Race to Success: Model Minority


Bluestockings magazine; Illustration by Janine Goetzen

By Sadiqua Khan

Published April 25, 2021

The term ‘model minority’ refers to a minority group perceived as particularly successful, especially in contrast with other minority groups. This term is often applied to Asian Americans, who are most often praised for their apparent success across academic, economic, and cultural domains. These successes are typically offered in contrast to the achievements of other racial groups. With the TYWLS community population serving about 35% Asians, this myth can affect many. This term is still not very widely known. What is the model minority myth? Why is it so harmful? What can we do as a community to fight against these stereotypes?


What is "the model minority?"

A single sentence can sum up the meaning of model minority myth: “Asian Americans are often stereotyped as studious, successful, smart  - a model minority who excel in education and accomplish the ‘American Dream’ (USC).” This term includes assumptions that those of Asian descent are studious, meek, excel in math and science, and have strict parents. At first glance, you may be questioning why this stereotype is a bad thing. The model minority does not serve Asian Americans. Instead, it allows for hate to be spread to Asian Americans.


Where does "model minority" come from?

The term was coined in 1966 by a sociologist named William Petersen when writing an article called “Success Story: Japanese American Style.” A factor for this name was the anti-Asian immigration policies from 1882’s Chinese Exclusion Act and 1965 immigration and Nationality Act. The only Asain immigrants allowed into the country were professionals such as doctors, engineers, and scientists. Their children were expected to excel as their parents had in their own country, and as a result, many gained whats been called an elite education and had societies definition of successful careers.

Harm from the term "model minority":

While there is statistical evidence that suggests that Asian Americans have achieved a certain level of success in US society, there are other statistics that prove otherwise. Asian students tend to have the highest test scores in school. A study took the results of 61,000 students taking the say during the 201-2017 academic year.

Based on the results, Asian students had the highest mean SAT scores. Scores seem to be calculated by race, causing many minority student groups to suffer except for Asians. Asian students were predicted to score up to 70 points higher than White students. The term mixed with public data causes Asian students to feel pressured to live up to society’s expectations. 


College Board "SAT Suite Of Assessment Annual Report, 2020


Because Asians are stereotyped to be academically successful, those who encounter struggles find difficulty getting the help they deserve. Asian American students are less likely to get academic aid even though 1 in 3 are not proficient in language skills such as reading and writing. 

I had the pleasure of having an interview with a student in the US. She does not attend TYWLS but this just goes to show that this term affects people everywhere. Her name is Elaine and she is in the 10th grade. She attends school in Pennsylvania. She identifies as biracial, bilingual, and lived in China for 12 years! Here are a few of her responses:

What do you interpret the phrase “model minority” to mean?

The model minority myth is used to excuse and disprove privilege held by the dominant culture. If a minority can achieve these great things, people interpret that to mean, clearly, they face no discrimination; and thus, the dominant culture is not oppressing anyone. It fuels tension between minority groups because it introduces the idea of a “better minority,” so there must be a “worse minority.” Furthermore, Asians, as part of the “model minority,” also feel pressured to fit a strict mold and excel in academics.

Do you think you receive academic benefits because you are a part of the Asian community?

Explicitly, no. In fact, due to programs like affirmative action, Asians are actually oftentimes at a disadvantage in academics. However, I will say that my mindset, approach to challenges, and study habits are largely shaped by Asian culture. I think many Asian people can relate in that many cultures value education very, very highly. In my case growing up in China, that culture distilled perseverance and a true appreciation for learning in me. I believe that these values have benefited my academics.

Has there been an event that occurred in which your race caused assumptions to be made about you and your academic ability?

Since I am biracial, people who don’t know me very well usually don’t make the connection that I’m Asian. After it comes up in conversation, and they learn that I am Asian, a common response I get is, “Oh! THAT'S why you’re so smart.” I think this statement is belittling, as it dismisses the amount of work and effort I had to put in to get to where I am today. It also plays into the model minority myth by implying people of other races and minorities cannot be “so smart.”

The model minority myth has been used as a weapon against Asians throughout history. It acted as a division for Asians against other minority groups. Insinuating that all Asians are greater than other POC is wrong and promotes violence and racism. There is so much diversity, power, and resilience that the Asian community holds. As a community, TYWLS understands and is in support of all students. These ideas and actions taken towards Asian-American have to stop. There is no time to be a bystander to these issues. By using our voices, we can fight against these injustices!

Namkung, Victoria. “The Model Minority Myth Says All Asians Are Successful. Why That’s Dangerous.” NBC News, NBC News, 22 Mar. 2021, www.nbcnews.com/news/asian-america/model-minority-myth-says-asians-are-successful-dangerous-rcna420. Accessed 17 Apr. 2021.

“Asian Americans as Model Minorities? A Look at Their Academic Performance | American Journal of Education: Vol 103, No 2.” American Journal of Education, 2020, www.journals.uchicago.edu/doi/abs/10.1086/444094. Accessed 17 Apr. 2021.

Model Minority Section (2011). 2011. https://depts.washington.edu/sibl/Publications/Model%20Minority%20Section%20(2011).pdf. Accessed 17 Apr. 2021. 

Ember Smith, and Richard V Reeves. “SAT Math Scores Mirror and Maintain Racial Inequity.” Brookings, Brookings, Dec. 2020, www.brookings.edu/blog/up-front/2020/12/01/sat-math-scores-mirror-and-maintain-racial-inequity/. Accessed 25 Apr. 2021.