STUDENT VOICES | ETHICS AND SOCIAL JUSTICE ESSAY PRIZE FIRST-PLACE WINNER
By Mia Nguyen, Dominican University of California
But What About Positive Stereotypes?: A Community Based Analysis of the Model Minority Myth
Growing up as an Asian American among primarily Caucasian peers, I remember consistently hearing “you’re so smart and good at school, but that makes sense since you’re Asian” or “you must do really well in school because you’re Asian, right?” I did not think much about these comments at the time simply because, in my head, it was supposed to be a compliment and it reinforced what my parents wanted and expected from me. It couldn’t be a bad thing for people to think or assume that I was good in school or that I was smart. However, it never felt quite right to me. It wasn’t until I began my undergraduate studies and became invested in community relationships and social justice that I learned more about this negative feeling. While minoring in Community Action and Social Change, I learned about the true impact of seemingly positive stereotypes.
According to Gestalt Psychology, humans tend to organize stimuli into coherent groups; therefore, from a psychological perspective, stereotyping is a natural cognitive phenomenon (Spielman, 2017). For example, when we meet new people, we immediately group them into gender, height, weight, race, etc. While essentializing or placing basic characteristics on specific groups of people is our brain’s natural way of taking in multiple stimuli, there are also social consequences to this way of thinking. Anthropologists argue that by allowing this to occur without challenging it, we ignore the individual differences within groups and the similarities across groups further contributing to detrimental social effects, especially for minority populations (Guest, 2017).
For the Asian American community, some of the most influential stereotypes are rooted in the Model Minority Myth (MMM). The MMM was originally popularized shortly after many Asian Americans began to immigrate to the United States as a way of weaponizing positive racializations in an effort to motivate other minority groups to “do better.” The concept of the model minority was meant to convey the stereotypical view that Asian Americans were economically successful by emphasizing education, forming strong family ties, and persevering to overcome disadvantages through hard work (Sakamoto, et al., 2012). It refers to Asian Americans as successful minorities who are quiet, hardworking, and high achieving individuals, who are less prone to social problems typically associated with low-income communities (Daga & Raval, 2018; Sakamoto et al., 2012).
The MMM clearly contributes to institutional and systemic policies and procedures, placing some individuals in positions of opportunity while placing others at a severe disadvantage. Although the stereotypes at the core of the MMM are often perceived as complementary, the theory of racial triangulation demonstrates how they are, in reality, problematic. The theory argues that the assertion of Asian American superiority over other minorities and inferiority to Whites forces them into hostile opposition against both groups preventing racial equality between all groups (Yi et al., 2020). The relative success and superiority of Asian Americans then become both a tool to dismiss legitimate accusations of systemic racial inequality and evidence of the constitutional deficiencies of other racial groups: if this minority can succeed, then any minority should be able to succeed and would be solely responsible for their failure to do so.
Not only has the MMM impacted the ways in which the Asian American community interacts with other communities, but it has led to internalized racial oppression as well. The legacy of racialization influences conversations around race and how racial minorities view themselves and one another (Trieu & Lee, 2018). For the Asian American community specifically, racial discourse has resulted in various individual and structural manifestations of anti-Asian racism. Additionally, when internalized, racialization also influences intragroup relationships, leading to Asian Americans viewing themselves and other Asian ethnicities as inferior through the racialized lens of the dominant White group (Osajima, 2007). Navigating racialization and internalized racial oppression is especially present in later generations born in the United States. Interviews with the children of immigrants have shown that the insecurities that can occur as a result of immigrating many of which revolve around constant doubt and the need to justify one’s presence in a foreign land do not end with the immigrant generation (Sakamoto, et al., 2012). For later generations, the constant doubt may even be worse as they are not justifying their reasons for being in a foreign land but rather their own land (Park, 2008). Strategies for these generations to cope with their own identities in response to their racialization as “model minorities” have taken form in self-mockery or rejecting one’s Asianness and dissociating from other Asians, especially when among White peers (Tuan, 2001). From a young age, Asian Americans learn that fitting in with the dominant White society means engaging in practices of defensive othering and rejecting undesirable cultural qualities (Schwalbe et al., 2000). Because Asian Americans are socialized in an environment saturated by White racist framing, many have internalized existing anti-Asian stereotypes, discrimination, and racism (Chou & Feagin, 2008).
Another detrimental result of the internalization of the stereotypes of MMM is the reinforcement of mental health stigmatization (Daga & Raval, 2018). The methods by which many Asian cultures approach mental health awareness and treatment differ greatly from the typical practices of modern psychology, which are primarily based on Western perspectives. This disconnect has led to the community’s reluctance and skepticism toward seeking mental health treatment (Ng, 1997). Mental distress in and of itself violates the model minority expectations of success and self-reliant effectiveness. Thus, to conform to those expectations, mental health concerns are concealed and consequently go untreated. This effect can be seen in the mental health treatment prevalence for Asian Americans. Despite being the fastest-growing non-dominant racial and ethnic group in the United States with elevated risks of mental illness, (Census Bureau, 2012), they are significantly less likely to seek out mental health services compared to other ethnic groups (Weng & Spaulding-Givens, 2017).
Over the past three years, I have been working with Marin County Behavioral Health and Recovery Service’s BRIDGE program, providing community and mental health resources to the Vietnamese senior population. Due to the pandemic and my inability to continue my in-person work with the seniors, I more recently began conducting remote research with the Vietnamese youth population throughout the United States examining intergenerational trauma and intergenerational cultural dissonance. Through my work with the Vietnamese population, I have not only seen the community internalize the stereotypes I grew up hearing, but I have also seen how older community members have raised their children within the boundaries and expectations of these stereotypes, resulting in the upcoming youth generations placing extraordinary pressures on themselves.
In working with the Vietnamese population, I have not only seen the direct impact of the MMM over the span of generations but I have also witnessed how this misconception has severely harmed the community’s ability to access the same opportunities as other minority populations. Deficit thinking, which refers to the perspective that those who “fail” do so because of internal deficiencies, has led to detrimental effects for both the senior and youth Vietnamese populations. For the senior population, these “deficiencies” include lack of education, linguistic shortcomings, and other deficiencies that come with being an immigrant. In many ways, this community is punished for being typical immigrants because the expectation to assimilate and excel means that normalcy is considered a failure. Additionally, many of the seniors struggle with the expectations that come with the MMM, yet they have no idea that the concept exists. An example of this is seen in how these seniors prize over-achievement, leaving no room to recognize and celebrate smaller accomplishments. Another example is the pervasive sense of resignation and defeat. Many of the expectations of the MMM require effort and investment early in life (e.g. education) and, in not having the ability or opportunity to make those investments, the Vietnamese seniors have already and irrevocably failed. Many minority populations emphasize the importance of education but, for these seniors, it seems as if there is no future or life without education. Because they feel as if it is too late for them to learn, many Vietnamese seniors are convinced that they have no future or chance at a better life.
The values and concepts portrayed in the “model minority” have been culturally ingrained into how this community chooses to educate and raise their children. For the youth population, deficit thinking is internalized and strongly attached to education as well. Despite the unprecedented times and difficulties that have come with it, many of the Vietnamese youth that I have spoken with have expressed that they are struggling in school and that they believe this is an internal flaw, that they are somehow lesser because they are unable to perform and thrive as dictated by the MMM. Many also expressed the need to stay quiet about their struggles to be sure they wouldn’t cause any issues for their families. Suffering alone and powering through struggles was an incredibly common theme and, therefore, most of the youth population who sought therapy did so secretly. One individual specifically spoke to her personal experiences with how she believes the MMM has directly impacted her: she explained that she was always “the smart one” growing up and therefore she could never be “the pretty one.” Even to this day, she is taken back when people compliment her on her looks because the MMM has led her to believe she could never be a dynamic person with multiple positive traits. Other participants also described the MMM’s impact on their family through their tendency to strongly encourage staying quiet and not causing trouble with regards to social issues such as the Black Lives Matter movement, as they are not directly impacted by them.
Not only has the MMM resulted in negative repercussions for other minority populations but it has also influenced the narrative of Asian American communities. Therefore, while positive stereotypes may have seemingly positive connotations, it is vital that we evaluate the origins of these stereotypes and understand the consequences of continuing to perpetuate these ideas and concepts. In the community-based study I am currently conducting with the Vietnamese youth population, many of the topics discussed are further explored. In speaking with the youth population, many of the existing theoretical frameworks (dissociation, defensive othering, etc.) were confirmed; however, this specific study has also interestingly revealed how various environmental factors can change Vietnamese youth’s childhood Anti-Asian behaviors. For example, those who grew up around other Asians struggled less with trying to assimilate to the American culture, instead, they worked to blend in with whatever the dominant group was. In these cases, there were fewer anti-Asian behaviors and beliefs but in some cases, more anti-Vietnamese behaviors and beliefs occurred. This particular finding also demonstrates the dangers of generalizing the MMM to all Asian Americans. Because there are differences among the different groups that fall under the Asian-American umbrella, it is important not to essentialize but rather acknowledge these differences in an effort to combat the MMM.
While some stereotypes may seemingly appear as compliments on the surface, it is important to identify the roots of these comments and analyze how stereotypes, positive or negative impact communities. To create a more cohesive society, it is vital that we learn to empathize with the lived experiences, history, and culture of various ethnic groups. We can begin this journey by engaging with and learning from those who choose to live differently rather than assuming that our Western values and ways are superior. In an effort to break down “positive” stereotypes such as the MMM and the effects it has on specific ethnic communities, it is crucial that we challenge our way of thinking to truly see people as individuals rather than grouping them under general concepts and dismissing their individuality.
Chou, R. S., & Feagin, J. R. (2008). The myth of the model minority: Asian Americans facing racism. Boulder, CO: Paradigm.
Daga, S. S., & Raval, V. V. (2018). Ethnic–racial socialization, model minority experience, and psychological functioning among south Asian American emerging adults: A preliminary mixed-methods study. Asian American Journal of Psychology, 9(1), 17–31. https://doi-org/10.1037/aap0000108
Guest, K (2017). Cultural Anthropology A Toolkit for a Global Age. W. W. Norton & Company
Ng, C. H. (1997). The stigma of mental illness in Asian cultures. Australian & New Zealand Journal of Psychiatry, 31(3), 382-390.
Osajima, K. (2007). Racial transformations: Latinos and Asians remaking the United States. Contemporary Sociology, 36(3), 235–236. https://doi.org/10.1177/009430610703600315
Park, L. S. H. (2008). Continuing significance of the model minority myth: The second generation. Social Justice, 35(2 (112), 134-144.
Sakamoto, A., Takei, I., & Woo, H. (2012). The myth of the Model Minority Myth. Sociological Spectrum, 32(4), 309–321. https://doi-org/10.1080/02732173.2012.664042
Schwalbe, Michael, Godwin S., Holden D., Schrock D., Thompson S., & Wolkomir M. (2000). Generic processes in the reproduction of inequality: An interactionist analysis. Social Forces, 79(2):419–52.
Spielman, R (2017). Introduction to Psychology. Rice University
Trieu, M. M., & Lee, H. C. (2018). Asian Americans and internalized racial oppression: Identified, reproduced, and dismantled. Sociology of Race and Ethnicity, 4(1), 67–82. https://doi.org/10.1177/2332649217725757
Tuan, M (2001). Forever foreigners or honorary whites? The asian ethnic experience today. Piscataway, NJ: Rutgers University Press.
Weng, S. S., & Spaulding-Givens, J. (2017). Strategies for working with Asian Americans in mental health: Community members’ policy perspectives and recommendations. Administration and Policy in Mental Health and Mental Health Services Research, 44(5), 771–781. https://doi-org/10.1007/s10488-016-0784-8
Yi, V., Mac, J., Na, V. S., Venturanza, R. J., Museus, S. D., Buenavista, T. L., & Pendakur, S. L. (2020). Toward an anti-imperialistic critical race analysis of the model minority myth. Review of Educational Research, 90(4), 542–579. https://doi.org/10.3102/0034654320933532
Mia Nguyen is the first-place winner of the Fordham University Center for Ethics Education Ethics and Social Justice Essay Prize. She is currently a student at Dominican University of California.