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Let’s All Say Goodbye to the term “"Model Minority”"

The most popular adjectives to describe Asian Americans from a recent poll from Leading Asian Americans to Unite for Change were “Smart,” “Hard-working,” and “Nice.” Although these adjectives might seem positive, they are a painful reminder that others still view Asian Americans as the “model minority.”

What is the model minority? Asian Americans are elevated as the “model minority,” creating a “standard” for other minorities to be measured against and often criticized for not fitting this perceived “standard.” Since World War II, this idea has been pushed onto Asian Americans to create a racial wedge – specifically against other minority groups such as Black Americans.

Asian Americans deal with assumptions such as:

  1. Asian Americans are a single monolithic group

  2. Asian Americans are high earning and well educated

  3. Asian Americans immigrated to the U.S. the “right” way

  4. Asian Americans face less systemic racism and discrimination

  5. Asian Americans are fairly represented in leadership positions.

It’s the opposite of all of these claims.

1. Asian Americans are a single monolithic group

The term “AAPI” stemmed from the U.S. Census Bureau in the 1980s and 1990s. They decided to classify Asians, Native Hawaiians, and Pacific Islanders into one group. Now, “Asians” and “Pacific Islanders” are two separate categories. Many do not realize how many particular ethnicities lie within “AAPI.” The 2019 American Community Survey from the U.S. Census Bureau showed that in America, there are:

  • 8.6 million East Asians (Chinese, Korean, Japanese, Taiwanese)

  • 7.6 million Southeast Asians (Filipino, Vietnamese, Cambodian, Thai, Hmong, Laotian, Burmese, Indonesian)

  • 5.3 million South Asians (Indian, Pakistani, Bangladeshi, Nepalese)

  • 1.5 million Pacific Islanders (Native Hawaiian, Samoan, Guamanian or Chamorro, other Pacific Islanders)

Understanding that so many different ethnicities exist in the United States is crucial for inclusive leaders. Each ethnicity has its own culture, religion, and celebrations. Inclusive leaders should be mindful of the different AAPI cultures in the workplace. They must research when holidays occur for each culture and apply an equal amount of information about all Asian groups in their DEI practices.

2. Asian Americans are high earning and well educated

Although Asian Americans have a median household income of around $78,000 a year (higher than the national average of $66,000), economic stability differentiates among the different ethnicities. The highest-earning ethnicities, Indian and Taiwanese, come in at around $127,000 a year and have the highest college education rate. In contrast, Burmese households have the lowest economic median income at $46,000 a year. The groups with the lowest college education rate are Samoan, Laotian, Native Hawaiian, Cambodian, and Hmong.

Inclusive leaders need to understand the variation of economic disparity to understand their employees and their differences better.

3. Asian Americans immigrated to the U.S. the “right” way

While Asian Americans have the highest percentage of immigrants out of every ethnic group in the United States, they are often overlooked in the conversation about immigration reforms. According to the Migration Policy Institute, around 1.5 million (14%) undocumented immigrants are from Asia. In addition, Southeast Asian immigrants were 3 to 4 times more likely to be deported for old criminal convictions than other AAPI groups, according to a report by Asian Americans Advancing Justice.

When Asian Americans are put on a racial pedestal with this claim by non-minorities, it sets a boundary between Asian Americans and other minority groups. As a result, other minority groups feel Asian Americans are not an ally with the model minority myth, and Asian Americans are left out of meaningful conversations.

4. Asian Americans face less systemic racism and discrimination

Asian Americans during the COVID-19 pandemic saw a skyrocket in hate crimes. The PEW Research Center found that 32% of Asian American adults feared that someone might physically attack them in public spaces from a survey taken in April of 2021. Yet, even with the countless hate crime cases against Asian Americans, 37% of white Americans were unaware of these incidents occurring specifically against AAPI groups (LAAUNCH).

History has proven how Asian Americans can be considered a “great” minority by non-minorities. Still, in times of crisis, this label disappears. For example, during the Japanese Internment during and after World War II, Executive Order 9066 was deemed unethical, and survivors were paid reparations. But during the time, President Roosevelt had no problem issuing an unconstitutional law that only affected the Japanese, when Italian and German Americans were not forced into Internment.

The myth that Asian Americans don’t face racism is hugely harmful to the community. Protections for Asian Americans when racist acts occur do not exist because of the model minority myth. Inclusive leaders can take steps to ensure that their articles against racism and discrimination fit each racial group accordingly.

5. Asian Americans are fairly represented in leadership positions

A recent LAAUNCH survey found that almost half Americans incorrectly believe that Asian Americans are overrepresented or fairly represented within companies and political groups. But, in reality, many say they aren’t comfortable with having Asian Americans in leadership roles. Additionally, another LAAUNCH survey showed that 92% of Americans said they were satisfied with Asian Americans as their doctor or friend. Still, only 85% said they trusted an Asian American to be a boss. Asian Americans also have the least representation in political office than any other racial group.

This creates a substantial negative impact on members of the AAPI community. Imagine if many American employers believe Asian Americans are already fairly represented. In that case, they won’t make efforts to continue to hire Asian Americans for positions, let alone let them have top posts. When Asian Americans are described as “quiet” and “hardworking,” they are given backseat roles instead of higher positions, even if qualified.

Additional Resources

To learn more about the model minority myth and AAPI connection, read the American Psychological Association article.



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