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  • Tue, 25, Aug, 2020 - 4:00:PM

The harmful myth of the model minority

Group of women / Anna Shvets / Pexels

On principle, I haven’t watched the bodycam footage of George Floyd’s murder.

Though after reading countless articles about the event and its aftermath, it doesn’t feel like I’ve missed much. I will never forget the gross violation of human rights that took place at the hands of Derek Chauvin. I will never forget the words Floyd uttered before his death. 

I will never forget that it was Hmong-American officer Tou Thao that stood with his back to the scene of the crime as it unfolded.

The footage is in some ways a timely metaphor for the complicated position Asian communities hold in white-dominated societies. That Thao, a person of colour himself, was complicit in Floyd’s death felt like a betrayal to many because we are supposed to stand in solidarity with other communities of colour.

Thao’s complicity shattered the myth of the model minority.

You already know what the model minority is. 

It’s the (very commonly Asian) family who do very well for themselves. Model minorities learn to speak English, or remain quiet otherwise. They take every opportunity to make their lives better. They do so very well, sometimes, that ‘white privilege’ seems like folly — after all, they earn more than us! Either that, or they’re the exception. But then, the family down the road is also an exception. So is the one two blocks down. Gosh, are the liberals sure white privilege exists?

This story is harmful for a variety of reasons.

Firstly, do you know how many different cultures comprise Asia? The model minority myth makes a monolith out of all of these. Within white-dominated societies are different Asian communities of refugees, descendants of indentured labourers, and highly-educated professionals who were selected and allowed to immigrate because of their qualifications.

Some communities face challenges with mental health. Some do earn more than the white man’s dollar. Some earn far less. Some struggle with violence and drugs. The myth that all Asians naturally gravitate towards success and prosperity prevents us from addressing these incredibly diverse challenges with the nuance they deserve.

Secondly, the model minority myth has been used to drive a wedge between Asians and other communities of colour. “At a time when it is being proposed that hundreds of billions be spent to uplift the Negroes and other minorities, the nation’s 300,000 Chinese-Americans are moving ahead on their own,” argues an anti-affirmative action piece from 1966. A 2017 article similarly questions, “today, Asian-Americans are among the most prosperous, well-educated, and successful ethnic groups in America. What gives? ... It couldn’t be that all whites are not racists or that the American dream still lives?”

These flawed narratives, absorbed frequently into New Zealand, clearly ask: if Asians can do it, why can’t you?

I’ll tell you why. ‘Scientific’ racism (specifically the ‘colour line,’ which ranked how evolved people were on a spectrum from white skin to black skin) laid the groundwork for the mistreatment of Black and brown communities and the comparatively favourable treatment of Asian communities. The latter wasn’t subjected to the same level of extreme dehumanisation.

During WWII, the US — when it wanted to improve its relationship with its wartime ally, China — “strategically recast Chinese in its promotional materials as 'law-abiding, peace-loving, courteous people living quietly among us.'” The pay disparity between Asian and white communities was consciously closed. Segregation for them ended much earlier than it did for Black communities.

The softening of racist attitudes in the US in the late 20th-century, and all the white-dominated societies it transmits popular culture to, is what Jeff Guo argues truly enabled Asian communities to find their footing in previously hostile territory.

Thirdly, when we put the onus for success completely on an individual, we turn a blind eye to the way racist systems treat a collective. This is not to dismiss the individual hard work and resourcefulness of many immigrant and refugee communities across the world. Within these are plenty of Asian success stories — people who worked their way from financial harship into higher education and careers in law, engineering, medicine and more.

But it’s important that we acknowledge how improved racial dynamics (who is perceived as worthy of that bank loan? That job? That scholarship? Bail? Attentive healthcare?) facilitated this kind of upward social mobility over generations.

Asian communities know the sting of racism. We have stood in solidarity. But we have also harboured racism. Anti-black sentiments, particularly stereotyping and colourism, run rife in Asian communities. In people like Tou Thao, we have stood in silence.

In people like Thao, when we seek assimilation into racist systems of power, we truly do assimilate — no longer Yellow Peril or model minority. We can become both oppressed and the oppressor.

It’s okay — necessary —  to cast a light on these complicated race relations.

But nowhere in the discussions we should be having, do we need talks of an exception to a rule that affects us all.


  • Asian /
  • Minority /
  • Model Minority /
  • #BlackLivesMatter /
  • Systemic Racism /
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