OPINION: The ‘Model Minority Myth’ won’t save you

“But you’re Asian, how can you be so bad at math and science?” a classmate once asked me. 

“You don’t need these accommodations, you’re smart enough to deal with the work,” a teacher once told me. 

I, as a Cambodian American, was expected to fend for myself with unrealistic expectations set upon me, a 17-year-old with a learning disability in high school.- It was hard to reason with my peers as to why I just learn differently, and why math and science are my worst subjects. As a result, I couldn’t get along with other Asians because they fit into the ‘Model Minority Myth’ feverishly.

The Model Minority Myth is describing how a minority demographic can succeed and be on the same footing as other people. In this case, the Model Minority Myth describes Asian Americans who are successful financially, good at math and science and most importantly, are obedient and don’t cause any trouble to overall society.

When I didn’t exactly follow the Model Minority Myth, I was told by my non-Asian peers, “all Asians act like this, why aren’t you behaving like them?” and it hurt my self-esteem deeply. Many of my non-Asian peers had a narrow view of what an Asian is supposed to be. There were instances when non-Asian teachers didn’t believe that I needed extra help because “I’m old enough to deal with it.” Although they weren’t direct about following the Model Minority Myth, it still hurt to know that I couldn’t get the help I needed because they expected me to figure it out myself. Even my English teacher refused to acknowledge my accommodations because, “I should know better.” With the Model Minority Myth in full force, it felt like there were double standards that differ for Asian Americans as opposed to other minority groups. I felt my high school was segregated into two groups: the Hispanic/Latino students who were left out or the Asian students that followed the Model Minority Myth by heart.

What I noticed about Asians who internalized the MMM, is that they tended to have a superiority complex that ranged from colorism, to having little-to-no empathy  for other groups of people. I had a Vietnamese friend who fit into the MMM through advanced classes and involvement in extracurriculars. Oftentimes, she engaged in racial microaggressions and classist remarks, because she indirectly believed that the MMM would protect her The MMM became deeply ingrained into their brains through constant praise by teachers and parents about how smart they are and how they  fit exactly into the MMM, unlike the Hispanic/Latino students who were left out or neglected by the school system.

The MMM seems like a positive affirmation that motivates us to work harder. But this myth leaves out many factors, such as parental support, mental health and economic background. Many Asian Americans don’t get a lot of extra help when it comes to school because several teachers and staff expect them to figure it out themselves. As a result of the MMM, Asian Americans are less likely to ask for academic help, seek mental health support, or even call the police, according to Medical News Today. Disturbingly, racism towards Asian Americans slowly became normalized by American society because of the MMM, which is why crimes towards Asian Americans were underreported, and spiked when the pandemic began. But does the MMM protect Asian Americans from any harm?

Wania Muhktar, a 21-year-old college student from Anaheim, has a unique perspective due to her Pakistani upbringing. In elementary school, she encountered a girl that did not understand that India is not the same country as Pakistan. Instead, the girl would make fun of her for being “Indian” and mock her. She would draw a red dot on Muhktar’s forehead and do “stereotypical” Indian dance moves in front of her. Muhktar tried to correct her bully several times, but eventually gave up.

“I have had a lot of moments where people don’t know what a South Asian is or what countries are made up of South Asia. I have had people squint and pull back their eyes saying ‘but you don’t look like this’” Muhktar said. “I explain to them that not every Asian looks the same, and how each country has its own culture and religious background.” 

Throughout her childhood, she got told what an Asian should act like.-

“When I told people I was Asian, [peers and teachers] held me to even higher standards of being the kid that had A+ in all subjects,” Muhktar said. 

In sixth grade, the teacher focused more on her and one other Asian student, because she saw them as the “smartest.” They ended up with special privileges, but the teacher subsequently neglected the Latino children in the classroom. This trend continued in high school, where Muhktar had higher expectations placed on her by high school teachers to perform exponentially based on her race. The greatest irony was that she felt painfully average.

Despite South Asians not fitting into what a “stereotypical” Asian looks like, they still deal with problems within their own community. Muhktar is more likely to interact within the South Asian community, leading to what her parents and brothers wanted her to study in college, for future job stability. Her parents did not push her into the “stereotypical” Asian majors such as engineering, medical or  law. However, they didn’t support anything creative such as art or theater, viewing it as a side hobby. Muhktar decided to major in Human Services, but her brother wanted her to be in the medical field, despite the fact that he himself was not in the medical field. 

“He still talks down on my field, but I just explain to him that social workers are just as important even in the medical field as doctors and nurses,” she said. 

Even after explaining this to her family, she still felt the need to defend her choice to be a social worker after graduation.

Muhktar is in her last year at Cal State Fullerton, studying human services with an emphasis in mental health. Although she doesn’t look like a “stereotypical” Asian, South Asians are not immune to anti-Asian racism. Her advice? “The insults are a representation of their own knowledge and it shows you that they are not very educated in Asian cultures or history,” Muhktar said.

Similarly, Jennifer Tuy, a pre-nursing student from Everett, Washington, has faced anti-Asian racism. Many people would not suspect she is Cambodian, just because she doesn’t fit into the stereotype of what a Cambodian looks like. Tuy has had people assume she is either Vietnamese or Filipino, never Cambodian because she doesn’t “fit the stereotypical look.” For a long time, Southeast Asians, especially Cambodians, were pitted against other Asian Americans because of the MMM and how they don’t look “stereotypically Asian.” Many people mistake Cambodians for Filipino, Vietnamese or Mexican , mixed and so on. Many people would say that Cambodians aren’t “real” Asians due to their tan complexion and non-monolid eyes, and that most Cambodians aren’t as successful as their other Asian counterparts.

Like Muhktar, Tuy’s parents subconsciously upheld the Model Minority Myth and focused more on job stability for Tuy. Tuy’s parents pushed her towards nursing solely for job stability and perpetuated the MMM by choosing her educational path for her.  . Tuy’s parents  didn’t like engineering because one of her cousins couldn’t find a job very easily in that field. Connections are important in any job, but the most connections Tuy would get from her parents was at a wire shop, since her parents work at a Boeing factory. When Tuy thought about changing majors, her mom reacted negatively because of one thing: job stability. Her parents told her to pursue nursing, because they work in manufacturing and are afraid of constantly getting laid off.” 

The recent spike in hate crimes against Asian Americans have made life difficult for them. Tuy is still scared of encountering the wrong people.. Even in a diverse city like Seattle, these crimes against Asians still aren’t taken as seriously as other types of crimes. The MMM won’t protect them from hate crimes happening, which is the reason why these types of crimes aren’t taken as seriously as other crimes, according to the New York Times.

Even for Asian women, they are degraded as objects. Asian fetishes can be slimy and disgusting for women to navigate. 

“It made me feel uncomfortable and less of a human.” Tuy said. “This happens often on dating apps. I avoid profiles that mention anime or K-pop [as their interests] honestly.”

Tuy recounts an experience where someone fell victim to the Model Minority Myth. She knew a Korean guy from high school who had a lot of white friends. Bit by bit, he lost his identity as a Korean American. In order to fit in with his white peers, he would engage in racial microaggressions towards other Asians (or any minority group), disregard parts of his Asian identity and eventually  became “whitewashed.”

As Tuy reflects back on her identity as a Asian woman and dealing with the ‘Model Minority Myth’, she offers this piece of advice.-

“People come and go, and you will have people who will accept you,” Tuy said. “Also, do not be afraid to speak up if they make these comments. You have a voice and you are strong.” 

She wants Asians to embrace their heritage, and push back on assimilation. 

“Your food is not smelly, your name is beautiful, and your culture is overall amazing. Your cultural background makes you who you are,” Tuy said.

Billie May, who’s name has been changed to protect her identity, has had a colorful career, starting off as a radio host in San Diego, then becoming a teacher, and eventually the commander of the Los Angeles Police Department Hollywood Division.

She defines the Model Minority Myth based on the perception of Asians when she was growing up in the 1970s: they are successful, good at math, and come from a well-educated community that doesn’t cause any problems. Growing up in Burbank, in what was a mostly white community, she was forced to conform to the standards of her peers and her teachers. 

May remembers that her teachers would always tell her to assimilate into their community, such as how they wear, eat and so on. That has translated into adulthood, where she makes sure that she does not bring something “smelly” to work and plays it safe when it comes to food. The microaggressions may seem harmless as when it was just kids, but it can still affect how adults carry out their lives.

From their eventful lives, they all share a similar theme. 

“In the 90s, there weren’t a lot of Asian women represented and if you didn’t look the part, then you were disregarded,” she said. 

Of course, it depends on the field. She noted that in the radio field, it’s extremely competitive. During the 90s, there wasn’t a lot of representation of Asian women, so competition in the radio industry is ruthless, especially if you’re an Asian woman. For teaching, she noted the lack of diversity in teachers. At that time, in the late 90s and early 2000s, she taught at a school in San Diego that had only one other Asian teacher. Consequently, she ended up being paired with that teacher just because they were Asian. It was not a pleasant teaching experience for May, because the teacher was not the most pleasant person to work with, along with the overall environment of the school. 

She decided to leave teaching and go work for the LAPD. She managed to become the watch commander, but getting there was no easy feat. Promotion was incredibly difficult and to this day less than 1% of police officers are Asian females. Despite the obstacles, she now manages over 40 police officers.

Since the pandemic began, the spike in hate crimes against Asian Americans has skyrocketed. May has seen it herself. “Someone being hateful towards me because of my race has been at the bottom of my list. Before the pandemic, the Asian community didn’t have a lot of crimes to report but since the pandemic started, it has spiked,” she said..

Even if it’s not someone physically attacking an Asian person, microaggressions can occur anywhere. 

“One of my friends went to Home Depot and one of the cashiers noticed she was Asian. The cashier handed the receipt farther away from her, as if she was contaminated,” May said. 

It’s not just physical assaults, anti-Asian discrimination can be subtle, due to strong sentiments of anti-Asian hate across the country.

There hasn’t been much progress addressing how the Model Minority Myth is directly harmful. As May reflects back on her life, she has one piece of advice for the younger generation struggling with the problematic Model Minority Myth. 

“You cannot strive to conform to other people,” she said. “You have to accept yourself and do things that you like.”


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