Posted on April 19, 2021

How the Pressure of the Model Minority Myth Restricts Our Imagination—and Our Freedom

Sanjena Sathian, Time, April 9, 2021

Ambition saturates my earliest memories. I was a parody of the so-called “model” minority. As a pre-teen, I scribbled journal entries about my Ivy League dreams. In high school, whenever I visited Boston for debate tournaments, I made a pilgrimage to touch the famous “lucky” foot of the John Harvard statue on which, I later learned, freshmen boys like to urinate.

Once I made it to the Promised Land—Yale, where I met my fellow high achieving brown doppelgangers—I became one of the poster children for the Indian American success story.

I have since soured on that story, which is often held up to prove the model minority myth true. Americans have finally begun to see the dangers of this myth. Since the start of the pandemic, anti-Asian violence has mounted, yet it did not rise to the status of national emergency until a white terrorist killed six working class Asian women. This was a failure of the American imagination, and a familiar one—anti-South Asian and Arab violence was treated as a footnote after 9/11, too. A white man once told me he “dared” me to prove that those early 2000s hate crimes were “statistically significant.” What he meant was that I, as an Asian striver, served as proof that Asian Americans belong, and that occasional racism was an aberration. In the wake of the Atlanta shootings, a belated discourse has arisen about the inadequacy of the phrase “Asian American,” which so carelessly lumps in Hmong refugees with rich Indians—two distinct communities whose experiences cannot be conflated. A wealthy Asian American working in tech encounters a racism cushioned by class privilege, unlike the racism faced by Asian Americans working in spas, nail salons, gas stations, or liquor stores.

Another aspect of rewriting requires Asians and non-Asians alike to see how such a narrative is dangerous for even the “models” it ostensibly benefits.


{snip} This uncritical veneration of ambition and success takes a toll, leaving psychological and moral wounds. It can damage mental health, causing those who don’t meet the community’s standards for “success” to believe themselves failures; some are ostracized or outcast. This achievement obsession can also beget greed, causing those who are prosperous high achievers to believe they are the elect.

The second consequence is civic: if all we want is to belong to America, we risk becoming a technocratic and insular elite. Our acceptance of the damaging “model” minority myth permits it to run rampant, harming working-class Asians, undocumented immigrants, Dalit people, refugees, and many more.

{snip} But racist fears, including of “ Yellow peril” and “Dusky peril,” kept Asians from emigrating between 1917 and 1965. As documentarian Vivek Bald recounts in Bengali Harlem and the Lost Histories of South Asian America, Indian Americans who lobbied Congress to re open borders midcentury promised that future desis would bring not more unskilled labor or political agitation but scholarship, business, and scientific expertise to America. Shrewd advocates conjured a dreamscape of respectable, highly educated, model minorities—many of whom would come from India’s dominant castes.

The fantasy was realized in 1965, when the Immigration and Nationality Act was passed, lifting bans on Asian entry. {snip}


Identity—the inner life—is fatally serious. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, suicide is the leading cause of death among Asian Americans between 20 and 24. A study in the Asian American Journal of Psychology found that among a sample of college students, Indians had higher rates of suicidal ideations than other South Asian Americans. {snip} Something separates how we are seen as in public—successful and striving—from how many of us feel in private: unsettled. I cannot trace each tragic death to achievement worship—and one study found that collectivism in Asian communities may prevent suicide—but it’s become clear that ambition, so essential to make a home for oneself in America, is also toxic.

Some blame so-called tiger parents for demanding too much from their children. But while the immigrant burden is shouldered by those within the community, it’s also placed on us by a system that demands excellence of people of color while allowing many white Americans to be mediocre.