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Wednesday July 20, 2011

How the Model Minority Myth Hurts Asian Americans

Megan Cottrell

Everyone knows the stereotype, right? Asian children are good students. They play piano and violin. They excel in everything. Asian adults have advanced degrees and high incomes. Asians haven't struggled like those other minority groups that are still unequal. Asians are the model minority. They excel.

But the idea of the "model minority" is like every other stereotype --it's a myth. Yes, many Asian Americans do have masters and doctorate degrees. They're doctors and lawyers and engineers. And with cultural phenomenons like Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, it's hard to shake stereotypes of little Asian girls and boys playing a perfect Mozart sonata. But the stereotype covers up the truth--that the group we label "Asians" is really a diverse aggregation of many different ethnicities with distinct characteristics. This week's Colorlines article--"The Creation--and Consequences--of the Model Minority Myth," talks about why those differences matter and why we should be paying attention.

After reading the article, I realized myself that I didn't know much about how different ethnic groups of Asians were faring in the United States. I needed some data that broke up the monolith "Asian" into more meaningful, distinctive clusters.

Such data aren't easy to find. The majority of data broken down by race has just a few categories--white, black, Latino, Asian/Pacific Islander, Native American. That's it. Thankfully, professor at University of Massachusetts, Amherst, C.N. Le, has compiled Public Use Microdata Area data to show what's really happening in different Asian communities on his site, Asian Nation.

Just a few facts that picked up from this data:

- Although the Hispanic population is cited most often when we talk about people who aren't fluent in English, four Asian groups--Cambodians, Hmong and Laotians, Chinese, Koreans and Vietnamese--have higher rates of non proficiency.

- More Vietnamese people have less than a high school education than black folks. While almost half of Hispanics have less than a high school degree, 52.8 percent of Cambodians, Hmong and Laotions are in the same boat.

- The Pacific Islander and Vietnamese populations have very similar rates of needing public assistance as the black population.

Oiyan Poon, research associate at the University of Massachusetts’s Institute for Asian-American Studies, had a lot to say on the problems with the model minority myth, but this statement struck me most--how myths and stereotypes undermine our attempts to create equity:

    "People have to think about why this model-minority position came to be in the first place. It was to silence other people of colors’ attempts at demanding equity. Everyone who cares about racial equity should care about countering the model-minority myth because the whole purpose of it is to undermine claims of racism. People will say, “Oh, you’re going to riot and say there are inequalities and that blacks and Latinos face racism? Stop complaining, look at this nonwhite population over here. They’re doing fine.”

    The model-minority myth tries to tell people: There are no structural barriers; it’s all in your mind.

    It’s true that some Asian Americans are doing well. Sure. It’s true. But does that mean that we ignore the people who aren’t doing well? What’s my responsibility, and what’s our responsibility as people who are concerned about equity, knowing that there are specific groups facing distinct patterns of inequality? Do we say to that Hmong kid who kind of looks like me because we both have black hair--it’s okay, her struggles are not an urgent issue?"

As our nation becomes more and more diverse, perhaps we all need to be more aware of the subtleties behind race and ethnicity. How many more nuances and distinctions am I missing each time I lump a group diverse of people together, without understanding some basic facts about their differences? Thanks, Colorlines. This made me sit up and pay attention.

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