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HomeworkHow the model minority myth holds Asian Americans back at work—and what...

How the model minority myth holds Asian Americans back at work—and what companies should do

In some ways, Quincy Surasmith says he didn't feel like an outsider growing up. Surasmith, who is Thai American and Chinese American, was raised in a part of L.A. that had a large Asian American community.

But while Surasmith excelled in his early school days, by high school, his grades were slipping. He was engaged in class and tested well, but he stopped completing his homework and his GPA suffered.

"I almost flunked out," Surasmith says, "and [teachers] didn't have an answer for that. They were like, well, why wouldn't you want to achieve?"

What teachers didn't consider was that, because of disruptions at home during his parents' divorce, filling out extra worksheets after school wasn't exactly his priority.

Additionally, "It was expected of us or assumed of us that we were kids who had parents who had steady incomes and access to money for extracurricular activities or prep classes, or even just having like a car to get to places," Surasmith says. "But I know I didn't necessarily have all those things."

Surasmith's experience is just one of countless examples of how Asian Americans have been subject to the model minority myth — a set of assumptions that Asian Americans are hardworking overachievers who have made it to the highest levels of success. By positioning Asians as the model minority race, it also assumes that Asians don't need any help, and don't require any further examination of how their race is discriminated against.

But these assumptions are just that, and the consequences of the stereotype go beyond the classroom.

"By grouping all the Asian Americans together and assuming all of them will do well just because you've measured them as a group, you end up ignoring the people who might not fit into that," Surasmith says.

For decades, the model minority myth has kept Asian Americans out of important equity conversations and held members of the community back from equal opportunity in academia, the workforce and necessary government welfare.

The origins and consequences of the model minority myth

The term "model minority" was first coined in the 1960s by sociologist William Petersen for a New York Times Magazine article. It was used to describe the so-called "success stories" of some Japanese American families, who during World War II were forced into internment or pushed to enlist in the military as a means to prove their patriotism, yet were able to rebuild and reintegrate into society after the war.

Ellen Wu, an associate professor of history at Indiana University Bloomington, links this portrayal to essentially a rebranding effort as the U.S. rose to become a global superpower. If America was truly the land of democracy and equal opportunity, U.S. leaders had to show that immigrants could overcome anything, even racist and exclusionary policies, to succeed here.

However, Wu says, the portrayal of Asians as the model minority during a burgeoning civil rights movement in the 1950s and '60s was also "a way to discredit the claims of African Americans who were seeking racial and economic justice and demanding massive structural overhauls in American society."

A primary criticism of the model minority stereotype is how it has been used to pit Black and Asian communities against each other throughout American history.

The lowest rung on the poverty ladder happens to be Asian, and that is a fact that is widely ignored.Denise PeckExecutive advisor, Ascend Foundation

The myth of the model minority also paints Asians as a monolith, when in fact some 23 million Asian Americans trace their roots to more than 20 countries in East and Southeast Asia and the Indian subcontinent. The reduction of numerous ethnicities, origin countries, cultures and historical ties to the U.S. into one racial group leaves the most marginalized Asian American and Pacific Islanders, or AAPIs, out of the equation.

Though Asian Americans have some of the highest educational attainment and median incomes in the country, "the lowest rung on the poverty ladder happens to be Asian, and that is a fact that is widely ignored," says Denise Peck, an executive advisor at the pan-Asian leadership organization Ascend Foundation.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, members of 12 out of 19 Asian origin groups have poverty rates as high as or higher than the U.S. average; at a share of 25%, Mongolians have the highest poverty rates among Asians in the U.S. 

Though some AAPI subpopulations are heavily concentrated in higher-wage professional and management jobs, others, particularly women, are heavily concentrated in lower-wage service, hospitality and caregiving occupations.


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