Main Menu

A Brief History of the ''Model Minority'' Stereotype PDF Print E-mail

By Andrew Chin
April 21, 2001


The term "model minority" was first used in print by sociologist William Peterson in an article titled "Success Story: Japanese American Style" published in the New York Times Magazine in January 1966.  Peterson concluded that Japanese culture with its family values and strong work ethic enabled the Japanese Americans to overcome prejudice and to avoid becoming a "problem minority."  A second article similarly describing Chinese Americans appeared in U.S. News and World Report on December 26, 1966.

The myth of Asians as a model minority, based on the success image of a few elite individuals, has a very negative and debilitating effect on the general population of Asian Americans.  Several mental health concerns and psychological afflictions, such as threats to cultural identity, powerlessness, feelings of marginality, loneliness, hostility and perceived alienation and discrimination remain unredressed and hidden under the veneer of the model minority myth. Both social and psychological forces to conform to the model minority stereotype place an inordinate amount of pressure on Asian Americans.

-- Daya Sandhu
Associate Professor of Psychology
University of Louisville

The model minority thesis gained currency throughout the decade as an argument to discredit the civil rights movement.  By attributing Asian American successes to Asian culture and values, the stereotype allowed commentators to downplay the significance of racial discrimination as an explanation for the underprivileged status of other minorities.  Of course, Asian Americans continued to face racial discrimination, even as those who beat the odds were deployed as arguments against reform.


The Yellow Peril

By the 1970s, the model minority thesis had rooted itself so firmly into mainstream perceptions of the Asian American community that it had become a racial stereotype.  The thesis not only served to silence Asian American claims for redress from continuing racial discrimination, but often exaggerated and recast Asian American success stories as foreign threats.

A stereotype is the imposition of an oversimplified and unfair depiction of a particular group (usually defined by ethnicity, race, class, or gender) resulting in the systematic disadvantage of members of that group and/or members of an implicit comparison class.

After America's defeat in the Vietnam War, many Americans refused to welcome our wartime allies and innocent civilians as refugees from Southeast Asia, and instead focused on fears that they were taking over American jobs.  As the Japanese auto industry's nimble response to the energy crisis cut into Detroit's market share, anti-Asian sentiment erupted into racial hatred and even violence against Asian Americans.  A 1971 Newsweek article on Asian Americans as a model minority had a sidebar expressing white resentment of Asian American "out-whiting the whites" and accusing whites of becoming soft in the face of economic competition with Asia.

The Republican Revolution

The model minority thesis trivializes the idea that racial discrimination can deprive minorities, including Asian Americans, of  fair opportunities in America, and overstates the opportunities that have actually been available to minorities, including Asian Americans.

The rhetorical power of this widely accepted stereotype was not lost on the Reagan administration, which had grown uncomfortable with the societal progress minorities had made under affirmative action and sought to eliminate legal and governmental remedies for diffuse but systematic racial discrimination in the private sector.

The median household income statistic is misleading because it may be interpreted as suggesting that Asian Americans do not face economic discrimination.  The truth is that several factors more than account for the difference in median household income:
  • Most Asian immigrants entered the United States under restrictive laws skewed toward highly skilled workers.  Asian American employees have lower status and less income than comparably educated Americans of every other race.
  • 59 percent of Asian Americans live in California, Hawaii and New York, all states with far higher per capita income and costs of living than the national average.
  • The 1980 Census undercounted Asian Americans, predominantly those living in poor communities.
  • Spouses and children work in Asian American households in far greater numbers, and for longer hours, than in white families.
  • The distribution of Asian American household income is bimodal.  The percentage of Asian American families living below the poverty level far exceeds the national average.  Despite this, social services often exclude Asian Americans because of the stereotype of success.
See also: A Critique of the Model Minority Myth's Statistical Underpinnings

Aided by the mainstream press, President Reagan evaded scrutiny of his administration's race policies by repeatedly citing misleading statistics on Asian American household income.  Throughout the 1984 presidential campaign, including a February 23 White House meeting with Asian American leaders, Reagan repeatedly pointed out that the 1980 median household income for Asian Americans ($42,250) was higher than the national average ($36,920).

Meanwhile, articles in Newsweek ("Asian Americans: 'A Model Minority,'" 1982; "The Drive to Excel," April 1984), The New Republic ("America's Greatest Success Story: The Triumph of Asian Americans," July 1985), Fortune ("America's Super Minority," November 1986), Time ("The New Whiz Kids," August 1987), and Parade ("Why They Excel," 1990) prominently publicized the academic successes of Asian American youth.

A Scientific Fact?

Even during the Reagan years, the model minority thesis was advanced mainly as a sociological description of Asian Americans.  By the 1990s, however, the thesis had become so widely accepted that researchers began treating Asian American success as a factual empirical phenomenon in search of an underlying scientific explanation.

In 1994, Charles Murray and Richard J. Herrnstein published The Bell Curve, which argued that Asian Americans and Jews are genetically superior to African Americans.  Opponents of affirmative action cited the book as proof that most cases of alleged racial discrimination against African Americans are actually the result of applying neutral standards to an inherently inferior population.

Asians tend to be located in the labor market's secondary sector, where wages are low and promotional prospects minimal. Asian men are clustered as janitors, machinists, postal clerks, technicians, waiters, cooks, gardeners, and computer programmers; they can also be found in the primary sector, but here they are found mostly in the lower-tier levels as architects, engineers, computer-systems analysts, pharmacists, and schoolteachers, rather than in upper-tier levels of management and decision making.

While they are increasing in numbers on university campuses as students, they are virtually nonexistent as administrators.  Asian Americans are even more scarce in the upper strata of the corporate hierarchy: they constituted less than half of one percent of the 29,000 officers and directors of the nation's thousand largest companies.

-- Ronald Takaki

Bush's Soft Bigotry

During the 2000 presidential campaign, George W. Bush consistently responded to questions on race with a well-rehearsed riff on "the soft bigotry of low expectations."  Whether it was the 1998 dragging death of James Byrd Jr. in Jasper, Texas, or continuing poverty and hopelessness in the inner cities, Bush's solution was simple and universal:  set higher, colorblind standards for everyone, and equal opportunity will follow.  ("Colorblind" standards comfort whites who want their race to be seen by American society as transparent and insignificant, neglecting the fact that people of color do not have that option.)  To minorities, Bush's message was clear.  Your experiences of racial discrimination aren't real.  They're just the product of your own low expectations.  They're all in your head.  Get over them.

With the appointment of Elaine Chao to be his Secretary of Labor, Bush has acknowledged the centrality of the model minority myth to his racial agenda.  As the most conservative administration in nearly a century embarks on its mission to dismantle affirmative action in the workplace, Bush has ensured that the durable deception of the model minority stereotype will play a starring role.

A student's perspective

Objectification of Asian-Americans:

A Historical Consistency

By Malcolm Yeung
The Raging Buddha

For people of color, the United States has never been a place in which true assimilation and equality is possible. What is meant by assimilation is the incorporation of a people into the fabric of a society to a point where they have become synonymous with the dominant population. This sort of assimilation has never happened for any group of color in this nation. One just has to look to the plight of African Americans in this nation to realize the truth of these words. However, towards Asians in this country, a belief exists that they have "made it" in this society: they have equaled if not surpassed the standards set by white America. Asians are, in the minds of many, "model minorities."

Any close examination of data pertaining to Asian Americans, though, will reveal that this model minority conception is unfounded. Why is it then that the "model minority" myth is so prevalent in the minds of many Americans, to a degree which harbors resentment from sectors of white America? The answer is multifaceted and can be viewed from many perspectives. One answer could lie in the characteristics projected by most Asian immigrants. Surely, anyone would agree that Asian Confucian work ethics are indeed admirable and should be used as an example to others. Hard work is never a bad thing. However, although Asians may have worked hard, they still are not assimilated into the fabric of our society as inequalities and barriers still pervade.

Other answers can be provided along similar lines and often are. Yet if one examines this issue in a historical perspective, a pattern is established in which Asians are continually being objectified into some tool for white America. This objectification can be linked to a pattern of alienation as well, such that Asians are continually being isolated from every other segment of American society (a perpetual foreigner if you will). Thus, the model minority myth is a modern continuation of the standard role that the Asian has been forced into by this society. The model minority myth must be exposed as a modern tool used as an excuse to ignore Asian problems, an example of the validity of the American Dream, a club to quiet the cries of ethnically disempowered groups, and a means of perpetuating an alienation which can be seen as a method of disempowerment.

The idea of the Asian as a model minority is as pervasive as any stereotype has ever been. The vast majority of society subscribes to the model minority myth, and this fact is reflected in the plethora of articles involving Asians and their supposed success. Newsweek and Time alone, arguably the most highly circulated periodicals, have run several articles in the last decade concentrating on the supposed universal success of the Asian minority in American society. The stories usually headline with such titles as "Asian Americans: a Model 'Minority'" (Newsweek), "The New Whiz Kids" (Time), "A 'Superminority' Tops Out" (Time), and "A Formula for Success" (Newsweek). These articles portray Asians as an underprivileged class of Americans who have finally "made it" and fulfilled the legendary American dream. "Once isolated in ethnic ghettos by discriminatory laws, Asians today find few . . . barriers." [1]  Moreover, Asian Americans are portrayed as proof positive that any group can and will achieve success as long as they subscribe to a certain set of "model" characteristics. In other words, Asians are set out as an example of what other minorities should follow by literally proclaiming that the road to minority success follows the trail "blazed" by Asian Americans.

In order to prove these claims, publications always present statistics which can disguise the reality of the situation. For instance, the December 6, 1982 Newsweek article "Asian Americans: The Model Minority" puts forth a statistic that the average family income of Asian Americans exceeds that of the population by $22,075 to $20,840. However, this statistic fails to show the number of Asians in urban areas and the number of women working in Asian families. Both factors certainly add to the inflated family income statistic. Furthermore, the 1980 Census (the basis for the Newsweek statistics) included an estimated 15% undercount for Asian Americans which inflated further the Asian family income as the 15% missed were probably the poor English illiterate in Chinatown slums. [2]  In addition to economic statistics, certain characteristics are always singled out, and these characteristics invariably involve working hard and not complaining; i.e., the perfect nerd. In fact, if an examination of the characteristics of the "model minority" is made, one will realize that the traits pointed out are just as dangerous as the results of these traits -- Asian Americans' supposed "success."

Constructing the "Model"

What exactly then are these model traits which all Asians seem to have, and what is it exactly that defines the model minority in particular? Well, the first answer to that question is that no exact answer exists; rather certain general notions exist as to what a model minority is. The model minority is always a hard worker. In fact, they seemingly do nothing but work. "For the most part, [they] end up . . . working too hard to bother about their image." [3]  The model minority also values and excels at education; "[Their] most sacrosanct value is education." [4]   

Furthermore, the model minority is sometimes portrayed as genetically superior which is another reason for educational success; for instance, even Science, a well respected magazine, ran an article on one aspect of the model minority myth ("Chinese Lack Delinquency"). Furthermore, several noteworthy scientists including Arthur Jensen, a Berkeley psychologist; J. Phillippe Ruston, a psychologist at University of Western Ontario in Canada; and William Shockley, the inventor of the transistor have made statements to the effect that Asians are genetically superior. [5]

The model minority also never complains--he/she will just work harder which will pay its own dividends in the end. By not complaining, they also simplify their lives and thus succeed even more. Also, rather than complain to others, model minorities will rely on each other and through this reliance find strength and succeed. "Language difficulties, limited job opportunities and fear of assimilation . . . keep them together . . . without access to health and social services . . . The inevitable result: a new Amerasia . . . " [6]  

The model minority is also reported as having a strong family structure in which both parents are stern but wise and caring. The family will keep him/her out of trouble and thus develop a sense of responsibility in the model minority. 

Furthermore, all model minorities are portrayed as economically successful. Such personalities as Connie Chung are constantly used as proof for this ideal. And finally, model minorities do not like fun or do not have time for it. As a result of these media-established characteristics, model minorities have supposedly succeeded by now having a higher educational success rate and economic success rate than their Caucasian brethren. "Asians are far more influential than their numbers, scorning the label of 'model minority' even as they put the bulk of their efforts into working hard to prosper." [7]  Essentially, it seems as if Asian Americans have thus eliminated all their problems since they have "outwhit[ed] the whites." [8]

Perpetuating Problems

So far, the image put forth by the model minority is seemingly positive. So what are the dangers involved in this model minority image, especially since these characteristics are so amazingly admirable? The danger lies in the fact that these images are distinctly untrue and can thus be used in a manner which cannot be checked. The Asian American community has not achieved all that has been claimed, and this fact needs to be recognized so that improvements can be made. By living under an image which claims perfection, Asian American problems are often glossed over and ignored because no one knows that they truly exist -- not only on a societal level, but on a federal level as well, as Asians lose out on minority improvement programs.  Other problems such as economic and political equality are never addressed either, and problems with Asian youth are proliferating as well. Another problem arises from the societal resentment brought upon Asians which only succeeds in the alienation of many different Asian ethnic groups in the United States. The most pressing problem though is the fact that Asians themselves are beginning to believe the model minority myth which results in their incapacitation as effective community leaders.

The model minority myth allows the government to overlook Asian problems for many may not even realize that any exist. Arthur Fletcher, the chair for the 1990 Civil Rights Commission on Asian Pacific Islanders, wrote in a letter to President Bush, "Asian Americans suffer widely the pain and humiliation of bigotry and acts of violence. . . . They also confront institutional discrimination in numerous domains, such as places of work and schools, in accessing public services, and in the administration of justice." [9]  Furthermore, the report itself states that "this stereotype leads federal, state, and local agencies to overlook the problems facing Asian Americans, and it often causes resentment of Asian Americans within the general public." [10]   For instance, from 1972-1977, only 2 million dollars (0.8%) of 213 million was given to Asian American groups from OMBE, a federal group intended to implement improvement programs for minorities. [11]  And, in 1980, Asian Americans became ineligible for minority classification when applying for loans under the Small Business Association (a federal organization). Bilingual educational funds and voting material for Asians have never been enacted; university admission policies have changed with regard to Asians; expectations for immigrants based upon model minority myths adversely affect them; and Asians are expected to fulfill the model minority characteristics to the point of being labeled "the quiet people" by George Bush. 

The economic success of Asians which so many model minority articles have recently proclaimed and praised is unfounded as Asians do not maintain equality in the majority of economic markers. Of course, the mean family income of Asians was measured as higher in the 1980 census, and reasons have been given for the deceptiveness of that statistic, but beyond those reasons, one must realize that the information was from the 1980 census. The 1980 census was taken following an unprecedented influx of professionals and highly educated immigrants. This professional-based population has been diluted in the 1980's by the influx of Asian political refugees, especially from Southeast Asia. These Asian refugees are usually unskilled labor who are immediately exploited when they enter the country due to such things as language barriers. The economic statistics then especially hurt this group as they are then seen as pariahs among Asians and are then considered lazy as the other Asians apparently have made it.

Furthermore, the apparent economic success hides a very disturbing and sent phenomena -- the existence of a "glass ceiling," a barrier in occupational status which Asians have yet to break. That is, representation of Asians in upper level management and management in general is below their actual representation in society; for instance, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission reported that of the 38,000 companies which submitted a report in 1991, 5% of all professionals were Asians which is well above the 2.9% representation of Asians in the population. But, only 2% of officials and management were Asian. Furthermore, the figure becomes even more significant when one considers that management and officials come from the ranks of the well educated of which professionals definitely are. Thus, that Asians have a higher pool of well educated than the rest of society yet at the same time are being passed over for roles as managers and officials is very surprising indeed. 

The reasons for this glass ceiling are many but some people, such as Stanley Karnow, a Pulitzer prize winning reporter and author of Rehashing the Same Old Stereotypes, believes that the glass ceiling is a result of Asian docility and passivity or rather a lack of aggressiveness which are some of the images projected by the model minority myth. Karnow has blamed the victim rather than looking to the perpetrators, for he is too blinded by the model minority myth to realize that Asian passivity may be just an image without any foundation. He does not even think to accost officials for believing in false myths or at least for not trying to prove the veracity of such beliefs. Joy Cherian, EEOC commissioner in 1991, instead recommends that board directors sensitive to issues of women and minorities be appointed as a method of destroying the glass ceiling barriers. The glass ceiling barriers can also be seen with respect to political positions. For instance, according to the Filipino Reporter, only ten of the 400,000 Asian Americans in New York City held positions in Mayor Barry Dinkins's administration. Obviously, economic inequalities which are not widely known allow society to feel justified when passing over Asians in an economic sense resulting in disparities which are rarely recognized or addressed.

Other problems which have not only been created but perpetuated by the model minority myth are those of Asian youth. According to the model minority myth, Asian youth are supposedly very family oriented, quiet, disciplined, and extremely intelligent. Of course, the picture painted is that of a perfect little drone -- one with a low level uniqueness and creativity. As a result, many Asian American youths are rejected by peer groups based upon an image which is quite untrue and are also held to different standards by teachers and society in general. Furthermore, because of the Asian belief in the value of education dating bask to Confucian times, parents also place a huge amount of pressure on children to succeed. The result can be seen in the proliferation of Asian youth gangs, for one, and an increase in crimes by Asian youth. In a 1992 forum on Asian affirmative action in San Francisco, five youths from a local high school (Wallenberg High) reported on incidents which were happening within Asian youth communities.  Of course, gangs were a very significant sence and two girls even rated them as the biggest problem facing Asian youths.  One boy, when asked why he had joined one, stated that with a gang, he could be just "one of the boys."  The dual pressures from parents and society have pressured the boy to meet unfair expectations from parents and face societal rejection from his peers. The resulting built up frustration is released in criminal activities with other boys like him as criminal behavior can be considered one of the ultimate forms of rebellion against an image which can never be fulfilled. The most shocking report made by the children was that of two girls who set fire to a school office in order to destroy attendance records. However, such incidents as reported by the five children are instead overshadowed by articles entitled "A formula for success; Asian American students win academic honors -- and cope with mixed blessing of achievement" which appeared in the April 23, 1984 issue of Newsweek

Another effect of the model minority myth lies in the resentment from other minority groups as well as main stream Americans brought on by the supposed success of Asians. Minority groups feel alienated as success is apparently not shared, and mainstream society feels that "foreigners" are robbing them of their success. This resentment from other minorities can already be seen in the proliferation of tension between African Americans and Koreans over the supposed success of Korean grocers in traditionally black neighborhoods. The resentment against Asians also provoke hate crimes such as the murder of Vincent Chin in 1982 and the more recent killing of Yoshihiro Hattori.

Internalizing the Stereotype

Perhaps greatest danger in the model minority myth lies in the fact that Asians themselves are falling prey to dangers of these stereotypes. More and more, Asians are beginning to view themselves as model minorities and thus take a false sense of pride and security. A New York banker claims himself as "'[y]our usual Chinese overachieving story'" (Newsweek, Dec. 6, 1982). This pride and security also leads to a sense of contentment with the status quo blinding Asians to any discrimination and problems faced by their own people. In this view, Amy Tan, the author of Joy Luck Club, is guilty of such actions when she endorsed a book by the aforementioned Stanley Karnow by appearing on the back cover.

Dinesh D'souza, author of Illiberal Education, has made it a personal goal to glorify the model minority myth and oppose any methods of Asian American improvement except through hard work. For instance, at a west coast conference on Asian American status in the United States, D'Souza made the claim that Asian immigrants do not complain about SAT scores but "they adapt and pass the test" instead. But, D'Souza's example excludes the very real limitations of the language barrier and the unwillingness of American society to listen to "foreigners," in other the creation of cultural barriers. 

Furthermore, because racism is now so subtle, it is very hard to recognize especially when one's mind is shut to the possibility of it existing. This attitude is taken up especially by those Asians who themselves are successful and apparent model minorities. The result is a tragedy because these "successes" are the very people who are equipped to enact change. Thus, these people who should be leading the Asian community are, in a sense, the very ones who are undermining it. How then can a people eliminate their own problems when some of their leaders are blinded by the hands of their oppressors?

Repeating History

Perhaps more dangerous than the model minority myth itself is the danger of the historical context in which it is used, for the model minority myth is a continuation of Asians as tools for white society. Asians began to come to the United States in the mid nineteenth century and made significant contributions such as the building of the transcontinental railroad. Yet, they began to draw out the baser feelings of Americans which led to violent outbursts of anti-Asian sentiment. Eventually discriminatory laws were passed. Most prominent is the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 which prohibited Chinese labor immigration; the Exclusion Act was the first and only time that immigrants were excluded on the basis of race. Throughout the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Asians faced constant and often violently physical discrimination.

By the 1930s, writers and the media began to play a crucial role in creating certain images of the Asian. One of the most influential depictions of Asians was made through the writings of Pearl S. Buck. Her most successful book, The Good Earth, was a huge popular success and went far in placing the idea of the typical Chinese peasant in the minds of mainstream America. From the writings of Buck, the media was able to create an image for Chiang Kai Shek (who, to the West, was the undisputed leader of revolutionary China) which fit in perfectly with Buck's concept of the Chinese. These two images spawned an interest in Chinese "culture" as evidenced by the Charlie Chan movies of the '40s and '50s, and the popularity of such writers as Jade S. Wang.

The peasants created by Pearl S. Buck in The Good Earth put forth an image which can only be described as the "noble peasant." Buck's characters worked hard and were honest (at least early in the novel). Their strong ties to the land added an aspect of humility and simplicity which is translated into passivity and docility. Buck's characters also had a penchant for suffering without complaint. They would just farm harder which ultimately rewarded them with prosperity. Furthermore, the evils of "going beyond oneself" are warned against in this book as when the main character strays from the land he loses everything. Thus, Buck's novel portrayed the aspects of the Chinese which seem so appealing to Western world now and then -- the work ethic, supposed docility, and the simplicity and humility of knowing one's place.

As Buck created her image of the noble peasant, the media created its image of the noble warrior, Chiang Kai Shek who may have been the very first model minority. In reality, Chiang was not the most noble of people. He was actually a ruthless dictator who came to power during the early 1900s when China was in its "warlord" phase. Chiang was actually one of the most successful warlords and much of his governing staff in the 1930's was composed of former generals and military men. Furthermore, Chiang was amazingly corrupt and practically robbed his own government and people blind. With this to work, the media was still able to create an image of Chiang which reflected none of the aforementioned ruthless traits. In fact, Chiang was portrayed as having "Chinese virtue." However, it was his personal habits that really turned Chiang into the Chinese "hero" as he was portrayed with many of the qualities which were seen in Buck's characters. For instance, he was definitely described as a relentless worker. Descriptions of his conversion to Christianity as if this were the most civilizing of influences were commonplace. Chiang is also described as simple and "knowing his place" even though he has become the most "powerful" man in China.

Beyond Buck and Chiang, other images about Chinese which were similar in character were proliferated in the 1939-1941 time period. Several articles in popular periodicals appeared under such titles as "At Home in Peking," "Chinese Manners," "Coolie Democracy," "Peasantry and Gentry in China," and "Chinese Mind." No doubt these articles were a result of the anti-Japanese/pro-Chinese sentiment burgeoning in the minds of many Americans. As the Japanese rose in military might, a war with them was imminent, thus, an alliance with a major Asian country was necessary. That country of course was China. However, to the minds of many Americans before the late 1930s, Chinese were associated with a plethora of negatives as shown by the treatment of Chinese immigrants (hate crimes, harmful legislation, etc.) and by the popularization of such stereotypical images as Fu Manchu and various comic books which ran along the same lines. Thus, a change in image for the Chinese was necessary so that an American alliance with China would be viewed upon favorably. However, the newly created images of Chinese still did not depict them as equal to the United States; instead, the coolie image provoked sympathy rather than respect which made the Japanese travesties against the Chinese seem all the more vile. The sympathy also invoked a feeling that Chinese needed to be protected by the "big brother U.S."

After the war ended, the continuation of the stereotypes created were continued by the popular press. It becomes clear that the image of the noble Chinese peasant clearly could be advantageous to the goals of American foreign policy. During the Chinese Civil War as China was beginning to fall under the influence of communism, the Chinese peasant was being portrayed as the eventual victim of communism evoking sympathy once again for the Chinese peasants and outrage towards the communists. Thus, in the decade of 1940 to 1950, a plethora of articles were published with titles such as "These Likable Chinese" and "Public Servant."

When a full analysis of the media portrayed characteristics of Chinese are summarized, a few traits repeatedly surface. Hard work, simplicity and humility, knowing one's place in society (which translates into a political passivity), and an emphasis on the value of education or at least intelligence are partly evidenced in each popular image of Chinese from the late 1930s to the end of 1940. These qualities are exactly the same as those attributed to the model minority. With such evidence at hand, the link between the two is most likely more than coincidental. Thus, when the need for a model minority myth arose, the stereotypes of the Chinese peasant were still fresh in the mind of the society and suited perfectly the needs of an American psyche which was being accosted for past and sent sins.

The model minority myth was created due to several factors but all the factors lead to an identifiable end. Thus, the model minority myth became a means to an end and was thus used indiscriminately as a tool with which the collective guilt of white society could be assuaged. The first seeds of the model minority myth germinated in the fifties in response to war injustices and societal needs and slowly grew until the term came to fruition in 1966 in response to the Civil Rights movements of the day.

Almost any article could cover all the stereotypical bases, but one in particular, "Chinatown offers us a lesson" appearing in the New York Times Magazine on October 6, 1957, does a particularly good job of portraying the typical Chinese stereotype. From the very beginning the tone of the article becomes glaringly evident from a picture which is displayed along with the article. In the picture, a family is sitting around a some kind of board game in a setting which looks as if it came straight out of the popular show "Leave it to Beaver." Everyone has westernized clothing and the room itself is very western. In fact, if the Chinese faces were exchanged with white faces, no incongruities would even be noticed. Thus, any Caucasian reader could immediately feel a sense of relatedness to the Chinese in the picture, and as a result, the Chinese talked about in the article. 

Furthermore, the content of the article is just as idealistic as promised by the picture. For instance, the article starts off by informing the reader of the amazingly low amount of crime in New York's Chinatown (no youth gangs too) and accredits this to the fact that the youths have been instilled with Chinese family values. The Chinese family, in fact, is described as a product of 1000 years of trial and error which the communist government was then trying to break up. The article then goes on to elucidate the characteristics of what they perceived the Chinese family characteristics to be. Undying family loyalty and a sacrifice of individuality for the sake of the family head up the list with other things such as absolute obedience to elders done out of willingness on the child's part rather than any sort of parental impetus. In fact, the Asian Confucian family ethics are compared to Christianity which was intended as a compliment as Christianity was the ultimate marker of morality. Chinese in general are then described as having "patience, unflagging capacity for work, and dislike of physical violence," and children "dislike demonstrativeness but [tend] to be tolerant towards others." The article also attributes the Chinese value on education and the children's demonstrated love for school as a large factor in keeping them out of trouble. When trouble does occur, it is dealt with from within the community by such organizations as the Chinese Benevolent Society rather can causing trouble outside the community. One final reason given for the lack of problems with Chinese youths is so ridiculous that any validity that the article may have had before is completely thrown out. The article stated that because Chinese boys and girls do not like associating with the opposite sex; thus, the boys do not feel the need to show off for the girls and as a result get into less trouble!

Birth of a Myth

In the 1960s, for the first time, the model minority myth emerged in its fullest sense. That is, Asian Americans were depicted as having finally "made it" in every aspect of society--education and family life included. The stories also proliferated simultaneously with the advent of the Civil Rights movements and the plethora of student protests accompanying the Civil Rights movements. The appearance of the two may seem coincidental until one actually examines the contents of some of the articles which laud praises at the so called model minorities. Upon examination, several factors become immediately clear: the majority of the authors were white males, the statistics used in the articles realistically revealed very little about the situation of the minority group at hand--education and crime rate were used to illustrate Asian success as opposed to economic and political markers; the Asians interviewed in the articles were seemingly unsympathetic towards the Civil Rights movements; and the articles simply rehashed a stereotype created in the wartime era which itself was the result of Asian objectification. Thus, since much of the contents of these articles were based upon very little relevant factual information, the conclusion that Asians were being used as a tool to quiet the cries of the enraged minorities (specifically African Americans) and, on a much more subtle level, used to assuage the guilt of a white America whose system was and is clearly not working for non-whites is not entirely outrageous.

The very first model minority article appeared in the New York Times Magazine on January 9, 1966, and was titled "A Success Story, Japanese-American Style." The article immediately begins with a resounding approval of Japanese Americans by claiming that Japanese Americans have been able to avoid becoming a "problem minority'" even though they have been "the object of color prejudice." Furthermore, the article even goes so far as to claim "Japanese Americans are better than any other group in our society, including native-born whites." However, when the statistics used to analyze these claims are examined, it can be shown that they are in fact just as relevant or irrelevant as any other statistic to the state of a peoples within our society. For instance, the article claims that 12.2% of Japanese are professionals as opposed to 11.1% of Chinese and 11.0% of whites. These markers were then compared to 9.2% for Filipinos and 8.6% for African Americans. However, the article did not reveal if the statistic was for native born Japanese or for the entire population. The Japanese were also lauded for having the lowest amount of crime among the ethnics and their low crime rate was all the more astonishing in light of the fact that they were "surrounded by ethnic groups with high crime rates . . . ." However, no comparison of crime rate to that of white America is made. Also, the fact that language barriers and cultural restraints exist which perhaps prohibit Japanese from reporting crimes was not taken into consideration. Besides the education statistic and the percentage of professionals, no data was offered as to why Asians were of equal or better societal status than whites. Instead, the article goes on to describe all of the traits possessed by Japanese which allow them to transcend other "problem minorities." Japanese have "diligence in work, combined with simple frugality . . . similar to . . . the Protestant ethic." Furthermore, the all important family duty was emphasized as well. 

Thus, the traits of the model minority hark back to a stereotype which was started in order to propel wartime propaganda. The lack of real statistics and the plethora of descriptions of Japanese character point to the idea that the purpose of the article was not to praise Japanese accomplishment, but instead to show other minorities how to act. Also from the tone of the article, it is again clear that the purpose was not so much to praise the Japanese as to show a white audience that the American system was working and any guilt or responsibility concerning the plight of minorities was unfounded. For instance, the article makes a comparison of the plight of African Americans to that of Japanese Americans but "Japanese, on the contrary, could climb over the highest barriers . . . " placed before them as "[p]ride in their heritage and shame for any reduction in its only partly legendary glory . . . were sufficient to carry the group through its travail."

The success stories though were not limited to just the Japanese Americans as several about Chinese Americans were also published. However, rather than revealing any real differences in the paths to success of the two Asian American ethnic groups, the articles instead blur the distinctions as one group could be switched out for the other and no incongruities in the articles would appear. Once again, the dominating statistic "proving" the success of Chinese Americans was the crime rate statistic. For instance, the article entitled "Success Story of One Minority in the United States" in U.S. News and World Report on Dec. 26, 1966 claims that in 1965, no Chinese in the San Francisco was charged with murder, manslaughter, rape, or an offense against wife or children. However, the article does not take into account the number of crimes unreported due to a language barrier and the number of illegal aliens who could not report anything as the result would only be trouble for themselves. Thus, to assert that 42,600 Chinese were non-violent to a person is absolutely ludicrous. Besides the crime rates though, no hard statistics were used, instead, allusions to education and community stability were referred to. However, even if the assertions about education were true, that is only because Asians feel that they need to receive twice as much education to get to the same place as a white person, and often, this may be true. Thus, low crime rates and high numbers of educated only hide the real situation of unequal economic and political attainments as compared to the rest of society and certainly as compared to white America.

The same article goes on to attribute these successes once again to the "traditional values of hard work, thrift, and morality." Furthermore, the family unit is emphasized.

The parents always watch out for the children, train them, send them to school and make them stay home after school to study. When they go visiting, it is as a family group. A young Chinese doesn't have much chance to go out or his own chance to get into trouble.

Like the article about Japanese Americans mentioned previously, this article also uses the supposed success and characteristics of Chinese as a weapon to silence other minorities and as method of assuaging white guilt. For instance, the very introduction to the article broadcasts the message that non-Chinese minorities are complaining instead of working out of their plights. "At a time when Americans are awash in worry over the plight of racial minorities--one such minority . . . Chinese-Americans, is winning wealth and respect by dint of its own hard work." Furthermore, the article contains several instances of which could very easily be construed as or are in fact a criticism of other minorities. "'The Chinese people here will work at anything. . . . the point is that . . . don't sit around moaning.'" The article even makes specific attacks on African Americans. Chinese Americans would "shock those now complaining about the hardships endured by today's Negroes." The article also portrays Chinese as a self reliant community in that all problems are dealt with from within the community and, once again, problems are not "complained" about to the whites. In fact, although 20,000 Chinese were residing in an eight block apartment complex in Chinatown and families of ten were found living in two bed room apartments do not move out "not because of fears of discrimination" but because "Chinese-Americans . . . prefer their own people and culture . . ." Once again, such an assumption is ludicrous and completely discredits any glimpse of validity which might have been existent in the article.

Clearly, several themes from the original model minority stories are evident. Although praising the Asian Americans in the U.S. may be one goal, this goal just does not coincide with the historical context in which Asians have been treated. Instead, the appearance of the model minority myth coincides with the Civil Rights movements and thus are used to combat the cries of colored minorities by pointing to another minority group which the whites have portrayed as having made it. Obviously, the aforementioned two articles on Asian Americans were not the only two and certainly not the most outrageous of the model minority articles. Furthermore, the Asians are portrayed as having "made it" via a certain set of characteristics which are in themselves very indicative of the objectification of Asian Americans in this society. These characteristics, like the model minority myth itself, can be used as tool by which to keep minorities permanently oppressed. Never is the Asian portrayed as aggressive, outspoken, or demanding but rather it is the hard working, quiet, family, and disciplinarian characteristics which are praised. These characteristics in and of themselves are undeniably praiseworthy, but at the same time, these characteristics do not encourage a questioning of one's surroundings but encourage an acceptance of the status quo, instead, which could be and is very detrimental to the improvement of minority conditions in the United States.

The proliferation of the model minority stories did not end after the Civil Rights movement though as the image, once placed in American society, will most likely not die out until some sort of new image arises. Thus, the very nature of the model minority myth relegates it to being used over and over again in this society as a tool--indiscriminately used in many cases. However, when evidence was given on how the Asians maintained a superior societal standing, the typical claims of more schooling, lower unemployment, higher percentage of professional and technical jobs, and higher average income than whites were cited. At the same time though, the returns on education were certainly lower, Chinese males earned 74% of equally educated whites and Filipinos earned 52% of equally educated whites. The returns for women were below 50%. Lower unemployment is certainly true, but a large part of the workers are exploited and receive below minimum wage, no benefits, and little job security. A higher number percentage of professionals may exist, but the number of Asians in upper management is well below their presentation in the population as evidenced by the glass ceiling phenomena. Finally, the average income statistic does not state if it refers to family income or individual income which would make a very large difference as noted earlier. Obviously, in this case, the model minority myth has been used as a tool by which to combat Asians themselves, and furthermore, the attacks are disguised with praises of achievement and success.


In the last decade, the model minority myth has not died down; rather the myth has proliferated. In fact, the model minority myth has seemingly taken a niche in our society as it has become amazingly deep seeded in the beliefs of Americans as seen by George Bush's comment about the "quiet people." Thus, to this day Asians are still being objectified in that their roles in this society have been relegated to that of a tool serving the needs of the American public for decades. No consistent image of Asians has existed and no consistent role of Asians in society has ever been identified. For example, in the 1800s, Asians were used as laborers and thought of as animals. Since 1965, though, Asians have been used for their brainpower as seen by the makeup of immigrants who entered the United States and they are now thought of as model minorities. The lack of a consistent image in American society points to the enduring idea of the Asian as the permanent foreigner on the shores of "Gold Mountain." 

The fact that Asians have never been able to occupy a permanent role in any of America's ideology can perhaps be traced back to the feeling that Americans have never felt comfortable with the idea of an Asian being an integral part of this nation. This feeling could be a result of many things one of which could be the maintenance of Asian culture by a continual influx of Asian immigrants which in reality points out just how different cultures can be. Maybe Americans feel that Asians in a sense have a culture which they could return to, a culture which they may prefer to return to but because of circumstance, cannot. For instance, in an article by a UCLA freshman Margaret Chou, a mime was performing an act which used Asians as the butt of many jokes. When one of the author's friends, who was Asian, protested the act, several members of the crowd began shouting "go home to China." Although such a remark may seem like a casual joke at first, would anyone ever yell go back to Africa to a black person? The answer should be a resounding no. 

The plight of the Asian is also different than many other minorities in that Asians battle a discrimination which is disguised as admiration. Thus, Asians often do not understand the historical context of their existence in this nation. The crimes of the past are hidden in the praises of today; therefore Asians of today have never truly felt a historical injustice. This is part of the reason why Asians do not seem as angry or militant--not because the injustices are not existent, but because they are clouded over by a blanket created by the model minority myth. Finally, if nothing is done by the Asian community to expose stereotypes, if Asians keep on believing the press about themselves, the cycle of objectification will never end. Already, Asians are being portrayed as economic scapegoats on a world wide scale. How long will it be until that image affects the current image of Asian Americans? What will be the effects on the Asian community? The model minority issue goes beyond the context of what it has done to the Asian community today as it is also an indicator of the Asian American role in this nation's history.


  1. "Asian Americans: model minority," Newsweek, Dec. 6, 1982.
  2. Mariano, Dr. Robert S., "Census Issues," U.S. Commission on Civil Rights: Civil Rights Issues of Asians and Pacific Islanders (1979).
  3. "Asian Americans: model minority," Newsweek, Dec. 6, 1982.
  4. ibid.
  5. "The Myth of the Model Minority"
  6. "Asian Americans: model minority," Newsweek, Dec. 6, 1982.
  7. ibid.
  8. "Success Story: Outwhiting the Whites," Newsweek, June 21, 1971.
  9. "Asian Americans Victims of Bias, Hate Violence, Glass Ceiling," Asian Week, March 6, 1992.
  10. "Asian Still Lack Equal Success," Asian Week, March 6, 1992.
  11. "Minority Business Experts Conclude 'Model Minority' Brand Hurts Business," Asian Week, January 1, 1992.
  12. "A Call to Break the Glass Ceiling"
  13. "Rehashing the Same Old Stereotypes"
  14. "A Call to Break the Glass Ceiling"
  15. "Amerasian No Scapegoats," Filipino Reporter, March 26, 1992.
  16. Interviews and preceding information on the the forum taken from "Great Expectations Go Unmet," Asian Week, April 24, 1992.
  17. "Rehashing Same Old Stereotypes"
  18. Paragons or Pariahs? Viewpoints Differ"
  19. "Chiang Adds to His Exploits," NY Times Magazine, Jan. 3, 1937.
  20. Population reported in U.S. News and World Report Dec. 26, 1966.
  21. Chang, Curtis, "Streets of Gold: The Myth of the Model Minority," Rereading America, New York:  St. Martin's Press Inc., 1992.
  22. Taken from Kwong, Peter, The New Chinatown, Harper Collins Canada Ltd., Canada, 1987, p. 63-65.
  23. "Lions And Tigers And Asians, Oh My!" Asianweek, January 1, 1992.

Yeung is a graduate of Duke University.

. Quote this article on your site

To create link towards this article on your website,
copy and paste the text below in your page.

Preview :

Powered by QuoteThis © 2008

Add comment

Security code

Valid XHTML 1.0 Transitional CSS ist valide!