Deconstructing the ‘Model Minority’ Myth

The Asian and Pacific Islander community has long been heralded as a ‘model minority’ in the US, with people pointing at the success of some individuals as some kind of evidence that there is a right way to be an immigrant, and a right way to be a person of colour in the US. If you try hard and do all the right things in the right order, if you adhere to capitalist ideals, you, too, can bootstrap your way to the top and impress people with your personification of the American Dream. Needless to say, the Asian and Pacific Islander community has been fighting back on the ‘model minority’ myth for almost as long as it’s been around, because it’s racist, and harmful, and gross, and objectifying.

But it’s also, researchers point out, a serious issue when it comes to policymaking that affects the Asian and Pacific Islander community in the United States. The assumption that all Asians and Pacific Islanders are hard-working, primed for success, able to do well in a variety of environments, and so forth means that the government and social organisations often assume they don’t need support, assistance, or advocacy. There’s a general belief that members of the Asian and Pacific Islander community are all set, and don’t experience racism and other social barriers that might actually make it difficult for them to thrive in US society.

There’s a widespread assumption that Asians and Pacific Islanders in the US are happier, wealthier, more productive, successful, and well-educated. You see it perpetuated in the myth that Asian students ‘steal’ all the good places at colleges and universities, for example. Under that metric, policymaking that concerns the community would naturally assume no direct assistance, monitoring, or aid is required, because, really, why help people who are doing so well on their own?

Yet, the fact is that members of the Asian and Pacific Islander community are not exempt from the racial disparities in this country. They experience high unemployment rates, lower per capita income, and high poverty rates; all at rates greater than in the white community. Many struggle in jobs that pay at or close to minimum wage, which is not enough to live on, and members of the community are also extremely vulnerable to employment exploitation, a serious issue that the government isn’t following up on because of the false belief that members of a ‘model minority’ couldn’t possibly be experiencing harsh working conditions.

Asian women are among the most likely to work in nail salons, for example, where they are forced to work long hours while exposed to toxic chemicals, usually making very low pay. Asian women are also commonly employed as domestic workers, aides and care providers at long-term care facilities, and in related professions. Like other people who perform domestic work and personal care, they are underpaid for their work, which can take place in hazardous environments that place undue strain on their bodies. Along with the Latina workforce, they’re a key component of the people who keep hotels and large businesses humming away, and they receive minimal compensation for doing so despite the risks to their health.

Vietnamese woman are scurrying to make up as many rooms as possible in corporate hotels because they don’t want to fall behind and get punished. Thai women lean over the nails of white ladies pleased to get $5 manicures, inhaling fumes. Cambodian women report for 12 hour shifts in nursing homes and struggle to lift and move patients who weigh too much for them to move safely on their own. Chinese women work in sweatshops in the city, assembling garments in unsafe, sometimes squalid environments as quickly as possible because they’re paid by the piece.

Immigrants of both genders, but women in particular, pay high prices to be smuggled into the US, and often find that they were offered a deal under false pretenses. They’re forced to work off their passage as slaves with a company store that’s impossible to pay off, or the work that was supposedly waiting for them won’t be there when they arrive. A woman who thought she was immigrating to the US as a housekeeper, perhaps even legally, finds that her identification and paperwork are confiscated and she’s forced into sex work when she arrives.

These are the things that get erased in the perpetuation of the myth about model minorities. The Asian and Pacific Islander community isn’t uniform, and experiences a huge spectrum of social diversity; and, overall, it still doesn’t experience equality with the white community. Which means the burden is on policymakers to find out why and to start directly addressing these issues in order to provide equal opportunities to everyone, not just those with the connections, the English skills, and the family money to survive.

There seems to be a belief that the existence of a ‘sacrifice generation’ among many immigrant communities, including Asians and Pacific Islanders, is acceptable, and we need to ask why that is. Why is it okay to throw the lives of an entire generation away and expect them to carry the younger generation to better chances? Why aren’t we fighting for the current generation? And why aren’t we addressing the issues that specifically affect Asian-Americans and Pacific Islanders who have been living in the United States for generations, and yet aren’t enjoying all the alleged fruits of being a model minority?

Singling out individuals as some kind of proof that an entire social group is successful and doesn’t need help is a great way to evade responsibility, but it doesn’t do much in terms of changing social structures and creating a United States with true opportunities for all. There’s no reason why Asians and Pacific Islanders should face discrimination, poverty, exploitation, and abuse, and in order to address these issues, we need to throw the ‘model minority’ myth out the window and focus on solid policymaking.