Why I am Not the "Model Minority"

12/08/2016 10:53 am ET Updated Dec 08, 2016

I am about to give up. Despite having been discredited by data over my entire lifetime, the “model minority myth” continues to be the dominant image of Asian Americans. I am infuriated by it. When we protest, we are still told we are being hypersensitive, ideological, and politically correct.

“How could you object?” People are saying nice something about you. Except it’s not about me. It’s them congratulating themselves, criticizing African Americans, or picturing my cousins with superior SAT test scores.

Perhaps what will persuade people are examples involving other demographic groups. Here is an attempt to explain.

Those who do not know the “model minority myth” by that name are aware of its themes. Asian immigrants arrive with nothing. They beat their children for anything short of a straight-A report card. Thanks to their intelligence and work ethic, both the elders and the youngsters achieve the greatest success without government hand-outs. Asian Americans excel at math and science, embrace family, are polite and well-behaved, etc.; they win science fairs, spelling bees, and piano recitals.

What makes the myth a myth is that the conception of Asian American success does not control for factors that have to be accounted for in any fair assessment — even setting aside qualms about racial comparisons. Immigration is selective; Asian Americans better educated in the aggregate; and Asian Americans are concentrated in urban centers. If you want to extrapolate, the accurate conclusion would be that Asian Americans who are better qualified (not equally qualified) do less well than whites who are worse qualified.

Yet the "model minority myth” whitewashes problems and inspires backlash. Asian Americans are taking over, invading the Ivy League, and even making more money than whites. Asian Americans also are used to send a message to other people of color, without much subtlety. “Look at the Asians; why can’t you be more like them?”

Although there is much more to the debunking of the “model minority myth,” my point here is to offer analogies. Asian Americans are not alone. Other communities experience similar issues.

Jews have long faced such false flattery. The statement, “Oh, Jews, they’re good at making money” seems superficially to be complimentary -- “they’re so shrewd." The listener need not know much about the history of anti-Semitism, however, to be skeptical about the subtext and what is likely to follow — “they’re sharp.” That opening descends quickly to resentment about Jews being too rich, with speculation about the global conspiracy of money-lenders, recalling usurious practices from the Roman public square. A reference to the first-born child is unsaid but has been uttered before. All that has to be mentioned is “to jew” as a verb.

There is a truth to the generalization about wealth and finance, as there is to many such statements. Jews are disproportionately represented in and associated with particular professions. The irony is that such segregation is the result of exclusion since antiquity. But those who denied Jews access to other fields failed to anticipate how the discrimination would play out.

Blacks also receive praise that is not quite positive. The description of athletic accomplishment as “natural” suggests “they were bred that way.” It is brute physicality, all strength and no smarts, without personal effort that deserves genuine commendation.

When an African American is told, “you’re so articulate,” it is not uncommon for them to cringe, especially if it is in a context, such as the opera, where the added comment is, “I didn’t expect to see you here.” The speaker is explicit about their surprise. The implications would cause anyone to flinch. The person delivering the pat on the back assumes they are in a position to pass judgment. The African American who is eloquent is the exception. They have exceeded expectations. They are unlike the stereotype of others who look like them, presumably their family and friends.

My concern is about what kids call “flipping the script.” We like to see people receive their comeuppance. Once you accept the practice of speaking about Asian Americans as “the model minority” if it favors you, you will have difficulty rejecting its aspects that present the opposite interpretation. To be clever and diligent is to be a nerd, a geek, weird. In a culture that celebrates the “underdog” and the “average Joe,” there may be admiration but there is not much affection for the overachiever whiz kid.

I would rather be normal, ordinary, human, individual. But maybe that’s just me.

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