Not your model minority

Angela Dinh is a freshman sociology major.

GRAPHIC BY CLARA SNOYER/FOGHORN

In high school, I felt pressured to excel in STEM classes despite my passion and higher aptitude for liberal arts. When I was failing calculus during my junior year, I feared I would be looked down upon by family, friends, and other Asians at my school because I, an Asian American, wasn’t succeeding at a subject I should have been according to the model minority myth. I desperately tried to figure out calculus on my own, but unnecessarily stressing myself out over it greatly impacted my mental health.

The model minority stereotype perpetuates the expectation that an ethnic group will achieve a higher level of success than the general population. The model minority myth is harmful to Asian American students’ academic success and general wellbeing because it puts pressure on us to live up to the stereotype, erases the individual achievement of our academic performances and life experiences, and prevents us from obtaining important resources like academic and emotional help. This immense pressure put onto Asian American students is by far the most devastating aspect of the model minority myth.

What is additionally damaging is how the model minority myth dissuades individuality among Asian American students. It’s common to see scientific data lumping all of Asian achievement together instead of recognizing the many distinct Asian ethnicities. In a 2016 study, psychologists Lisa Kiang, Melissa Witkow, and Taylor Thompson wrote, “Asian Americans are unique in that they experience their share of negative discrimination, yet the common social perception of their standing as a model minority often runs counter to blatantly unfavorable views.” Instead of encouraging the acknowledgement of unique Asian American experiences, the stereotype presumes all Asian students are successful and self-reliant enough to not need additional help.

The pressure to be naturally self-reliant and self-motivated greatly impacts Asian American students. In a 1994 study that examined Asian American students’ attitudes about their future job and educational opportunities, University of Wisconsin at Madison educational policy studies professor Stacy Lee found that “Asian-identified students were [mainly] motivated to work hard because they felt obligated to their families for the sacrifices that they had made.” Because Asian American students are often presumed to be high academic achievers, we are sometimes not offered the same academic assistance as other students, which makes asking for help more uncomfortable. 

The model minority stereotype is ultimately detrimental to Asian American students because it impacts our ability to feel secure in our academic performance and supported in our wellbeing journey. In Kiang, Witkow, and Thompson’s study, they additionally pointed out, “In the case of Asian Americans being stereotyped as overachievers who are successful in academics, the generalized perceptions also can be wholly inaccurate and, as such, prevent some youth from receiving much needed educational help or support.” Due to this stereotype which presumes all Asian Americans are naturally academically successful, those who struggle in certain subjects will also struggle with issues such as self-esteem and depressive symptoms.

Learning about the model minority myth and its full impact is an important first step to slaying this dragon. By educating ourselves on the stereotype and further examining its harm, we have the power to dismantle the myth completely. The ignorance created by the model minority stereotype harms Asian American students by preventing them from being able to share their diverse experiences and be seen as normal, unique people. 

The ambiguous and yet incredibly boxed-in place that Asian Americans are in because of the model minority stereotype also goes hand-in-hand with the “forever foreigner” stereotype — the notion that no matter how hard immigrants work or how long they live in America, they’ll never be able to fully assimilate. In light of the recent rise in racism against the AAPI community in the U.S., I feel that examining the impact of both of these stereotypes in tandem is one of the best ways we can educate ourselves to enact change.  

 Both stereotypes are ultimately so damaging because Asian Americans are not only unfairly held to a higher standard than others, but we are not even allowed a full sense of belonging. 

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