Warriors on the Issues: The model minority myth and me
I have heard the “model minority myth” a couple of times, scattered throughout my sheltered rising sophomore existence. With the upcoming presidential election, it is paramount to discuss this often-ignored issue. Asian Americans are a small, nascent political community whose votes may well decide election outcomes in places like California, Virginia and Texas. Latino and Asian immigration and civic participation are shifting the scales. Thus, it seems to be a pertinent time to discuss and understand the model minority myth that plagues all your friendly neighborhood Asians.
Unlike the more typical discrimination against some groups, discrimination faced by Asian Americans is subtle, yet still painful. Stoked by American popular culture, the “smart, wimpy Asian” stereotype stems off the pervasive benign minority/model minority myth. Think of Chris Rock at the 2015 Grammys with his band of prodigy Asian accountants. Or earlier this election season, Donald Trump gleefully butchered a Chinese accent in Iowa. On TV we immediately recognize that high pitched know-it-all who is “not-as-smart-as-she-thinks-she-is.” The staple gluttonous stat-wizkid at a fictitious math camp? Even innocuous Cho Chang, the protagonist’s Ravenclaw-smart and emotionally unstable love interest in the beloved Harry Potter series, plays into the pernicious model minority stereotype.
Model minority is the congealed ideal of the Asian races as a whole, implying their supposed (though limited) superiority to other races. Typically the myth is referenced as an offense to affirmative action, (e.g. “If Asians can do it, why can’t Blacks or Hispanics?”). Model minority gives an arbitrary reason why Asians are seemingly a “better” or no-longer a minority. The last bit, myth, is tacked on to complete the alliteration — and that is where our scrutiny is required.
The model minority myth is multi-faceted. On one hand, the myth describes inherent academic and economic excellence, driven by an ingrained tenacity. Yet, on the other hand, the revered model minority colors one as passive, innately foreign, submissive, and apolitical, even powerless, unwilling to take a stand in the changing world in which they are very much involved. It is a ridiculous, emasculating, and demeaning notion.
Is it too obvious to say athletic, creative, and outspoken Asian Americans abound and populate the Earth too?
The question now becomes not “What is the model minority myth?” but “What does the myth do?” and “Who does the myth affect?”
To the first question, the model minority acts as a divider between Asian (East/ South Asian-Pacific Islander) and other minorities. Putting Asian Americans on a pedestal and venerating them based on misleading stereotypes leads to a further polarized American society.
The model minority myth even persists within Wilton, affecting both the young and the old. As all 15-year-old boys and girls do not wander Wilton streets in beanies and wide-framed glasses jamming to 21 Pilots, all Asians are not the culturally crafted quintessence of mathematical academia.
Stereotypes — a shorthand for categorizing others — as we all learned as children, are false and detrimental. Generalizations are always harmful, but the myth perpetually projects its influence upon new generations and has remained unchanged, unapologetic, and largely unrecognized. As Americans, we must know and do better. I am not “from somewhere else,” I am American. Connecticut is my home, and I am proud, born and raised in Wilton.
Beyond race — for that matter, sexual orientation, gender, and religion — we all want to be known as individuals, having a voice and a ballot. We should strive to recognize each other’s merits and values, skills and strengths — seeing past the societal stereotypes allotted to us.
Elizabeth Yoon is a rising sophomore at Wilton High School. She is a member of the school’s Model Congress Club.