The month of May marks Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) Heritage Month, a time to celebrate the contributions of AAPI individuals in American history. It is important to understand the role of Asian Americans in building America into what it is today, and to acknowledge the hardships and discrimination they faced throughout our nation’s history. AAPI individuals still face discrimination and stereotypes, the most prevalent being the Model Minority Myth (MMM). The myth is that Asian Americans achieve a higher degree of socioeconomic success than the population average. It characterizes Asians as smart, wealthy, hard-working, and independent. Many people even believe it as a compliment when someone makes a remark such as “Oh you definitely have an A+ in Precalculus BC”, or “You’re so Asian” when an Asian American achieves any success. The categorization of Asian Americans as hard-working machines has been overlooked for decades because of the positive connotations of the stereotype. Although many believe that this stereotype can’t cause any harm, the Model Minority Myth has many psychological impacts that drain the life out of Asian Americans and other minorities today.
The Model Minority Myth is internalized by those it affects, and as a result, ruins the mental health of many Asian Americans today. What the myth doesn’t take into account is the result of not meeting its frame of success; the shaming ritual that comes after failing to demonstrate perfection happens not just with our peers and teachers, but with our family, too. Asian Americans who internalize this myth feel pressure to excel in all areas of their lives, from academics to relationships, and even career success, making their self-worth contingent on whether or not they can perform well enough in these areas. This leads to feelings of isolation and self-hate, as well as hesitation to seek help for mental health issues due to stigma and shame.
When I was younger, I (ironically enough) took a test to skip a couple of grades in math and spent my entire summer grinding out stacks of textbooks passed down from my brother. As expected by my parents, I passed the test, and felt a sense of relief knowing that I was finally validated by my parents and the people around me, who would now call me smart, or ask me for help on their assignments. I started to create an unhealthy relationship by attaching my self-worth to my academic achievements. As corny as it sounds, I was experiencing burnout, and I became the stereotypical Asian who complained about “only getting a B+”. For some time, I felt as if the achievements I earned didn’t really matter, and as if all I could do was reach for something higher than what I had. I couldn’t be content with my life until I finally recognized that I didn’t need to conform to the stereotypes I was associated with. It is important to understand how seemingly positive stereotypes can be harmful, no matter the intent. With the rise of concerns over mental health at Lawrenceville, students and faculty alike need to reevaluate the norms we set for students, especially expectations that are dependent on a student’s achievements.
Setting aside the impact on Asian Americans, the Model Minority Myth has also contributed to racial divide and anti-black sentiment in American society. By portraying Asian Americans as a "good minority" who achieve success through hard work, the myth implies that other minority groups, such as Black and Brown people, are simply not working hard enough to achieve the same level of success. This false narrative ignores systemic barriers that other minorities face that contribute to their lower rates of success. The stereotype of the good/bad minority has pitted Asian Americans against other people of color, perpetuating the racial divide. It is important to acknowledge and challenge the Model Minority Myth in order to build solidarity across communities of color and work toward a more equitable society.
This isn’t to say that you should beat yourself up over reinforcing the stereotype throughout your life, but rather take this moment as a learning opportunity. We need to accept that Asians are not all the try-hard, straight A students they are stereotyped to be. Asian Americans are just like anyone else, meaning each of us is nothing at all like anyone else. We are all unique, good at some things, and terrible at others. This means that all of our experiences are different and we each have something new to offer to the table. Understanding Asian identity as a non-monolithic structure is necessary to foster inclusion. So although the myth may seem like a positive stereotype, the impacts it has on mental health and racial divides make it detrimental to our school community and the world.