Young woman of Asian descent smiling at camera

What is the Model Minority Myth? It's History & Impact

Back in 2020, when the COVID-19 lockdowns became the prevalent topic that ushered in a chapter of fear and uncertainty, a second and similarly fearful virus developed. With many references such as “The Chinese Virus” and “Kung Flu” becoming more and more racially damaging to Asian Americans across the country, full scale tragedy also became a common symptom.

Numerous physical attacks towards Asian Americans were reported including those about lives being taken. Articles citing verbal abuse towards Asian families having a family dinner and physical assault towards others for simply existing spanned social media and news outlets.

Asian American and Pacific Islanders (AAPIs) have been the ridicule of such stories and attacks more noticeably since the start of the pandemic in 2020. While these articles and instances undoubtedly play a role in negatively impacting AAPI community health, this is just another area of concern in relation to Asian American mental health. Numerous statistics have been disclosed before about the prevalence of mental health concerns within the Asian American community, including those from other writings demystifying psychotherapy for AAPIs

While many social media platforms continue to advocate for the mental health needs of AAPI communities, the population continues to have the lowest rate of help seeking compared to other racial or ethnic groups. A common thread for this reasoning is that AAPI individuals reportedly do not believe their needs and thoughts are recognized or understood by professionals who do not identify as AAPI.

As a further point of impact on this issue, the American Psychological Association surveyed 5,325 providers in 2019 and found that 4% identified as Asian. With the needs for assistance and support continuing to rise, Asian American individuals have also sought out therapists through various directories that cater to the population and demographic. Other professionals have also cited this as a crucial point because it was important that individuals within the community worked with someone who could be more understanding of their experiences, especially with the rise of anti-Asian sentiments and the impact COVID-19 has had.

Turning the clock back prior to 2020, one specific stigma and topic of racism that affects the AAPI community directly is the “model minority myth”. By simple definition, the model minority myth stereotypes all Asian Americans as diligent and intelligent; relegating them as more successful than other minorities. This definition in itself becomes problematic as it drives marginalized groups against each other.

As a predominant perception within American culture, the model minority myth in greater depth assumes that Asian Americans in particular are more well-adjusted and can stably maintain their socio-economic successes through strong work ethic. While not primarily associated with Pacific Islanders, the main demographic of the model minority myth falls on Asian Americans; who continue to suffer the stereotypes the myth encompasses.

Even currently, the model minority myth can be seen in modern media. A recent and prominent example of this being “American Born Chinese'', a limited series on Disney+. Various segments of the series would portray assumptions that the main character and other supporting characters as “being good at math” or pushing for achievements and success. While the intent of these examples in the series seems to be meant as an indication of model minority assumptions, it also shows the impact that these beliefs have on certain characters, and by extension, many real life Asian Americans.

This writing will continue by reviewing the history of the model minority myth, its implications and assumptions, and its impact on mental health within the Asian American community.

Origins of the Model Minority Myth

The history of the model minority myth can be traced back to the 1850s when a significant number of Chinese immigrants came to America for life stability and stronger life opportunities. However, they were subject to dangerous work experiences and labor that led to numerous fatalities and injuries; forcing them to flee their working conditions and new homes. Due to the racism and stereotypes at the time including illiteracy, “full of filth”, and submissiveness, laws were then passed to limit immigration and naturalization.

Additionally, the impact of the attack on Pearl Harbor had also affected the racism and hatred towards Japanese Americans. Countless Japanese Americans were incarcerated as a result, with half of those being children.

Over time, Asian exclusion laws began to be lifted. Though discrimination and racism continued to impact Asian Americans. A 1966 article written by sociologist William Petersen detailed the perceived success story of Japanese Americans as being the “model minority”, making it the first recorded instance of the term being used. The writing cited the endurance of Japanese Americans as they faced discrimination and for their achievements being met without aid from others. The article also noted a strong work ethic and authoritative respect while comparing this to the lack thereof from African-Americans, for example, which allowed Asian Americans to not become problematic in comparison to other minorities.

In summary, Petersen’s article suggested that Japanese Americans in particular had overcome hardships like no other minority had. However, this would passively impact the perception of Asian Americans as a whole and create the model minority stereotype.

Social Impact of the Model Minority Myth

Although the concept of the model minority took effect almost 60 years ago, its impact continues to be revealed presently. Issues such as intergroup rivalry and the inherent treatment of Asian Americans as worthy of praise and being monoliths have all impacted the views towards the community. That all Asians are believed to be better off than other minorities, ignoring issues that are universally prevalent such as employment and income disparities, and attaining education. Such a stereotype has also affected the need for Asian American communities to receive support and resources to combat the institutionalized racism within school and public systems.

The myth itself assumes 2 main themes:

  1. Stronger success over other minorities: This suggests a hierarchical system in place that puts Asian Americans towards the top of a list of minority groups with whiteness being placed at the highest position. Such an assumption not only places an inherent expectation on Asian Americans, but also negatively stereotypes other minorities.
  1. Success was because of hard work: This assumption would suggest that one’s failure to become successful is their own fault. That hard work and dedication would automatically equate to breaking the barrier of success and accomplishment. However, this assumption fails to consider the impact that systemic oppression and inequality has had.

Mental Health Impact of the Model Minority Myth

While some may not consider the model minority myth a negative issue and consider it a “positive stereotype”, something defined as a desirable or admirable quality within a particular group, the expectation for Asian Americans to be successful and adjusted continues to lead an increase in depression and suicidality in Asian American youth, particularly in Asian American women with a reported high rate of suicide according to a 2019 research article. A large weight of pressure gets placed upon the individual with what is an unrealistic expectation of needing to be successful because society has dictated it so.

A 2018 study, for example, suggested that in addition to depression and suicidality being prevalent, anxiety has also increased in Asian American adolescents who have internalized the model minority myth. Such a model expectation can also affect feelings of isolation as the internal pressure to succeed deters the recognition of seeking help and additional resources of support when needed.

Similarly, a separate study from 2020 also indicated that the myth can lead to increased feelings of distress and believing oneself to be an imposter. Such that not being able to fulfill the positive stereotype can be strongly influenced by perceived cultural shame. The admission of needing assistance or support would not only bring a feeling of shame towards the individual, but also the community as a whole that has continued to suffer from the concept of perfection and adjustment to society. 

While the model minority myth can be misconceived as a positive trait, its impact on Asian American mental health can be long lasting. Its presumption that Asian Americans have beaten racism and oppression creates a rift among other minority and marginalized groups. As current media shows, Asian Americans continue to experience discrimination and oppression that in turn detriments their mental health. The inherent expectations also deter additional supports from being sought out, leading to an increase in depression, anxiety, feelings of inadequacy, self-doubt, and suicidality to name some of the impacts the myth has affected.

Closing Thoughts

Asian Americans continue to face barriers to seeking and receiving mental health services. Some of which include difficulty with feeling understood and recognized. As such, it is important then to recognize the impact that the model minority myth has also had not only on the Asian American community, but other marginalized groups as well.

With continued stigmatization and perceptions of Asian Americans impacting the community, the need for awareness and advocating vulnerability and needs becomes more apparent. It is important to understand that while the stigmatization of mental health continues to heal within the Asian American communities, it is also important to address the myths that society has created in order to allow for support and help to be sought.

Additional Readings

Permission to Come Home by Jenny Wang