The model minority stereotype hurts Asian Americans

By Andrew Larkins and Eva Weisenfeld

Staff Writers

Asian Americans today are seen as extremely successful and highly educated, and it is easy to see why. Asian Americans had the largest attainment of higher education in 2016, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. The image they have garnered for themselves is one of hard work and a stringent focus on education. That image, though, is no longer defined by what Asian Americans have accomplished, but by what the world and the groups surrounding them expect. This profile masks the individuality and variance within this community. 

First and foremost, let’s address one of the many elephants in the room: success. When you picture an Asian American what do you think of? A student who spends their time focused on academics? Or maybe a well educated professional? What you almost certainly didn’t picture are the countless individuals who don’t fit those criteria.

In New York, for example, Asians have the highest rate of poverty per capita at 23.8%, compared to the cities 19% average, according to The Mayor’s Office for Economic Opportunity. However, the group only got 3.1% of the city’s social service contracts from 2001 to 2014, according to the Asian American Federation.

New York isn’t just an outlier though. While the poverty rate of Asian Americans as a whole is under the national average, the aggregate data hides the problem. By not differentiating between different groups, it ignores groups, such as the Burmese and Hmong people, that had nearly two times the national average rate of poverty in 2015, according to the Pew Research Center.

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The graphic above compares the percentages of all Americans, all Asians, and all Burmese in poverty during 2015. Source: Pew Research Center

Along with stereotypes about Asian Americans overlooking those who actually need help, it hurts those who more traditionally fit the label. According to Daniel Choi, a history teacher from Summit Denali’s middle school, “Many Asian students are more concerned about their grades than the actual learning.” This expectation to succeed that Mr. Choi describes is a driving force in many Asian American lives, and it is a leading cause of stress for many.

Some of these students believe the stereotypes about Asian Americans cause their individuality to be lost too. As Ella Chen, a Summit Denali sophomore who identifies as a mixed Chinese and White, “It places a lot of pressure on eastern Asians to perform well and erases all of their identity other than their academic proficiency”.

To these students, the label of being Asian becomes something that they must earn. The stress from this is palpable for many and contributes to mental illness. The manifestation of this in young Asian Americans is evident in data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which show suicide as the leading cause of death for Asian Pacific Islanders age 10-24 in the US in 2018.

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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

Even after college, the stereotypes about Asian Americans continue to affect their lives. Generally referred to as the “bamboo ceiling,” the concept, similar to that of the glass ceiling, represents barriers that prevent Asian Americans from achieving executive or leadership positions. 

According to a Harvard Business Review article on the issue, “Asian American white-collar professionals are the least likely group to be promoted from individual contributor roles into management.” The issue, the article stated, was the stereotype of Asians as not masculine and charismatic enough, traits that are valued in leaders.

Combating these issues isn’t something that can happen overnight, but we can take steps to alleviate some of them. In an effort to stop this from affecting Asian Americans in the future, we have to rethink what stereotypes we have about the people around us, and how that affects how we look at the world. 

Related:

How we view “model minorities” matters

Asian American stereotypes affect the classroom

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