The other side of the “model minority” myth

By Serena Siu

It is commonly misunderstood that the “model minority” myth is just the belief that all Asian Americans are smart and do well in school, but there is another side to this narrative. The “model minority” myth, which emerged in the 1960s, was originally created as a way of upholding White supremacy in the United States by maintaining the image that Asian Americans are a hardworking minority group that was able to overcome obstacles and become successful in the United States, unlike non-Asian American minorities (Poon et al. 2016). The other side of the “model minority” myth is that the apparent success of Asian Americans was used to question why other minority groups, primarily Blacks and Latinxs, could not also reach these same levels of success, pitting Asian Americans against non-Asian American minorities. The “model minority” myth is not only harmful to the Black and Latinx communities that are being oppressed and marginalized by these ideas, but also to Asian Americans, as these ideas also ignore the heterogeneity within the group.

The “model minority” myth is perpetuated on a larger, systematic scale, but it has very real consequences on a smaller scale, such as in a school setting. Coming from a predominantly White and Asian American middle school, I was not very aware of the different treatment that my Black and Latinx peers received from teachers until I attended a high school where the majority of the student population was composed of minorities (Blacks, Latinxs, and Asians). There, I noticed how students of certain races/ethnicities were treated differently by teachers and other school faculty. My observations in my own high school were put into words in Gilda Ochoa’s book “Academic Profiling: Latinos, Asian Americans, and the Achievement Gap,” where she studied how race/ethnicity related to an achievement gap in a Southern California high school. It was found that there were generally more negative stereotypes associated with Latinx and Black students, including that they were lazy, “ghetto,” and don’t care about school, than with Asian American students, who were associated with comparably positive stereotypes, such as that they were smart and hardworking. As a result, these stereotypes translated to differential treatment of certain students by the teachers, who may or may not have intentionally focused more of their attention on those who they perceive as the “better” students.

In this way, the “model minority” myth is recreated on a smaller scale in the school environment. Black and Latinx students are met with barriers to certain opportunities, such as less attention from teachers and fewer resources that encourage them to aim towards higher education, because of the biased treatment and preconceived expectations of them based on their race/ethnicity. Asian American students are placed to higher standards because they are assumed to all be high-achieving, and those who do not meet these standards are seen as isolated cases or even less “Asian” than their higher-performing Asian American peers. The “model minority” myth perpetuates these stereotypes about Black, Latinx, and Asian students and has an overall harmful effect on all of the minority groups as the stereotypes are translated into everyday school life and interactions.

A way to combat this, as suggested by Ochoa, is to increase and make meaningful discussions about how race/ethnicity play a role in schools and education. Though the “model minority” myth is an issue that should be tackled on an institutional level, there are things that schools can do to make them more welcoming and safe spaces for students of color, such as enforcing more equitable policies for students of all races/ethnicities. In addition, implementing an ethnic studies course as a requirement would allow students and teachers alike to become more racially and socially aware and sensitive when interacting with others inside and outside of the classroom. Through increased discussion on how things like race/ethnicity play a role in the classroom and a push for more inclusive school policies, schools can become a more equitable and hospitable environment for all students to learn and grow.

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