Tuesday, October 12, 2010

The Korean on Model Minority Myth

Dear Korean,

How do you feel about the Model Minority Myth? I'm black and often inspired by Asians who have stats that say they are 4% of the country but 24% of Harvard. Others will say this is a myth of the success of Asians. What do you think?


Dear Redman,

Here is the Korean's view in a nutshell:  properly used (note the emphasis,) the "model minority myth" can be a very useful instrument.

The model minority theory is fairly well known, so only a little bit of explanation would suffice. Asian Americans are often considered the "model minority," because despite being a minority who is supposed to be at a disadvantage in a racist society, Asian Americans excel to a degree that surpasses even whites. Across all ethnicities in the U.S., Asian Americans are most likely to be college-educated, most likely to be in high-skill occupation, have the highest median family income, and least likely to be poor or be on public assistance.

Because it is fashionable to hate on the model minority theory, the Korean would like to remind everyone this:  the fact that Asian Americans tend to do well in America is not a bad thing. People should be happy with the fact that Asian Americans, despite immigrating to a new land where they face significant barriers, nonetheless manage to (broadly speaking) succeed greatly.

The problem, instead, is when the success of Asian Americans is used to push other things that do not quite connect. Thus the critics of model minority theory are quick to point out that model minority theory is used by certain groups to pit Asian Americans against other minorities. Or that model minority theory glosses over the heterogeneity within Asian Americans, as certain Asian American sub-groups (e.g. Cambodians) do not follow the overall trend of Asian Americans. Or that Asian Americans still have to put in more hours of work to earn the same amount of money as whites. These criticisms are of course correct, and they need to be taken into account when we evaluate the success of Asian Americans.

But the Korean cannot help but wonder:  why don't people care more about why Asian Americans succeed? Even if all the criticisms are true, they do not change the fact that a good number of Asian Americans are successful in America against all odds. Why is there no effort -- or at least, no effort commensurate to the effort devoted to argue against the model minority theory -- to decipher what Asian Americans are doing right, theorize it, and apply the theory for the betterment of all Americans, particularly minorities? If what Asian Americans are doing is conducive to success, shouldn't all Americans do what Asian Americans are doing? Shouldn't that be the greatest contribution of Asian American Studies as a scholarly discipline?

If anything, the trend so far has been the opposite. Any suggestion of what other minorities could learn from Asian Americans is often met by charges of arrogance from other minorities, and a tut-tut from Asian American Studies people claiming that such suggestion pits Asian Americans from other minorities. Whites are happy until Asian Americans are about as successful as they are, but are quick to dismiss the success of Asian Americans when it appears that Asian Americans might actually be doing better than them. So the mainstream society devalues Asian Americans' success as "too focused on academics" or "not creative" -- a ludicrous notion, given the success of Asian Americans in music (easily half of the Juilliard School,) literature (Amy Tan, Maxine Hong Kingston, Changrae Lee, Min Jin Lee,) sports (Michelle Wie, Anthony Kim, Christina Kim,) fashion design (Vera Wang, Jason Wu, Richard Chai,) or just about any other field. At high schools in San Francisco Bay Area where Asian American students excel, there is a "reverse white flight" because Asian American parents are "too competitive."

Obviously, model minority theory cannot explain everything about Asian Americans, or success in America. No theory is perfect; if you follow only one theory to guide your life, you will be seriously wrong and badly lost. But this must be said, and said confidently:  We Asian Americans are, on average, doing great because we are doing something right. We do not have to apologize for our success, or find a way to explain somehow that our success is not a real success. We are indeed the model minority, in the true sense of the word -- the model which all of America would do well to take notice and learn from.

Got a question or a comment for the Korean? Email away at askakorean@gmail.com.


  1. If the answer to "why?" is "parents putting a lot of academic pressure on their children", how would you apply this to all Americans?
    I don't say this is the right answer, I want to say that sometimes solutions for some people are not suitable for everybody.

  2. even if i don't agree with absolutely everything on this site, i generally find it to be even-handed, unbiased, and well-thought. i have a few problems with this post, however. it takes an awful lot for granted, the most glaring of which is the notion that all minorities are created equal. they're not, and you can argue over whether or not the model minority chicken came before the model minority egg, but within that argument i think there are two more important points which deserve attention. first, racial bias in america, as in many other parts of the world (korea very much included) observes a very direct correlation between skin color and degree of bias. the darker the color of your skin, the more discrimination one is likely to face (generally). second, that the model minority, be it myth or not, has by and large created a positive bias towards asian-americans. attitudes toward blacks and koreans are far from identical, and those differences can have very real effects on both individual and group achievement.

  3. My theory about why Asians succeed in America is that coming here is so expensive – both in an absolute sense (it's much more expensive to be smuggled from China than Mexico), but also in a relative sense (few Chinese, for example, have the money to pay to come over). Because it's so expensive, it acts as a sort of merit test, so only the most motivated people make it over.

    And then there's the fact that in many cases Asians came to America because they were quasi-dissidents. This, I believe, also explains why Eastern Europeans who came to America during the Cold War do so well compared to Eastern Europeans in Western Europe – it was just so much more difficult to come to American than Europe, so we got the cream of the crop.

  4. It seems to me, one could objectively analyze an idea like this, but in the end its not really a way to live ones life. No matter one's station in life, someone will always be in a better position and other in a worse position. Some will have it easier, some will have it harder. That is not really going to change. If you take the attitude any day you can get better or get worse. You going to take that inch and make it a mile, or be given a meter, wish it was more, and just throw up your hands and go home. Get your role models and mentors and use them. Could you get screwed over? By all means, even for some pretty stupid reasons. But I think that also comes back to a proper attitude. The process of trying to become better holds in it more sweetness than what one may consider success.

  5. So I guess to get back to the theory, you can take it for what it is worth. The important thing is to put the idea in a appropriate context, especially if one is actually going to put that model to use. Some aspects of any culture are going to be more fit address a situation better than another. Trying to adopt certain aspects of a culture may constructively or destructively work within an existing culture. So I guess I would have to conclude that, I don't think it is myth, but on the other hand it cannot not be thought that it can easily be applied.

  6. Of course everything you guys say about the different situations for Asians and other minorities are correct. The Korean's position is only this: there are things to be learned from the model minority experience. Surely it cannot be said that there is absolutely nothing for the rest of America to learn from the fact that Asian Americans are, on average, successful in America despite a number of obstacles.

    Take exercise regimens, for example. An exercise regimen for a pro athlete probably is not for regular people. But the regimen nonetheless teaches regular people what are the important body parts to focus on, what the methodology is, etc. And it is not the right attitude to say, "I'm not a pro athlete, this has nothing to do with me." The right attitude is to learn whatever we can learn.

  7. To Andrew's comment about skin color and degree of bias, I don't think that is necessarily the case. Indians have dark skin but they are perceived in a positive light. I'm not claiming to know the answer but I think it has to do with cultural values such as stressing importance of education and America's immigration policy. America does get the cream of the crop from Asia. When I visited Vancouver, my Indian friend told me that there are Indian gangs in Vancouver. I've never even heard of such a thing living in California. Because Canada's immigration policy is more relaxed compared to the U.S., they're getting the second tier immigrations from India hence the formation of Indian gangs.

  8. An interesting theory posited by Malcom Gladwell in "Outliers" is that the Asian h