Asian Americans: the myth of the model minority

November 01, 1995|By Frank Wu

CRITICISM OF THE model minority myth of Asian-Americans has become so familiar that it is taken for granted by many of us.

But every generation should be reminded of the lies of the myth and their use for political purposes.

Anyone who studies Asian-Americans knows about the model minority myth.

Since the arrival of Asian immigrants in the 19th century, and most notably since the 1960s, this superminority image has suggested that Asian-Americans achieve economic success and gain societal acceptance through conservative values and hard work.

Money matters

The image is a myth because Asian-Americans have not achieved economic success: When comparing equally educated individuals, and taking into account immigrant status, whites earn more money than Asian-Americans.

Moreover, the discrimination that Asian-Americans face can actually be reinforced by the exaggerations of the myth.

Everyone should know that the model minority myth is deployed in ways that exposes the insincerity of its goodwill.

The myth is used to denigrate other racial minorities. It is used to ask African-Americans, rhetorically, ''Well, the Asian-Americans succeeded, so why can't you?''

The myth is used to condemn Asian-Americans themselves when international trade tensions are high or the domestic economy is low: The positive elements of intelligence and diligence turn into negative elements of unfair competition.

The campaign against affirmative action plays upon the success of Asian-American students, without making clear whether that success is to be copied or feared.

Most disheartening is the acceptance of the myth by some young Asian-Americans.

Perhaps it should not be surprising that these Asian-Americans feel they can thank themselves for their good fortune and believe that anyone who does not share in it is to blame for his predicament. Besides, it is easy enough to accept a compliment.

There are several reasons for the longevity of this myth. The model minority image is useful as a means of picturing the races, of placing Asian-Americans within the array.

The model minority image is useful as a means for portraying the international economy and foreign competition, linking Asian-Americans and their Asian cousins in a global ''Japan Inc.''

At a mundane level, the model minority image remains with us because of intellectual inertia and a lack of any sense of history.

Asian-American students, many recent immigrants, learn little about the Chinese Exclusion Act, the Japanese-American internment, how wars create refugees or contemporary issues facing their communities, and they lack the context within which to approach race relations.

To avoid arrogance within our communities and backlash against us, we must battle the model minority myth whenever and wherever it shows itself.

Frank Wu is a columnist for Asian Week and an assistant professor of law at Howard University.

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