Them vs Us: How the Model Minority Myth Undermines Efforts Towards Racial Solidarity and Hurts Us All
Growing up as a first generation Egyptian immigrant living in a low-income neighborhood, I felt and witnessed the influence of the model minority myth on many of the families around me. I saw the pressure it imposed on different racial groups to act a certain way, to present ourselves as docile, to prove that we are “good” minorities in the midst of the majority of “bad” ones.
I didn’t understand it then, but I would soon grow to realize that the model minority myth – the false presentation of Asian-Americans as a complacent, work-focused, white-adjacent homogenous group – did not develop randomly, but was in fact one of the many racial narratives crafted by politicians and economic leaders to create a wedge between marginalized groups. In the face of growing class and racial consciousness in the 60s, US politicians and media moguls crafted a narrative that would entrench this divide for years to come, hurting all marginalized groups, especially Black and Asian Americans, in the process. When we look back to when the myth was first formed, it becomes obvious that it was formed as a weapon to maintain white supremacy and to hurt other minority groups and pit them against each other.
The term “model minority” was first used in 1966 in a New York Times Magazine article. The article praised the ability of Japanese-Americans to find success and gain capital in the US, “solidifying the stereotypes of Asians as ‘industrious and rule-abiding’ at a time when Black Americans were struggling against systemic bigotry” (Mok and Diefenderfer). As we well know, the 1960s were an especially incendiary time in the history of American anti-racist activism, with the Civil Rights movements and abolitionist movements in full swing. This was a particularly worrisome time for all those who had a vested interest in maintaining the racial and economic status quo. Painting Asian-Americans – a marginalized group with much at stake in the anti-racist movements of the 60s – as a homogenous, pacifist, work-oriented, disciplined group served to hurt these anti-rascist movements in a myriad of ways. For one, the popularization of Asian-Americans as the model minority group was created in literal opposition to Black Americans, who were (and of course, still are) being criminalized and portrayed as lazy, violent, and dangerous. The “good” of one minority group necessitated the “bad” of the other.
Another way this classification hurt racial and economic solidarity is in the way it encouraged both groups to act a certain way – to be more pacifist, to keep away from the protests and riots, to subscribe to capitalist ideas of a work ethic, etc. Importantly, this false homogenization erased the very real racial, economic, and social struggles that Asian-Americans continue to face today, exacerbating the already-existing stigma against speaking out about mistreatment and discrimination in the Asian-American community.
Additionally, this myth created and fostered a resentment between both groups, as they were socialized to believe that one was better (or whiter) than the other. This resentment and competition weren’t solely reserved for Black people and Asian-Americans, but also became part of the dynamic between other ethnic and racial groups that were being pitted against this false idea of a perfect minority group. As Nora Lyang writes, “Asian Americans have been racialized relative to and through interaction with Whites and Blacks, and Asian and Black Americans have been pitted against each other by systems of White nationality that benefit from excluding others” (Lyang).
It is important to acknowledge that, even in the face of this fabricated ideology that pits Asian and Black Americans against each other, both groups have engaged in racial solidarity over the course of many social justice movements and continue to provide support for each other on a very significant scale. This solidarity can be traced back as far as 1955 with the Bandung Conference – where representatives of people from the Asian continent and the African continent came together to discuss decolonization strategies – and as recently as Asians for Black Lives Matter and the Unity Day march against rising levels of anti-Asian hate crime (All Things Considered). That is to say that the false narrative of a model minority, despite all the damage it continues to marginalized communities, has not succeeded in eliminating cross-racial solidarity, even (and especially) between Black and Asian Americans. It is imperative that we recognize the power in our solidarity, and so we must resist white supremacist and capitalist interets in erasing this history or discouraging more of this solidarity.
All Things Considered. “The History of Solidarity between Asian and Black Americans.” NPR.org, 2 Apr. 2021, www.npr.org/2021/04/02/983925014/the-history-of-solidarity-between-asian-and-black-americans.
Chow, Kat. ““Model Minority” Myth Again Used as a Racial Wedge between Asians and Blacks.” Npr.org, 19 Apr. 2017, www.npr.org/sections/codeswitch/2017/04/19/524571669/model-minority-myth-again-used-as-a-racial-wedge-between-asians-and-blacks.
Nora Lyang. “Opinion: Here’s How the Model Minority Myth Hurts Asians and Other People of Color.” San Diego Union-Tribune, 26 Mar. 2021, www.sandiegouniontribune.com/opinion/commentary/story/2021-03-26/minority-myth-asians. Accessed 18 July 2022.
Wu, Ellen. “The Complex History—and Ongoing Realities—of the “Model Minority” Stereotype.” Goop, 9 July 2020, goop.com/wellness/environmental-health-civics/model-minority-stereotype/.