How we view “model minorities” matters

By Andrew Larkins and Eva Weisenfeld

Staff Writers

A model minority is defined as a group of people who are generally thought to be more successful than the population average. While seemingly based on the group’s hard work and effort, the issue stems from something much deeper. The idea of model minorities creates pressure both on the target group and on other minorities, whether intentional or not. 

The term “model minority” was coined by William Petersen, a sociologist at the University of Berkeley, California, in 1966. It was first used in one of his New York Times articles to compare Japanese Americans to other minorities in America, explaining their success where other groups floundered.

Although the idea of “model minorities” was seemingly adopted to celebrate Japanese American success, it was used as a weapon against other minorities: if Japanese Americans could overcome racial barriers, why couldn’t they? 

In an NPR article by Kat Chow, she references an article by Andrew Sullivan in New York Magazine, where he uses Asian American success as a way to downplay racial prejudice. His argument, she says, focuses on working around the problem of racism and undermines the diversity of the group.

The problems with Sullivan’s argument spans much deeper than just underplaying the effects of racism. His argument, and others like his, downplay the opportunities that Asian Americans have had, and their treatment compared to other groups, Chow elaborates.

 It is likely that part of some Asian American students’ successes is partly due to the common perceptions of them — a Rosenthal Effect. The “Rosenthal effect,” named after Robert Rosenthal, describes the phenomena where a person’s expectation for something influences the end result. Rosenthal tested this theory with two sets of lab rats, one group labeled to have been bred to solve a maze, the other not. The results showed that the labels were accurate. However, it was found that students had unconsciously manipulated the outcome of the experiment to match their expectations for the groups of rats when in reality, all the rats were bred to be the same. Rosenthal believed this reasoning could be applied in the same manner to students and teachers. Asians are viewed by society as successful high achievers. This perception may cause teachers to unconsciously have higher expectations for Asian students than they do for others, making the Asian students work harder to reach that bar.

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This graphic compares the college education achievement of Asian Americans to those of the general U.S. population. SOURCE: Pew Research Center

However, as is the case with any stereotype, the model minority myth is harmful to the targeted group. The myth instills a sense of perfection in Asian American students, making them feel the need to excel. However, the amount of pressure placed on Asian American students can lead to various mental health issues.

Many people of Asian descent place unnecessary pressure on themselves and feel that same pressure from others. Figures from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show suicide as the leading cause of death for Asian Pacific Islanders age 10-24 in the US in 2018. The amount of pressure felt by Asian Americans, as well as a culture of undermining mental health, is likely the reason. Additionally, research shows rising rates of alcoholism and drug consumption, partially caused by Asian American youth’s pressure to excel.

 

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The graphic above shows the 10 leading causes of death for Asian/Pacific Islanders by age range in the United States. As shown in the visual, suicide is the leading cause of death for those age 10-24. SOURCE: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

 

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This graphic shows the rising income inequality among Asian Americans compared to other groups. SOURCE: Pew Research Center

Along with the mental effects of the model minority myth, the idea of model minorities undermines the diversity of minority groups, especially Asian Americans. While there is a strong public image that Asian Americans are all very successful, they are also the group with the fastest rising income inequality, according to a study from the Pew Research Center. With a range of 3% to 28%, the scope of poverty rates within different Asian groups point toward a different picture of Asian Americans: one that can’t be generalized by stereotypes.

This stereotype overlooks the differences between all ethnic groups’ histories and experiences, and the diversity of Asian Americans as a whole. The idea of Asian Americans as a model minority, and the use of them as a stereotypical group, hurts both Asian Americans and other minorities.

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