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EDITORIAL/사회 :: Current Issues

Unboxing the Model Minority Stereotype

Written by Janet Kim

Born and raised in the outskirts of Los Angeles as a Korean-American, I had always been one amongst many individuals of different ethnicities/identities. Despite the inherent heterogeneity, these differing communities were more often than not naturally segmented off into different corners of our respective neighborhoods. There had always been this unspoken inclination for the individual to seek solace in those of the same communities, of the same color.

And so it should be no surprise that Asian Americans were often clustered together into smaller groups that together, made up quite a large percentage of the city. Despite our numbers, Asian-American individuals could never really escape from the grasp of the model minority stereotype. According to the National Association of Independent Schools, the model minority stereotype is the belief “in which one racial group is held above others for being successful, regardless of the conditions placed upon them”, ultimately implying that certain individuals’ accomplishments can be attributed to only one thing: their race.

For centuries, this stereotype has been largely imposed onto Asians and its inception dates back to a long history of discrimination. To be precise, the model minority stereotype rose in the 19th century (and even before that), in which the first large Asian group, the Chinese, immigrated to the states due to unfavorable conditions in their homeland. With the sudden influx of these Asian laborers, ”anti-Chinese sentiment grew in reaction to the prevalence of beliefs that the immigrant workers were a dual threat to white labor and the purity of the white race.” And so came the similar notion of scientific racism, a belief in which genetically, certain races were seen as superior and thus able to withstand harsher conditions relative to the average man. This logic caused Chinese laborers to be vastly underpaid and underfed in relation to their white counterparts because they were believed to be built differently. The irony is that despite being deemed the “genetically superior” race, Asian laborers were seen as vastly culturally inferior. And so with all of this history comes present society, in which the stereotypes of the model minority have become largely nuanced but still largely present.

To bring this back to present day, this stereotype is still deeply-rooted, as it has undeniably been a large part of many Asian-American individual’s narratives, including my own. Going through schooling in the suburbs of L.A., I went to a predominantly Caucasian elementary school, with a decent number of Asian Americans in the mix. From a very early age, I adopted a very specific view of the people of my race and our position in larger society. This view was one of which I believed that all of my fellow Asian peers were overachievers and simply born to be academically outstanding. For many years, I was flattered by this notion. I remember being considered intelligent all throughout my years of schooling, and all that time never truly realizing  that it came from the wrong place. Because at face value, this stereotype seems to be nothing but favorable. Asian-Americans, a “supreme” race of individuals who carry genes that naturally cause us to be outstanding problem-solvers. Surely, my peers of other minority groups had to be calling me intelligent because they saw my effort. But this was not the case. I soon realized that many of these comments were made out of spite, by my own peers. Comments that were being tossed around so casually but carrying much larger implications. These “compliments” actually seemed to mean that Asians could only really succeed because they were given some sort of a privilege card, one in which  we were seen as being closer to “white” than “non-white.” But they could not help it. This stereotype, unbeknownst to many, was just so deeply ingrained in our society.

The continuation of this ideology, however, erases so much of the blood-filled history of Asian individuals and forces an unrealistic image upon our people. We are often not seen as creators of our own success, but rather opportunity-takers. Asian individuals in educational institutes, the workplace, social environments, are often taken to succeed simply because they have they have the permission of the greater society to do so. This same society has apparently prized Asian individuals with being given the benefit of the doubt by grouping them with white individuals. This effectively rids the reality of these individuals’ hard work and battles against discrimination, as all of what they are becomes attributed to nothing but their genetic make-up.

Very recently, there was an incident with United Airlines in which the UA staff forcibly and violently removed an Asian man from the plane  because he refused to take a subsidy in return for giving up his seat. United Airlines had apparently overbooked the flight, and acted “according to policy”. A policy which left the man, David Dao, a 69-year-old doctor wanting to return home to see his patients,  with a “concussion, a broken nose, and the loss of two teeth.” Video footage shows the man being dragged out of his seat, stomach exposed while looking almost entirely unresponsive to the ensuing chaos. After the widespread media coverage of this incident, Asian Americans began to speak. And they spoke with a vengeance.

Many pointed out that this incident proves that Asians do not simply get by in society because of their symbolic “white privilege card” and that they often become easy targets for discrimination. This is because more often than not, Asians are expected to act with politeness and as a result are seen as soft-spoken and submissive individuals, which again can be tied to the model minority stereotype.  The AAPI community came together in solidarity and stated that their respective communities were deeply hurt and felt personally affected by this explicit violence. And it may not be evident, but these outcries really emphasized the relationship between this incident and the model minority stereotype. Asian individuals were finally given the chance, the platform, to speak up against hate crimes and present-day racism that have occurred all throughout the past centuries. According to Jessica Prois of the Huffington Post, “ it makes sense that we all might have seen something of ourselves in the Asian man who was expected to be a pushover and then refused to leave his seat — only to suffer a broken nose and missing teeth as a result.”

Whether this incident was truly one that was racially driven is something that can never be confirmed, but it sparks an important debate on the position of Asian individuals in present day society. We are neither willing to be bound by the model minority stereotype nor willing to be openly discriminated against, and so I see this as a massively important stepping stone in the movement of Asian individuals against racism, especially in America’s current political climate. Perhaps we are slowly paving our way toward the final end-all of the model minority stereotype.