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Growing up Asian American, I know the model minority stereotype all too well. Asian Americans are touted as studious, hard-working, smart and successful—the embodiment of the ‘American Dream.’ But this narrative is reductive for Asian Americans. It strips away our individuality and minimizes our accomplishments by crediting our success to our race. I remember a specific interaction I had with a classmate in middle school.

It was during math class, and our teacher had just handed back our graded test. The girl sitting next to me asked me how I did on my test, and I told her I got an ‘A,’ To which she replied, “well, that doesn’t count; you’re Asian.” I laughed it off. And even though I was only 13 and had yet to understand microaggression, something about it never sat right with me.

For decades, Asian Americans wear the term ‘model minority’ like a badge of honor. It’s time we change that because the model minority stereotype is, in fact, a myth. The term ‘model minority’ was coined in 1966 by sociologist William Petersen. In “Success Story: Japanese American Style,” Petersen argued that Japanese Americans were able to overcome discrimination through the traditional family structure and the cultural emphasis on hard work.

It was suggested that other minorities should model after the Japanese American success story. This narrative emerged during the civil rights era and politicians at the time were quick to adopt this stance because, as Jeff Guo, a journalist in Washington D.C., says, “elevating Asian Americans as hardworking was a tactic to denigrate African Americans.” The conflation of anti-Asian racism with anti-Black racism is offensive to both groups because their struggles are intrinsically different. Nevertheless, the myth persisted.

grayscale photo of Asian woman sitting at the corner of wall

Over time, the ‘model minority myth drove a wedge between Asian Americans and African Americans. By reframing the narrative around individual failures instead of systemic oppression, African Americans and other minority groups were blamed for their struggles. This myth reinforces oppression by insinuating that minority groups can simply overcome racism and discrimination by working harder. Some even go so far as to claim that racism is no longer a problem because ‘look at how successful Asian Americans are.’

This myth not only oppresses other minority groups but Asian Americans as well, and we need to stop framing it as a positive stereotype. The model minority stereotype categorizes ‘Asians’ as a monolithic group, of which we are not. Studies into the educational achievements and poverty rates amongst Asian American groups reveal a host of disparities. For example, according to CNN Business, the poverty rate for Asian Americans is 12.5% compared to the national rate of 15.5%.

A closer inspection shows that the poverty rate for Chinese Americans is 15.8% and 28% for Hmong Americans, both higher than the national rate. So often, Asian Americans are overlooked in the conversation around income inequality because we are the highest income earning group in the nation.

A research study published by the Pew Research Centers reveals that since 1970, income inequality in the U.S. is rising most rapidly among Asians as the top 10% of Asians earn 10.7 times more than the bottom 10%. By ignoring the within-group differences, we are reproducing and reinforcing our oppression. Dismantling the myth means educating yourself. Say the name of Vincent Chin. Learn about the activism of Grace Lee Bogs, Larry Itliong, Philip Vera Cruz and Richard Masato Aoki

Kathy Nguyen is a Senior at VCU. She is double majoring in Gender, Sexuality, and Women's Studies and Political Science with concentration in International Relations. Her passion includes advocating for women's reproductive rights and gun reforms. In addition to her political activism, she is a coffee snob and a Harry Potter fanatic.
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