The performance of the Model Minority is first introduced in the 1970s to describe the Asian population in America. It characterized and portrayed Asians as more law-abiding, studious, industrious, and successful through their hard work in comparison to the other minority groups such as African-Americans and Latin-Americans. This concept is a performance of America in that it incorporates the elements of historical discrimination, and the melting-pot notion of assimilation. This concept allowed America to divide the minority groups by deeming the Asian group superior over the others by arguing they have gained successful through hard work and creating the narrative that anyone can lift themselves up through effort. This turns a blind eye to the institutional and structural racism experienced by and still impacting minority groups such as African-Americans and LatinX that affect them to this day. In addition, this performance creates unrealistic standards of perfection that Asians have to perform and suffer with. As such, this performance is crucial in terms of today’s concern over racial perspectives and race-relations in America.
The background shows a Times Magazine in which Asian Americans are characterized as smart "Whiz Kids," fitting in with the Asian Model Minority performative. Background Credit: Time Magazine
So it is not a wonder why this performance has been perpetuated by the Whites in power and seemingly embraced by Asians themselves. When America perpetuate this performance, they are able to excuse their historic discrimination of minorities. This is because it allows America to essentially imply that since the Asians are doing so well, there has never been real discrimination in the country to begin with and that any other groups who are struggling means they are not working hard enough to lift themselves up. In addition, this performance allowed the Whites to “validate and reinforce the values of the White Majority” (Wong 100). Much like the early European explorers of the Americas who used verbal performances of exaggerated resources and exploitable natives to control the narrative for their own benefit, the government employed and performed the narrative of the model minority as a political tool when it was useful and convenient. This performance of willful ignorance is broken down by historian Ellen Wu in “The Color of Success” to its origins from the Cold War and the civil rights movement (Wu). This verbal performative was performed by the American government by using the media to portray Asians as polite, smart and culturally assimilable. This was because they were worried about the appeal of soviet propaganda (truTV 0:1:44-0:1:56) to win Asian allies in the Cold War and “Discrimination was not a good look on the international stage” (Guo). This development in the status of Asians allowed the government to later utilize the “image of hard-working Asians [as] an extremely convenient way to deny the demands of African Americans” during the civil rights era using the argument that their misgivings stem from their lack of hard work (Guo). One can see from this striking parallel between the verbal performances of early colonizers to generalize and categorize a group of people and the American government’s use of the Asian model minority as yet another continuation of the historic American practice to seize control and divide people along racial lines.
Background Credit: San Francisco Chronicle
Sometimes, Asians themselves embrace and perform the model minority performative because they can also benefit from it. Historically, cases of embracement by Asians in America were in order to conform and feel more assimilated in American culture. Even before the official establishment of the model minority performative, these early elements of yearning to be integrated were present in the immigrant collective. For Takao Ozawa and Bhagat Thind, both men wanted to be naturalized as a United States Citizen and argued that the Japanese/Indian Sikhs should be considered White. Takao notes his merits with “My honesty and industriousness are well known among my Japanese and American friends” and Thind also presents similar arguments (Herbes-Sommers, Christine, et al.). With their appeal to the White-dominated Supreme Court of the time, one can see how much effort Ozawa and Thind fought with to be accepted in American society and yet they were still denied at the time. So with the seemingly increase in social status for Asians with the development of the Asian Model Minority performance, one can see how this early yearning for acceptance set a foundation for embracement by Asians even if it means ignoring the consequences it has for other minorities. Therefore, one can see how this performance of the Asian model minority is connected to the performances of Whiteness and acceptance in White society as well as the privileges that result from this new acceptance. From other minority groups’ perspectives, it seems that America is denying past discrimination against them and belittling their identity and simultaneously dividing Asians from the other minority groups further apart.
Today, one can see the embracement of the Asian Model Minority by Asians for self-benefit in the cases of the Harvard University affirmative action lawsuit. In the photo from the New York times, one can see the model minority performance taking place as a group of Asians call for racial neutral college admissions. In this case, Asians with privilege are actively embracing and performing the model minority with the argument that they have high achieving grades in order to argue against the affirmative action that takes on a holistic view in accepting college applicants. Affirmative action was put into place in order to give disadvantaged minority groups an equal opportunity to education. According to a 2018 report on poverty in America by the U.S Census Bureau, African-Americans had the highest poverty rate at 20.8% and Hispanics following that rank at 17.6% while Asians had 10.1% and Whites had 8.1% (Semega 15). As such, this embraced performance from the early establishment from White America by Asians enriched by resources hurt disadvantaged groups such as LatinX and African-Americans as well as other smaller struggling Asian groups accounted in the poverty rates statistics.
One example where this disparity is prevalent can be observed in Burbank High School, where the Hmong students—ethnic minorities even in Asian countries—“come from a community with a childhood poverty rate of about 40 percent statewide” (Balingit). The identity of minority groups that are struggling economically are essentially erased and dismissed by the group’s performance in pushing the Asian Model Minority with movement pushing for the removal of affirmative action in the college acceptance decision process. Like a nod to the early days of the Asian model minority, Asians in privileged positions are ironically adopting and performing this act of willful ignorance that the past White government have used themselves to ignore disadvantaged minority groups in America.
Background Credit: Chelsea Beck/ NPR
Whether by conscious or subconscious choice, the unchecked continuation of this performance will continue to harm Asians and other minority groups in America. These consequences can be observed throughout the minority groups in many forms. For example, in American Asian children, they may struggle to keep up with this performance of being hyper-studious and successful minorities.
As an account from an Asian American, Annie Shie notes that constantly trying to live up to this standard of being model minorities “is creating a whole generation of kids with depression and suicidal tendencies because they’re being told they should be doing things that are impossible to achieve” (Love). And her point is valid as this daily performance to be the best unconditionally can take a strain on Asian children’s mental health. So in the case of Asian groups that have fewer resources, it is even harder to live with those expectations on them.
As for other minority groups such as Blacks, and LatinX, they are made to feel inferior and may internalize this notion. As such, this difference in racial perception causes more racial division and distance. A 1998 study on the perceived closeness and bonds between racial groups showed that “black Americans did not feel [at all] close to Asian Americans,” and these results may have a strong connection to the performance of Asian Americans as hyper-studious and successful, something that disadvantaged African-Americans can find hard to follow (Wong 99). As mentioned before, The Asian Model minority was used by the American government to ignore the institutional racism that Black and LatinX groups faced because they could form the narrative that Asians could succeed through adversity with hard work so there is no excuse for the lack of success from other minority groups. This contentious factor will continue to divide the minority groups and their perspectives in America.
Background Credit: Kismet Bandeen