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What is the 'model minority myth' and why is it an issue for the AAPI community?

Posted at 12:13 PM, May 31, 2021
and last updated 2021-05-31 12:13:01-04

INDIANAPOLIS — As Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month comes to an end, we're talking about the "model minority myth."

You may have never heard this term before, so what does it mean and how is it an issue?

Many in Downtown Indianapolis had the same response to our question, "What is the model minority myth?" They did not know. So we decided to get the answer straight from an expert, Sarah Health, an associate professor of history at IU-Kokomo.

"Most of the teaching that I do relates to cultural and social topics," Heath said. "Model minority, right, you must be good at everything."

Heath said it's a perception of people in the AAPI community.

"Every Asian American is really good at math. And there are many who are good at math, but there are some who would say, 'You know what? That's just not really my skillset."

Most importantly, it's a stereotype.

"Stereotypes can be damaging if you expect a person to be quiet or modest or shy, and they turn out not to be," Heath said.

It's a term that emerged in the early 1950s and 60s when the civil rights movement was taking off. Heath says it's a perception based on appearance. The model minority myth helped hide anti-Asian racism, under-representation and perpetuated the idea that all Asians and minorities are the same.

"The model minority myth suggested that people should stop complaining, that they should accept the conditions in which they find themselves and then they should work hard to overcome any obstacles that they find," Heath said.

Historically, the term makes it seem like Asians did not persist or did not endure tough times when they did.

"The Japanese Americans during World War II. They were incarcerated only because their national origin came from Japan and Japan had attacked the United States," Heath said.

Many overcame those obstacles, but Health said the narrative undermines support for the AAPI community and it impacted others as well.

"So as soon as a person doesn't fit the stereotype, sometimes people ask, 'Well, what's wrong with you?'" she said.

To break the cycle, Health said it starts with us.

"Being inclusive doesn't have to suggest that I'm going to treat you differently because you're a minority," she said.

Health said the focus should be on stopping stereotypes instead.

"A better approach is to say, what can I do to assure that you can play equally," she said.