What the “Model Minority” Myth Gets Wrong: A Conversation

by Helen Chen and Richi Barua

Throughout the coronavirus pandemic, Asian Americans have been affected by surging rates of unemployment and increased aggression due to rising xenophobia. Asian youth are not immune to these developments, which they see affecting their friends, family, and neighborhoods.

Two of our writers, Helen Chen and Richi Barua, have been trying to articulate their feelings on being Asian American during this trying period. This is in addition to being burdened with longstanding stereotypes placed on them such as the model minority myth, which Pulitzer Prize winner Viet Thanh Nguyen has described as the idea of Asians as “the desirable classmate, the favored neighbor, the nonthreatening kind of person of color.” Nguyen and others point out that the model minority myth neglects that Asian Americans have long been among the poorest, least represented, and first to be discriminated against during times of crisis.

Many of our teen-written stories wrestle with identity and coming of age, and Helen and Richi’s works are no different. Recently, they wanted to articulate the constraints they felt when tabbed as a “model minority.” In discussions with their editors, both writers revealed passionate and rich feelings and emotions that could not be given full justice in a 1,000-word piece.

To help express their feelings, we invited Vivian Louie, director of the Asian American Studies Program & Center at Hunter College and a YC board member, to lead a discussion with Helen and Richi on the model minority myth. Both writers revealed insight into what many youth are experiencing during this time of uncertainty. Below are some highlighted excerpts from the video, which can be accessed in full here. Be sure to read their personal stories, “From Begrudging Family Translator to Literacy Volunteer,” and “I Plan to STEM the Tide: A lack of equal opportunities for low-income students won’t prevent me from achieving my science dreams.”

— Seth Berkman, Editor, Youth Communication

Vivian Louie: According to the model minority stereotype, as it evolved over time, Asian Americans are academic achievers. They’re seen as well-to-do. And they’re seen as not facing the struggles that other Americans might face, whether those are economic, mental health, political, or having to do with racial and ethnic discrimination.

The model minority contrasts with prior images of Asians in the United States, which have not been so model, between the late 19th century until the 1960s. Asians in the United States were seen as the pollutant of the American West…the low wage worker, as the deviant, as the enemy, as the yellow peril.

Threaded throughout was the conception of Asian Americans as the forever foreigner, not worthy of being American. And in fact, that stereotype of Asian Americans, along with others associated with the threat that I’ve just mentioned, continues today. [Asian Americans] are wrongly blamed as being carriers of the COVID-19 virus because the initial outbreak occurred in China. The model minority also makes invisible the incredible diversity in the current Asian American population.

Helen: There are many, many barriers that exist for immigrants. My grandparents, they were older. So it was even harder for them to adjust to a new country with new customs and new languages. So I think that it ultimately just allowed me to realize that. There are so many different barriers that still exist today, and that we need to look just beyond what we understand of the model minority.

Richi: I think the very first exposure to the myth was definitely through media and TV shows. So in Bangladesh, I did not really watch a lot of American TV shows…there was barely any Asian representation, but the ones that did, they always portrayed them as sort of the nerdy characters. And it just seemed a little bit odd to me.

I go to a predominantly Hispanic school and I do not think my classmates interact as much with other Asian Americans. There was this one particular moment when we were talking about this math exam, and we were in English class and I did decently well. I was talking to someone and he told me, ‘Well, you’re Asian, you know?’

I just looked at him just a little bit shocked and told him, What does that even mean? And he kept on insisting and reiterating the same thing he told me…it was a little bit scary because it really looked like he believed it and he was very firm with it.

Helen: I attend a predominantly Asian high school. In my high school, it’s predominantly first gen and low-income Asians. It’s definitely nothing like I’ve heard about Asians according to the media. I see that many of them have diverse interests, whether it’s career interests or academic interests.

I think that also just perpetuates this sense that Asians don’t really belong. That they’re like the other, in a sense that they’re not really American.

Even though many of my peers are economically disadvantaged, they’re still thought to be high achieving because they’re Asian, but that also just ignores the barriers, the systemic barriers and the things that they have to go through because of their socioeconomic background.

Richi: Being an immigrant is just very terrifying because everything you do here is like new. Many immigrants find it very hard to ask for help because I think they expect that people are going to judge them very easily. That happened to me. I didn’t know how to speak English when I first came here, people gave me looks. And so you sort of fear that.

I think it’s crucial [that people] reach out to them to see how they’re feeling because it’s very scary and they really need emotional support and moral support.

I think that also just perpetuates this sense that Asians don't really belong.
Explore All Topics