The “model minority” stereotype was coined in 1966 by sociologist William Petersen to explain Asian American successes in the face of discrimination. And yes, he was right. Many Asian Americans have achieved great things. But so have many African Americans, and so have many Latino Americans.
What the model minority stereotype has become is not merely an observation of Asian American achievements; it has become a monolith that masks the needs of a community with diverse needs. Just as African American and Latino American students have special needs, so too do Asian Americans. First-generation immigrants, often of Southeast Asian descent, tend to be aggregated with more established East Asian communities. Cambodian-Americans, Hmong and Pacific Islanders often face lower education rates and greater poverty than Korean, Japanese and Chinese Americans.
But ethnic diversity is not the only problem with the model minority myth. As a result of the pressures associated with living up to the model minority stereotype, Asian American students have higher rates of stress, depression, mental illnesses, and suicide attempts.
The model minority stereotype can also lead to bullying. Only a century ago, Americans justified bullying Asian Americans because of their supposed racial inferiority and lack of education. Fears of the “Yellow Peril” led to harsh immigration restrictions and Japanese internment during World War II. Now, after the advent of the model minority myth, APAs are often portrayed in the media as “geeks” or “nerds.” There has perhaps never been a moment in American history when Asian Americans have been respected for what they are: American citizens just like everyone else.
Asian Pacific Heritage Month (APAHM), which occurs this month on college campuses and next month for the country at-large, gives us occasion to reflect on these historical (and present-day) inequities. As policymakers seek to address bullying and mental health issues among students, they must remember not to use stereotypes of achievement to mask the diverse needs of our communities.