in elementary school, my mom volunteered to help with Math Olympiad. I already knew that I was good at art, so I was excited to show off my math skills for her. I would not be able to articulate why until much later in life, but for some reason I just thought that I should and would be good at math. But on Math Olympiad day, I couldn’t do any of the worksheets, and my humiliation grew until the hour was over. To this day, being asked to calculate something on the fly ties a knot in my stomach.
We’ve all heard the stereotype—Asians are good at math. This casual statement is a manifestation of the Model Minority Myth, the idea that certain non-white minorities can serve as a successful assimilation “model” for other non-white minorities. The myth may seem benign, even beneficial for Asians, but it stems specifically from anti-Black racism and contrasts the cherry-picked successes of certain East Asian Americans against stereotypes of Black, LatinX, and Native Americans as a justification for their continued marginalization. It centers Asian American and Pacific Islander narratives around East Asians, despite the rich history of many other Asian groups in the U.S. since the 1800s. It is also a direct product of the American myth of meritocracy, the idea that power and privilege are allocated by individual merit alone, blind to social and economic class1. As a Caltech scientist, and as an Asian American✝ who used to believe in the Model Minority Myth, I believe we must subject this stereotype to the same level of critical examination we demand in our research.
In order to dismantle this racist myth, we need to understand that “race” is a social construct with no scientific basis, based on perceived differences in physical appearance among human beings2. In the American colonies, race was used to justify why certain people—enslaved Africans and colonized Indigenous Peoples of North America—were denied the rights and freedoms that European colonizers took for granted2. Race was written into the legal system of the colonies, and later the United States, starting in the 17th century in order to grant exclusive rights and freedoms only to those considered “white,” like Virginia slave owners and other European colonizers.3 In the United States, race was explicitly set up as a hierarchical system with white landowners at the top and enslaved Black people at the bottom. The social, political, and economic forces that protect and reinforce this hierarchy are “white supremacy.”
Image from Ohio State University.
It is against this backdrop that Asian Americans were racialized. Asia has been consistently viewed as the West’s “other” throughout history, simultaneously fascinating and terrifying. Until after World War II, Asians living in the United States were primarily seen as “Forever Foreigners”—a homogeneous group primarily loyal to a monolithic “Asia” instead of the United States4,5. Starting in the 1800s, thousands of Asian immigrants—primarily Chinese, Japanese, and Filipino — came to the United States to work in agriculture, construction, and other low-wage jobs5,6. Despite the diversity of this group and their hard work, they were dismissed as backward, submissive, and inferior5. Their perceived lack of loyalty to the United States and their “otherness” were used as evidence to restrict Asian immigration and reject Asian immigrants. Regulations were put into place that barred them from becoming naturalized citizens, prohibited them from owning or leasing land, and crowded them into ethnic enclaves like Chinatowns that were considered “depraved colonies of prostitutes, gamblers and opium addicts.”7
Data from the 2010 U.S. Census and the 2012 Pew Research Report "The Rise of Asian Americans."
Asian immigrants’ failure to thrive because of restrictive and racist laws began a feedback cycle that perpetuated their perceived inferiority and exclusion between the 1870s and World War II. This included passing increasingly prohibitive immigration policies to keep the Asian population low (<1%). The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 was the first immigration law to prevent an entire ethnic group from immigrating to the United States and becoming eligible for citizenship.6 Citizenship was even taken away from certain subgroups, when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 1923 that Indians were not white and therefore ineligible for citizenship8. Later, most Asian immigration was barred with the passage of the 1917 Immigration Act. The stereotype of the “Forever Foreigner” continued through WWII with Japanese internment, a federal policy where people of Japanese descent were uprooted from their homes, forced into internment camps, and required to complete “loyalty” questionnaires9. California even ruled that only “1/16th” of Japanese heritage was enough to qualify10. Though the United States was also at war with Germany, sweeping demands for the internment of German Americans never materialized.
After WWII, a split between “good” and “bad” Asian Americans emerged. A select subset of Asian Americans—mainly U.S.-born and -educated Chinese and Japanese Americans—were held up as Model Minorities. Economically and academically successful, these Model Minorities allegedly achieved success due to their adherence to “traditional American values”—respect for authority, nuclear families, and adherence to strict gender roles5,11. As historian Ellen Wu has shown, the Model Minority Myth was so successful in the 1950s because it was used as anti-communist propaganda, arguing Chinese American success was due to American freedom and democracy that was not available to them in communist China7.
The Model Minority Myth then evolved in the 1960s in response to the ongoing Civil Rights movement. William Petersen, then a professor of sociology at UC Berkeley, argued in an influential 1966 New York Times Magazine article titled “Success Story: Japanese American Style,” that Japanese Americans were the hard-working antithesis to what he termed “problem minorities, specifically the ‘American Negro.’”12 Those same “traditional American values,” he argued, had allowed them to overcome discrimination after World War II and achieve some success in the U.S. This idea immediately caught on in popular culture and academic literature to apply to all Asian Americans, resulting in an infamous 1987 TIME Magazine cover that proclaimed, “Those Asian-American Whiz Kids.”13 When explicitly compared to Black Americans, Asian Americans were said to have achieved success “the old-fashioned way” through quiet hard work and perseverance—validating the myth of American meritocracy—instead of protesting in the streets as Black civil rights leaders were5. This myth held despite the history of activism within the Asian American community, from the 1800s to the present. After all, it was only after the concerted activism of East, South, and Southeast Asian American groups that all people of Asian descent fully secured the right to vote and become U.S. citizens in 195214,15. Even the term “Asian American” was only coined in the 1960s by a collective of college students and activists in order to unite disparate Asian identities in the fight for political and social change16.
Asian Americans were held up as Model Minorities to justify the enduring divide between white and Black Americans, and to gloss over the consequences of slavery. A 1966 article in U.S. News & World Report noted, “At a time when it is being proposed that hundreds of billions be spent to uplift Negroes and other minorities, the nation’s 300,000 Chinese-Americans are getting ahead on their own, with no help from anyone else.”17 This statement is willingly blind to the fact that the wealth of this country comes from the subordination of Black people, an unrepented sin that can be traced all the way from slavery, through segregation, to mass incarceration and police violence today. It also uses the Model Minority Myth to prevent policies of restorative justice. Today, it is used to scale back another legacy of the Civil Rights movement: affirmative action in university admissions. One example is the 2014 Students for Fair Admissions v. Harvard lawsuit, which was filed not by an Asian American, but by an organization founded by a politically conservative legal strategist18. Asian Americans have consistently been used as an ideological tool to suggest that other minorities, particularly Black Americans, have only themselves to blame for their historical and structural marginalization19,20.
Ironically, it was the Civil Rights movement, led by Black Americans, that shaped the Asian American population that we see today. The Civil Rights movement led to the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, which abolished restrictive immigration policies that allowed the Asian American population to grow. The Asian America that we see today is largely the product of this post-1965 immigration, with 20 million Asian Americans tracing their roots to more than 20 countries in East and Southeast Asia and the Indian subcontinent6. My parents are part of this post-1965 wave; they left China in the early 1980s to pursue PhDs at Columbia University, became naturalized U.S. citizens, and at this point have lived in the United States longer than they have lived in China. Today, Asian Americans represent 6% of the U.S. population and are the fastest growing racial group in America6. This group is majority immigrant, with 74% of all Asian American adults born abroad6. Although Asian Americans are traditionally thought of as East Asian due to Japanese and Chinese Americans being the dominant Asian subgroups prior to 1965, it is projected that the 2020 census will show Indian Americans as the largest subgroup21. Asian Americans are also multiracial and the most likely racial group to marry across racial lines6. One example is Vice President Kamala Harris, who has an Indian-born mother and a Jamaican-born father.
Data from the 2010 U.S. Census and the 2012 Pew Research Report "The Rise of Asian Americans.""
However, as in the past, modern Asian immigration is highly restrictive. The 1965, and subsequent, Immigration Acts have all preferred family-based and high-skilled immigration, which has led to the phenomenon of “hyper-selectivity” in Asian immigrants where many are better educated than the general American public and their home country populations22. For example, 51% of Chinese immigrants have at least a bachelor’s degree while only 9% of Chinese citizens do6,23. Given the design of these immigration laws, it is not surprising that Asian Americans, as a whole, have the highest annual household incomes and highest household wealth in the U.S.6 It seems today that U.S. immigration policies, not “traditional American values,” are responsible for the Model Minority Myth.
Data from the 2010 U.S. Census and the 2012 Pew Research Report "The Rise of Asian Americans.""
And yet, that is not the full story either. The Model Minority Myth flattens the diverse Asian American population into a monolith. In reality, each Asian and Pacific Islander subgroup has a unique history and faces distinct challenges. Although some have arrived as highly skilled workers, many have also arrived as refugees, notably Vietnamese immigrants as a result of the U.S.-backed Vietnam War. Today, Asians are the fastest growing segment of the U.S. undocumented population24. A growing number of Asian immigrants are also arriving with minimal education and job training, one factor that has led to Asian Americans displacing Black Americans as the most economically divided racial or ethnic subgroup in the U.S.5,25 These immigrants include my aunts, who have worked in Chinese restaurants, as home aides, and as Amazon warehouse workers. Even academic success is not guaranteed: two-fifths of Chinese Americans (either born or raised in the U.S.) do not graduate from college, and in the first year of college, Asian American and Black students have the highest enrollment rates in remedial education courses22,26. And despite the higher median income and education of Asian Americans as a group, they are underrepresented in leadership positions in government, corporate America, academia, and popular media27.
Finally, the Model Minority Myth denies the historical and ongoing racism that Asian Americans face. In truth, the “Forever Foreigner” trope never died, but continually resurfaces in response to American geopolitics. This includes the alarming rise of hate crimes against South Asian Americans, notably Sikh and Muslim Americans, since the 2001 September 11 attacks30, and assaults against a variety of Asian Americans in the age of the novel coronavirus28,29. Asian Americans are also the least likely group to seek and receive treatment for mental illnesses or report domestic violence30,31. The Model Minority Myth obscures the reality of who Asian Americans really are, the challenges they face in their daily lives, and encourages their silence about it2.
The Model Minority Myth is a difficult thing to talk about among Asian Americans, perhaps because some feel that it benefits them, and because some have whole-heartedly embraced it. I thought I was a Model Minority for a long time, too—growing up in a wealthy suburb of the San Francisco Bay Area surrounded by successful Asian Americans, it was easy for me to assume that we had all gotten here by pulling ourselves up by our bootstraps. It was much more difficult for me to question those assumptions and educate myself about the tortured history of race and “success” in America. Clearly, the Model Minority Myth was never meant to be pro-Asian. Instead, it is used to justify white supremacy and minimize the continued effects of slavery on Black Americans. The racialization of Asian Americans is complex and nuanced, and needs to be viewed within the broader history of race in the U.S.—in fact, the constantly shifting perceptions of Asian Americans so clearly illustrate how race is a social construct, a blank screen onto which individuals with various political agendas project7. Buying into the Model Minority Myth only reinforces false narratives of race and success, and thwarts the efforts of all groups to finally make the U.S. equitable for all.
✝:Notes on the term “Asian American”
There have been many terms the community has used to try and label themselves, including (but not limited to): Asian American Pacific Islander (AAPI), Asian Pacific American (APA), and Asian Pacific Islander (API). These changing labels reflect the ongoing dialogues that these communities are having as they grapple with their identity, as well as the continually changing demographics of this community. For the purposes of this piece, I will use the term “Asian American” because: 1) The history of Pacific Islanders is heavily shaped by colonization, which cannot be explained in this short piece, and 2) Pew Research Center data on “Asian Americans” is referenced, which is defined as people who self-identify with one or more of the following Asian groups: Bangladeshi, Bhutanese, Burmese, Cambodian, Chinese, Filipino, Hmong, Indian, Indonesian, Japanese, Korean, Laotian, Malaysian, Mongolian, Nepalese, Pakistani, Sri Lankan, Thai, and Vietnamese.
Suggested Additional Reading
Wu, Ellen D. The Color of Success: Asian Americans and the Origins of the Model Minority. Course Book ed. Princeton University Press, 2013. Project MUSE muse.jhu.edu/book/46441.
Lee, E. (2015). The making of Asian America: A history. Simon and Schuster.
2: Tatum, Beverly Daniel. Why are all the Black kids sitting together in the cafeteria?: And other conversations about race. Basic Books, 2017.
3: DiAngelo, Robin. White fragility: Why it’s so hard for white people to talk about racism. Beacon Press, 2018.
5: Lee, Erika. (2015). The Making of Asian America: A History. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster.
6: Social, Pew, and Demographic Trends. “The Rise of Asian Americans.” Pew Social & Demographic Trends (2012).
9: Catherine Collins (2018). Representing Wars from 1860 to the Present: Fields of Action, Fields of Vision. Brill. p. 105. ISBN 9789004353244. Retrieved September 29, 2019.
12: William Petersen, “Success Story, Japanese-American Style,” The New York Times Magazine, January 9, 1966.
13: Time Magazine (1987). Those Asian American Whiz Kids. Aug, 31, 51.
15: Cheng, Cindy (2014). Citizens of Asian America: Democracy and Race During the Cold War. NYU Press. p. 177.
16: Kambhampaty, Anna Purna (2020). “In 1968, These Activists Coined the Term ‘Asian American’ – And Helped Shape Decades of Advocacy.” Time Magazine, May 22.
17: “Success Story of One Minority Group in U.S.,” U.S. News & World Report, December 26, 1966.
19: Chen, G. A., & Buell, J. Y. (2018). Of models and myths: Asian (Americans) in STEM and the neoliberal racial project. Race Ethnicity and Education, 21(5), 607-625.
20: Chow, Kat. 2017. “’Model Minority’ Myth Again Used As A Racial Wedge Between Asians and Blacks.” Code Switch, April 19. 21: Hsu, Hua. 2020. “Are Asian Americans The Last Undecided Voters?” The New Yorker, October 26.
22: Lee, Jennifer, and Min Zhou. The Asian American Achievement Paradox. Russell Sage Foundation, 2015.
23: Communique of the National Bureau of Statistics of People’s Republic of China on Major Figures of the 2010 Population Census (No. 1), 2011-04-28; and Communique of the National Bureau of Statistics of People’s Republic of China on Major Figures of the 2010 Population Census (No. 2), 2011-04-29.