What Is the Model Minority Myth?

Two young Asian students smiling.

When I was halfway through the 11th grade, my pre-calculus teacher pulled me out into the hallway. He wanted to talk about my latest test. “You can do better than this,” he said. “I’m so surprised by grades like this from someone like you.” 

Someone like you? I’d never done particularly well in his class, so the implication of his words churned in my stomach. In that moment, I felt acutely the weight of the dark braid trailing down my back and the glasses slipping down my nose. 

I knew my performance was being evaluated not against my own earlier work but against the image of the perfect, straight-A, Asian student who lived in my teacher’s mind: the myth of the “model minority.”   

The myth of the model minority is based in stereotypes. It perpetuates a narrative in which Asian American children are whiz kids or musical geniuses. Within the myth of the model minority, Tiger Moms force children to work harder and be better than everyone else, while nerdy, effeminate dads hold prestigious—but not leadership —positions in STEM industries like medicine and accounting. 

This myth characterizes Asian Americans as a polite, law-abiding group who have achieved a higher level of success than the general population through some combination of innate talent and pull-yourselves-up-by-your-bootstraps immigrant striving.   

What’s So Bad About the Model Minority Myth?

While most people agree that negative stereotypes of Asian Americans are harmful, some still question the harm of the model minority myth. What could be so bad about being part of a group that’s seen as being successful?

Like all stereotypes, the model minority myth erases the differences among individuals.

My own 11th-grade experience offers one example. My mother is Malaysian Chinese; my dad is white. I am usually perceived as Asian. So, because of the model minority myth, my failure to reach an expected level of achievement in math was attributed to some kind of deficiency or lack of effort on my part.

Instead of differentiating for me like I saw him do with others in the class, my teacher let me continue to slip. I was not offered extra help or any other support, and I did not know how to live up to the image of the model minority student. I stopped trying.

While I was eventually able to overcome this negative self-image, many others are not. Asian American college students have higher rates of attempting suicide than those in other groups . The model minority myth hides the pressures and paradoxes inherent within an Asian American identity. If you don’t fit into the myth, it is hard to find your place at all.

The model minority myth ignores the diversity of Asian American cultures. 

Data about Asian American achievement typically lumps this diverse population together into a singular group. Taken as a whole, it shows that Asian Americans tend to hold higher degrees and earn larger incomes than the general population. These successes are often attributed to differences in family attitudes toward education . From these metrics and attributions, the stereotype emerges that Asians are winning in their pursuit of the American Dream. But when we break these numbers down, the myth begins to crack.

Take pay disparities , for example. For every dollar the average white man makes in the United States, an Asian Indian woman makes $1.21 and a Taiwanese woman makes $1.16. A Samoan woman makes $0.62. A Burmese woman makes 50 cents. The experiences of these groups are not the same. 

The model minority myth operates alongside the myth of Asian Americans as perpetual foreigners. 

The model minority myth is just one of a collection of stereotypes about Asian American people. Popular television and films exoticize Asian culture and peoples. If you’re a man, you’re a kung fu master. If you’re a woman, you’re a submissive sex object. If you’re gender non-binary or transgender, you don’t exist at all. Mickey Rooney’s racist portrayal in Breakfast at Tiffany’s lives in our collective imagination alongside every East or South Asian actor who has played a bit part as a humorless doctor or IT guy . 

Buried under these stereotypes, the message is clear: Asian Americans are all the same—and all different from other Americans. On one hand, Asian Americans are often perceived as having assimilated better than other minority groups. On the other hand, Asian Americans are seen as having some foreign quality that renders them perpetual outsiders. 

It’s a paradox familiar to every Asian American who regularly faces the question, “But where are you from, originally ?” 

The model minority myth erases racism against Asian Americans.

Positioning Asian Americans as beneficiaries of the bounty of the American Dream, the myth of the model minority ignores the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 and Japanese internment in the 1940s. It suggests that the U.S. has always been a welcoming place for people of Asian descent, in spite of the mass lynchings of Asian Americans in the 19th century and the murder of Vincent Chin in 1982 . 

The myth persists in spite of the fact that 1 in 7 Asian immigrants in America today is undocumented and facing potential deportation, a fact that is repeatedly overlooked in our national conversation about immigration. The model minority myth says Asian Americans are doing well today and must therefore have benefitted from an elevated status among people of color, in spite of centuries of systematic discrimination. 

The model minority myth is harmful to the struggle for racial justice. 

The myth says that Asian Americans have played within the rules of the American system to their own group benefit. The success of some groups of Asian American immigrants is often held as an example toward which other groups should strive. It suggests that Asian Americans are doing well and that if other groups would only work harder, have stronger family bonds and get over their histories of oppression, they too would succeed. 

When paired with racist myths about other ethnic or racial groups, the model minority myth is used as evidence to deny or downplay the impact of racism and discrimination on people of color in the United States. Given the history of that impact on Black Americans particularly, the myth is ultimately a means to perpetuate anti-Blackness .

The model minority myth pits people of color against one another and creates a hierarchy in which Asian people are often represented at the top. By putting people of color in competition with one another, the myth distracts us from striving together toward liberation for all.  

Dismantling the Myth

Understand that the collective is important while individual differences still exist..

The term Asian American was coined in the late 1960s as a means of harnessing the collective power of people of Asian origin, much in the same way the term Hispanic was first used. Asian American political identity was strongly inspired by the Black Liberation Movement. Today, more inclusive terms like Asian-Pacific American (APA) or Asian American Pacific Islander (AAPI) signal the continued need for collective striving against similar experiences of racism and imperialism within our various ethnic subgroups. This collective political identity remains important.

At the same time, focusing solely on collective identity can perpetuate the model minority myth: The experiences of the most visible Asian American ethnic groups can hide the experiences of other groups. 

Some studies of educational achievement have shown that certain Asian ethnic groups, particularly those from parts of East and South Asia, indeed score very well in some subject areas. When students from these groups consistently do better than even white students, it is easy for educators to take inherently biased actions based on a belief that all Asian students are innately intelligent and hardworking. Those same studies, however, reveal that other Asian ethnic groups have vastly different results. For example, Southeast Asian and Pacific Islander students in particular often underperform when compared with all other racial and ethnic groups. 

As an educator, it is important to understand the different histories and experiences of Asian American and Pacific Islander students and communities. Some of these communities arrived in America as refugees escaping war or genocide, and some were imported as sharecroppers to replace enslaved people of African descent after the Civil War. Still other communities, particularly those native to various Pacific Islands, were here long before white settler colonialism. As educators, we must unlearn the biased, simplistic beliefs that we might hold about what it means to be Asian American or Pacific Islander in order to better attend to the real needs of our students and communities.

Feature Asian American figures and texts in your classroom.

One of the commonly felt experiences of Asian Americans is that of being invisible or erased. The model minority myth means that neither our historical struggles nor activism tend to be covered in schools and classrooms. The significant underrepresentation of Asian American educators furthers this problem. 

Asian American and Pacific Islander history has been a part of American history for centuries. May is AAPI Heritage Month. Use this as a starting point, but do not limit your conscious inclusion of AAPI people and experiences to a single month. Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders comprise the fastest-growing ethnic group in the United States. We must make a conscious effort to represent these stories and people in our classrooms, regardless of our own identities and those of our students.

Raise awareness in yourself and others.

There may be names and examples in this piece with which you were unfamiliar. Learn about activists like Grace Lee Boggs , Larry Itliong and Yuri Kochiyama . Say the name of Vincent Chin. Teach your students about Ela Bhatt . Research Supreme Court cases like U.S. v. Bhagat Singh Thind and Lum v. Rice . 

Dive into data to help understand the collective and individual experiences of various AAPI groups. Check your own biases and assumptions. Do not let a student like me slip through the cracks because you expect her to be smarter or more studious than her classmates. 

As you raise your own awareness, you’ll help those around you to understand and dismantle the model minority myth as well.

Blackburn is a professional development trainer for Teaching Tolerance.

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  • Students will be able to define the model minority myth and identify the reasons it was created.
  • Students will be able to analyze the impact of the model minority myth on Asian Americans, Native Hawaiians, and Pacific Islanders (AANHPIs).
  • Students will learn how the model minority myth has shaped the relationship of the AANHPI community with other groups of color in the United States.
  • Delegitimize 1 : to make something seem not valid or not acceptable
  • Discrimination 2 : to distinguish someone as being inferior or less than, especially based on their sex, race, religion, gender, or age
  • Extoll 3 : to praise highly
  • Meritocracy 4 : a system, organization, or society in which people are chosen and moved into positions of success, power, and influence on the basis of their demonstrated abilities and merit
  • Monolithic 5 : a large, regular, without interesting differences
  • Quintessential 6 : embodying or possessing the essence of something
  • Stereotype 7 : a simplified and over-generalized understanding or image of a group of people, place, or thing; when referring to a group of people, stereotypes can lead to certain expectations/assumptions of how or what that group may act, think, talk, care about, etc.
  • Systematic 8 : something done according to a specific system, plan or method
  • Systemic 9 : of or relating to a system.
  • How and why did the model minority myth develop?
  • Does the model minority myth present an incomplete, potentially stereotypical view of AANHPIs? If so, how and what are the costs of this incomplete view?
  • What are the realities of the experiences of different AANHPI communities?
  • Does the model minority myth serve as a tool to create division between different groups of Americans in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries? If so, how?
  • Are there such things as “positive” or “good” stereotypes?
  • If stereotypes are oversimplified generalizations, what impact might they have on groups of people who are stereotyped?
  • Statistics of different Asian groups that are living in the United States.
  • Statistics on how AANHPI groups are doing in terms of education.
  • Statistics on how AANHPI groups are doing in terms of income level.
  • How are different AANHPI ethnic groups faring? Are different groups having the same experience? Different experiences?
  • What are the disparities within major Asian ethnic groups?
  • What are the realities for different AANHPI ethnic groups?
  • Based on what you know about the realities for different AANHPI ethnic groups how might this reality help AANHPIs’ drive for diversity in all aspects of American society in jobs, services, government funding, employment, small business, education, etc?
  • During World War II, how were Japanese Americans treated? Why would being seen as “Good Americans” be so important to Asian Americans after the war?
  • What are the characteristics of a “Good American”? What are the connections between this stereotype and ideas about the American Dream and meritocracy?
  • How is the “Good American”, the model minority, used in the 1960s? What was the historical context of the 1960s? Was the model minority image used in the discussion of the War on Poverty?
  • What types of discrimination do AANHPIs face? Do AANHPIs get treated as foreigners even if their families have been in the U.S. for several generations?
  • AANHPIs as “model minority” are perceived to have achieved a higher level of success than other minority groups. Do you think this thinking is problematic? What does it imply about other minority groups?
  • What types of discrimination do other minority groups face?
  • Describe the benefits that AANHPIs actually gained through the Civil Rights Movement.
  • Do AANHPIs need alliances with other groups of people? Why or why not?
  • How does this idea of “model minority” hurt AANHPIs in their attempts to build coalitions or alliances with other groups of people?
  • Based on what you know about AANHPI is not a monolithic group, how might affirmative action support AANHPI students applying to college?
  • How might the model minority stereotype potentially be an obstacle to college admissions for AANHPIs?
  • How would affirmative action help AANHPIs in the work place?
  • Describe how the model minority myth is used to drive a wedge between AANHPIs and other communities of color in policies like affirmative action.
  • In what ways have people tried to stereotype you? How are you more than these stereotypes? Write a letter to the people who have stereotyped you, in which you share how you are more than the stereotype they have placed on you.
  • The model minority stereotype has historically been used to drive a wedge between different groups of color. How would you try and bring different groups together? Create a visual representation showing how and/or why different groups of people need to come together.
  • Bouie, Jamelle. “Andrew Sullivan’s Pathology.” 17 April 2017. Slate . https://slate.com/news-and-politics/2017/04/andrew-sullivans-perpetuation-of-model-minority-and-black-pathology-myths-is-pretty-boring-at-this-point.html
  • Chen, Sally. “I’m An Asian-American Harvard Student — Here's Why I Testified In Support Of Affirmative Action,” 30 October 2018. Bustle . https://www.bustle.com/p/im-asian-american-harvard-student-heres-why-i-testified-in-support-of-affirmative-action-13028469
  • Gidra Media. “Why the Model Minority Myth is Harmful to Asian American Health,” 16 Apr 2020. Medium . https://medium.com/gidra-returns/why-the-model-minority-myth-is-harmful-to-asian-american-health-86baf470a626Hartlep , Nicholas D. “Killing the Model Minority Stereotype: Asian American Counterstories and Complicity” Information Age Publishing, 2015
  • Hartlep, Nicholas D. “Model Minority Stereotype Project.” https://nicholashartlep.com/
  • Jung, Carrie. “Judge Upholds Harvard's Race-Conscious Admissions Process,” 2 Oct 2019. NPR. https://www.npr.org/2019/10/02/766330708/judge-upholds-harvards-race-conscious-admissions-process
  • Louie, Vivian. “The Hidden Story of What Drives Success: Institutions and Power.” Asian American Studies Online, CUNY Forum. http://asianamericanstudiesonline.com/2014/01/01/the-hidden-story-of-what-drives-success-institutions-and-power/
  • Williams, Joseph P. “A New Face for Affirmative Action?” 3 February 2017. U.S. News & World Report. https://www.usnews.com/news/the-report/articles/2017-02-03/are-asians-the-new-face-of-affirmative-action
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'Model Minority' Myth Again Used As A Racial Wedge Between Asians And Blacks

Kat Chow at NPR headquarters in Washington, D.C., July 25, 2018. (photo by Allison Shelley) (Square)

The perception of universal success among Asian-Americans is being wielded to downplay racism's role in the persistent struggles of other minority groups, especially black Americans. Chelsea Beck/NPR hide caption

The perception of universal success among Asian-Americans is being wielded to downplay racism's role in the persistent struggles of other minority groups, especially black Americans.

A piece from New York Magazine's Andrew Sullivan over the weekend ended with an old, well-worn trope: Asian-Americans, with their "solid two-parent family structures," are a shining example of how to overcome discrimination. An essay that began by imagining why Democrats feel sorry for Hillary Clinton — and then detoured to President Trump's policies — drifted to this troubling ending:

"Today, Asian-Americans are among the most prosperous, well-educated, and successful ethnic groups in America. What gives? It couldn't possibly be that they maintained solid two-parent family structures, had social networks that looked after one another, placed enormous emphasis on education and hard work, and thereby turned false, negative stereotypes into true, positive ones, could it? It couldn't be that all whites are not racists or that the American dream still lives?"

Sullivan's piece, rife with generalizations about a group as vastly diverse as Asian-Americans, rightfully raised hackles. Not only inaccurate, his piece spreads the idea that Asian-Americans as a group are monolithic, even though parsing data by ethnicity reveals a host of disparities; for example, Bhutanese-Americans have far higher rates of poverty than other Asian populations, like Japanese-Americans. And at the root of Sullivan's pernicious argument is the idea that black failure and Asian success cannot be explained by inequities and racism, and that they are one and the same; this allows a segment of white America to avoid any responsibility for addressing racism or the damage it continues to inflict.

"Sullivan's comments showcase a classic and tenacious conservative strategy," Janelle Wong, the director of Asian American Studies at the University of Maryland, College Park, said in an email. This strategy, she said, involves "1) ignoring the role that selective recruitment of highly educated Asian immigrants has played in Asian American success followed by 2) making a flawed comparison between Asian Americans and other groups, particularly Black Americans, to argue that racism, including more than two centuries of black enslavement, can be overcome by hard work and strong family values."

"It's like the Energizer Bunny," said Ellen D. Wu, an Asian-American studies professor at Indiana University and the author of The Color of Success . Much of Wu's work focuses on dispelling the "model minority" myth, and she's been tasked repeatedly with publicly refuting arguments like Sullivan's, which, she said, are incessant. "The thing about the Sullivan piece is that it's such an old-fashioned rendering. It's very retro in the kinds of points he made."

Since the end of World War II, many white people have used Asian-Americans and their perceived collective success as a racial wedge. The effect? Minimizing the role racism plays in the persistent struggles of other racial/ethnic minority groups — especially black Americans.

On Twitter, people took Sullivan's "old-fashioned rendering" to task.

4. Importantly: Elevating Asian Americans as "deserving" and "hardworking" was a tactic to denigrate African Americans — Jeff Guo (@_jeffguo) April 15, 2017

"During World War II, the media created the idea that the Japanese were rising up out of the ashes [after being held in incarceration camps] and proving that they had the right cultural stuff," said Claire Jean Kim, a professor at the University of California, Irvine. "And it was immediately a reflection on black people: Now why weren't black people making it, but Asians were?"

These arguments falsely conflate anti-Asian racism with anti-black racism, according to Kim. "Racism that Asian-Americans have experienced is not what black people have experienced," Kim said. "Sullivan is right that Asians have faced various forms of discrimination, but never the systematic dehumanization that black people have faced during slavery and continue to face today." Asians have been barred from entering the U.S. and gaining citizenship and have been sent to incarceration camps, Kim pointed out, but all that is different than the segregation, police brutality and discrimination that African-Americans have endured.

Many scholars have argued that some Asians only started to "make it" when the discrimination against them lessened — and only when it was politically convenient. Amid worries that the Chinese exclusion laws from the late 1800s would hurt an allyship with China in the war against imperial Japan, the Magnuson Act was signed in 1943, allowing 105 Chinese immigrants into the U.S. each year. As Wu wrote in 2014 in the Los Angeles Times , the Citizens Committee to Repeal Chinese Exclusion "strategically recast Chinese in its promotional materials as 'law-abiding, peace-loving, courteous people living quietly among us'" instead of the "'yellow peril' coolie hordes." In 1965, the National Immigration Act replaced the national-origins quota system with one that gave preference to immigrants with U.S. family relationships and certain skills.

In 1966, William Petersen, a sociologist at the University of California, Berkeley, helped popularize comparisons between Japanese-Americans and African-Americans. His New York Times story, headlined, "Success Story, Japanese-American Style," is regarded as one of the most influential pieces written about Asian-Americans. It solidified a prevailing stereotype of Asians as industrious and rule-abiding that would stand in direct contrast to African-Americans, who were still struggling against bigotry, poverty and a history rooted in slavery. In the opening paragraphs, Petersen quickly puts African-Americans and Japanese-Americans at odds:

"Asked which of the country's ethnic minorities has been subjected to the most discrimination and the worst injustices, very few persons would even think of answering: 'The Japanese Americans,' ... Yet, if the question refers to persons alive today, that may well be the correct reply. Like the Negroes, the Japanese have been the object of color prejudice .... When new opportunities, even equal opportunities, are opened up, the minority's reaction to them is likely to be negative — either self-defeating apathy or a hatred so all-consuming as to be self-destructive. For the well-meaning programs and countless scholarly studies now focused on the Negro, we barely know how to repair the damage that the slave traders started. The history of Japanese Americans, however, challenges every such generalization about ethnic minorities."

But as history shows, Asian-Americans were afforded better jobs not simply because of educational attainment, but in part because they were treated better.

"More education will help close racial wage gaps somewhat, but it will not resolve problems of denied opportunity," reporter Jeff Guo wrote last fall in the Washington Post . "Asian Americans — some of them at least — have made tremendous progress in the United States. But the greatest thing that ever happened to them wasn't that they studied hard, or that they benefited from tiger moms or Confucian values . It's that other Americans started treating them with a little more respect."

At the heart of arguments of racial advancement is the concept of "racial resentment," which is different than "racism," Slate's Jamelle Bouie recently wrote in his analysis of the Sullivan article. "Racial resentment" refers to a "moral feeling that blacks violate such traditional American values as individualism and self reliance," as defined by political scientists Donald Kinder and David Sears.

And, Bouie points out, "racial resentment" is simply a tool that people use to absolve themselves from dealing with the complexities of racism:

"In fact, racial resentment reflects a tension between the egalitarian self-image of most white Americans and that anti-black affect. The 'racist,' after all, is a figure of stigma. Few people want to be one, even as they're inclined to believe the measurable disadvantages blacks face are caused by something other than structural racism. Framing blacks as deficient and pathological rather than inferior offers a path out for those caught in that mental maze."

Petersen's, and now Sullivan's, arguments have resurfaced regularly throughout the last century. And they'll likely keep resurfacing, as long as people keep seeking ways to forgo responsibility for racism — and to escape that "mental maze." As the writer Frank Chin said of Asian-Americans in 1974 : "Whites love us because we're not black."

Sometimes it's instructive to look at past rebuttals to tired arguments — after all, they hold up much better in the light of history.

  • model minority
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  • japanese americans
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Asian Americans Are Still Caught in the Trap of the ‘Model Minority’ Stereotype. And It Creates Inequality for All

A musician and a girl in Topaz Internment Camp in Utah, July 1945 (Apic/Getty Images)

T he face of Tou Thao haunts me. The Hmong-American police officer stood with his back turned to Derek Chauvin, his partner, as Chauvin knelt on George Floyd’s neck for 8 minutes and 46 seconds and murdered him.

In the video that I saw, Tou Thao is in the foreground and Chauvin is partly visible in the background, George Floyd’s head pressed to the ground. Bystanders beg Tou Thao to do something, because George Floyd was not moving, and as he himself said, he could not breathe.

The face of Tou Thao is like mine and not like mine, although the face of George Floyd is like mine and not like mine too. Racism makes us focus on the differences in our faces rather than our similarities, and in the alchemical experiment of the U.S., racial difference mixes with labor exploitation to produce an explosive mix of profit and atrocity. In response to endemic American racism, those of us who have been racially stigmatized cohere around our racial difference. We take what white people hate about us, and we convert stigmata into pride, community and power. So it is that Tou Thao and I are “Asian Americans,” because we are both “Asian,” which is better than being an “Oriental” or a “gook.” If being an Oriental gets us mocked and being a gook can get us killed, being an Asian American might save us. Our strength in numbers, in solidarity across our many differences of language, ethnicity, culture, religion, national ancestry and more, is the basis of being Asian American.

But in another reality, Tou Thao is Hmong and I am Vietnamese. He was a police officer and I am a professor. Does our being Asian bring us together across these ethnic and class divides? Does our being Southeast Asian, both our communities brought here by an American war in our countries, mean we see the world in the same way? Did Tou Thao experience the anti-Asian racism that makes us all Asian, whether we want to be or not?

Let me go back in time to a time being repeated today. Even if I no longer remember how old I was when I saw these words, I have never forgotten them: Another American driven out of business by the Vietnamese. Perhaps I was 12 or 13. It was the early 1980s, and someone had written them on a sign in a store window not far from my parents’ store. The sign confused me, for while I had been born in Vietnam, I had grown up in Pennsylvania and California, and had absorbed all kinds of Americana: the Mayflower and the Pilgrims; cowboys and Indians; Audie Murphy and John Wayne; George Washington and Betsy Ross; the Pledge of Allegiance; the Declaration of Independence; the guarantee of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness; all the fantasy and folklore of the American Dream.

Two immigration officers interrogate Chinese immigrants suspected of being Communists or deserting seamen at Ellis Island. (Bettmann Archive/Getty Images)

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Still from short animated film on the model minority myth. Two groups of people, one Black and one Asian, are being contained in two boxes that keep them separated from each other.

Inventing the “Model Minority”: A Critical Timeline and Reading List

December 15, 2021

The idea of Asian Americans as a “model minority” has a long and complicated history. By focusing on cherry-picked indicators of “success” like income, education level, and low crime rates—while ignoring deeper social and economic factors—the model minority myth assigns seemingly positive stereotypes to Asian Americans: We work hard. We don’t complain. We’re good at math. You know the ones.

But there is real harm in even these “good” stereotypes. This myth erases disparities between the 40+ ethnic groups that fall under the “Asian American” umbrella, further marginalizes those who struggle to live up to it, and silences those who speak out against it. It’s also anti-Black at its core, and has long been weaponized against Black and brown communities labeled “problem minorities” for fighting back against racism.

In a new collaboration between TED-Ed and Densho, we created a short film and lesson that traces the origins of the model minority myth and the damage it causes. It’s a complex topic to squeeze into just six minutes, so we’ve compiled some additional resources to help you dig a little deeper. Scroll down for a timeline of the history behind the myth and where to learn more—and watch the video below!

A Timeline of the Model Minority Myth

The stereotypes that inform the model minority myth can be traced all the way back to the systems of slavery and genocide upon which this country was built, and the white supremacist beliefs that upheld them. In the interest of providing a brief(ish) overview, this timeline follows the development of the model minority myth from World War II to the present, when it begins to sharpen focus on Asian Americans.

As China becomes a U.S. ally in WWII, Congress repeals the Chinese Exclusion Act and Chinese Americans are recast as “good” Asians in contrast to “bad” Japanese. At the end of the war, Japanese Americans are released from concentration camps with explicit and implicit instructions to assimilate into white society. The record of the 442nd Regimental Combat Team , a segregated, all-Japanese unit that suffered heavy casualties during WWII, is touted as a positive example of patriotism and sacrifice, and used to help rehabilitate the image of Japanese Americans.


The U.S. engages in the Cold War and devastating physical wars in Korea, Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos, claiming to fight communism and “bring democracy” to the rest of the world. But the growth of the civil rights and ethnic power movements puts a spotlight on racism and discrimination at home, and undermines American claims to greatness abroad. Politicians and the media popularize the idea of protesting Black and brown Americans as “problem minorities” and supposedly passive, hardworking Chinese and Japanese Americans as a “model minority.” Some Asian Americans buy into this idea, like Hokubei Mainichi editor Howard Imazeki, who stirs up controversy with a 1963 editorial calling on Black Americans to “better themselves” before asking for equal rights.

The Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 ends national origins quotas, allowing more immigration from Asia and other non-European countries. But a new tier system gives preference to “skilled” immigrants with relatives already in the U.S.—creating steep barriers to entry for poor and working class immigrants.


Many Asian Americans gain access to better housing, education, and jobs thanks to the Civil Rights Act, the overturning of restrictive housing covenants , and other achievements of Black activists. But racist practices like redlining, predatory lending, and “broken windows” policing create and maintain additional barriers that disproportionately impact Black and brown communities. Hidden beneath the veneer of Asian American “success” are stories of Southeast Asian refugees resettled in under-resourced and overpoliced neighborhoods where they lack access to social services, elderly residents of historic Chinatowns, Japantowns, and Manilatowns displaced from their homes by “urban renewal,” and Asian American youth navigating a crisis of addiction and suicide.

After more than a decade of political lobbying—much of it focused on the patriotism of the 442nd RCT—the Japanese American redress movement culminates in the Civil Liberties Act of 1988 , which grants a formal apology and payments of $20,000 to living survivors of WWII incarceration. The descendants of those who died before the bill’s passage are excluded to avoid creating a precedent for reparations to Black and Indigenous people.

On April 29, four LAPD officers are acquitted in the brutal beating of Rodney King. Outrage over the verdict, as well as decades of widening racial and economic inequality, erupts into five days of riots. Korean-owned businesses sustain much of the damage —fueled by anger over a lenient sentence handed down a week earlier to convenience store owner Soon Ja Du for the killing of Black teen Latasha Harlins , and tensions between Black and Latinx South Central residents and Asian shopkeepers perceived as “middleman minorities.” The LAPD largely ignores the violence in South Central LA to protect wealthier, whiter neighborhoods, while the mainstream press obscures the deeper, systemic problems behind the riots to instead create a sensationalized narrative of Black and brown mobs attacking Korean immigrants. Politicians blame the riots on a “culture of dependency” and, in the aftermath, enact policies gutting the social welfare system while investing heavily in prisons and policing.

Congress passes two laws—the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act (AEDPA) and the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act (IIRIRA)—that allow immigrants to be deported for minor, nonviolent crimes and previous convictions.


Thousands of Southeast Asian refugees are targeted for detention and deportation in the wake of AEDPA and IIRIRA. In Chinatowns across the country, an influx of luxury real estate development displaces many low-income residents and the businesses and institutions that serve them, triggering a housing crisis and increasing poverty for many Asian immigrants. These stories are rarely included in mainstream coverage of Asian Americans.

Chinese American NYPD officer Peter Liang kills Akai Gurley, an unarmed Black man, just a few months after the police murders of Mike Brown and Eric Garner that ignited #BlackLivesMatter protests across the country. In response to his 2016 indictment, thousands of Asian Americans rally in support of Liang , claiming he is a scapegoat for white officers who were never held accountable for similar shootings. The rallies are widely denounced as an example of the model minority myth in action—including by many Asian Americans—but pro-Liang and anti-Black sentiment remains in many Asian American communities.

Meanwhile, a small but vocal group of Asian Americans align with white conservatives seeking to end affirmative action, joining a lawsuit and filing federal complaints against Harvard University claiming their race-conscious admissions policy discriminates against Asian applicants in favor of Black and Latinx applicants.

The murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin sparks global protests and calls for abolition. Many see the role of Hmong American officer Tou Thau, who did not act to stop Chauvin, as a symbol of Asian American complicity in anti-Black violence—which then becomes a call to action for Asians to stand with Black communities against white supremacy.

Verbal and physical attacks on Asian Americans surge during the COVID-19 pandemic, fueled by political rhetoric attributing the virus to China. Amid viral videos of attacks on Asian elders and the horrific murder of eight people in two Asian massage parlors in Atlanta in March 2021, some argue that Asian Americans should protect themselves through appeals to patriotism while others say the violence shows just how little protection the model minority myth truly provides.

Resource List

If you’re reading this, you probably already know there is a mountain of literature on the model minority myth. This list of readings, archive materials, and a few other resources—arranged chronologically to follow the myth’s historical arc—is intended as a starting place to learn more. We welcome suggestions of additional resources in the comments below.

Creating “Model” and “Problem” Minorities

“How to Tell Japs from the Chinese,” LIFE Magazine , December 1941.

“Home Again. Japanese-American Farm Families Pick Up Peaceful, Industrious Lives,” The Seattle Times , April 1947.

Denaree Best, “California’s Amazing Japanese,” Saturday Evening Post , April 30, 1955.

Daniel Patrick Moynihan, “The Negro Family: The Case for National Action” (more commonly known as The Moynihan Report ), 1965.

William Petersen, “Success Story: Japanese-American Style,” The New York Times Magazine , January 9, 1966.

“Success Story of One Minority Group in the U.S.,” U.S. News & World Report , December 26, 1966.

“Success Story: Outwhiting the Whites,” Newsweek, June 21, 1971. (Reprinted in the 1972 Pacific Citizen holiday edition .)

“Japanese in U.S. Outdo Horatio Alger,” Los Angeles Times , Oct. 17, 1977.

Asian Americans Push Back against the Model Minority Myth

Amy Uyematsu, “The Emergence of Yellow Power,” Gidra Vol. 1, No. 7 (October 1969).

Frank Chin and Jeffery Paul Chan, “ Racist Love ,” in Seeing Through Shuck , ed. Richard Kostelanetz, 1972.

“Japanese Americans: Model Minority?” Pacific Citizen Vol. 103, No. 25 (December 1986)

Mari Matsuda, “ We Will Not Be Used: Are Asian-Americans the Racial Bourgeoisie? ” address to the Asian Law Caucus in 1990. (Reprinted in Where Is Your Body? And Other Essays on Race, Gender and the Law , 1997.)

Janice D. Tanaka, “When You’re Smiling: The Deadly Legacy of Internment” (film), 1999.

Satsuki Ina on the cost of the model minority myth , Densho interview with Tom Ikeda, March 14, 2019.

Nina Wallace, “ Rooted in Japanese American Concentration Camps, ‘Model Minority’ became Code for Anti-Black ,” Densho Catalyst , May 5, 2016.

OiYan Poon, “ Racial Choices: Justice or ‘Just Us’? ” TED Talk, 2019.

Viet Thanh Nguyen, “ How the Model Minority Myth of Asian Americans Hurts Us All ,” Time , June 25, 2020.

Cathy Park Hong, Minor Feelings: An Asian American Reckoning (One World, 2021).

Tamara K. Nopper, “ Safe Asian Americans: On the carceral logic of the model minority myth ,” The Margins , May 7, 2021.

Scholarly Works on the Model Minority Myth

Bob H. Suzuki, “Education and Socialization of Asian Americans: A Revisionist Analysis of the ‘Model Minority’ Thesis.” Amerasia Journal 4.2 (1977): 23-52.

Chris Iijima. “ Reparations and the Model Minority Ideology of Acquiescence: The Necessity to Refuse the Return to Original Humiliation .” Boston College Third World Law Journal Vol. 19, No. 1 (1998).

Alice Yang Murray. Historical Memories of the Japanese American Internment and the Struggle for Redress (Stanford University Press, 2008).

Scott Kurashige, The Shifting Grounds of Race: Black and Japanese Americans in the Making of Multiethnic Los Angeles (Princeton University Press, 2010).

Kurashige, “ Model minority ,” Densho Encyclopedia .

Ellen Wu, The Color of Success: Asian Americans and the Origins of the Model Minority (Princeton University Press, 2015).

[Header: Still from Densho and TED-Ed video lesson on the model minority myth. Art by Léon Moh-Cah.]

Categories: after camp , intersections

UC San Diego

Asian: Model Minority Myth

minority myth essay

  • Tell Us How UC It: Exhibit 2017

One time my friend asked me for help on a math problem, and I didn't know the solution, to which he responded with: "You're Asian, yet you can't do this?" That was the motivation behind my essay.

An essay about Asian Americans being a model minority and my experience as an Asian American at UCSD. Submitted to this Living Archive as part of the course requirements of CAT1, taught by Professor Solomon.

Digital drawing and essay

For the Culture, Art, and Technology (CAT) 1: Migration Narratives in the Sixth College writing program taught by Amanda Solomon in the Fall of 2016, students were asked to think about how they view the current campus climate and respond to the fourth chapter of Angela Kong's dissertation, "Re-examining Diversity Policy at University of California, San Diego: The Racial Politics of Asian Americans" Thesis (Ph. D.)--University of California, San Diego, 2014.

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