Not many Asian American children grow up to be comedians, musicians, athletes or politicians — and according to Yale School of Medicine postdoc and popular blogger Jenn Fang, this is a result of the myth of the “model minority.”
Fang — whose blog “Reappropriate” calls itself the web’s foremost Asian American activism, identity, feminism and pop culture site — spoke at St. Anthony Hall Wednesday afternoon in front of an audience of nearly 100 people. Fang explained that the myth, a set of assumptions that pigeonhole Asian Americans into determined careers and roles, needs to be destabilized to allow young Asian Americans to break out of these stock parts.
The myth designates Asian Americans as the ideal minority, a group of people who are inherently intelligent, hard-working, successful and good at math and science, Fang said. But this “positive stereotype,” far from benefitting this group of young people, depicts them as uncreative and unassertive, Fang added.
“Asian Americans are aware that in order to demonstrate an authentic Asian American identity, they have to perform at this high achievement stereotype.” Fang said. “Those who do not perform at this standard start to believe that there is something wrong with them, racially and ethnically.”
Fang went on to discuss how the myth discourages young Asian Americans from entering the creative industries — comedy, popular music, sports — because society chooses to link the achievement of Asians with academic achievement.
Touching on the idea of a “positive stereotype,” she cited an article published on Slate last year by Philip Guo, an Asian American assistant professor of computer science at the University of Rochester, who stated he had the “privilege of implicit endorsement” as a computer science student because he “looked the part.”
But Fang also said the myth has served as a historical hindrance on success, even in the basic science fields. Fang emphasized that the myth contributes to the “bamboo ceiling,” a factor that encumbers further success at a job for Asian Americans.
Fang said the myth originates from 19th-century intellectual debates in the United States, when Asians entered the workforce as low-income workers, competing with predominantly white laborers. At the time, according to Fang, Asians were seen as dirty, hypersexual and criminal, adding to the yellow-peril beliefs that were already prevalent. Fang added that these types of stereotypes persisted until the 1950s.
Ultimately, Fang added, it is important to remember that the myth of the model minority is a direct response to the Civil Rights Movement and that it does not exist in a vacuum. The myth, she said, does not only harm Asian Americans, but also countless other minority groups that are constantly compared to this “model.”
“Our position serves as a way to wedge other minority groups and other people of color by preventing us from finding common cause,” Fang said. “We are now seen as competitors and serve as a model for how other groups are supposed to behave,” Fang said.
A possible solution to destabilize the myth of the model minority, Fang said, is to engage in cross-cultural dialogue and study. She said that at places like Yale, the study of Asian American culture and history is deeply lacking -— and this is precisely the kind of place where these conversations could be had and these ideas could be explored.
Students at the event said they agreed that the myth exists and needs to be dismantled through discussion.
“I think it is one of the most damaging parts of the myth of the model minority. It harkens to the old days when races were pitted against each other. It means that it destroys alliances between racial groups, which can be damaging to political alliances,” Shirley Kuang ’17 said. “It is really awful.”
Kevin Hu ’18 agreed that while the myth is perpetuated in popular media, such as mainstream television shows or music, it is also a self-fulfilling phenomenon. An Asian seeing other successful Asians creates pressure to fill that role, he said.
Fang ended the talk by stating why she believes the myth has persisted. She stated that the idea of a model minority is very appealing and easy for the general public to understand and unassumingly internalize.
“We think about stories that are easy to tell. When we think about a minority boosting out of hardship and succeeding, it gives us hope,” Fang said. “So, it is a part of our national conversation since it reinforces the American Dream.”