June 22, 2021

Explaining the Model Minority Myth

Holland & Knight Asian/Pacific American Heritage Month Spotlight Series

Holland & Knight's Diversity Council and Asian/Pacific Islander (API) Affinity Group are proud to celebrate Asian/Pacific American Heritage Month and pay tribute to the generations of Asians and Pacific Islanders who have enriched America's history and continue to play a role in its future success. This year, we took time to reflect on how we could better support our API colleagues, sitting down with attorneys and staff to have important conversations about racial justice and allyship. Throughout the coming weeks, we will be presenting a video series showcasing some of these conversations. We hope that the stories conveyed in these videos help advance dialogue around API Heritage Month as well as lead to further discussions of how we can be better allies to our API friends, family and colleagues.

In the final episode of this series, Partner Raymond Kim looks at the model minority myth, or the idea that Asian Americans are the "ideal" minority group who has worked hard and achieved the American Dream. Raymond traces the myth's origins to a 1960s article praising the Japanese American community's ability to overcome post-internment challenges, and he describes two major issues associated with this myth: Not only does it ignore Asian American communities that are not thriving, it is also used against other minority communities. Reflecting on the myth's long-term effects, Raymond explains how it has made the Asian American community invisible, with that lack of visibility becoming apparent only within the last year. He says moving forward, it's important to have discussions around issues like the model minority myth to help others recognize the social, ethnic and economic diversity within the API community.

More Videos in this Series

Episode 1: A Series Introduction from Asian/Pacific Islander Affinity Group Chair Stacey Wang

Episode 2: Witnessing API Discrimination: A Shared Experience

Episode 3: Kristin Asai Shares Her Family History in the U.S. Japanese Internment Camps

Episode 4: Highlighting API Contributions to the U.S. Military

Episode 5: A Brief History of Discrimination Against Asian and Pacific Islander Americans

Episode 6: Becoming an Ally with Jennifer A. Mansfield

Episode 7: Perspectives from a Second Generation Samoan American

Episode 8: Reflecting on the Importance of Professional Mentors

Episode 9: Explaining the Model Minority Myth (You are currently viewing Episode 9)

Episode 10: Holly Camisa Shares her Experience with Being Multiracial

Episode 11: Celebrating the Everyday Asian Lives with Vinh Duong and Quynh-Anh Kibler

Episode 12: Remembering to Have Roots and Wings with Shannon Goff Kukulka

Raymond Kim: Well to me, the model minority myth is the idea that there is a best minority, right? And from that, I think the idea is that Asian Americans are the model minority, in part by virtue of their work ethic, maybe traditional family values, what they have, what society perceives as what Asian Americans have achieved in America in terms of education, academics, income, overall socioeconomic status. Asian Americans, in the entire kind of D&I discussion, we're not really seen as an underrepresented minority, specifically within certain fields like finance, medicine, tech and even in law. And so I think the statistics show that we are well represented when it comes to higher education, when it comes to post-secondary education, when it comes to law schools, top law schools and even starting at what are considered the big firms. But I think that's kind of where it ends, right? And so although you might have a huge wave or influx of, if you have a huge wave of Asian American law school graduates starting at the big firms, I think we have to take a closer look at what percentage of those Asian American associates are actually making it to the next level by actually making it to a partnership or actually making it to leadership positions. And I think we'd find that it's pretty few and far between. Well, in part, I think it's cultural, right? I think there is a cultural aspect to it, and there's no doubt about it, in my opinion. At the same time, I think it's because Asian Americans are being overlooked. Again, in part, it's hate. They work hard, they put their head down, they're good worker bees, they get the job done. But then when it comes to, I think, some other stereotypes that come along with the model minority myth, one is they're not really good leaders. They're too quiet, too docile. They're good at taking orders and getting the job done, but they're not good at actually being creative and leading the group to get the job done.

Explaining the Model Minority Myth

So my understanding of how the model minority myth started is back in the 60s, I believe, I think there was a sociologist from Berkeley who may have been well intentioned, and I think maybe there wasn't any type of nefarious intent behind any of this. It was just that there was an article that he wrote specifically about the Japanese American community and post-internment how they really were able to just kind of overcome all the post-internment difficulties that they faced — for instance, losing land rights, losing property, all of that — and to come back and really kind of pull themselves up by the bootstraps and succeed in this country. And, you know, that was in an article. And I think from there, it just kind of took off, and I think a lot of people clung onto that idea that not only Japanese Americans, but Asian Americans in general, have really kind of just put their heads down and stayed quiet, worked hard and by doing so achieved the American dream. You know, I think some people might think, "So what's wrong with the model minority myth? It's a good stereotype to have. It's better than being called lazy. People think you work hard, people think you're doing well academically, you're doing well professionally. What's wrong with that?" And so there are a number of issues with the model minority myth, one being that there are certain communities within the Asian American community that are not doing as well. Not doing as well socioeconomically, not doing as well academically, and I think the communities that come to mind, for instance, are the Hmong community, maybe Laotian community, Southeast Asian community. But they get overlooked because, again, I think generally society feels as though "Hey, Asian Americans, API groups, they're all doing well," so they're not given the necessary attention or resources that these communities need. I think another issue is that to a certain extent, I think the model minority myth has been used as a wedge against other minority groups. And I think what really comes to mind is to undermine the civil justice movement and again, to pit minority groups against the other, to say, "Hey, look, look at the API community, look at the Asian American community. Other communities, you argue our system is racist or unjust. Well, that's not the case, because if you just look at how well the Asian Americans have done, if they were able to do it, why can't you?" And from that, I think it could also breed tension within the minority communities and communities of color when, again, that wasn't necessarily, when it's not, when the model minority myth is not something that Asian Americans created. It was more a creation of, I think, those in power. Again, it's not a negative stereotype, right? So I think to a certain extent, Asian Americans have kind of accepted it and haven't pushed back against it, which has almost kind of created the situation that we're in right now. Which is we've really become invisible. We've become invisible socially. We've become invisible in the media, in politics. We're just not present, and now I think, you know, since COVID and the rise in anti-Asian sentiment and anti-Asian violence, now we're actually seeing what's happening. That we don't have the political power, that we really don't have any voices to speak on behalf of the Asian American and API community. And not to say we have to look at ourselves, but to a certain extent, I think we do. And ask, you know, what role that we play in all this and what could we do moving forward. If you're not really focused on maybe race, ethnicity or D&I-type issues, then of course you're going to overlook it. You're not even going to think about it. But to the extent those discussions are happening, to recognize, again, that Asian Americans are not one homogenous group. Especially for us as professionals, I think we're surrounded by other professionals, so it's just really hard to see, but there is real social and economic diversity within the Asian American community. And, yeah, just to have those discussions, I think it's important.

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