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Model Minorities- A Backhanded Compliment

Written by: Abha Shah

The term “Model Minority” applies to communities perceived as achieving a higher degree of socioeconomic success as compared to other minority groups. Communities that fall under such a label are often praised and looked up to, which as a result undermines the danger of assigning such titles. Aside from the fact that such generalizations for a vast group of people is dishonest, it creates a wedge between other minority groups and overlooks the struggles ‘model minorities’ face daily.

In his article, “Success Story, Japanese-American Style” sociologist William Petersen highlights the struggles endured by Japanese Americans both during and after World War II and praises them for overcoming such dire circumstances. He credits their success to their conscientious nature, strong family values and work ethic [1], reducing them to a ‘model minority’. Over the years, this term has made its way into discussions regarding Asian-Americans. While these discussions usually consist of praise for members of such communities, what it all boils down to is the fact that the term ‘model minority’ is a stereotype.

Generalizations regarding minority groups can be detrimental since they fail to encompass the many nuances that come with being a part of such vast population groups. Some examples of generalizations attributed to Asian American communities include being hardworking, studious and family-oriented. On the outside looking in, these are great qualities – until they set up a standard one must live up to since their cultural identity has been reduced to a glorified stereotype. 

These societal pressures are projected onto upcoming generations, who experience more pressure to succeed in academics, discrimination due to their cultural background and confusion regarding their identity. Failure to live up to these standards leads to immense emotional turmoil. What seems like encouragement for a generation to succeed inevitably harms their mental health and well-being, which is evidently not being considered. 

Furthermore, these positive stereotypes are fueled by generalized statistics, which depict Asian Americans as having the highest median income of any racial group. At the same time, Asian Americans have the largest income gap of any racial group [2], an unsurprising statistic since Asian-Americans cannot be confined to a single group. 

Perhaps the most detrimental effect of stereotyping minority groups is the racial discrimination towards groups considered as ‘problem minorities’. Peterson uses this term to describe African American communities for their poor health, poor education, low income, high crime rate and unstable family patterns [1] in comparison to the model Japanese American communities. This term is nothing but another dangerous stereotype used to pit two minority groups against each other and has been perpetuated throughout the years.

The model minority myth has been weaponized to discredit the concerns regarding racial inequality African Americans face. Andrew Sullivan from New York Magazine made concerning statements regarding the comparisons between these two minority groups, stating that if African Americans just followed Asian-Americans’ successful habits, their negative stereotypes would be turned into positive ones [3]. Such comparisons only undermine more pertinent issues such as racial inequality and discrimination and give rise to competition between different minority groups.

It is imperative to question such generalized terms. Uplifting one group of people should not come at the expense of those that belong to other communities as well as members of said ‘model minority’.



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