Asian Americans are not the ‘model minorities’

Illustration by Miriam Cooper

Ishaan Nandwani, Contributing Writer

Growing up in an Asian American household, I’m well aware of the common areas of discussion at the dinner table: engineering, violin and college. I’m kidding, mostly. Yet these labels, often projected by society, are common perceptions.

I’ve been asked whether I study computer science, if I’m allowed to date in college and how I learned to speak fluent Spanish. Although harmless questions, my answers were likely contrary to what my questioner expected: I enjoy literature and anthropology, my parents have no influence on my love life, and my journey in Spanish began with conversing with fluent-speakers in my neighborhood.

In America, racial stereotypes are profoundly evident; Asian Americans often are held to a standard that includes academic excellence, tiger-parenting and bad driving. In the academic excellence category, these assumptions seem to be largely accurate. The U.S. Census Bureau reported that Asian Americans make up 5.9% of the population, but they represent 18% of physicians and surgeons and 37.7% of software developers and engineers, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

At first glance, these numbers are astoundingly high. The same statistics have been strategically weaponized against other minority groups for years as a testament to the “American Dream” — that any person can succeed regardless of their background or race. If Asian Americans can do it, why can’t others?

However, these numbers don’t tell the whole story: they are a reflection of the “model minority myth,” which underscores the flawed belief that the success of Asian Americans proves that racial barriers can be overcome through hard work. 

However, this myth fails to take into account the historical selectivity in immigration of Asian Americans, including the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965. The act established a preference for immigrants who could contribute greatly to society in science and engineering industries; some of the most high achieving and academically-driven Asians were a part of this group, establishing a precedent for generations to follow.

The model minority myth is severely harmful not only to other minority groups, but to Asian Americans themselves — particularly when considering the mental health of Asian American adolescents. Dispelling the model minority myth is key to protecting the wellbeing of Asian American youth.

Out of all racial groups in the U.S., Asian American adolescents are least likely to utilize mental health services. A 2014 study from SAMHSA found that only 5.9% of Asian Americans aged 12-17 accessed mental health services, compared to 15.6% of white people, 12.2% of hispanic people and 11.9% of Black people. Barriers to mental health services for Asian Americans include stigma, low mental health literacy, and the model minority myth, the latter causing extensive anxiety and depression among Asian Americans adolescents through the immense stress and expectations they experience.

Ultimately, we must do better to protect the mental health of Asian American youth. Start having those difficult conversations with family members and friends alike, acknowledging that the success of some Asian Americans is not analogous to the hardship of other minority groups. Asian Americans should never be boxed into a personality type or path — we should be free to decide that for ourselves.

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