The Professional Burdens of Being a ‘Model Minority’

Stereotypes about Asian Americans are often held up as proof that racial labels can be flattering, but they subtly produce a number of problems in schools and offices.

Andrew Burton / Reuters

There are a number of ways in which Asian Americans are thriving economically. They are overrepresented among the ranks of professional-managerial workers in the U.S., and have higher average incomes than whites. On average, they are also more educated than Americans of other racial groups, including whites. These facts lead many to conclude that Asian Americans represent a “model minority”—a group whose hard work, initiative, personal responsibility, and success offer proof that American meritocracy works as intended.

This stereotype is often held up as proof that some racial stereotypes can be favorable, even flattering. But the model-minority image brings with it a number of problems. For instance, research done by Stacey Lee, a professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s School of Education, shows how this image can deter Asian American high-school students from seeking help when they’re struggling in school, socially isolating them and, ironically, causing them to fare worse academically. Similarly, the Georgia State University sociologist Rosalind Chou has found that the model-minority standard places enormous pressure on Asian Americans to disavow and downplay incidents of racial harassment; when Asian Americans are depicted as the minority group that doesn’t complain, attract negative attention, or cause problems, it can feel uncomfortable for them to point out stereotypes, insults, and assaults.

Historically, the model-minority stereotype has served an even more disturbing purpose. For years, Asian American men were represented in mainstream media as conniving, threatening sexual predators who posed a particular danger to white women—an image that stuck until around the late 1960s. As the University of California, Hastings law professor Frank Wu wrote in his book Yellow: Race in America Beyond Black and White, this representation fell out of favor as blacks became more assertive in resisting segregation. At that point, the model-minority image offered a useful foil, demonstrating how racial groups could and should “appropriately” behave. Thus, the model-minority designation suggests that Asian Americans are succeeding by conventional American standards, but it also masks some harassment directed toward them and distances them from other minority groups.

Inevitably, all of this shapes many Asian Americans’ professional trajectories. Whites are three times more likely to be admitted to elite universities than Asian Americans with comparable qualifications, which has implications for their access to well-regarded degrees and the social networks that can facilitate entry to and success in high-status occupations. And while data suggests that many Asian Americans have been able to enter managerial jobs, which have historically been the exclusive province of white men, it’s often overlooked that specific groups of Asian Americans for the most part haven’t. Japanese, Chinese, and Korean Americans have made inroads into these white-collar professions, such as engineering and medicine, but Hmong, Laotian, Cambodian, and Filipino Americans remain overrepresented in lower-wage jobs. The heightened success of some Asian Americans hides the economic and educational challenges facing others.

And many of the Asian Americans who secure high-status jobs still encounter discrimination that can block their path to the highest professional tiers. Research suggests that whites see Asian American men as being unfit for management, because they are stereotyped as passive and weak. Naturally, this will hurt them in occupations that reward those who are believed to be aggressive, assertive, and forthright. Given that these characteristics are valued in many of the highest-ranking roles in companies and organizations, the model-minority stereotype can, in practice, serve as a cover for a racialized sort of glass ceiling.

Biases against Asian Americans often go unnoticed unless or until high-profile events occur, in contrast with the sort of egregious discrimination many African Americans encounter. Eileen O’Brien, an associate professor of sociology at Saint Leo University, points out that this dynamic can leave Asian Americans without the collective memory or tools to challenge racial discrimination when it occurs. Her work shows that unlike African Americans, who have a long history of visible activism and community organization, Asian Americans can often lack the social and cultural resources necessary to name and combat stratification. Because of this, it’s especially worth focusing on the ways in which stereotypes about Asian Americans are not nearly as innocuous as they may appear.