Entry by Lauren Nader
Since its introduction by sociologist William Petersen in 1966, the term model minority has seen an increase in usage in popular media. The term refers to “minority groups that have ostensibly achieved a high level of success in contemporary society. For instance, the term has been used most often to describe Asian Americans, a group seen as having attained educational and financial success relative to other immigrant groups (Model Minority Section, 2011:173). Generally speaking, the term itself is now used to describe any minority group – primarily ethnic minority groups, who cross socioeconomic boundaries, to demonstrate success in areas such as academia, finance, and social status.
The term was first introduced to popular media by William Peterson, who wrote an article for the New York Times titled “Success Story: Japanese American Style”.
Petersen emphasised that family structure and a cultural emphasis on hard work allowed Japanese Americans to overcome the discrimination against their group and achieve a measure of success in the United States. Numerous popular press articles subsequently appeared describing the “successes” of various Asian American groups.”
This is of particular issue in the United States where the notion of the ‘American Dream’ combined with civil rights movements and racial inequalities, pitted one minority group against another to showcase that ‘success’ was possible if you had the right mindset. As Sahar El-Kotob (2021) writes:
“Images and stories of a hard-working minority group overcoming racial barriers and moving up the socioeconomic ladder became a convenient avenue to create a façade that the United States is a racial democracy and to deny the legitimate demands of other racialized groups, especially African Americans, seeking racial equity and government accountability.”
The term remains controversial even today, especially in its application towards the Asian diaspora. Many groups aim to dispel the concept of the model minority as myth, as it generalises the lived experience of minority groups without looking at other important indicators of success as well as barriers to entry. To put it shortly, there is a plethora of complex experiences that make up life, and we cannot sum it up in one concise term. Thus it is more precise to refer to the model minority as the model minority myth (MMM).
Model Minority is intrinsically linked to colonial narratives that seek to assimilate and mould minority groups into “successful, law-abiding and non threatening persons of colour, especially in a manner that contrasts other minority groups” (El-Kotob, 2021).
Some consequences of the model minority myth include:
- positive biases and stereotypes towards one group and negative biases and stereotypes against the other.
- minority groups may feel pressure to live up to unrealistic expectations
- “Success stories” divert attention from everyday challenges and barriers to entry faced by other or all members of the minority group
- Severe backlash for not living up to the model minority stereotype
- Delinquent behaviour is overlooked amongst White populations and are reported higher in minority groups (Choi and Lahey, 2006)
Within the UK:
East and Southeast Asians are now one of the fastest growing ethnic groups in the UK. A good percentage of the demographic are being students – both national and international. Nevertheless, discrimination and racial disadvantages are still subjected amongst this group. However, as Dr. Yeh writes, young East Asians are entering the dialogue and becoming part of the UK through unconventional means such as the nightlife and music space (Yeh, 2018):
“In my research on British Chinese and East Asian nightlife spaces, what’s important to young people is finding a sense of belonging and participating in global youth culture. They are just as concerned about being trendy and cool, sexually attractive and enjoying a sense of cosmopolitan mobility as any other young person.”
A major issue with the MMM in the UK is its tendency to pit one ethnic group against another. For example, many outlets and British Media reports point to the success of the Indian and Asian diaspora’s success.
The problem with the practice is that it pits ethnic minority groups, which could otherwise be allies, against each other. It perpetuates stereotypes in and outside the group and, worst of all, it gives governments, companies and institutions of power a mask for their own systemic racism. It completely ignores the fact that one minority group may face very different challenges or levels of racism than another (Dewan, 2020).
Within higher education:
Scholars are well aware of the impact of MMM within higher education, with pedagogies seeing a shift in examining the ways MMM is “conceptually framed”, seeking to “rethink educational discourse and inquiry…in higher education” (Poon et al., 2016:470) and how scholars are often “complicit in framing non dominant students and their communities in ways that reinscribe and support dominant narratives” (Gutierrez, 2006:227).
Wong (2015) discusses three main issues with upholding the MMM within higher education:
- The MMM emerged as an American political construction to defend existing educational systems that failed to serve the minority communities by highlighting how Asian Americans were ‘successful’
- The application of the MMM on one particular ethnic group overlooks the variation and diversity within these diaspora communities
- The pressures of the MMM on students dismisses them as unique individuals while expecting them to adhere to certain educational behaviours and performances. This in turn undermines the needs and supports of ‘high achieving’ students and ignores areas of inequality and deep-rooted disadvantages in other students.
In the UK, universities have a large body of international students, particularly from the Far East. The ‘Chinese Student’ is seen as a homogeneous entity that is stereotyped as a cash cow or a scapegoat, yet their role in contemporary British society is often overlooked. City University recently held a talk in June 2021 titled “Cash Cow, Scapegoat and Model Minority: Chinese Students in the UK,” aimed at sharing the diverse experiences of Chinese students and their role in British society. One Chinese student wrote the following:
“Once my (British) classmate asked me: Are all Chinese students studying in the UK come from rich families (like in Crazy Rich Asians)? I do not know whether this was a joke or whether she was serious. I come from a working-class family and my parents had to save up money for me to study abroad.”
You can read more about the discussion points here.
Chow, K. (2017). “Model Minority” Myth Again Used As A Racial Wedge Between Asians And Blacks. [online] Npr.org. Available at: https://www.npr.org/sections/codeswitch/2017/04/19/524571669/model-minority-myth-again-used-as-a-racial-wedge-between-asians-and-blacks
Fukui, M. (2018). Being a good, quiet and assimilated “model minority” is making me angry | Masako Fukui. The Guardian. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2018/jul/28/being-a-good-quiet-and-assimilated-model-minority-is-making-me-angry
Hartlep N. D. and Hayes C. (2013). Interrupting the Racial Triangulation of Asians. In: Hayes C. and Hartlep N. D. (eds). Unhooking from Whiteness. Constructing Knowledge (Curriculum Studies in Action). Sense Publishers: Rotterdam.
MCC, J.S. (2021). Council Post: Are You Unconsciously Buying Into The Model Minority Stereotype? Forbes. Available at: https://www.forbes.com/sites/forbescoachescouncil/2021/03/17/are-you-unconsciously-buying-into-the-model-minority-stereotype/
Nguyen, V.T. (2020). Asian Americans Are Still Caught in the Trap of the “Model Minority” Stereotype. And It Creates Inequality for All. Time. Available at: https://time.com/5859206/anti-asian-racism-america/
YouTube. (2021). East-Asian stereotypes, the china doll, dragon lady, & the Model minority | Khadija Mbowe. Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=d6XGA-NhuTo
Choi, Y., & Lahey, B. B. (2006). Testing the Model Minority Stereotype: Youth Behaviours across Racial and Ethnic Groups. The Social service review, 80 (3), 419–452.
CNN, A. by A.D. (2020). Indians are being held up as a model minority. That’s not helping the Black Lives Matter movement. CNN. Available at: https://www.cnn.com/2020/06/29/world/indians-migrant-minority-black-lives-matter-intl/index.html
Gutierrez, K. (2006). White innocence: A framework and methodology for rethinking educational discourse and inquiry. International Journal of Learning, 12.
Lerners. (2021). Unapologetically Asian: The “Model Minority” Myth | Lerners LLP. Available at: https://www.lerners.ca/lernx/unapologetically-asian-the-model-minority-myth/
Model Minority Section (2011). Available at: https://depts.washington.edu/sibl/Publications/Model%20Minority%20Section%20(2011).pdf
The British Academy. (2018). How young British East and Southeast Asians are engaging in a new politics of belonging. Available at: https://www.thebritishacademy.ac.uk/blog/how-young-british-east-southeast-asians-engaging-politics-belonging/
The Practice. (n.d.). A Snapshot of the Asian American Community. Available at: https://thepractice.law.harvard.edu/article/a-snapshot-of-the-asian-american-community/
Poon, O., Squire, D., Kodama, C., Byrd, A., Chan, J., Manzano, L. and Bishundat, D. (2016). A Critical Review of the Model Minority Myth in Selected Literature on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders in Higher Education. Review of Educational Research, 86(2), 469-502. Available at: http://www.jstor.org/stable/24752861
Wong, B. (2015) A blessing with a curse: model minority ethnic students and the construction of educational success. Oxford Review of Education, 41 (6). pp. 730-746. Available at: http://centaur.reading.ac.uk/69981/
Questions to ask:
- How does the idea of assimilation and the MMM play into our understanding of history and the university’s curriculums?
- Is there a tendency to expect more from a certain demographic of students compared to another?
- Can we demystify the MMM within higher education, and if so who is responsible for making these changes?
- What is the role and responsibility of staff and higher education institutions in shaping the curriculum and the minds of the future?
- What ideas and generalisations are we privileging when categorise ethinic experiences as universal?
- How does the MMM impact students and their academic performance?