The term “model minority” has most often been applied to Asian Americans, particularly Japanese, Chinese, and, more recently, Indian Americans. This issue is a significant one because it sets up strata within the category of minorities that imply that those who are most easily “assimilated” are the “best.” This hierarchy allows the majority group to apply criteria of acceptance to other groups. It also is significant because the existence of this concept puts great pressure on younger members of groups labeled “model minorities” to reach high levels of achievement.
“Model minority” is a label applied to an ethnic, racial, or otherwise identifiable group, many of whose members achieve higher levels of success–as identified by the majority group–than average members of society. Measures of success may include household incomes, living conditions, or educational levels. Researchers who have studied minority groups have labeled “model minorities.” Some of them consider the concept to be a myth and a form of racial and ethnic stereotyping. In the United States, Asian Americans and Asian immigrants are often given this label, as are some immigrants from India.
Students of a Japanese-language school in Sacramento, California, around 1910. A long tradition of strong family support for education has contributed to the image of Asian Americans as “model minorities.”
Members of groups that have been called model minorities have varied in their responses to this label. Some are naturally proud to be considered high achieving. However, as more scholarly study has been applied to the concept, the model minority stereotype has been shown to be detrimental to many members of affected ethnic groups. It has, for example, played a role in disqualifying individuals from receiving aid from assistance programs.
Moreover, as with any stereotype, “model minority” tends to become a label that is applied to all members of a group, only some of whom are actually high achievers. This tendency can create unnecessary pressure on individuals to succeed or attempt to force individuals into molds in which they do not fit. This has been especially been a problem among Asian immigrants, whose many subgroups are very different from one another. The tendency to group all Asians together is a form of stereotyping and works to hide problems that do exist.
The label “model minority” might also lead Asians to think that their battles for equality within American society have been won. Demographers have pointed out that this is not the case. For example, Asian Americans are highly underrepresented in political officeholding in the United States. They are also underrepresented as chief executive officers, board members, and high-level supervisors in the American corporate world.
The concept of “model minority” depends on the computation of an average–a mathematical entity involving the addition of values attributed to everyone and divided by the number of individuals included. This statistic often hides the truth when a distribution is bimodal (that is, when many individuals are at either end of a continuum, not concentrated in the middle). In the case of a “model minority,” a group might look very affluent given statistical averages, but this appearance might hide the fact that the group is actually a collection with many individuals clustered at both the high and low ends of the economic continuum.
Most of the stereotypical concepts related to the “model minority” label are most easily applied to Asians who have immigrated from China or Japan. Most of these immigrant populations derive from the middle and upper classes in their home countries. These immigrants tend to arrive in the United States already sharing the values of middle- and upper-class American society. Meanwhile, it is often forgotten that the group considered “Asian” includes such populations as Laotians, Hmong, Cambodians, Vietnamese, and
Chou, Rosalind S., and Joe R. Feagin. The Myth of the Model Minority: Asian Americans Facing Racism. Boulder, Colo.: Paradigm, 2008. Debunks the model minority myth by showing the depth of racism that Asian Americans actually encounter. Fong, Timothy. The Contemporary Asian American Experience: Beyond the Model Minority. 3d ed. Upper Saddle River, N.J.: Prentice Hall. 2008. Focuses on how gender, race, and class intersect to affect Asian Americans. Lee, Stacey. Unraveling the “Model Minority” Stereotype: Listening to Asian American Youth. New York: Teachers College Press, 1996. Drawing on interviews with many Chinese American, Japanese American, and Hmong youths, Lee uses the words of the young people themselves to show how mythic the model minority concept is by revealing the differences among Asian Americans that the stereotype works to hide. Min, Pyong Gap, ed. Asian Americans: Contemporary Trends and Issues. Thousand Oaks, Calif.: Pine Forge Press, 2005. This book is distinguished from many others by focusing on issues directly affecting contemporary Asian Americans. Takaki, Ronald. Strangers from a Different Shore: A History of Asian Americans. San Francisco: Back Bay Books, 1998. Popular history of Asian Americans, written by a well-known expert in the field. who illustrates the history with many primary sources.