Some people associate certain minority groups with positive traits or success. While these views may seem flattering on the surface, the model minority myth is actually rooted in damaging stereotypes. For example, East Asian groups of people are perceived as submissive (although this mostly affects Asian women). One of the most devastating effects of the minority myth is it fails to address the problems members of a group might face. It’s been used to silence minorities, ignore racism, and pit members of minority groups against one another.
Read on to learn more about the model minority myth and why it’s so problematic. The good news is that we can work together to break stereotypes and help one another heal from these damaging myths.
The concept of “model minority” was introduced in a New York Times magazine essay published in 1966. In the essay, a sociologist named Professor William Petersen praised Japanese Americans for their strong family values and work ethic. He credited these traits for their socio-economic success.
Since then, the myth of the model minority has been applied to the Asian community in whole and members of other minority demographics. This particular myth places numerous cultural expectations on Asian Americans. For example, it’s often assumed that members of this racial group are extremely intelligent, hardworking, or self-reliant.
Even though a myth such as this makes positive assumptions about specific racial minority groups, the problem lies in the fact that it treats members of the group as a monolith rather than individuals. These stereotypes can be highly damaging and harmful in several ways.
“Need for perfectionism, low self-esteem, never feeling good enough, and high expectations from everyone around you are some of the impacts of the model minority myth.”
– Talkspace therapist Reshawna Chapple, Ph.D., LCSW
High expectations can be a source of stress
Due to the model minority myth, Asian Americans are viewed by some as being naturally talented at math or science. These expectations and pressure that results can be overwhelming and impact Asian American mental health. Studies have found that model minority stereotypes can even have a negative impact on school performance among Asian American students.
These and other “positive” stereotypes can sometimes make it difficult for people of the affected racial group to get help and support. For example, an Asian American person struggling with math might be ignored or dismissed when they ask for assistance. This can increase stress and make people feel like they can’t reach out for help, even when they need it. The long-term cumulative effect can be devastating.
It dismisses racism
The model minority myth claims that some minority groups have an elevated status. These beliefs often ignore or don’t acknowledge the racism experienced by members of these groups. When members try to speak up, positive stereotypes are often used to downplay their concerns.
Misconceptions about model minorities can make it harder for people to feel like they’re heard. These views also have the potential to impact government policy and community outreach. When it’s believed or assumed that a group or community is thriving, issues they may face might be largely overlooked.
It puts minority groups in competition with each other
Members of groups described as model minorities are often compared to other minority demographics. The model minority myth has been used to argue against racial equity movements. These arguments can be harmful, particularly when used alongside negative stereotypes about other communities.
Instead of working together to achieve shared goals, members of these Asian American subgroups may see others as competitors. The conflict perpetuates racist beliefs and avoids responsibility for the damage that racism has caused.
Falling short of expectations can lead to guilt and shame
When people don’t live up to the positive stereotypes associated with model minorities, it can significantly impact their self-esteem and even lead to racial trauma. It can cause them to feel like failures or as if they’re not good enough. Members of model minority groups might pressure themselves to excel in specific areas like athletics, math, or science to counter their racial imposter syndrome.
Sometimes, the model minority stereotype can make people feel they need to be perfect to succeed. They also might feel like only certain types of successes matter. For example, someone who excels on an artistic project may feel guilty about their achievement being acknowledged.
The model minority myth has a long history, but it’s possible to push back against these stereotypes and challenge biases. Fighting back against this damaging myth can promote positive change and create new opportunities.
Challenging racism can shift people’s views and beliefs. Many people repeat model minority stereotypes because they think the ideas are complementary or harmless. Speaking up and explaining why these statements are harmful might persuade people to change their behavior.
When you do speak up, try to focus on the issue rather than the person you’re confronting. By boosting awareness of the model minority myth and the harm that it causes, you can take steps to dismantle stereotypes.
Take pride in who you are
Instead of living up to a myth, learn to appreciate yourself as you are. Recognize your strengths and spend time on things that you’re good at. Treat yourself with compassion and celebrate your successes, no matter what they are.
Raise your own awareness
In addition to speaking up against racism, it’s essential to acknowledge and challenge your own biases. Instead of making assumptions, you should question your beliefs and learn more about other cultures in your community. Whether you read up on Supreme Court cases or listen to speeches from activists, increasing your awareness will help you begin to debunk the model minority myth.
Highlight diverse voices
Research shows the model minority myth has made many minorities, especially of Asian descent, feel invisible. This makes it all the more important to be a champion for diversity. Do what you can to amplify voices and include people in meaningful conversations. Read and share a wide range of stories to ensure more perspectives are represented.
Treat people as individuals
The model minority myth can be flattened. While cultural identities are valuable, communities shouldn’t be treated as a single entity. People are individuals, and even those with similar backgrounds can have diverse traits and experiences.
“Allow people to be individuals regardless of their backgrounds. Reassure them that they are enough and do not need to work so hard. Be truthful about how you’re feeling and when you’re struggling with work or pressures.”
If you realize that the model minority myth impacts your life, consider reaching out to a mental health professional. A therapist can help you understand the harm that myths like these can cause. If you’ve been perpetuating model minority myths, it’s not too late to learn and change and engage in affirmative action. When you know better, you can do better.
If you’ve been impacted or the target of a myth, you can get guidance on rebuilding your self-esteem and celebrating your individual strengths. A qualified therapist can be instrumental in your healing.
At Talkspace, you can get online therapy from someone who understands your concerns and can help you deal with the impacts of stereotypes. Talkspace makes treatment affordable, accessible, and straightforward.
Cheryan S, Bodenhausen GV. When positive stereotypes threaten intellectual performance: The Psychological Hazards of “model minority” status. Psychological Science. 2000;11(5):399-402. doi:10.1111/1467-9280.00277. https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/10.1111/1467-9280.00277. Accessed October 27, 2022.
Navaratnam S. Guilt, Shame and Model Minorities: How South Asian Youth in Toronto Navigate the Canadian Educational System. Academia.edu. https://www.academia.edu/2446206/Guilt_Shame_and_Model_Minorities_How_South_Asian_Youth_in_Toronto_Navigate_the_Canadian_Educational_System. Published 2011. Accessed October 27, 2022. https://www.academia.edu/2446206/Guilt_Shame_and_Model_Minorities_How_South_Asian_Youth_in_Toronto_Navigate_the_Canadian_Educational_System. Accessed October 27, 2022.
Yip T, Cheah CS, Kiang L, Hall GC. Rendered invisible: Are Asian Americans a model or a marginalized minority? American Psychologist. 2021;76(4):575-581. doi:10.1037/amp0000857. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/34410735/. Accessed October 27, 2022.