The Myth of the Model Minority

A 1987 issue of TIME Magazine, for which the cover story was “Those Asian-American Whiz Kids” ( Image )

A 1987 issue of TIME Magazine, for which the cover story was “Those Asian-American Whiz Kids” (Image)


The wage gap is an oft-discussed topic in the realm of intersectional feminism. White women, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, make only about 81.9% of white men’s earnings. Black and Hispanic women make even less — 67.7 and 62.1% of a white man’s earnings, respectively. These statistics are generally cited as evidence that while women still lag behind men in terms of salary and equality in the workforce, minorities, and minority women especially, are at an even greater disadvantage. But this claim does not hold true for one specific minority: Asians. While Asian women earn only 74.8% of what Asian men earn, they surpass white women and almost match white men in terms of salary, averaging about 93% of the latter demographic’s earnings.

These statistics are just one example of the seemingly stark difference between Asians and other minorities in the United States. Another indication is the circumstances surrounding Asian immigration patterns to the states. Economic booms across Asia have lifted large segments of citizens out of poverty and into a level of wealth comfortable enough to facilitate migrating and settling in America; the initially large flow of Asian immigrants in the 1960s and 1970s included many with professional credentials.

Statistics like this are the core reason why Asian immigrants are perceived differently than other ethnic and racial groups in American society. While stereotypes abound of Latinx and Hispanic immigrants “taking” Americans’ jobs, journalists have described Asian immigration as a “boon” to the United States. Asians’ cultural values are often held up as the pinnacle of the American dream; articles with sensationalized headlines published in the 1960s and 1970s argued that if Asians could work hard and become successful without complaining, why couldn’t other racial groups? “Still being taught in Chinatown,” claimed a 1966 U.S. News & World Report article, “is the old idea that people should depend on their own efforts — not a welfare check — in order to reach America’s ‘promised land.’” The argument remains pervasive today, over 50 years later, and has attached to Asians and Asian Americans the label of “model minority.”

The widespread perpetuation of this label is dangerous for two reasons. First, it generalizes the varying circumstances of individual Asian groups. Asians are not a monolith, and not all Asians enjoy the level of success that is commonly attributed to them. The poverty rate of the worst-off population group, Burmese Americans, is almost seven and a half times greater than the poverty rate of the best-off population group, Japanese Americans. Southeast Asian Americans drop out of high school at staggering rates: 40% of Hmong, 38% of Laotian, and 35% of Cambodian populations do not finish high school, according to statistics from the White House.

The other reason this label is dangerous is that it pits the generalized success of Asians against the failure of other minority groups by falsely equating the two groups, creating a wedge in between them and making the argument that “racism…can be overcome by hard work and strong family values,” according to University of Maryland Asian American Studies faculty member Janelle Wong. This minimization of the effects of racism on other racial and ethnic minority groups is troubling. More troubling is the core of the argument: that because the monolithic Asian immigrant group is doing so well, racism does not exist, and therefore all other minority groups have to blame for their failure is themselves.

This argument helps no one. All it does is propagate racial resentment, reinforce a racial hierarchy imposed by those in power, and hide the discrimination regularly faced by Asian Americans. It is time to stop calling Asian Americans the model minority.

OpinionAditi KharodComment